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.

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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?

 

 

Peaky Blinders: A Masterclass In TV

We all know the score. Television of the good ol’ days was known for soaps and mini series’ – and not necessarily ones that were going to change the game of the small screen (with the odd exception, of course). In the past ten years we have seen a ten-fold improvement in the quality of TV drama. From the good fellas at HBO producing cinematic series’ such as police drama True Detective, to AMC giving viewers a multi-layered exploration of an apocalyptic deep south in The Walking Dead; whatever your genre, there’s something, on some channel, to please you.

While America is way ahead with their budgets, their production values, and their star power, the UK is steadily catching up. Peaky Blinders is an exemplary case of such competition, with an ensemble to rival the best, an intricate narrative and a blistering soundtrack that creates a palpable atmosphere. BBC Two, you continue to surprise us all. As we reflect on the events of season three we are reminded of the utter strength of modern television.

With only six episodes per season, Peaky Blinders is a short series that packs a lot in. In season three we met new antagonists, said goodbye to familiar faces and welcomed new members of the family. Over just six episodes producer and writer Steven Knight creates a multi-faceted narrative that escapes genre cliches to provide audiences with substance and originality. While it isn’t always faultless, often it is close to small-screen perfection. Peaky Blinders is based on the notorious Romany gangster family of the 1920’s but Knight has attained poetic justice in his verve as a writer as he develops complex characters portrayed by a stellar ensemble cast of British actors.

Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders

Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders

Cillian Murphy leads a strong cast, all of whom share an electric chemistry fueled by fiery personalities and an underlying rage. Paul Anderson is an absolute triumph in his role as Arthur, a character who audiences have seen evolve over eighteen divergent episodes. With fierce story-lines comes a need for actors who can display range and, despite their wrongdoings and bandit behaviour, we are firmly rooted with the Shelby family thanks to the complexity of the characters we have somehow come to relate too.

Beyond the obvious strength in writing we have to applaud the cinematography, costume design and stylistic direction. Season three moved with the times and with a change in year came stunning flapper girl fashion and sociopolitical themes. These were offset by a ravishing aesthetic that balanced gritty inner-city Birmingham with lavish countryside, brilliantly balancing the opulence of the life recently acquired by Thomas Shelby and co with the roots of the family; an important element to the story and one which their foes seemingly never allow them to escape.

With many scenes a violent spectacle, Peaky Blinders isn’t for everyone, but as the series progresses its exploration of feminism, masculinity, violence, family – and much more – is a fantastic case study for what can now be achieved season by season. Atmospheric and challenging, Steven Knight and BBC Two should be proud of their popular creation which has confidently taken the world by storm.

The Walking Dead – if you didn’t know, it’s back!

Unless you’ve been under a rock, you’ll be totally aware that AMC’s The Walking Dead is back – and it might just be better than ever. I talk a lot about the exploration of humanity seen in recent seasons of the Robert Kirkman-created zombie drama, but in No Way Out and The Next World, writers have delved into the bravery of the Alexandria community, and the new-found courage of many of its inhabitants. The series has also, at this stage in its popularity and success, reinvented the zombie genre and turned it into something fresh and new. It’s changed in its thematic qualities and the way in which those are explored, it fuses evocative scores and stylised fighting scenes with thoughtful dialogue and tender moments of conversation. Zombies are now fair game in a drama and don’t just sit in the horror genre, meaning this is T.V. that is accessible for most.

Through the medium of television, the creators behind this fantastic show have had the time to evolve the narrative and this is where the genre suffers in film but thrives on T.V. There isn’t a need for constant action because we know and care about the characters and want to see their individual stories develop. Now, after a lengthy six seasons and 77 episodes, audiences are seeing an actual journey – not necessarily one of physicality, but one of mentality. Frequent director Greg Nicotero is studying his characters with succinct detail, demanding emotion and realism – both of which have been seen (perhaps more so than in seasons past) as genuine facets of strength which demonstrates the ability of the ensemble cast.

The sudden change of pace is refreshing and makes for a non-formulaic set of episodes that means The Walking Dead continues to stray away from the conventions of modern television. While the first eight episodes of the sixth season were disappointing in their slow descent to eventual anarchy in Alexandria, these final six could save a series that many have questioned is waning in its effectiveness. We have had emotion and wit, and carefully crafted tension that is generated from an atmosphere created through the use of lighting and locale, and – most importantly – we have a set of characters we root for.

Welcome back, Walking Dead.

Ash vs. Evil Dead – Gore and Giggles Never Gelled So Well

Ash vs. Evil Dead has been an anticipated series for me since I saw the initial trailer. While Fede Alvarez’s 2013 remake was too out-there for my tastes (and in honesty, too scary to sit comfortably with me too), Sam Raimi’s new comedy-horror series, distributed by Starz, looked set to be a fun thrill ride that leaned towards the cheesy humour of chainsaw arms rather than the questionable adage of mutilating trees.

bruce campbell as ash in ash vs. evil dead

bruce campbell as ash in ash vs. evil dead

Following the first installment (yes, I am three episodes late in watching), it’s safe to say that Raimi has made the right choice in allowing this series to be one that doesn’t take itself all that seriously and therefore allows wit to lead first with moments of horror following second. The latter additions are genuinely scary and the former are of laugh-out-loud quality; combined these give viewers of Ash vs. Evil Dead an all-round television experience that is light relief following Alvarez’s dark and uncomfortable film reboot.

Bruce Campbell leads the series as the titular character Ash. He’s seedy, charming and hilariously un-pc, Campbell is an on-screen genius and he revels in his chance to take the lead once again. Supporting the veteran of the Evil Dead universe is young blood Ray Santiago as Pablo and Dana Delorenzo as Kelly. The trio have an enjoyable chemistry and it’s this alone that has propelled me to want to keep on watching this unique and nostalgic series. Think of Ash vs. Evil Dead as a tribute to the 1980’s; dive bars, questionable outfits and a memorable score – it shouldn’t work, but it does. Somewhat facetious and hilariously over-the-top, if you don’t overthink the narrative too much, you’ll love it.

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.

Scream Queens: Pilot and Hell Week, review

Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk are back with another anthology series. Not dissimilar to the popular American Horror Story, Scream Queens is a blood-soaked ‘comedy’ that focuses on the New York sorority house Kappa Kappa Tau. It’s ludicrous and all style over substance but returning fans of AHS will likely stay tuned in for the remainder of the first season following the two-part opener. There are two reasons for this: One) Emma Roberts is undeniably in her element as the spoiled Chanel and despite the problematic issue of her being too over-the-top to be likable, Roberts is a great addition to the series. Two) The presence of Jamie Lee Curtis is nostalgic for true horror fans and you can’t help but reminisce about slasher classics such as Halloween and Scream.

the cast of scream queens

the cast of scream queens

Ian Brennan has co-wrote the series with directors Murphy and Falchuck and the the first season is focusing on a murderous sorority. Starting in 1995, audiences watch as a pledge gives birth and dies at one of the houses parties due to their self-loving mixed-up morals. Fast forward twenty years later and you have a serial killer dressed as a red devil on the loose. Throw in some casual racism, cliched character representation, and homophobia and you’ve got yourself Scream Queens. The next four episodes will surely put the oh-so important narrative pieces together but whether or not the majority of the audience will stick around come the final? Who knows. The first two installments lacked the engaging quality and flair of other Murphy/Falchuk collaborations  and the ensemble – and the eclectic soundtrack – are two of the only components keeping this series together. Clueless meets I Know What You Did Last Summer springs to mind.

While Scream Queens doesn’t match up to the best of the genre, it does succeed in several areas. It’s trying too hard to compete with the best, and the shows demographic is seemingly limited but the ensemble mix together well and there are a lot of familiar faces on-screen. Oliver Hudson, Abigail Breslin, Nick Jonas, Ariana Grande – to name just a few – are all impressive in their respective roles and the added star power adds wit and personality to a slightly flat narrative. If you are wanting originality, you won’t get it with Murphy and Falchuk’s newest televisual development. Scream Queens will certainly serve as a guilty pleasure though, and it can only get better from here, right?