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.

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New on Netflix: God’s Own Country

Netflix is upping its array of indie delights and its most recent addition – God’s Own Country – is not to be missed. Released in October 2017, Francis Lee’s debut follows the relationship between two men. Quietly tender and arrestingly urgent, this moving story will have you bleary-eyed and seeking out more indie gems on the platform.

A great example of what people mean when they say ‘Very British Cinema’, God’s Own Country is set on a Yorkshire farm during a cold, dirt-strewn spring. Director Lee celebrates the beauty of this county while showcasing the inherent loneliness of farm life, while the central theme of the film focuses on the relationship between farmer Johnny Saxby (a fantastic Josh O’Connor who you’ll know from ITV’s lavish period dramedy The Durrells) and migrant worker Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu). The success of Lee’s film can’t just be seen in the silently arresting performances of these two actors, but also in the way it tackles two vital themes: masculinity and Britishness. And more specifically, the pressure of upholding a family tradition that is founded on very British values.

Alec Secareanu and Josh O’Connor in God’s Own Country

We aren’t exactly a nation known for wearing our hearts on our sleeve, irritatingly stoic when it comes to talking about our feelings, the struggle to say how we feel is explored throughout the 105 minute run-time, and predominantly through silence. Director Lee masterfully tells the story of Johnny and how he breaks free of his own emotional prison with the tender, sentimental support of Gheorghe in a story that transcends the specifics of gender. Centrally about loneliness, rumination and how, without real, meaningful relationships, men can and will break down, the tale is refreshingly honest, and quite bittersweet too.

From start to finish the flick runs with little dialogue or music, placing us in the literal and metaphorical silence that Johnny lives with. What begins as a seemingly bleak British farm drama evolves into a hopeful story of love and friendship, responsibility and hardship, and the ability to begin again. God’s Own Country isn’t only a great film, it’s thematically relevant and undeniably important.

Next time you turn to Netflix, take a trip to God’s Own Country.

Jessica Jones season two: Krysten Ritter’s titular anti-hero returns

Season two of Jessica Jones was long-awaited and highly-anticipated because series one wasn’t only a masterclass in how to make good TV, it introduced us to a new, undeniably likeable superhero. An anti-hero of sorts. Jessica Jones; a PI with a past, superhuman strength and a penchant for whisky. Jess is smart, witty, stubborn and vulnerable and although incredibly special, she was also introduced to us as exceptionally relatable. We got to know Jess over 13 carefully crafted episodes of Netflix genius, and she quickly became a bona fide small-screen favourite. While season two has been met with just a smattering of the same acclaim its predecessor received, our hero is still back, and the importance of the show shouldn’t escape our notice.

Without too much analysis, Jess is just a totally likeable, completely bad ass protagonist. Her apparent unwillingness to be a textbook hero is what endears us to her more. Delving in deeper, Jess is a brilliantly written example of a contemporary feminist whose narrative background – and genre in which she’s placed – allows women and men to enjoy the series without feeling alienated by in-your-face feminism. This is in itself is a true triumph of the series.

The joy in watching Jessica Jones is in the character Krysten Ritter has created. Jones might just be the best new TV lead we’ve seen in some time and Ritter shows herself as not only a tremendous talent, but as an important part in the evolution of female roles found on the big and small screen (another recent example being Gal Gadot’s fantastic Wonder Woman). Whether or not season two lived up to our high expectations, Jessica Jones is an incredibly important character during a time of vital change in the entertainment industry. Jess is an unconventional – but key – advocate for the importance of strong women being highlighted, celebrated and not defeated by their (usually) male foes. Strong, troubled women have been seen on screen since the dawn of cinema but never quite like this. Often shown to need rescuing by others, female roles were initially one-dimensional but are now multi-faceted. Here, Jones rescues herself with her own unique strength (and not just the physical kind).

So, let’s not all jump at once to point out the apparent lack of brilliance season two of Jessica Jones brought. Instead, lets praise the exceptional writing, the inimitable performance of Ritter (an entirely underrated actress), and the team of talented women behind the lens. By the time series three comes around, I suspect many more female heroes will be given the praise they most definitely deserve.

Okja Review

Bong Joon-ho’s Okja is cinematic storytelling at its finest. Funny, smart, heartbreaking; Bong has created a film with so much soul, it simply has to be seen by all.

In Okja, the ominous Mirando Corporation, led by Tilda Swinton’s Lucy, unveils superpigs, claiming these animals were ‘discovered’ and not created in a lab. One pig, Okja, is raised in the South Korean mountains by a young girl named Mija and together, over ten years, they form an unbreakable bond. When it becomes clear that Okja was reared to be used as live stock, the Animal Liberation Front, helmed by Paul Dano’s Jay, join forces with Mija to bring down Mirando and save Okja from a cruel fate.

Bong’s film is obvious in its messaging and vocal in its views on the meat trade – some viewers won’t like that. Those who can look beyond the imbedded message of anti-meat and see the many other themes the flick involves will relish in the total joy and, at times, utter sadness this sentimental story brings to its viewers. Okja isn’t just a discussion on the treatment of animals reared for food, it’s an exploration of unusual friendships and the want to make a positive impact on the world in which we live.

The film boasts an enviable ensemble that unites fresh new talent with established actors, all putting in memorable performances. Dano is superb as Jay, impassioned and quietly emotional, while Swinton and Jake Gyllenhaal have a riot in eccentric roles that are both unforgettable and terrifying. It’s Ahn Seo-hyun who steals the film, though. And, of course, her best friend Okja. Bong brings the best out of his actors as he directs them through a journey that is unashamedly bonkers.

Ahn Seo-hyun in Okja

As with Bong’s previous entries into the world of film, Okja won’t be for everyone. The director has oddball tendencies and blends these with truly dark themes, a combination that won’t sit so well for some viewers. What this is though, is a genuine success for Netflix and a bold leap too. The film is half in Korean and half in English, and it combines a cast of South Korean actors with American talent – this combination of East and West works and does something in terms of bringing audiences closer to seeking out world cinema.

For some, watching Okja will lead to a change in lifestyle. For others, it will be a nonsensical action-adventure. And for most, a riotous ride that’s a great piece of cinema. Bong’s film will stir many different reactions and this reflects its total brilliance. Rather wonderfully, Okja is unlike any film before it. Bong Joon-ho has masterfully crafted a one-of-a-kind picture that is, yes, completely unusual, but brilliantly so. It’s an adventure of epic proportions that’s thematically brave and brimming with heart.

Why We Love Stranger Things

Stranger Things is undoubtedly Netflix’s new hit. All of my pals keep mentioning it in conversation, the internet loves it, and we are craving season two already. But why are we all so impressed by The Duffer Brother’s show? Stranger Things is eight episodes of traits and formulas that, collectively as an audience, we have most definitely seen before, and there isn’t necessarily something new in sight that has taken aficionados or fans of the canon by storm. But, we love it nonetheless and there are many a reason as to why. Below I look at just five elements to the programme that make it a stand-out entry into 2016 television.

  1. The nostalgia is real

I recently read an article that sighted Stranger Things as a re-hash of 80’s coming-of-agers such as Stand by Me. The author was kind of stating that this was a bad thing. In my mind, the references to classic 80’s hits and the cinematic odes to films such as Stand by Me is what propels the series to greater depths of enjoyment. As we watch three lads and their new friend – a superhuman girl who finds herself with pals for the first time – we are flung into nostalgic feels of times past. Who doesn’t like a bicycle chase that includes a van flip, or a journey along a train track to find a mysterious gate to another realm?

2. It’s actually really funny

I spent a lot of season one in little fits of giggles. The character responsible for this laughter? Dustin. Gaten Matarazzo has a natural streak of comedy genius in him and his moments of bad language and sharing of life views leads to some lighthearted laughs that are needed in this tale of unearthly creatures and missing children. The humour, mostly penned by Matt and Ross Duffer, is reminiscent of the likes of The Two Cory’s in such flicks as The Lost Boys; it’s all very silly but undeniably enjoyable.

The cast of Stranger Things

The cast of Stranger Things

3. If you don’t like one character, you have a whole bunch to choose from

It’s always really important to like your protagonist. In Stranger Things it’s not instantly clear who the protagonist is – and that role is pretty much shared throughout season one – but if you don’t like one character, you have about six more who share screen time in which you can root for. As an audience we are positioned with the adults, the teens and the kids, and you’re guaranteed to find at least one version of yourself (don’t deny it) in the group. With so many characters comes a bunch of different perspectives and we have been able to see the events of Hawkins, Indiana from a number of people and places – including the not-so-friendly Upside-Down.

4. Winona Ryder is back, and she’s better than ever

Winona Ryder had that huge career in the later 80’s and through the 1990’s but it all went a bit stale. A lot of time has passed and the oh-so talented actress is back. Ryder may have taken a break, but her talent hasn’t wavered and as the broken Joyce in Stranger Things we see a return to form as she desperately clings to the belief that son Will is alive. It was ingenious to cast Ryder as a woman on the edge, and she grabs this opportunity and doesn’t let go – this should be the start of a rejuvenated career.

5. The Duffer Brothers have reinvigorated science-fiction in television

There are plenty of science-fiction T.V. flicks to choose from, but none have recently had the impact like this. You don’t need to be a huge fan of sci-fi to get on board because at its heart, Stranger Things is a human drama that we can all connect with. With themes of grief, growing-up, love and the complex nature of friendship, the series is a multi-layered tale of one very small town with some very big goings-on at the centre of it.

And not forgetting, Stranger Things comes with a neon title and electronic music – what more do we want?

 

 

6 Years, review

Hannah Fidell’s adolescent romantic drama 6 Years is an emotive, realistic depiction of a relationship on the brink of despair. That despair, is constant. And that continuity verges on boring. But with strong performances from the leads Taissa Farmiga and Ben Rosenfield, Fidell’s budget flick achieves something, even if that something is only minute.

Remember the days of straight to VHS? Yeah, me too. It usually meant the film had a terrible cast, an even worse narrative, and a budget to match. In the contemporary film market today, it doesn’t. There are an array of stellar independent films that don’t meet the audience they deserve due to a window release system that favors blockbusters and star-power over underplayed quality. While Fidell’s 6 Years doesn’t quite match up to similar movies The Spectacular Now, Adventureland and Short Term 12, it does warrant an appreciative audience. Thanks to Netflix, the film should receive it, with AHS fans chomping at the bit to see an on-screen return from Farmiga.

Director and writer Fidell tells the story of Mel (Farmiga) and Dan (Rosenfield), a young couple reaching adulthood who have been in a relationship for six years. As they embark on different journeys their romance becomes entangled in bitterness, jealously and violence as we watch this sad couple attempt to make things work. Supporting performances come from Friday Night Lights actress Dana Wheeler-Nicholson and Bates Motel‘s Joshua Leonard and the ensemble are strong. The performances from this somewhat unappreciated (and perhaps, relatively unknown) cast are what keeps the feature together and the plot moving along. The biggest issue is what you gain as a viewer. Apart from feeling genuinely moved at the strength of Farmiga’s role as Mel, it’s hard to take away anything much from this 80 minute drama that, simply put, is incredibly glum. With lots of alcohol, self-destructive behaviour, and one or two uncomfortable scenes, 6 Years will sit comfortably amongst 16-25 year old’s but will struggle to find a wider demographic.

farmiga and rosenfield in 6 years

farmiga and rosenfield in 6 years

It’s not all bad, though. There’s an interesting exploration of underlying violence in relationships that isn’t pin-pointed often enough in popular culture, and the bravery of Fidell to include this as a theme – as well as be sure not to over-play or under-play that – is intelligently done. This in itself is thought-provoking and creates a divide between the two leads, forcing us to choose a side and stick to it. Although, thanks to the complexity of long-term relationships and the strength of the script, you will find yourself swapping from Ben to Mel and back again. The visuals are great, too. Lot’s of visceral colours make for a truly contemporary movie, and it’s an attractive feature. The repetition of house-parties and flashing lights becomes predictable though and as a viewer we just want to see this bleak story move forward. It doesn’t happen and therefore never fully engages its audience.

6 Years is an authentic – if somewhat under-whelming – story of a young couple and their tribulations. Farmiga and Rosenfield have a genuine chemistry that is electric and toxic at all of the right moments. These performances alone save the film from the dark depths of melodramatic indie territory and propels Hannah Fidell’s second feature into positive territory. It won’t blow you away, but it’ll make you think.

Gone Baby Gone, review

Ben Affleck’s directorial debut might be nearing the ten year mark, but does that diminish the power and effecting ability as a director the actor holds over his audience with his kidnapping thriller Gone Baby Gone? Although this might be a rhetorical question, in an attempt to swiftly get ones point across, the answer would be no. Stylish in ways, underplayed in others, and with a narrative and lead performance that genuinely stays with you following the end scene, Affleck’s mastery behind the camera is seen so prominently with Gone Baby Gone, and that mastery continued with Argo and The Town – both of which were met with acclaim.

Its not Ben we see as lead protagonist here though, it’s his brother Casey. Younger in years, yes, but lesser in talent? Not a chance. Casey is so believable in his role as PI Patrick Kenzie that the word method springs to mind and his identity as a real person is never questioned during the entire run-time. This won’t be an overly-long big-up of this fantastic film, for many of you will have already seen it – and therefore know its worth. What this will be, is a nod to a daring, intelligent and thought-provoking feature full of striking performances both in front of – and behind – the camera.

Gone Baby Gone is a straight adaptation from Mystic River and Shutter Island author Dennis Lehane’s novel of the same name. Centering on two PI’s, Affleck’s Kenzie and Michelle Monaghan’s Angie Genaro, the narrative combines two stories of abduction that opens up a dark and murky underworld of police corruption and, more interestingly, the conscience that comes with right and wrong. Its not always an easy watch – in fact for the latter half, it really isn’t – but if you can overcome the difficulties of a narrative that deals with missing children, drug dealers and pedophiles, you will appreciate the starkness and originality – and importance – of Affleck’s feature.

In dealing with such an intense narrative, you need fierce performances. Affleck demands that from his cast, and they in return deliver. Morgan Freeman, Ed Harris and Amy Ryan support, the latter received an Oscar nod for her role as the drugged-up, alcohol-fueled mother of missing child Amanda and she certainly deserved it after creating a character who spectators both sympathise with and loath in equal measure. The ensemble are strong, and as a viewer you can never be sure who to trust – which is always refreshing amongst a flock of new releases each year that are quite predictable.

The shining star, though, is Casey Affleck. He teems with realistic emotion and heart, he is truly likeable, and he portrays an everyman – from a rough neighborhood, yet he’s worked hard to produce a successful career for himself. Kenzie is the man in the middle, connecting the residents of Dorchester, Boston, to the middle-class cops who lead the case. The underlying message seems to round out to a questionable upper-class society, and an almost forgotten lower-class who are made up of criminals and addicts, along with their neglected children.

Perhaps a little pretentious in length, but basically perfect in every other aspect, Gone Baby Gone is no doubt the Affleck brothers own gem – and a gem for critics and audiences alike.