Sex Education review

Sex Education, Netflix’s newest original series, follows a group of sixth form students as they discover the joys and misadventures that come with having sex. Created by Laura Nunn and starring a string of fresh faces, the comedy-drama is pitch-perfect and completely of the moment.

There is an appealing universal nature to Sex Education, with its effective balancing of timely themes (abortion, masculinity and sexual orientation) and a whiff of the surreal, giving it the chance to speak to both men and women. It’s entirely adult in nature and not for younger audiences, but its exploration of sex holds a genuine relatability that older audience members – who this was made for – will, undoubtedly, find refreshing.

Similar in ways to Skins but much funnier and less inescapably depressing – as well as being embedded in more realism and less cliched drama – Sex Education encompasses a fantastic Britishness while embracing an 80’s American aesthetic. Also, much like Skins, it’s successfully providing a platform for a plethora of young, talented actors, many of whom put in star turns here.

Asa Butterfield leads the ensemble as Otis, a sixteen year old boy coping with rising sexual pressures as he embarks on his first year at sixth form. Butterfield is simply fantastic; relatable, funny, likeable, sweet, slightly weird – as a viewer you can’t help but root for him. This, in itself, is a feat of great serial storytelling. It’s not often – even with the very best of television – that you can binge-watch a series and not find one annoyance with the main character but, with Butterfield’s Otis, this really is the case.

Asa is supported by Ncuti Gatwa (Eric) and Emma Mackey (Maeve), as well as Gillian Anderson; an acting pro who here shows off her knack for delivering understated comedy. The four put in equally memorable performances but it’s Eric‘s story that holds the most emotional depth. With a want not to give anything away, his journey as a gay man with a penchant for styling feminine attire is thoughtfully developed and deeply moving and Gatwa gives an unforgettable breakout performance.

Sex Education is intelligently penned, fiercely relevant and confidently acted cementing it as Netflix’s best original series in recent memory.

The Long Song review

The first of the BBC’s December TV highlights was The Long Song. Screened over three nights last week, the adaptation of Andrea Levy’s book follows July, a young woman born into slavery in Jamaica. A strong ensemble cast bring the source material to life in what must, surely, be the best mini series of 2018.

Hayley Atwell stars alongside rising star Tamara Lawrance, while Jack Lowden (of Dunkirk fame) supports. Episode one features a must-see guest spot from the brilliant Lenny Henry, almost unrecognisable in his transformation here. Director Mahalia Belo has stayed true to Levy’s mode of storytelling in that The Long Song is a story of slavery that doesn’t showcase extreme violence, thus in turn limiting its audience, but instead creates a moving human drama that pulls an audience in with its accessibility. That’s not to say this is an easy watch, but more to point to the fact that Levy and screen writer Sarah Williams craft a very important story – fiction supported by fact – that studies its characters and the ways in which they adapt to survive in a terrain that is wholeheartedly against them.

The series is a true feat of storytelling that so masterfully blends brilliant humour with gut-wrenching cruelty. As we watch July, over three episodes, we see a story of survival against the odds, one that is filled with unthinkable horror but also a constant glimmer of hope. It’s haunting, deeply moving, powerfully acted. I was immersed in every single second.

A study of human nature, you’ll be both shocked to the core and moved to tears as the final days of slavery are put to the screen in a drama that is an absolute must-see. The only way to end this review is to say; please, everyone, watch this stunning series. You will be richer for it, I promise.

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool review

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is a deeply moving story tracing the relationship between Peter Turner, a young Liverpudlian actor, and Gloria Grahame, an aging Hollywood star. Adapted from Turner’s memoir of the same name by Paul McGuigan, the film is a portrait of sincere companionship and unexpected romance, featuring Annette Bening in a career-best performance.

McGuigan’s film is charismatic, capturing the surreal glamour of Hollywood with clever visuals, and the immense complexity of Gloria Grahame, an Oscar-winning actress who, in 1981, was coming to the end of her life. Gloria’s character – brilliantly funny, entirely self-aware, and quietly vulnerable – is celebrated in this biopic; a film that is at times great fun, and at others undeniably sad.

Director McGuigan seamlessly weaves scenes together in an unconventional mode of storytelling, intelligently playing with the chronology of the story that charts the pair’s unique love. Grahame’s relationship with Turner – a man who was 20 years her junior – is the focus of the film, but beyond this surface story McGuigan focuses in on the idea of one person giving another a sense of home in a way that feels so familiar, so honest, and as a viewer involves you entirely.

Jamie Bell stars alongside Bening and the pair share a searing chemistry; not only depicting a deep romantic connection, but a sense of friendship often amiss in stories of this kind. The fact that this tale is true of course makes the emotional impact heavier, but McGuigan’s genteel exploration of Turner and Grahame’s relationship gives the film a sensitive quality that is genuinely effecting and totally absorbing.

The support cast are reliably brilliant, bringing in Stephen Graham and Julie Walters, alongside a swift, but no less memorable, appearance from Vanessa Redgrave. It’s not the star power that propels the film to great heights though, it’s the modes of storytelling McGuigan deploys to bring this compelling experience in Turner’s life to the screen.

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is a terrific feature which tells a truly fascinating story of life, love and death, and one that explores its characters with brilliant warmth. Simply fantastic.

Widows review

Steve McQueen adapts Lynda LaPlante’s iconic mini-series Widows, leaving behind London for inner city Chicago, tackling race, capitalism and contemporary America along the way.

Steve McQueen is a director who, through a handful of exceptional films tackling tough subjects, has cemented himself as one of the best filmmakers working today. From Hunger and Shame to 12 Years a Slave and, now, Widows – perhaps his most Hollywood effort to date – when news hits that McQueen is working on something new, there is a collective buzz among film critics and fans. So, with the release of Widows, an Americanised version of a very British 80’s drama series, we expect big things.

In Widows, Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) and his crew make money stealing from gangsters but their latest job goes wrong leaving their wives to pick up the pieces. Viola Davis is Rawling’s wife Veronica; a wealthy woman who, upon losing her husband, is left with nothing. Threatened by gangster-turned-politician Jamal, she recruits the other lost wives to pull off a heist laid out by Harry. McQueen unites a cast of superb actresses, supported by a handful of acclaimed actors, for a reimagining of Lynda LaPlante’s much-loved heist story. It’s a simple premise which delivers a fantastic twist, but something is slightly amiss.

The treat of the film comes with the cast. Oscar winner Viola Davis is exceptional as Veronica; a woman whose experiences with loss have left her cold and, ultimately, alone. Daniel Kaluuya is excellent as Jatemme, Jamal’s psychotic brother with a penchant for violence. It’s great to see him flex his acting muscles, playing a character who is truly awful, and believably so. The youngest of the esteemed cast, his role leaves a memorable mark, alongside Elizabeth Debicki whose character transforms her emotional vulnerability into a surprising strength. Michelle Rodriguez is cast against type; frequently known as a bad-ass heroine, here she is seemingly out of her depth as a young mother fighting for economic survival. The film establishes McQueen as a director fascinated with people, one who directs with such a fierce virtuosity and understanding of human nature.

Gillian Flynn’s screenplay is paired back and refreshingly realistic; there isn’t a trace of unnecessary dramatics, with the characters reacting to events in a wholly relatable fashion. Every aspect of the film comes together to make it a complete movie that is really rather excellent, but the genre detailing isn’t as fast-paced or exciting as expected and this ultimately leaves us with a sense of dissatisfaction come the end scene.

Carefully, considerately shot – with an ensemble cast of dreams – Widows is, as expected, a fantastic film, but when the final job comes it doesn’t quite deliver the genre punch we came for.

A Star is Born review

Bradley Cooper revitalises one of cinema’s best-loved romances, updating the story of an ageing rock musician and his relationship with a talented rising star with an emotional depth often amiss in romantic-dramas.

With the cinematic release of A Star is Born – a film that had been hovering in development with various directors and actors attached for some time – came a plethora of critical acclaim. That acclaim, widespread and enthusiastic, is not misplaced. Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut – an obvious passion project that he has poured his heart and soul into – is a confident film with songs featuring hair-raising live music scenes, moving adult drama, and knockout performances from a small ensemble cast.

Both Cooper and Lady Gaga are sensational, they share an electric on-screen chemistry meaning their relationship is believable and their shared scenes (essentially the whole movie) are a delight to watch. There are many (quite possibly too many) romantic films out there. None are quite as affecting as this one.a-star-is-born

Gaga gives an Oscar-worthy performance, fusing quiet confidence with a rising-star vulnerability that endears us to her and allows us to see beyond the veneer of her real life star persona.  Cooper directs with a curiosity for his characters and the music industry that takes us on a captivating journey. Morphing into haunted rock star Jackson Maine, Cooper gives a physical and emotional performance that is both memorable and tragic, and veteran Sam Elliott is terrific, supporting his co-stars with comfortable ease.

With A Star is Born Cooper explores timely themes with such gut-wrenching force it’s almost impossible to leave the cinema unmoved. The film’s power is in its ability to stay with you long after the credits roll and, this alone, is its true triumph.

Billed as a romantic-drama, A Star is Born is so much more, going beyond its genre to explore the music industry, masculinity and mental health. It might be the story’s fourth incarnation but it is also quite possibly its best. Superb.

Killing Eve review

In Killing Eve a bored MI5 agent (Sandra Oh) is drawn into a violent chase to track down deadly assassin Villanelle (Jodie Comer); a psychopathic killer who has targeted a number of well-known public and political figures. As Eve gets closer to tracking her down, she becomes obsessed with the elusive target, enjoying the new-found excitement in her life.

BBC America’s new drama adapted from a series of novels by Luke Jennings, is a superb, expertly crafted game of cat and mouse featuring a star-making performance from Comer. Already confirmed for a second season (before its satellite premiere which vouches for its quality) the series is a super slick, and often bloody, example of television at its brilliant best.

Jodie Comer (My Mad Fat Diary, Doctor Foster) is truly exceptional as Villanelle. An awards-worthy performance from one of the industry’s best new talents, Comer nails the complexity of the assassin and showcases a depth not often seen in small-screen dramas. A truly revelatory turn for an actress so early in her career, Villanelle is a frequently surprising villain. Sandra Oh is similarly fantastic, and despite her character becoming less likeable as the series develops, Eve is a well-written, fully realised protagonist.

The supporting cast are a delight too, and not one person lets this team down. Kim Bodina is devilishly funny; Fiona Shaw (who many will know from the Harry Potter franchise) is fantastically dry, clearly having lots of fun as an eccentric and high-flying MI6 agent; and newcomer Sean Delaney adds a slice of much-needed innocent warmth to this pitch-black story .

Already attaining a kind of cult status, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s adaptation is not only exceptionally written (balancing dark wit with challenging themes) but refreshingly original. There’s an obvious feminist feeling to it and the lead performances from Comer and Oh are worth tuning in for if nothing else, but it’s the near complete perfection of the production as a whole that makes this such a joy to watch. There are moments of narrative frivolity (for it’s all a bit silly) but this made-up world entraps you and it’s the new definition of binge-worthy.

Stylish, shocking and brilliantly acted, Killing Eve is a delight to discover. Raising the bar for what a single 40-minute episode of television can achieve, it’s one of the best (if not the best) dramas to hit the small screen in recent years. Waller-Bridge has masterfully adapted Jennings’ engulfing story for TV and proved that everything she touches becomes pure gold.

Simply a must-see.

The Predator review

The newest incarnation in the Predator series of films, which was first introduced to us in 1987, comes back to the big screen with bad language, bloody violence and a new set of characters that aren’t only forgettable because they don’t all have names (really), but because of choppy editing and one very hazy narrative.

In The Predator a team of rogue soldiers must band together to protect civilisation from a new kind of threat; an evolved Predator that travels to earth to reclaim a ship and wipe out the human race.

The Predator is Shane Black’s attempt at rebooting the franchise, but Nimrod Antal’s 2010 film starring Adrien Brody achieves much more: it’s well-acted, the effects are spectacular and the story isn’t convoluted. Black’s film has undoubtedly been messed with at editing stage and there’s no question that the director’s vision for the horror is not what we are seeing in the cinema.

The film’s big budget isn’t reflected on screen and a lot of the effects are questionable.  To the movie’s detriment CGI is favoured over practical effects and instead of epic moments of action (which is what we’ve all turned up for) a lot of these scenes pass by in a confusing flash. The moments of violence are bloody and 80’s inspired, but there are also one or two deliveries of poorly-timed humour attached to killing that just don’t fly.

No one turns up to the cinema to watch The Predator expecting sensational filmmaking, but a couple of hours of mindless fun is enough. And the film certainly is funny in moments, particularly early on when Boyd Holbrook meets his ragtag team of  reluctant heroes. The easy humour is lost as the film progresses and with a run time of 107 minutes it’s slightly too long.

It’s almost unbelievable to think Shane Black – the writer-director of The Nice Guys – could have had final say with this film, and, saying that, I don’t think he did. The Predator isn’t the all-out action we wanted, and it certainly isn’t a reboot to remember, but it serves a cinematic purpose with its attempt at old-fashioned fun that, when it works, is worthwhile.

 

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri review

In Martin McDonagh’s newest film Mildred (Frances McDormand), a mother grieving the murder of her teenage daughter, pays for three messages to be painted on deserted billboards. The messages question local Police Chief Willoughby’s ability to find the culprit and rile the small town, setting off a chain of bizarre and violent events.

McDonagh’s third film is a pitch-black comedy that hits you like a punch in the chest with shocking violence and dark wit. Three Billboards is certainly not for everyone, but those who do get it will simply adore it.

Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes.

The director and writer follows up indie-hit Seven Psychopaths with a feature of the same vein. Three Billboards is similarly blood-soaked and comedic, yet different in the unsuspecting warmth that creeps in among the dark cracks. Another star-studded affair, the film utilises its starry talent well and introduces the audience to some brilliant young new actors (Lucas Hedges is again spectacular).

The hype is real, folks. Frances McDormand is heart-achingly sensational as Mildred, a character whose former life is over and whose current life is ruled by grief, anger and quiet despair. McDormand is given free reign with this role as McDonagh allows her to explore her range, showing herself a true character actress. The results are nowhere short of magnificent. Giving an eye-watering performance that will go down as one of the best in history, McDormand is simply one of the greatest thespians to have walked this earth.

Three Billboards is a film of memorable performances. Every scene offers something to remember from another of Hollywood’s finest. Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell are both on top-form, the latter flexing his muscles as a racist cop with a true penchant for violence. Rockwell is often memorable, but here he’s something else, giving such complexity to a character who could otherwise be totally one-dimensional. Although the final scene feels initially abrupt and unfulfilling, the importance of the film as a whole creeps up after watching and banishes any initial disappointment.

Three Billboards is completely challenging but completely worth the watch. Wholly uncomfortable in moments yet giggle-inducing and downright silly in others, McDonagh has somehow created his own sub-genre, and may his spellbinding work as auteur continue on.

Hereditary review

Hereditary, Director Ari Aster’s bold directorial debut, has achieved global word of mouth. Following its midnight screening at Sundance word quickly spread about the scale of real horror on offer here; a genre triumph that echoed The Exorcist. Buzz about a film doesn’t always serve it well though, particularly when it sets expectations sky high. So while Hereditary doesn’t quite serve up a complete slice of sinister cinematic horror, it does triumph as an indie film that has garnered the uninterrupted attention of mainstream audiences.

The narrative is open to interpretation but its central themes are that of grief, family torment and an underlying unease that centres around distrust. The real horror moments come in seeing Collette’s Annie break down following a tragic accident, her son’s fear of being guilty and unloved, and of not having control of that which is determined to unfold.

Director Aster takes a slow-burn approach, allowing events to unfold at a frustratingly slow pace. Had the flick been sold as a tense thriller rather than a psychological horror, the jump scares, clever camera tricks and  haunting set pieces would deliver a fuller effect. But these moments are fleeting, and they don’t achieve the impact they would were they unexpected, and you’re ultimately left wanting events to shuffle on faster.

Toni Collette and Gabriel Byrne support newcomers Alex Wolff and Milly Shapiro, but Byrne isn’t given nearly enough screen time. Collette is, as always, a gem. Channeling raw emotion as a grieving mother, her role as Annie is demanding – and perhaps the most terrifying element of the whole feature – but she never falters.

The final twenty minutes delivers a series of eye-covering moments which ultimately descends into a strange and slightly disappointing finale. Genre cliches continually threaten to creep in, but they never overwhelm the power of the bleak aesthetic or the goosebump-inducing score – this isn’t any old horror fare, Aster leans more towards art house tropes and directs with confidence.

A lot of comparisons have been drawn with The Babadook, another horror centred around grief but one that masters the slow-building dread effect with more force. Despite the perceived flaws there’s no denying that Aster has achieved a lot with this daring debut; if only in drawing mass audiences to an indie film, thus supporting the industry. The writing is pretty spectacular too, human emotion is captured quite perfectly, and Collette leads the film into outstanding territory performance-wise.

It won’t scare you like you might want it too, but it’s certainly an impressive debut from a director who is no doubt now in high demand.

Peaky Blinders series four review

Ladies and gentlemen, by order of the Peaky Blinders, I give you Thomas Shelby OBE and Labour MP for Birmingham.

In episode one of series four of Steven Knight’s mega-hit Peaky Blinders we learned that gangster Tommy Shelby had been made an OBE. In episode six we learned he had become a Labour MP. In between we witnessed bloody violence, gin distilling and a sad departure of a key family member.

There’s no denying that Peaky Blinders is completely bonkers, but the eccentricities of the series are what make it such an entrancing watch. The thrilling nature of this BBC Two gem is what enthralls audiences from around the globe, making it possibly the best gangster drama to ever come out of Britain.

As always, the series played out over just six episodes. Perhaps not enough, the series saw the Shelby family back on home turf in Small Heath and seemingly out of their depth for the first time. Adrien Brody joined the ensemble as Luca Changretta; the family’s most dangerous foe yet and Aiden Gillen stepped in as Aberama Gold; a new ally with a penchant for killing people.

Peaky Blinders doesn’t need Hollywood talent to attract viewers or make its mark, but the writers and creators utilise these big names well. Tom Hardy returned for the final time as Alfie Solomons and proved – once again – he’s not a friend to Tommy and co’. While there is joy in seeing such big names play exciting roles it’s Cillian Murphy, Paul Anderson and Helen McCrory who we come to see. Anderson was particularly outstanding in this series, proving what a stellar talent he is as he embodies Arthur; the oldest and most troubled brother.

Series four played around with various themes, namely guilt and grief. With the loss of John and the arrival of Changretta – the son of an Italian gangster Arthur murdered in series two – the whole Peaky crew were on high alert and questioning their morals, or lack of. Polly claimed her experience with the noose had irrevocably changed her, while Arthur came face to face with the mother of the teenage boy he killed in the boxing ring in series one. This is perhaps the first time one season has crammed in so many different past plot threads but it worked well, and directly addressing past sins of the family added a touch of realism.

Knight takes a lot of time examining Tommy‘s face in series four, for it’s not what Tommy says, it’s how he reacts. The deliberate choice to give Murphy – an actor at the top of his craft – little lines in the final episode served the tense, moody finale well. Series four felt big on production values too, and the stylistic choices – from dark, low-key lighting to the hallmark slow-mo walk of the Peaky clan – came thick and fast.

With more guns, bigger set pieces, and lavish costume design, the aesthetic of the show continues to be something to marvel at. Alongside the impressive visage, brooding indie rock and sultry folk from the likes of Nick Cave, Iggy Pop and Laura Marling aid the emotional narrative and support the moody tone of the series well.

As Peaky Blinders continues its fascination with Tommy Shelby OBE, series five can’t come quick enough, which teases to feature a journey across the pond to visit Mr Alphonse Capone.