Mayans M.C. – season one review

Kurt Sutter’s fascination with motorcycle clubs continues with Mayans M.C., a spin-off from the immensely popular Sons of Anarchy. In this new iteration we’re placed with the Mayans, a drug-running charter based in the fictional town of Santo Padre involved in the dealings of dangerous cartel family the Galindo’s.

Fans of Sons of Anarchy will already be familiar with the Mayans who were at first rivals, then allies, of Jax Teller and co’. Emilio Rivera returns to the fictional world as Alvarez, the Padrino of the M.C., alongside brand new characters and one or two cameos from familiar faces. The series’ main character – essentially Charlie Hunnam’s equivalent here – is EZ Reyes, a Mayans prospect, played by J. D. Pardo. Other memorable performances include Richard Cabral as Coco and the brilliant Clayton Cardenas as EZ’s brother Angel

The Sons ran guns, the Mayans run drugs. Both are questionable career choices but Sutter is careful to demonstrate that his club members are only in it for the money and actually care about their communities. Honest. This theme was more prominent in SOA with real focus on the Teller family’s loyalty to Charming. The biggest challenge any spin-off faces is in successfully forging itself as stand-alone. While Mayans M.C. is entertaining drama it’s difficult to create a set of characters as beguiling as those in Sons and struggles slightly because of this.

Much like its predecessor Mayans M.C. is blood-soaked, drug-addled fare featuring scantily clad women and testosterone-fuelled fights. What it’s missing is SOA’s thought-provoking exploration of masculinity and male friendship and its deeply-rooted themes of brotherhood. Instead it serves up a highly watchable series that treads new ground, looks visually impressive and introduces likeable characters. It’s highly unrealistic and will offend some, but take it at face value and it’s actually a lot of fun.

Sutter’s new series is not yet of the calibre of SOA, but there is plenty of time for that.

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.

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.

Big Little Lies – television at its very best

If you haven’t watched Big Little Lies already you probably should. No, seriously. Stop reading this now and watch it. Now. Do it right now.

Big Little Lies‘ perfection begins with Jean-Marc Vallée. The director, celebrated for Dallas Byers Club and Wild, creates moving pictures that are rich in emotional depth and thematically brave. This television mini-series, adapted from Liane Moriarty’s novel of the same name, boasts a phenomenal a-list ensemble and welcomes fresh young talent too. It’s a collaborative masterpiece that reads more as a feature-length film than usual series fare, a trait that works in its favour.

Essentially a series of conversations and betrayals amongst a group of women in the picturesque coastal town of Monterey, California, Big Little Lies seats us in a serene paradise that juxtaposes the actions of its people. The lives of five woman unfold over seven episodes as their first-grader children embark on their first year of school. Bullying, domestic abuse, marriage and friendship are all presented to us in brave and bold new ways with an explorative eye and level of intricacy perhaps unseen before.

Whether it’s in the knowing looks shared between two friends, or the layered and fragmented relationships seen between four married couples, writer David E. Kelley and his director Vallée explore the exasperation and tribulations these mothers feel and the secret brutality of their apparently perfect world as it crumbles around them. Much of the narrative focuses on Celeste (Nicole Kidman) and Perry ( Alexander Skarsgård). At first this pair seem blissfully – and passionately – happy in their million-dollar home by the sea with two cute-as-a-button boys. This facade is quickly shattered by the realisation that they share a dark secret; Perry is a violent and psychotic husband who frequently beats Celeste, repenting with flowers and expensive jewellery. The abuse escalates as the series goes on and these scenes, directed with an uncomfortably intimate lens, depict domestic abuse in an unnerving and realistic plot-thread that works to remind us that this is a deadly serious (and often silent) issue in society.

The total isolation of Kidman’s Celeste is portrayed in aching moments of sadness in a doctor’s office and her inability to acknowledge the depth of her martial situation effectively points to the stigma surrounding physical abuse behind closed doors. Celeste isn’t weak, in fact she’s an accomplished lawyer, loving mother, and friend-to-all who is slowly losing sight of her self as her controlling husband tightens his psychological grip. Kidman and Skarsgård are both revelations here, particularly the latter, as he showcases what broad talent he really does have under his fluffy cinematic roles, while fearlessly embodying Perry and his brewing malevolence. The scenes shared between the two aren’t an easy watch but this serves a bruising, thought-provoking purpose.

Shailene Woodley, Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman in Big Little Lies.

While the series is an ensemble piece, Reese Witherspoon often takes lead. The Oscar-winning actress is a sensation as Madeleine; intelligent, cutting, sharp, self-aware and, actually, a champion of what it means to be a mother and a woman. She is flawed and imperfect, while from the outside perspective of fellow parents she appears to define what it is to be an upper class woman in contemporary America, she’s perhaps the most complex character in the story we see. Shailene Woodley and Laura Dern also star, each battling their own demons in the confines of Monterey. The location becomes a character too which, despite its aesthetic beauty, is rammed with ugly secrets.

The seven episodes are accompanied by an emotive soundtrack which includes Fleetwood Mac, Neil Young and Leon Bridges that serves the narrative so well, it’s a treat on the ears while the show itself is often tremendously tough on the eyes. Each episode escalates in its many engimas while questions are slowly answered and secrets unveiled, before the final You Get What You Need ties up loose ends. This cathartic episode represents the unbreakfable bond between women and their utterly inimitable strength too.

Big Littles Lies is an incredible landmark in contemporary television. I would say it’s a rare example of what the small screen can achieve, but I hope it will be one of many sharp, witty and significant pieces of art to come that shouldn’t – and surely won’t – be forgotten. This is flawless drama at its honest best.

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?

 

 

The Walking Dead: Season Six – The Series So Far

The Walking Dead came racing back onto our screens three Sunday’s ago and with a new series came three things: Hoards of the undead, bloody mayhem and brutal kills. The idea to up the anti on the graphic violence is an interesting choice considering the strength of seasons four and five based on the character driven narratives and exploration of humanity they both encompassed. Having said that, season six has thus far presented fans with a visually-impacting thrill ride that has thrown a lot at its audience very, very quickly.

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steven yeun as glenn in the walking dead

Who really are these Wolf madmen? Where did Ron appear from all of a sudden? What has happened to Morgan in the time since he last saw Rick? And, most importantly; Has the latter gone completely bat-shit crazy? There are a lot of questions to be answered and thirteen more episodes in which to do so – hurrah. While the series started in a buzz of hectic Walker-sitting and machete-wielding murderers on the loose in Alexandria there was still time for a bit of character development via the always popular background stories. We’ve been able to get to grips with why Enid is so solemn (if the whole Zombie thing wasn’t enough) and had an introduction to one or two new faces. These include Denise, a new doctor in the community, and Heath, an Alexandria resident who is getting to grips with the authority of Rick and Co’ having been out on a run since they arrived.

The most intriguing element so far, thematically speaking, is the idea that Rick is slowly becoming some kind of antagonist to the residents of Alexandria, and even to those he has been with for some time. As Andrew Lincoln steps up as an actor of immense talent, we see a dark side to the lead character who (if we really think about it) lost his mind somewhere in season four. The underlying sub-plot of this has been brewing for some time, as has Carol‘s lack of compassion. The pair have become a kind of terrifying duo that, as an audience, we aren’t sure whether to still root for, or wish people to run from.

Lincoln still predominately leads the show with Steven Yeun as Glenn supporting him in a role that had everyone’s heart in tatters this week. The arrival of new characters always brings an extra dimension to the series and forces new on-screen friendships and shows of camaraderie that – if acted and scripted well – are genuinely moving. Episode one, First Time Again, didn’t match up to the level of intensity and sheer shocks of season five’s No Sanctuary which blew the lid off of previous openers (and apparently this year’s premiere couldn’t quite compete). JSS and Thank You have more than made up for the slow burner of the first inauguration and if writers choose to keep this pace – and maintain the aesthetically impressive action sequences – The Walking Dead’s sixth season could easily be its best yet.

Note: My reviews are based solely on the television series as a viewer with no knowledge of events taking place in the graphic novels.

American Horror Story: Hotel – Abandon Ship

There actually isn’t a lot to say about Checking In, the premiere episode of season five of anthology series American Horror Story. Correction: There isn’t a lot of positive things to say about Checking In. Absurdly grotesque, convoluted in plot and yet to provide us with any kind of likeable character other than Wes Bentley, Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s newest incarnation is, very simply put, silly. Silly in nature and pointless in presence.

wes bentley in american horror story: hotel

wes bentley in american horror story: hotel

Ouch, yes, I went there. It genuinely feels as though co-creators Murphy and Falchuk have run out of any kind of original idea and have taken odd components from seasons past and thrown them all into Hotel. The violence of Asylum and the strange characters of Freakshow with the location-based claustrophobia of Murder House. The difference being that those elements in those seasons worked. Currently, they aren’t working here. The first episode generally needs to be the stand out and that just currently isn’t the case. Members of the AHS fan canon will likely be enthused by this first installment, those who have been teetering on the border of abandoning the series will probably do so now.

Sarah Paulson is on form yet again as another complex character and seeing Lady GaGa as an actress is a real treat. Kathy Bates used to be a firm favourite but three seasons since her inauguration into the world of ‘Horror Story she has just become stranger and less compelling. The gripping enigma, and engaging characters of times past are long gone, and now the FX show that was once a television phenomenon has become an uncomfortable watch that focuses on unnecessary and seemingly unexplained events. Underdeveloped and cliched, Hotel needs to find a way out of the dark hole it’s so sadly started in.

Fear the Walking Dead: The Good Man, review

The power of Fear the Walking Dead is in the terror it has so successfully conveyed. Among a sea of negativity, the final episode has delivered in performance and narrative, and it can really only go up from here. While not everyone will agree – based on the number of online articles that have so confidently written off the series – Fear the Walking Dead has established itself as a winning formula, one that doesn’t need to draw comparisons with its sister show The Walking Dead.

In honesty, I was pretty worried that series two wouldn’t surface at all following the heap of critical condemnation that this first incarnation has received but, fear not, AMC and Kirkman and co’ have announced that it’s happening. And, it’s happening on a boat. Did anyone else just hear The Lonely Island and Akon then? No, just me? Moving on…

The final episode, The Good Man, said goodbye to characters we were only just getting to know and said hello to a new world. Travis (Cliff Curtis) finally snapped and it turns out Andrew (Shawn Hatosy) really wasn’t such a good guy after all. That new world is one where Walkers do rule and the army are irrelevant. If anything, the presence of the US soldiers in this first season has intelligently suggested that darkness in humanity doesn’t need a hoard of the undead to rear its ugly head; it was there all along. Whether we see that in Reuben Blades’ Daniel Salazar or in any one of the gun-happy army boys, it’s present. That presence is powerful, scary and well-acted. I like it, I like it a lot.

I was the first to nay-say when I heard the initial Fear the Walking Dead reveal. Why did we need a new zombie series? What would it bring to audiences? It turns out that what it brought (and hopefully, will continue to bring), is a lot. The characters might not currently be engaging spectators on the level that Darryl, Rick and Glenn do, and it might not be a minute-by-minute gore fest, but FTWD is slowly but very surely building an insane tension that is brewing like a fancy tea. Expect to find yourself clasping your face and shouting out at the television set come your home-viewing of this final episode as you feel the fear, because that slogan was right; it begins here. The hair-raising score, the questionable actions of those in charge, and the responses of characters who could be me and you – the components for a great television series are all there. While these elements might need some honing, they are well on their way to becoming damn near impressive.

Th show can only get better, and I’m certainly excited to see what happens next with the culturally diverse family that have been placed on our screens, not just to fight flesh-eating zombies, but to break down barriers and represent the multiple groups that make up contemporary America. Well played, AMC.

Fear the Walking Dead – The Dog and Not Fade Away

The motives of army and government officials are always questionable in the zombie genre. Characters wait for their arrival, but events always go down-hill amongst their presence. We’ve seen it in 28 Days Later, Resident Evil and now in Kirkman’s Fear the Walking Dead. With only two episodes to go until the end of season one, the pace of the drama is picking up as the US army takes charge. Episode three, The Dog, and this weeks installment, Not Fade Away, were fantastic examples of Kirkman, Erickson and crew at their best. These latest episodes have also succeeded in proving one simple, yet entirely important, point: Fear the Walking Dead is a completely different entity to The Walking Dead. The only real similarity is the zombie narrative, and comparisons can no longer be drawn.

Surprisingly, the dark content isn’t related to the undead thus far. The real interest is coming from Frank Dillane’s Nick. He’s sneaky and clever as a drug addict willing to do anything to get his fix, and that anything is genuinely questionable. Dillane has an engaging quality despite his little screen time in the past two episodes and his sub-plot is increasingly becoming one of the best of the series. Cliff Curtis is exceptional as the head of the family. Travis wants to believe everything will be just fine and in a sense, he’s you and me, he represents the home viewer. Ruben Blades as Daniel provides enigma in terms of an interesting back-story and his moments of dialogue give us an insight into his torrid past. The Walking Dead has focused itself heavily on the theme of humanity, particularly in seasons four and five, as Rick and co’ have come to realise the biggest threat are those left alive. That same theme is seen in this new series, but straight off the cusp and warped to escape cliches and complaints.

Can we trust the army? Definitely not. Will all of the main cast survive series one? I bloody hope so. Fear the Walking Dead has proved itself to be a series of dramatic worth, with a talented cast – who might just be that little bit better than the large ensemble of TWD – who drive the tense narrative forward. I like it, I like it a lot.