Thoughts on the 2019 Oscars’ Best Picture nominees

This year’s bunch of Best Picture nominees has been criticised for being rather lacklustre, with some suspecting that leftovers from the newly-announced-and-hastily-scrapped Best Popular Movie category were shoehorned in instead of more-deserving entries. After accidentally missing one of last year’s films and, despite my best efforts to complete the set, repeating the feat again this year (Vice disappeared from all nearby cinemas shortly after it arrived), here are some thoughts on each of the other 2019 nominees, plus a few suggestions for what could have been nominated as well as – or even instead of – them.

Black Panther
Copyright: Marvel Studios

Black Panther: This list is certainly not without surprises or controversial choices, but the biggest is that a superhero film could win Best Picture.

There is a strong case to be made in its favour. It deals with heavier themes than the usual blockbuster beat-’em-up, it is blessed with a memorable score from Ludwig Gorranson, impressive direction from Ryan Coogler and great performances from its cast – particularly Michael B. Jordan, who plays a conflicted villain with depth and scene-stealing swagger. Plus, in terms of cultural significance, it was one of the most talked-about films of last year and it made more than a billion dollars with an almost-entirely-black cast.

Seeing it on the Best Picture list provokes a feeling of disbelief but it’s an undeniable achievement, even though The Dark Knight or Logan probably should have gotten it first.

bohemian rhapsody
Copyright: Fox.

Bohemian Rhapsody: Is a stellar performance and a well-directed concert climax enough to deserve a nomination? Not really, no.

Rami Malek gives everything he’s got in an admirable and pretty-damn-good attempt to replicate the charisma and star power of Freddie Mercury, carrying the rest of the film towards its show-stopping ending which is choreographed with undeniable attention to detail which makes the experience immersive and truly joyous.

However, everything leading up to that Live Aid recreation rarely rises above the level of enjoyable fluff which quickly fades from memory, and although it’s fun to see the creation of Queen’s biggest hits, and the band’s argument with their manager about the titular song is a great scene, overall it ends up feeling like a cross between a jukebox and a filmed Wikipedia page.

It’s enjoyable entertainment but it’s not one of the best films of the year.

A Star Is Born
Copyright: Warner Brothers

A Star Is Born: Ah, now this is how to do an excellent musical. Instead of just one good performance and one good set-piece, A Star Is Born is impressive all the way through – especially so during its flawless first hour – and features several standout performances.

How the hell did Bradley Cooper managed to direct a film so well on his first attempt while also singing in a completely different voice, performing songs like a convincing rock star and giving an astonishing performance as Jack? It honestly boggles the mind and probably makes other actors seethe with jealousy.

Pop superstar Lady Gaga successfully manages to play someone who’s never stepped foot on a stage and has lightning-in-a-bottle chemistry with Cooper which makes their relationship entirely believable, putting the audience through the wringer as their honeymoon period turns sour and leads to embarrassment, arguments and tragedy.

Of course, a musical is nothing without its songs, and from the first hype-building guitar chords of Alibi to the gut-punch power ballad I Will Never Love Again via the juggernaut that is Shallow, this film has plenty of original earworms and tearjerkers.

blackkklansman
Copyright: Focus Features

BlacKkKlansman:  The unlikely story of a black man infiltrating the KKK one sounds like perfect material for a film. There’s plenty of laughs to be mined from the situation but  underneath it all is a sobering, angry and timely examination of racism in America.

Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) comes up with the idea to join the KKK as an undercover cop, communicating with Klan members including its chief David Duke (Topher Grace) over the phone and sending his white colleague Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to face-to-face meetings.

Spike Lee manages a difficult tonal balancing act and his cast are adept at switching between the humour and the horror of the situation. One memorable example of the latter comes when Flip joins a KKK screening of the racist propaganda piece Birth of a Nation while Ron visits a meeting of black activists and hears the story of a mentally-handicapped black kid being attacked by a crowd after being wrongly-convicted of rape. Earlier on, the bemused reactions of Ron’s colleagues when he calls the Klan for the first time to begin his infiltration are hilarious, but every scene with Flip trying not to blow his cover while in the midst of Klan members is extremely tense and discomforting.

Parts of the story have been fabricated, but unlike the fabrications in the true stories of fellow nominees Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody these changes aren’t detrimental to the film, and during its final moments it forgoes fiction entirely to show recent real-life consequences of the violent, hateful bigotry the Klan thrives on and spreads.

This emphatic full-stop left the cinema audience in an uneasy silence as the credits rolled.

the favourite
Copyright: Fox Searchlight

The Favourite: A tragicomic period drama with caustic c*nt-strewn one-liners and a bitter lesbian love triangle at its heart makes this a fairly unlikely Best Picture contender, though perhaps no more unlikely than the 1950s sci-fi aqua-bestiality romance that won Best Picture last year.

National treasure Olivia Colman has the time of her life playing the wild mood swings of Queen Anne, Emma Stone has just as much fun speaking in a surprisingly-good English accent and turning her innate likeability into something more sinister, while Rachel Weisz takes great glee in delivering dialogue with such razor-sharp spite it’s a wonder the other actors don’t walk away bleeding.

The film has an unusual and uneasy atmosphere which takes some getting used to, but it’s laugh-out-loud funny and even has an unexpected poignancy behind all the in-fighting.

It won’t win, but the fact that it’s even on this list is a minor miracle.

Green Book
Copyright: Universal

Green Book: This was a big crowd-pleaser at my screening and it’s easy to see why. Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali are a very likeable duo and spending two hours in their company is good fun as they bicker and banter their way through the Deep South on a concert tour.

Mahershala plays Dr Don Shirley, a classical musician touring the Deep South who is complex and conflicted and changes noticeably during the course of his journey across America. Viggo plays Tony Lip, an Italian-American bouncer based on a real person who apparently walked and talked exactly like a stereotype and managed the remarkable feat of going on a supposedly-life-changing trip and returning home as damn-near exactly the same person he was when he left.

The exploration of racism and other social issues of the time rarely gets deeper than surface-level – though expecting a light-hearted buddy movie to be like BlacKkKlansman may be slightly unfair – and the intense disgust Tony displays towards black people at the start of the film all-but-disappears the moment he meets Dr Don, immediately removing most of the conflict and the whole point of the film.

But like I said, it’s a big broad crowd-pleaser, the sort that would fit comfortably on a Sunday afternoon TV schedule, bolstered by two central performances which make it easy to ignore its shortcomings.

I’m not surprised it’s nominated but I’d be annoyed if it wins.

Roma
Copyright: Netflix

Roma: Could the Academy overlook the fact that this is -*gasp* – a Netflix film and give it the highest honour in the movie business?

Fingers crossed.

Director Alfonso Cuaron applies the cutting-edge visual effects and aural wizardry he mastered in Gravity to an intensely-personal family drama based loosely on his upbringing, and the results are astonishing.

In his previous film, such tools were used to make jaws drop and eyes boggle but here they do the opposite, immersing the viewer so thoroughly in the recreation of 1970s Mexico he’s created that the CGI is unnoticeable, and the sound-work only draws attention to itself during those double-take moments of realisation that noises of a plane flying low overhead and people chatting right behind you are from the film and not from the screening room.

Over a series of day-in-the-life vignettes, Mexican maid Cleo (teacher-turned-actor Yalitza Aparicio in what is, incredibly, her first-ever role) attends to the needs of a middle-class family as their life and hers undergo seismic changes.

Truth be told, the film’s languid pace would have tempted me to check my phone if I’d watched it at home on Netflix – curse my ever-shortening attention span – but seeing it on the big screen in the dark forced me to acclimatise, to just sit there, stay still and let it wash over me. It’s easy to be lulled into the gentle rhythms of a pleasant, charming, and fairly easygoing drama, stunned by the simple beauty of its camerawork and grow fond of the family it depicts.

Then, suddenly, cracks appear in the family’s foundations, minor issues snowball into full-blown crises and a societal unrest which had been rumbling in the background dramatically interrupts Cleo’s life – and the film soars into the sublime.

After being initially impressed by it but otherwise slightly unsure what all the fuss was about,  Roma completely overwhelmed me as it threw one obstacle after the other at its characters and captured their reactions to these tragedies in lengthy sequences so believably-performed that it felt almost intrusive to watch these vulnerable moments up-close.

The film has the same feeling of a documentary – albeit one with impossibly-high production values and a world-class writer-director at its helm – impassively observing moments of relatable mundanity and extraordinary power in equal measure.

Some have dismissed it as arty-farty and pretentious because it’s subtitled, slow, and in black-and-white, but it isn’t, it’s full of heart and passion, with an enormous amount of evident care, affection and attention to detail bringing every single scene to life.

This is my pick for Best Picture winner. (A Star Is Born is a close second.)

BONUS ROUND – And the nominees aren’t…:

It seems odd that the follow-ups to to La La Land and Moonlight are absent from this list. Perhaps the Academy decided to take needlessly-extreme precautionary measures to prevent what happened last time a Barry Jenkins film and a Damien Chazelle film were nominated for Best Picture ever happening again, or perhaps not.

Either way, it’s a shame. Poor, ignored First Man, shut out from all but a few technical awards, not even getting an expected Supporting Actress nom for Claire Foy (her slot in this category seems to have gone to Marina de Tavira from Roma instead and it would be difficult to argue against that decision). A touching portrayal of grief and stoicism disguised as a thrilling space adventure failed to put many bums in seats, but its balance of quiet family moments and dizzying IMAX-worthy spectacle was extremely well-done and deserving of more acclaim.

Meanwhile, it’s wonderful that If Beale Street Could Talk bagged nominations for cinematography and soundtrack (both are also areas where First Man deserved recognition, but I digress). After seeing the film, I was stunned that neither of the central couple had been recognised – Regina King is excellent as Tish’s mum but the entire film rests on the swoon-worthy and movingly-tragic relationship between Tish (Kiki Adams) and Fonnie (Stephen James). The film overall isn’t quite as good as Moonlight for a myriad of minor reasons – a fiery inter-family dynamic full of potential for further drama is introduced early on but never revisited, Tish is surprisingly passive after Fonny is jailed, the character-staring-into-the-camera trick is reused far too often – but it’s still better than half of the stuff on the actual Best Picture list.

It’s tremendously difficult to create performances as quiet, nuanced and believable as the ones given by Ben Foster and Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie in Leave No Trace but such feats are often unfairly overlooked for louder, more attention-grabbing fare. The pair play a father and daughter, Will and Tom, who live off-grid in a Portland forest but their bond is tested once the authorities intervene and take them into social services, leading to Will’s mental health issues intensifying and Tom wondering whether a life of solitude is what she really wants. Every year, there’s at least one film which critics and other movie buffs repeatedly hail as an unseen and woefully-underappreciated modern classic, and this year’s was Leave No Trace. On this occasion, they were right.

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Best Books I Read in 2018

This is a shorter-than-usual look back at my most memorable reads of the year, mainly because this time, there were only a few books that were so good that they motivated me to put fingers to keyboard and rattle off a few hundred words about the immense enjoyment gained by reading them.

That’s not to say that the other books were bad – some were alright, some were good and some were great – but even the best of this bunch ended up relegated to the Honourable Mentions.

Exit West – Mohsin Hamid

EXIT WEST.jpg

Four months into the year, I was happy with what I’d read so far but at the same time was yearning to find something truly exceptional, something that would knock my literary socks off and linger in my memory for months afterwards.

Then, completely ignoring the old saying ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’, I picked up Exit West from a Waterstones display table and impulse-bought it, with no regrets.

Hamid writes in such a smooth and simple style that beginning a sentence feels like being swept along in a strong current and 70 pages pass in the blink of an eye.

This short novel was consumed in three long gulps and there was a long break between the second and third ones because, in less than 200 pages, I’d become so attached to Saaed and Nadia and concerned for their safety and happiness that I was afraid to continue.

As I flicked my fingers over the thin wedge of paper that remained between me and the last lines, I found myself taking a deep breath, not quite ready yet to dive back in and face whatever Hamid had in store for the couple.

Their journey is the heart of the book.

We follow them from the minute they first meet, just before the occasional military skirmishes in their unnamed Middle-Eastern city escalate into full-blown civil war and their lives are changed forever.

Around the same time, strange doorways appear all over the city, mysterious portals offering a tempting escape to an unknown elsewhere.

These doors are a clever device that allows Hamid to streamline their journey, as he’s less concerned with how they get from A to B and more focused on how living in an unfamiliar land affects them, their relationship, and the attitudes of that country’s native population.

Throughout their tale, he offers a timely exploration of how the world could deal with the increasingly-high number of refugees that seek sanctuary abroad and of the uneasy relationship between them and local residents who see their arrival as an unwelcome intrusion.

He has an exceptional way with words, sketching out the lives and histories of his protagonists, and of other migrants who tempt fate by travelling through the dark doorways, in just a paragraph or two through prose that is clear, compelling, and often full of warmth and melancholy.

When I did, at last, dive back in and allowed myself to be swept through the concluding chapters, I found an ending that was sweet, sad, hopeful, and poignant.

This Is Going To Hurt – Adam Kay

this is going to hurt

This collection of diaries, which were written while the author worked as a junior doctor, describe in vivid detail the realities of being part of an increasingly mismanaged and under-funded National Health Service.

Adam’s sarcastic and morbid sense of humour chimed perfectly with my own and lead to a lot of laughs, but this humour does not hide how harrowing and exhausting the day-to-day life of a doctor can be; the toll his job takes on his friendships, relationships, and his mental and physical well-being is made abundantly clear.

Frustration and anger bubbles under the surface of several entries – frustration at needless bureaucratic changes that cut costs and make worker’s lives harder, and anger at the health secretary’s clear lack of empathy or understanding for those working in the medical profession.

You would have to have a heart of stone not to sympathise with him or share his concerns by the end of the book, when the reason why Adam hung up his stethoscope for good is revealed.

It moves from hilarity to tragedy to horror and back again at lightning speed but the tone never feels too jarring or inconsistent.

As an unexpected extra, it also taught me at least a dozen different ways that pregnancies can go horribly wrong, in graphic detail, so that’s… something.

 

Cannery Row – John Steinbeck

cannery row

This novella follows the lives of a motley crew of characters surviving the Great Depression of the 1930s in a small working-class Californian town.

The same compassion, eye for detail, and knack for creating realistic and flawed characters which made Of Mice and Men the best book that English teachers made us read in high school can be found here in abundance.

Full of affection, warmth and wit, the threadbare story of homeless man Mack and his friends trying to throw a party to thank their kind-hearted marine biologist friend Doc unfolds like a series of interlinking anecdotes that play out over the course of a few weeks.

In that time, Steinbeck makes the titular town come alive by filling his pages with vivid sensory detail,  believable and fully-realised characters, and a keen understanding of how unemployment and poverty can affect a tight-knit community.

The blurb for this edition of the book wisely uses the novel’s very first paragraph to convince would-be readers to give it a go, and it’s difficult to think of a better way to do the same here, so… enjoy:

“Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, ‘whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches,’ by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, ‘Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,’ and he would have meant the same thing.”

 

If Only They Didn’t Speak English – Jon Sopel

if only they didn't speak english

At the end of another year of political insanity that overturned every notion of what was thought to be acceptable behaviour in both the American and British governments, it was nice to have this book on hand to dip into whenever it all got a bit overwhelming.

The BBC’s North America editor Jon Sopel, who at times reports the news from the other side of the pond with an ever-so-slightly raised eyebrow and noticeable smirk which suggest that even he can’t believe the absurdity of what’s going on over there, has written a useful guide which explains the various conditions in America which led to Donald Trump winning the 2016 Presidential election.

The buffoonish businessman’s triumph left many people completely gobsmacked, but Mr Sopel argues, with a calm common-sense approach that feels sorely-needed at such a chaotic time, that we could have easily seen it coming if we’d stopped thinking of America as being at all similar to the UK.

If they didn’t speak English over there, he suggests, we would treat it as an entirely foreign land, and in doing so we would better understand its many problems and complexities.

Through a mixture of short history lessons, the occasional flash of dry wit, and interesting anecdotes from his privileged press position that allows him entry into every presidential conference and onto Air Force One, he gives an in-depth overview of America’s issues with guns, God and government, plus the causes of the anger and anxiety which surged in parts of the country, and the new president’s worrying penchant for bending or entirely ignoring the truth.

Concepts which had been vaguely familiar to me became easily-understandable, law cases and wars which I’d seen referenced innumerable times but never fully researched were simply-summarised and their effects described in a way that was easy to follow but not intelligence-insulting, and many alarming but enlightening facts and figures were revealed and filed away into my memory vaults for later use.

Though the book describes massive, deep-seated issues which are hugely concerning and extremely difficult to fix, I felt oddly reassured by the end of it, because it succeeded at doing exactly what it set out to do – give the reader a better understanding of America’s issues and how on Earth a man like Trump became the most powerful person on the planet.

Reading this book was part of my new effort to consume more non-fiction, which began when I noticed a few embarrassing blind-spots in my cultural and historical knowledge that I’m now very keen to cover up. Now that I ‘get’, to some extent, what’s going on in America, I need to fully comprehend what’s going on closer to home, so perhaps it’s time to finally tackle the enormous, daunting paperbacks of Tim Shipman’s Brexit-tastic All Out War and Fall Out that have been gathering dust on my bookshelves…

Honourable Mentions: Train Dreams – Denis Johnson, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman, Kings of the Wyld – Nicholas Eames, Reaper Man – Terry Pratchett, All That Man Is – David Szalay, Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage – Haruki Murakami,

2018’s Top TV: Best of the Rest

Homecoming – “Optics”/”Protocol”/”Stop”

homecoming
Copyright: Amazon Prime Video.

This is a slick, smooth and tense thriller with excellent performances and a straightforward plot masked by layers of obfuscation that get slowly and carefully peeled away.

Julia Roberts plays Heidi, a therapist at the Homecoming facility, which is designed to ease soldiers returning from combat back into civilian life and help them deal with their newly-gained traumas – but there may be (read: definitely is) more to the facility than that…

Our view of Heidi’s time at the facility with new patient Walter Cruz (Stephan James, charismatic) and incessant phone calls from her boss Colin (Bobby Cannavale, excellent at playing a dickhead) is interrupted by jumps to her life in the future, where she works as a waitress and a government official is about to begin an investigation into her former employer.

What happened between then and now forms the bulk of the show’s mystery and gives its movie-star headliner the chance to display pretty much every possible emotion in her performance of a confident but concerned therapist who becomes a confused nervous wreck.

The old-fashioned official (Shea Wigham) and his quest to uncover the truth despite intimidation and opposition gives us a sympathetic and fundamentally-decent hero to root for, and brings the two timelines together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle falling into place.

He also looks like he belongs in a thriller from 50 years ago, which fits with the show’s overall aesthetic, and that is helped no end by the musical score that’s made up entirely of pieces from classic films.

Direction from Sam Esmail, who put his other show Mr Robot on the back-burner for a year while its star pretended to be Freddie Mercury, ensures that every shot looks striking and he manages to maintain intrigue and suspense throughout the series, which kept me engaged all the way up to its satisfying ending.

The 30-minute-per-episode running time helped, too. Streaming sites, particularly Netflix, like to dump new dramas on their service every other week that have episodes which stretch up to the hour-long mark and beyond, often padding them with so much filler that interest can drift, attention spans wane, and viewers start to wonder whether they’re worth the daunting time commitment.

This Amazon Video exclusive avoids that by trimming all ounces of fat so that each episode glides swiftly to an ending that makes watching the next one feel absolutely vital.

The Haunting of Hill House -“The Bent-Neck Lady”/Two Storms”/”Silence Lay Steadily”

the-haunting-of-hill-house
Copyright: Netflix.

This horror series offers more substance than the usual scary story as it’s more of a meditation on grief and a compelling family drama which, occasionally, has a ghost pop up to go ‘Boo!’

The Crains have had a nightmarish childhood which has left them with deep-seated traumas which they’re still struggling to come to terms with in their adult lives.

The titular haunted house is responsible for their scars and scares, many of which will be inflicted on the viewers themselves. Rather than relying on made-you-jump shocks (though there are a few of those, deployed to maximum effect), it uses an array of awful methods to get under the skin, from subtle blink-and-you-miss them background spooks, unsettlingly-tense slow-burn shivers, or brief contortions of disgusting body-horror.

The well-written family members at the heart of the drama are brought to life by a cast of convincing actors and their story is told in a way which glides smoothly between past and present and back again, often returning to the same scenes from different perspectives to reveal clever sleights-of-hand which would make rewatches rewarding.

The series focuses on one sibling per episode until it brings them all together for an astonishing combination of impressive acting and film-making in “Two Storms”, where family tensions which have been suppressed for decades come bubbling up just as the siblings prepare to bury one of their own.

An exception to the ‘hour-long dramas on streaming sites are full of filler’ rule mentioned above, each scene in the series moves the story along or provides an insight into the characters’ psyches, and though it is occasionally slow, it is never dull.

I tend to avoid horrors like this one, but good reviews and housemate recommendations convinced me to give it a try, and I’m glad I did.

Killing Eve – “Nice Face”/”I Have a Thing About Bathrooms”

Killing Eve
Copyright: BBC.

Phoebe Waller-Bridge brings the fun, filth and surprising emotional depth of her Fleabag miniseries to this country-crossing tale of espionage, murder and twisted female relationships.

In what is probably the most moment-to-moment enjoyable show of the year, Killing Eve upends genre conventions and typical twists with flair and mischief, sending stressed-out agent Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh) and childlike assassin Villainelle (Jodie Comer) on a collision course that takes several truly-unexpected turns.

Both leads perform their tricky roles perfectly and they’re supported by a strong cast who are all adept at delivering the darkly-funny one-liners that fill the scripts and playing characters which are full of personality while walking a fine line between grounded everyman/woman and spy-thriller caricature.

It remains to be seen whether the series can continue this balancing act into a second season after seemingly taking the story as far as it can possibly go, but I’ve got my fingers crossed.

This show took up more newspaper column inches and website articles than any other new series of 2018, so there’s not much more to add here than what’s already been said.

Better Call Saul – “Breathe/Wiedersehen/Winner”

better call saul 4
Copyright: AMC/Netflix.

Better Call Saul has spent years showing the changing circumstances and pressures which gradually push a lawyer with a talent for showmanship and sweet-talking into a sleazy criminal who helps murderers escape the police’s clutches.

Like Walter White becoming Heisenberg in its predecessor, this seismic change doesn’t happen overnight but over a series of incidents that lead to Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) crossing bigger and bigger lines and behaving worse and worse, until the character we saw in the first season seems like a completely different person.

Though this metaphorical journey has been less edge-of-your-seat intense than Breaking Bad, as bad behaviour for Jimmy means dodging around a bit of legalese and lying to his clients when for Walt it meant dissolving corpses in acid and poisoning a child, it’s been no less engaging, emotional and impactful.

The fourth season saw Jimmy reeling from a personal tragedy and struggling to pass the time while unable to practice law, while the lives of Mike (Jonathan Banks), Gus (Giancarlo Esposito) and Nacho (Michael Mando) played out in what might as well be an entirely-separate show about the violent and gruesome drug cartel conflicts that will eventually play a big part in Breaking Bad.

Apart from a brief face-to-face conversation, Mike and Jimmy don’t interact at all – though, to be fair, both have a lot on their plates right now. Mike’s time in his new job as Gus’ henchman eventually pushes him past a moral point of no return, while Jimmy slips into an unexpected new role of criminal accomplice with remarkable ease and consistently lies to those closest to him.

As if to put an emphatic full-stop to Jimmy’s transformation, there is a moment during the closing seconds of the season where he briefly slips into the gestures and mannerisms of Saul Goodman to shout the title of this show at his astonished and long-suffering partner Kim (Rhea Seehorn, playing the best female character on TV), and the camera lingers on her as he swaggers away and she realises that he’s no longer the person she thought he was.

It doesn’t sound like much when written down, but after four seasons of nuance and careful character development, this bluntness felt like a jolt of electricity and it clearly signifies that the show is heading into its final stretch of episodes.

Doctor Who – “Rosa”/”Kerblam!”/”It Takes You Away”

doctor who whittaker
Copyright: BBC.

(WARNING: Long.)

Jettisoning the complex storylines and self-referential in-jokes proved to be a winning strategy for the long-running sci-fi show as up to 13 million people tuned in to see what Jodie Whittaker would be like as the Doctor.

As it turns out, she’s like a far less arrogant version of Ten(nant), amiable and goofy but more than willing to share the spotlight with others and not interested in boasting about being clever and powerful.

This has lead to her being surprisingly passive in some of the stories, but she’s fiercely protective of her newfound gang of friends Ryan (Tosin Cole, playing a likeable fool with family issues that provide the closest thing this series has to a story arc), Yaz (Mandip Gill, cheery and enthusiastic but sorely under-used) and Graham (Bradley bloomin’ Walsh, a highlight of every episode).

A few criticisms of the new series prompted sighs and eye-rolls, like the suggestion that including episodes about racism in America and partition-era India, casting diverse actors in the companion roles and, of course, making the Doctor a woman, indicated that the show was becoming too politically-correct (the most meaningless phrase in the English language).

However, there were some serious issues with the series and, unfortunately, they all related to the new showrunner. Chris Chibnall can write a perfectly-decent and entertaining episode of Doctor Who, but by trying to write five in one year, he seems to have over-stretched himself.

It’s as if he spent so much time ensuring that the first episode and its introduction to the new Doctor and Team Tardis was just right, which it had to be and it fortunately was, that the other four episodes on his plate ended up under-cooked, poorly-thought-out, and at least a couple of drafts away from their best version.

Most of his episodes played out at a surprisingly-languid pace with little-to-no-sense of imminent peril – even the grand finale, during which nothing notable happened for the first half hour – and despite the extended episode length offering more time to play with, the endings were rushed and abrupt, and interesting ideas were rarely fully-explored.

(2019 EDIT FROM THE FUTURE: Despite this, the New Year’s Day special was actually excellent.)

His greatest strength has been picking picking great guest writers – each of their episodes were energetic, exciting, impressively-creative and often unpredictable adventures that varied wildly in tone.

‘Rosa’ explored, with alarming and necessary bluntness, the cruel attitudes of 1950s America and the woman who helped change everything. Usually when the Doctor visits a racially-insensitive era of history with a non-white character, the issue gets brushed aside with a line of dialogue and ignored for the rest of the spisode. Not this time – poor Ryan gets threatened with lynching and called almost every slur under the sun, and the climactic scene uses the show’s oft-deployed ‘fixed moment in time’ plot device to devastating effect. Still, the episode doesn’t belabour its point, and doesn’t forget that it is family entertainment after all – moments of genuine warmth and light silliness are peppered throughout its running time.

Then, ‘Demons of the Punjab’ successfully fits monstrous-looking aliens into a sombre and emotional exploration of how politics can divide families, ‘Kerblam!’ is a rollickingly-fun caper which follows the Doctor’s investigation of a distress call from space-Amazon, ‘The Witchfinders’ is the only episode that makes her new gender important to the story and includes a hilariously-camp scenery-chewing turn from Alan Cumming as King James I, and finally ‘It Takes You Away’… well, it’s one of the weirdest episodes of Doctor Who I’ve ever seen – and I do not say that lightly, considering all that’s come before it.

It’s hard to believe that episodes like ‘Rosa’, ‘Kerblam!’ and ‘It Takes You Away’ are in the same show, let alone the same 10-episode run, which is what makes Doctor Who so enjoyable. The show’s new Sunday night timeslot also added an extra layer of enjoyment. Imagining some unsuspecting viewer leaving the telly on after Countryfile and catching a glimpse of a bounty hunter that embeds the teeth of its victims in its face, or an alien man giving birth while a spaceship-hospital is attacked by an adorable metal-eater, or any moment in the second half of ‘It Takes You Away’, was immensely-amusing.

The promise to avoid any old monsters this year became a double-edged sword – though it was refreshing to have something other than Daleks and Cybermen appearing yet again, most of the new baddies were rather forgettable.

The next series could easily build on this one’s successes – Jodie’s performance, the great guest writers – while fixing the flaws – make Yaz more of a character, pick up the pace a bit, add even a hint of an ongoing story. Roll on 2020.

Honourable Mentions: Hannah Gadsby – “Nanette”, Queer Eye – “You Can’t Fix Ugly”,  Bojack Horseman – “Free Churro”/”INT. SUB”, The Good Place – “Jeremy Bearemy”/”Janet(s)”, Inside Number 9 – “Dead Line”, Black Mirror – “Bandersnatch”.

2018’s Top TV: Three Top Miniseries

Sometimes, the prospect of starting a new long-running series with dozens of episodes to sit through just doesn’t seem like an attractive prospect, no matter how much praise and prestige it may have attracted, as there isn’t as much free time available to me as there used to be.

Luckily, this year offered a bountiful crop of short, succinct and satisfying dramas which arrived, amazed, and au-revoired before they could outstay their welcome..

Here are my favourite three.

Sharp Objects

sharp objects
Copyright: HBO.

A reporter from St Louis returns to her rural home-town after being told by her editor to cover an ongoing investigation into the murder of a young girl. Her boss thinks that going back to Wind Gap and dealing with her long-festering issues head-on will help her finally achieve some closure and do her no end of good. Well…

For Camille Preaker (Amy Adams, in what might be a career-best performance), confronting her past ends up being more traumatic than the crimes she’s supposed to be writing about, as Wind Gap’s suffocating atmosphere, gossipy locals and, worst of all, her nasty, overbearing mother Adora Crellin (Patricia Clarkson, impressively unpleasant in a difficult role) make her unconventional homecoming a living nightmare.

Then the police find another body.

Discovering who’s behind these murders becomes secondary to a claustrophobic character study of Camille and the toxic community in which she grew up.

However, this doesn’t mean that the crime plot is disappointing – when the killer is finally revealed, it’s shocking but satisfying and, like all the best crime drama whodunnits, seems incredibly, head-slappingly obvious in hindsight.

The show is lethargically paced, but anyone tempted to start staring at their phones would miss crucial details that flicker on-screen and disappear without making a sound. These can be jumbled memories from Camille’s past which her return has brought bubbling up to the surface, or subtly-hidden words that appear on objects around her to indicate how she’s feeling.

They are director Jean-Marc Vallée’s ingenious tricks which he uses to get us inside her head without the need for exposition or a voice-over narration. These confusing glimpses of her history and did-I-really-just-see-that tweaks to the environment contribute to the show’s slightly off-kilter atmosphere that make every encounter feel uneasy and sinister.

The eight-episode miniseries is adapted from a book by Gone Girl writer Gillian Flynn, which may give you some idea of what to expect.

From the first episode’s dreamlike opening scene to the finale’s final post-credits shot, it’s a truly haunting, transfixing, disturbing, and thoroughly, thoroughly uncomfortable watch. Anyone looking for a feel-good binge, or who has suffered similar issues to Camille, should probably look elsewhere.

Maniac

maniac.jpg
Copyright: Netflix.

Amy Adams is far from the only Hollywood A-lister to star in a TV drama this year. Emma Stone and Jonah Hill headlined Netflix’s sci-fi comedy-drama Maniac, with Jonah playing against type as a depressed schizophrenic who takes part in an experimental trial for a drug that apparently cures all trauma, and Emma playing a grieving junkie who cheats her way onto the same trial just to get her next fix.

Each test subject is supposed to get an individually-tailored dreamlike experience that brings all their deepest fears bubbling up to the surface so that they can confront and overcome them while inside their own minds.

However, after emotions run high amongst the scientists in charge of administering the tests, a glitch causes Owen (Jonah) and Annie (Emma) to become mentally interlinked, leading to all sorts of surreal havoc when the tests begin.

This is the main hook of Maniac – it’s a playful, Inception-style jaunt through a series of different settings and genres that freewheel from 80s heist to mafia drama to fantasy epic and spy thriller, amongst others, that gives its leads plenty of chances to play different variations of their characters.

Before getting to the tests, the series takes its time to introduce us to its grey, slightly-dystopian near-future world and show why Annie and Ollie were drawn to the drug trial in the first place. The background details and minor characters in those first episodes reappear during the trials in surprising and often bewildering ways.

The show’s sense of humour can take a while to get used to, but once it all clicks it’s frequently laugh-out-loud funny, especially whenever Dr Mantleray (Justin Theroux) is on-screen, and it’s directed with eye-popping visual flair by Cary Fukunaga (who also did the good season of True Detective and will direct the next James Bond movie).

It’s not all goofy quirks and knockabout silliness, either – the central relationship between Owen and Annie is convincing and touching, and their attempts to grapple with their inner demons and connect with each other provide moments of genuine emotion amongst the high-concept daftness.

Patrick Melrose

Patrick Melrose
Copyright: Showtime/Sky Atlantic.

Benedict Cumberbatch is very good at acting.

This is a well-established fact, one so obvious that merely mentioning it feels redundant, yet when watching Patrick Melrose, it feels revelatory.

A few years ago, he publicly expressed interest in playing Patrick Melrose – at which point, presumably, a TV executive suddenly saw dollar signs and awards statues appear before his very eyes and immediately got to work assembling this stellar adaptation of Edward St Aubyn’s acclaimed semi-autobiographical novels.

As the titular character, Benedict grabs the viewer’s attention and refuses to let go, commanding the screen throughout the series and giving an awards-worthy performance without a hint of self-consciousness or vanity, pulling out all the stops to bring this complex person to life.

Cumberbatch’s astonishing portrayal of Patrick Melrose, a vice-ridden self-loathing Brit from a wealthy background who uses withering put downs and exaggerated bravado to hide his emotional scars, makes him as sympathetic as he is unpleasant, as hilarious as he is heartbreaking, often performing with such realistic vulnerability that the camera almost feels like a hovering intruder.

Over five episodes, each adapting a different book, we see him go on a three-day bender to grapple with the death of his dad (Hugo Weaving, monstrous), remember days from his seemingly-idyllic childhood which traumatised him for life (Sebastian Maltz impresses as young Patrick), become a father, attend a royal function at his old home, and perhaps, at last, achieve some sort of closure at the funeral of his mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh, fragile and narcissistic).

Tonally, the series flits from a dark comedy of errors to a harrowing drama about abuse to a savage satire of upper-class callousness, which in the wrong hands could be a disastrous mess. Careful, insightful writing from David Nicholls, who knows when to hammer home the horror and when to slip in an acerbic one-liner, is matched with top-notch performances from all involved to make it work wonderfully well.

Without being in-your-face stylish (unlike, say, Maniac), it has a rather over-saturated look which suits Patrick’s often-addled perspective, and the lavish finery of the classy restaurants and mansions in which the drama plays out are shot beautifully.

Patrick Melrose is a masterpiece, and Benedict Cumberbatch has never been better.

Honourable Mentions: Bodyguard, A Very English Scandal.

 

 

 

 

Thoughts on the 2018 Oscars’ Best Picture nominees

This year, I decided to put my Cineworld card to good use and try to watch every Best Picture nominee for this year’s Oscars.

They’re quite a varied bunch, each film has something worth celebrating in it and, apart from Call Me By Your Name, I managed to see them all before the ceremony.

So here’s a quick little post with my thoughts on eight of the nine nominees.

Three Billboards
Copyright: Film4.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri: Frances McDormand plays a grieving mother who is fed up with the police’s lack of progress in their investigation of her daughter’s killer and decides to take matters into her own hands.

Her unpredictable quest for justice has consequences which are both darkly funny and immensely tragic -the film switches from hilarious to heartbreaking so quickly it can cause whiplash.

All the characters are believable, perfectly-performed, and well-served by a script that features verbose and vulgar one-liners mixed with moving sentiments.

The Post
Copyright: Amblin Entertainment.

The Post: Sometimes, it’s nice to just watch a group of actors you know and love doing some capital-A Acting, even if the film itself isn’t very remarkable.

Hanks, Streep, and a cast full of people from a few of my favourite TV shows stand around in newsrooms and mansions debating over whether or not to publish classified government documents about the Vietnam war.

The film flies through the plot and is always entertaining but it’s not as good as most of the other nominees.

One suspects it got in because it’s a Steven Spielberg film with topical subject matter and the Academy wanted to give Meryl Streep yet another nomination.

Near the end, there is quite a lot of slightly-melodramatic talk about how Journalism Is Very Important but, funnily enough, I didn’t really mind.

Darkest Hour.jpg
Copyright: Focus Features.

Darkest Hour: Gary Oldman is terrific in a film which is otherwise perfectly fine.

Joe Wright pulls off some distracting and self-consciously stylish direction in a failed attempt to make his slightly-above-average film look better than it actually is.

The true story of all the political infighting just before the Dunkirk evacuation is worth telling, but it would be more interesting to show the fighting on the beaches rather than Churchill talking about the fighting on the beaches.

Dunkirk
Copyright: Warner Brothers.

Dunkirk: Oh hey, what are the chances?

Watching Dunkirk was one of the best cinema experiences I had last year – a tense, terrifying and very very LOUD assault on the senses.

The soundtrack, the practical effects, the unusual structure, and the sound design all work together perfectly to make a memorably immersive experience.

I fear that its effect will be somewhat diminished when watched on the small screen because without the breathtaking spectacle, it’s fairly light on plot and character, which would make a re-watch at home underwhelming (I call this the Gravity effect).

Phantom Thread
Copyright: Universal.

Phantom Thread: Watching this was one of those odd occasions where even though it’s clear that everyone behind and in front of the camera is immensely talented, even though the film is immaculately made, it still left me cold.

There are flashes of brilliance in its exploration of the relationship between Daniel Day Lewis’ posh controlling man-child fashion designer and Vicky Krieps’ waitress who isn’t as innocent as she first appears, but when it ended I felt unsatisfied without being able to fully articulate why.

It’s been showered with praise but I’ve struggled to muster much enthusiasm for it.

Lady Bird
Copyright: A24.

Lady Bird: This gentle coming-of-age drama about a California teenager who is desperate to leave home and live somewhere more exciting is deceptively simple.

The way it flits through the life of its titular protagonist and sketches out the convincing and complex relationships she has with everyone else in the town is done with such seemingly-effortless ease that the film could be dismissed as lightweight or unimpressive when it is anything but.

It’s warm, touching, clearly made with lots of affection, and just really, really lovely. At the start I was amused but fairly nonplussed, then by the end I was moved to tears.

The perfect Mother’s Day film.

Get Out
Copyright: Universal.

Get Out: The fact that a comedic horror-satire got a Best Picture nomination is a bit of a surprise, but a welcome one.

Daniel Kaluuya is fantastic as the black boyfriend who is invited to his WASP girlfriend’s mansion and begins to suspect that something deeply disturbing is being hidden from him.

It’s strange, funny, topical, uncomfortable, and enjoyably creepy. Its nomination is made all the more impressive by the fact that it’s Jordan Peele’s first ever film.

It won’t win, though.

The Shape of water
Copyright: Fox Searchlight.

The Shape Of Water: Hopefully, this will.

Guillermo Del Toro’s visionary and unashamedly-sentimental fantasy historical-drama is one of the weirdest Best Picture nominees ever.

Bathed in beautiful blues and greens, accompanied by a romantic Alexandre Desplat score, and set in a wonderfully-realised version of 1960s America, the film portrays that classic, timeless love story of a mute woman who falls for a fish-monster.

Building an entire movie around a girl-meets-koi romance is a fairly risky decision, but Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones make this relationship genuinely convincing – no, I can’t believe I’m saying that either.

Any initial scepticism is destroyed by the scene where, without saying a single word, Sally tells her neighbour why the strange creature who was brought into the secret government lab where she works as a cleaner is so important to her.

The fact that this film works at all, let alone works as well as it does, is near-miraculous and deserves recognition.

2017’s Top TV: The Best of the Rest

After writing at length about how much I enjoyed American Gods, here’s the usual round-up of the rest of my favourite shows of the year,

The Good Place – “Dance Dance Resolution”/”The Trolley Problem”

the good place
Copyright: NBC/Netflix.

After mining comedy gold from offices in The Office (US), local governments in Parks and Recreation, and police stations in Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Michael Schur has tackled a more ambitious environment in his newest series – the afterlife.

The Good Place follows Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) from the moment she’s told some very good and very bad news: the bad news is, well, she’s dead, but the good news is she’s now in the Good Place, a version of heaven where all of humanity’s best and brightest live out eternity in a blissful wonderland paired up with their soulmate as a reward for all the good they did during their time on Earth.

However, Eleanor didn’t do much good while she was alive, quite the opposite in fact, and feels that she must have ended up here by mistake.

American sitcoms don’t usually concern themselves too much with plot, as they’re often content to just act as a comfortable half-hour hangout where characters deal with their day-to-day lives at a leisurely pace while getting involved in increasingly-daft misadventures.

This show is different.

It delights in constantly surprising us with different aspects of its surreal setting and new information about Eleanor and her neighbours, then ending every episode in a cliffhanger that leaves us dying to see what happens next.

The plot is so chock-full of big reveals that talking about the second season without spoiling anything is actually a very difficult task.

What I can say is it’s absolutely brilliant, hilarious, and endlessly-inventive.

Highlights so far include ‘Dance Dance Resolution’, which doesn’t stop to take a breath as it zips through several seasons of potential storylines in one dizzying episode, and ‘The Trolley Problem’, where Eleanor and her friends try to explain human concepts of morality to a higher being through an ethics lesson that spirals out of control.

Following Eleanor’s experiences with her ethics professor ‘soulmate’ Chidi (William Jackson Harper), the posh British socialite next door (Jameela Jamil), all-knowing AI assistant Janet (D’Arcy Carden), and the neighbourhood’s supernatural architect and guardian Michael (Ted Danson, clearly having a great time in the role) is great fun and I can’t wait to see what future episodes have in store for them.

(The Good Place is on Netflix)

Mr Robot – “Runtime Error’/’Kill Process’

mr robot season 3
Copyright: USA/Amazon.

Picking up immediately after the ending of its divisive second season, Mr Robot quickly tackles the criticisms of that season by clearing up much of the confusion over character motivations and filling in gaps in the narrative which were infuriatingly teased but left unexplained throughout 2016’s episodes.

The psychological conspiracy thriller puts the emphasis firmly back on ‘thriller’ with a fast-paced rollercoaster of a season which focuses on a newly-motivated Elliot (Rami Malek) attempting to undo some of the damage his well-intentioned revolution has caused.

This goal puts him in direct conflict with powerful forces that have mysterious motives while his nearest and dearest hide devastating secrets from him.

Meanwhile, the show’s continued exploration of the rise of digital currency, the ever-widening gap between rich and poor, and the loss of privacy in the digital age makes it as timely as ever.

To call it a return to form would be a bit of an insult to season two, which I quite liked despite its issues – and its emphasis on character and backstory made a great foundation for this season to build on – but these new episodes are astoundingly good.

They’re full of memorable moments, shocking twists and astoundingly cool and clever tricks, and they maintain the show’s signature atmosphere of dread and disorientation.

‘Runtime Error’ follows Elliot and Angela (Portia Doubleday) in real time as he has a bad day at work and she struggles to follow instructions, tracking them in a way that makes the whole episode look like one long uninterrupted shot.

Far from being just a gimmick, this is an impressive and immersive way of building tension during a crucial day in the life of these characters – it’s thrillingly-executed, ambitious and just a hell of a lot of fun, even as the tension keeps relentlessly building over 45 long minutes.

Then ‘Kill Process’ sustains this tension by constantly cutting between several characters as Elliot tries to avert disaster and the FBI closes in on its targets until the suspense is almost unbearable, with a few gags and unexpected moments of slapstick comedy included to give viewers a bit of a breather.

The aftermath of these episodes dominates the rest of the season, as Elliot and Angela struggle to deal with what they’ve played a part in causing and the show flirts with the possibility of introducing sci-fi elements before quickly grounding itself firmly back in reality.

The cast still deliver brilliant performances, the direction is as stylish as ever, the writing is on point, the soundtrack is eclectic and Mac Quayle’s electronic score complements the action perfectly.

Most remarkable of all is that, three seasons in, it’s still very difficult to tell how this show will end, but I’m on board for whatever the future has in store.

(Mr Robot is on Amazon Prime Video)

Legion – “Chapter 7”

legion
Copyright: FX.

Legion is like watching an eight-episode psychedelic fever-dream.

The series sticks the viewer firmly inside the head of David Haller (Dan Stevens), who begins to suspect that the voices and visions he hears and sees, the same voices and visions that have lead to him being sent to a psychiatric hospital, may actually be real.

He might not be insane, but he may be insanely powerful.

David starts a relationship with another patient (Rachel Keller) just before he is caught up in a battle between a sinister government agency who wants to experiment on him and a misfit band of rebellious mutants who want to help him control his powers.

Film and TV are saturated with stories about superheroes these days, but Legion is unique.

It’s bursting with style, creativity, and confidence, flicking between reality, memories, nightmares and something else altogether at such a dizzying pace that it is, at first, a bit difficult to keep track of what’s what.

Thankfully, this is not a show that obfuscates and confuses just for the sake of it.

Things  settle down slightly as David gets a better grasp of his abilities and the plot, which is fairly straightforward when all the visual pyrotechnics and unreliable narration are stripped away, reveals itself.

Each episode has an audacious showstopper of a sequence designed to leave jaws on the floor and minds well and truly boggled, and the main cast all give excellent performances.

It is, quite simply, one of the most impressive shows on TV right now.

(Legion is on DVD, Bluray, and NOW TV)

Doctor Who – “World Enough and Time”/”The Doctor Falls”

doctor who capaldi
Copyright: BBC.

Taking a year off has done the show a world of good, as it returned reinvigorated with new companion Bill (Pearl Mackie) and a fantastic-as-ever performance from Peter Capaldi.

Through Bill, the familiar tropes of the show seemed fresh and exciting again, as the writers managed to find plenty of inventive ways to introduce the Doctor’s new travelling partner to his time machine, his alien features and his complex morality.

I immensely disliked Matt Lucas’ character Nardole when he was first introduced two Christmas specials ago and the news that he would become a regular was met with a loud sigh, but he proved to be a fine addition to the TARDIS team.

He’s a well-written and likeable robot-human thing who is in the unusual position of being the Doctor’s travelling partner, his intellectual equal and, occasionally, his boss.

This season was intended to be a soft reboot, a good jumping-on point for new viewers, like Matt Smith’s first season was, and it does a wonderful job of showing how diverse and ambitious this show can be, enticing new viewers and reminding old ones why they like it so much.

Its first half features a string of great episodes that show Bill struggling to get used to the implausible sights and sounds she’s experiencing with this eccentric, wild-haired old Scottish man.

Even the episodes with plots that sound God-awful on paper (killer puddles, deadly emoji robots, etc) are surprisingly decent, and a few of the rest are the best in recent memory.

Victorian caper ‘Thin Ice’ is a perfect example of what a stand-alone Doctor Who episode should be, with a cool and unusual setting, a mysterious monster, good jokes, and well-performed character drama caused by a conflict between the differing perspectives of the Doctor and his companion, while space-zombie chiller ‘Oxygen’ has an intriguing premise, good twists, and – gasp – actual lasting consequences for the Doctor.

But these episodes, as good as they are, aren’t the ones mentioned at the top of this entry. With ‘World Enough and Time’ and ‘The Doctor Falls’, Stephen Moffat, in his final year as showrunner, has managed to outdo himself.

His tenure has been far from perfect and he’s written some cringe-worthy dreck over the years, but these two episodes show off everything he’s best at: cleverly-constructed out-of-sequence storytelling, impressive quotable speeches that show a keen understanding of the Doctor’s character, and well-devised concepts that are not just ‘scary for kids’ but scary full-stop.

‘World Enough and Time’ starts amusingly enough, with Moffat cramming in a few more self-referential ‘Doctor Who?’ gags while he still can, then it abruptly turns into a nightmare that gets darker and grimmer and bleaker as the minutes tick by before ending on an iconic final shot and a heartbreaking cliffhanger.

‘The Doctor Falls’ is about as cheery as its title suggests, putting the Doctor and Bill in a situation where it seems actually impossible for them to succeed and there’s an inescapable feeling of inevitable death over the whole episode because both writer and viewer know full well that Capaldi’s incarnation of the Doctor is on the way out.

All this doom and gloom is occasionally interrupted by one baddie merrily chewing the scenery and some touching moments from a surprising source.

Capaldi’s time as the Doctor has seemed oddly brief compared to his immediate predecessors, despite having as many full seasons as Tennant and Smith, but it’s great that he’s going out on such a high.

(Doctor Who is on DVD and Bluray)

Better Call Saul – “Chicanery”/”Fall”/”Lantern”

better call saul 3
Copyright: Netflix.

Another year, another stellar season of Saul. After opening with a couple of episodes that seemed like they were intentionally trying to frustrate those who complain that BCS is far too slow, the show ramped up to a long-awaited mid-season showdown between the brothers McGill.

The rest of the season explored the aftermath of that courtroom battle, which saw the first proper manifestation of Jimmy’s ‘Saul Goodman’ persona.

This was also the year that Better Call Saul became more like the Breaking Bad spin-off it was expected to be when it was first announced, with more characters from the original show popping up and playing key roles – the most notable one being Gus Fring.

I sometimes wonder whether this series would work for someone who’s never seen Breaking Bad.

Better Call Saul still does because it manages to skilfully introduce more explicit ties to its predecessor without letting them take over the show and steal the spotlight from Jimmy.

Though Mike’s meetings with Gus and Nacho’s dealings with the Salamancas are gripping and also work as fanservice that doesn’t feel gratuitous, Jimmy’s slow transformation into Saul is still very much the focus.

In “Fall”, Jimmy is finally the amoral asshole he was always going to become, using his persuasive charm to manipulate and deceive one of his clients as the audience watches, stunned at his complete lack of empathy or remorse and finding themselves suddenly starting to hate this lovable wise-guy they’ve followed for three seasons.

This episode and the finale, “Lantern”, are a rough one-two punch that act as a dramatic reminder that, despite its slower, low-key feel, Better Call Saul can be just as shocking, upsetting and devastating as Breaking Bad when it really wants to be.

(Better Call Saul is on Netflix)

Fargo – “Aporia”/”Somebody to Love”

fargo season 3
Copyright: FX.

While it was good to have Fargo back, something just wasn’t clicking at first.

The characters were the sort of motley crew that wouldn’t feel out of place in either of the previous seasons, there was the requisite moment of shocking violence to kick off the plot, and the performances were all top-notch, especially Ewan McGregor playing the dual roles of Emmit and Ray Stussy.

During the slow early episodes, there was a well-executed episode-long diversion to another city that was like a short story tangentially-related to the tale the rest of the season was telling, which seemed like the sort of cheeky, vaguely-experimental creative decision I’d be going gaga over in previous years.

But not this year. I was appreciative but distant, not fully engaged in the story this time around for reasons I couldn’t explain.

Then, around the half-way mark, something changed. The stakes were suddenly raised, dots were joined, ill-thought-out actions were having horrible consequences and I suddenly found myself caring immensely about characters I had previously thought of as quirky but fairly flat.

At the same time, the theme of the season was being hammered home with little-to-no subtlety but at least now I had a better understanding of what the show was trying to say, and it was saying it through the snaggle-toothed, bleeding-gummed mouth of the villainous V.M. Varga.

David Thewlis’ deliciously disgusting scene-stealing performance as this human ooze is a sight to behold.

His larger-than-life loan shark rambles about irrelevant trivia to sound clever and disarm his victims before telling lies so effortlessly that they became accepted truth through the sheer conviction of his slimy delivery.

Truth is the theme of the season, as the show confronts the lie it inherited from the film it’s based on which has appeared at the start of every single episode: “This is a true story.”

It examines how easily the truth can be distorted,  moulded and transfigured for the malicious ends of the powerful and the greedy (no real-world subtext here, no sir), and how, sometimes, the truth is knowingly disregarded and deemed unnecessary when the lie is more convenient.

This analysis is wrapped in the riotously-entertaining second half of the season which features more of those cheeky, vaguely-experimental creative decisions that I normally go gaga for – and this time I did.

Back on the top TV list you go, Fargo.

(Fargo is on DVD, Bluray, and Netflix)

Honourable mentions: Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events – “The Miserable Mill” (both parts), Blue Planet 2 – “The Deep”, Marvel’s The Defenders – “Royal Dragon”, Game of Thrones – “The Spoils of War”, Bojack Horseman – “Thoughts and Prayers”, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend – “Josh’s Ex-Girlfriend is Crazy.”

2017’s Top TV: American Gods

american gods
Copyright: Starz/Amazon.

This genre-defying series based on a Neil Gaiman novel follows a convict (Ricky Whittle) who is released from prison early after his wife dies.

That tragedy soon becomes the least of his worries when he meets a mysterious stranger (Ian McShane) on the flight home who offers him a job as a bodyguard.

Shadow Moon (yes, that’s the convict’s actual name but bear with me) is then drawn into a world he doesn’t understand, a world where old gods that came to America centuries ago, brought into the country by immigrants who believed in them, now wander around lost and bored and far from the height of their powers.

In the meantime, humanity has channelled its belief into man-made concepts like media, technology and globalisation, creating new gods that are quickly becoming unstoppable.

The show explores old myths from foreign lands and creates new ones right in the middle of 21st-century America: a fateful game of checkers against the god of war, a meeting between a salesman and a djinn that gives both of them new purpose, and a mortal’s chance encounter with a love goddess which ends with her swallowing him whole.

Before working on this, the series’ co-creator Bryan Fuller had just finished turning a crime thriller about a cannibal into a grandiose, mythical confrontation between good and evil and now he’s turned his eye towards adapting a book about an epic confrontation between actual, honest-to-god Gods, which is the sort of subject matter that fits perfectly with his love of the melodramatic, stylish and surreal. Everything is turned up to 12, because 11 just isn’t enough.

Despite having a rock-solid suspension of disbelief that has withstood all sorts of high-concept nonsense over the years and remained intact – six increasingly-insane seasons of Lost, dozens of dumb Doctor Who storylines, the arty-farty third season of Hannibal – I found it difficult to get on board with American Gods at first. As the credits rolled on episode one, I stared at the screen speechless and baffled, but not in a good way.

It was the two mid-season episodes “A Head Full of Snow” and “Git Gone” which fully sold me on it.

The former went from a touching exploration of death to a rooftop conversation that’s filmed like a fairytale to a tense high-stakes rematch to an unexpected love story between two strangers to a comical heist to a moment of pure wonder, all without skipping a beat. It was a seriously impressive and seamless series of scenes that fully displayed the show’s high ambitions and abilities.

Then “Git Gone” resolved the moment from episode one that had caused my previously-mentioned bafflement in a way that was unexpected, satisfying, and absolutely hilarious.

There are a lot of things about American Gods that viewers may find difficult to accept, but belief is a central theme of the show and this disbelief, if anything, helps us relate to the show’s protagonist, who is just as bewildered and overwhelmed by what he’s witnessing as we are.

He is the stoic centre around which the crazy and colourful cast of characters revolve and though he’s perhaps the least interesting character, he is the most important.

Shadow’s endless road trip around America with his eccentric employer makes up the fairly-thin plot of the show, which often prefers to leave the pair entirely and show us little unconnected vignettes about the old gods’ journeys to the country and what they’re getting up to these days.

This is why, after eight lengthy episodes, it still feels like the story’s barely getting started and we’ve only gone a few chapters into the 600-page book that the show’s based on, but it’s hard to complain when the performances are this good and it’s so easy to be enchanted by American Gods‘ dreamlike visuals.

It’s happy to leave us wanting more, and I’m happy to wait as long as Michael Green and Bryan Fuller don’t stretch this out for too long – oh, they’ve left the show.

Yes, as 2017 began to draw to a close, the pair abruptly exited after creative differences with the show’s network. Apparently, the budget was ballooning into the tens of millions without attracting the audience that would make that expenditure worthwhile

It remains to be seen how this will affect the show – most of season two’s scripts have already been written and it still has the same talented cast and crew, but it won’t quite be the same without Green and Fuller’s style and sensibilities.