Toast of London 2013-2015 ****

clem

Netflix has proved an unlikely platform for audiences discovering tv shows that they’d previously spurned; You was something of a small-screen flop before the streaming service relaunched it last Christmas. Channel 4’s Toast of London is a very different animal, but deserving of re-discovery on Netflix UK and US. The humour is very knowing, and somewhat unique; Stephen Toast (Matt Berry) is an actor who has been bumming around the London scene for years; his high opinion of himself is matched only by his low opinion of others, notably rival Ray Purchase (Harry Peacock). Toast’s agent Jane Plough (Doon Mackirchan) does get him work, but it’s usually pay-the-rent voice-over work that puts him in the orbit of clue-less, drug-addled hipster Clem Fandango (Shazad Latif). Toast’s exchanges with all these characters, and with landlord Ed Howzer-Black (Robert Bathurst), are often agonising but also amusing. From Father Ted creator Arthur Matthews, Toast of London has a wild and experimental edge, with circuitous conversations that end in unexpected ways, plus crude sexual pratfalls mixed with acidic satire of British luvvies. It’s funny, original and is slowly creeping into the mainstream in a way that would make a Toast revival a tasty prospect; a welcome fourth series has been mooted.

https://www.netflix.com/watch/80108561?source=35

Advertisements

When They See Us 2019 ****

The influence of the Paradise Lost documentaries about the West Memphis Three is immense; with digital film-making making it possible for true-life court cases to be examined, dramatized and even influenced through the media, it’s no surprise that true crime is almost as important to Netflix as a genre as rom-coms. Ava DuVernay’s When they See Us is a prestigious example of the form; a dramatization of events concerning the Central Park Five, it’s a glossy and compelling drama split into four sections, each roughly the length of a feature film. The first considers the night a white female jogger was raped in Central Park, and the forced confessions elicited from youths in the area that night. The second concerns itself with the court-case, with Vera Famiga contributing an awesome turn as a prosecution lawyer. The third focuses on the men trying to adjust when they get released from jail, and the fourth on the experience of Corey Wise, played with great power as both a boy and a man by Jharrel Jerome.  This is probably DuVernay’s best work to date, rarely hitting a false note and delivering a sobering account of how hidden but inherent racial prejudice can rob innocent people of their lives.  White audiences who like to imagine that race is a problem already solved may want to focus on how easily both law and media are bent out of shape by the rush to judgement here, a feeding frenzy fuelled by newspaper ads paid for by Donald Trump. But the big question is; why tell this story, and why now? Documentaries like Paradise Lost have influenced actual outcomes of court cases; the Central Park 5 were released some time ago, but the motivation behind When They See Us seems political; it’s surely no accident the June 2019 release coincides with the start of Donald Trump’s presidential re-election bid, and efforts to mobilise both black and white votes against him start here.

https://www.netflix.com/gb/title/80200549?source=35

Murder Mystery 2019 ***

Netflix come up with another ingenuous save from the slush-pile; a rom-com vehicle developed via Charlize Theron and John Madden, probably at some cost, given a quick re-spray to become an Adam Sandler/ Jennifer Aniston tent-pole for the streaming giant.  Presumably the script was inspired by many hoary who-dunnits and husband-wife detective teams as in The Thin Man, and the result plays like something that was old hat in the late 1930’s, yet still works better than most modern structures. Mr and Mrs Spitz (Sandler and Aniston) are taking a vacation when they meet up with a charming viscount (Luke Evans) who invites them to enjoy his family yacht in Monaco. There the Spitz adventure continues when the patriarch (Terence Stamp) is killed before he can change his will, leaving everyone a suspect. The action shifts from the yacht to Monaco and Lake Como,; the exterior filming is lush, the cast, including Gemma Artetron, David Walliams and Ólafur Darri Ólafsson highly recognisable, and despite some groaners, there are real flashes of wit in the deconstruction of mystery conventions. Murder Mystery is one of the better films Netflix have made in terms of satisfying an audience; the worrying thing for the streamer must be that it’s the most ancient wine imaginable poured into the shiniest of new bottles.

https://www.netflix.com/gb/title/80242619?source=35

Murrain 1976

The title means a plague, and the writer is Nigel Kneale; diseases, particularly amongst farm-animals are a recurring theme in his work, and this one-off entry in a compendium of plays by British dramatists is an ideal introduction to Kneale’s work. It’s a story about witchcraft that adheres to no genre conventions; the exploration is deliberately un-sensational, thoughtful and intellectually rigorous. David Simeon plays Alan Crich, a vet called on by a farmer (Bernard Lee) to investigate a blight on his animals. Crich discovers that the locals in a nearby village also suffer from an ailment, and that the superstitious villagers blame an old woman who lives alone. Scoffing at their ideas of witchcraft, Crich investigates, but what he finds challenges his own world-view.  Kneale’s work here is considerably better than his script for Hammer’s 1966 film The Witches, and John Cooper’s direction makes good use of atmospheric outdoor sets. Murrain sees Kneale releasing himself from the science-fiction angle and focusing on an examination of fear and tradition in a primitive English village. It’s well acted, deadly serious and a minor gem of bleak 1970’s horror.

Beasts: The Dummy 1976

After The Quatermass trilogy chilled UK audiences on television and worldwide via three Hammer films, Nigel Kneale had quite a master of horror reputation. He didn’t consider himself to be a genre writer, and this entry in his Beasts tv series isn’t supernaturally inclined or science fiction-based, although genre elements are present. The Dummy is a study in a mental breakdown, that of an actor, Clyde Boys (Bernard Horsfall) who is returning to the role of the dummy for an eight film. Wearing the elaborate suit has taken a physical toll, and the film- production around him is threatened by his reliance on alcohol to get him through the day. Producer Bunny (Clive Swift) is on hand to try and steer the production away from the rocks, with Clyde’s wife, her lover, a nosy journalist and all manner of intrusions complicating the set. Kneale certainly knew what kind of shenanigans go on during a film’s production, and the way that Bunny attempts to befriend Clyde while subtly trying to remove him from the film rings true. The Dummy doesn’t deliver much in terms of scares, but it’s an interesting little grace-note from a writer who had plenty of experience of unhappy cinematic collaborations.

Beasts: Special Offer 1976

Another worthwhile entry in Nigel Kneale’s ITV series from 1976, Special Offer is a very odd tale of telekinesis that seems to reflect on a similar subject matter to Stephen King’s Carrie, but instead of the specific humiliations of a prom and pig’s blood, the ordinary everyday humiliation of working on the checkout of a British supermarket creates a similar result. Pauline Quirke plays Noreen Beale, a naïve and inexperienced girl who starts work on the tills in a store operated by Mr Grimley (Geoffrey Bateman). She’s got a secret love for him that’s unrequited, and soon items are breaking, shelves are clearing themselves and Noreen believes a strange creature is responsible. Kneale isn’t afraid of being silly, but he’s also averse to cliché, and Special Offer never quite settles on a tone, making the climax all the more nightmarish. There’s a keen eye for the unfair male dominance of the working environment, and also the kind of satire of capitalism that marks Kneale’s work, even in his abortive screenplay for Halloween III; Season of the Witch.

Beasts: Buddyboy 1976

Nigel Kneale’s interest in science-fiction topics is mixed with genuine social critique and a pessimistic view of human nature; this entry in his Beasts tv show from 1976 doesn’t quite fuse these elements together, but it’s a wild ride all the same. A young Martin Sham, all curly hair and mouth, is a small-time entrepreneur and gangster who hopes to turn a high-street dolphinarium (posters identify it as being called Finnyland) into a sex club and cinema; presumably Kneale saw this as a sign of the times, but it’s hard to take seriously the notion that in 1976 Britain’s high street dolphinariums were falling into nefarious hands. The previous owner (Wolfe Morris) is haunted by the ghostly presence of a dolphin (Buddyboy) which he abused, and Lucy (Pamela Moisewitsch) seems to have an affinity with the dead creature. The punch-line is bleak and non-visual, but Buddyboy is a real curio because of the decent acting from Shaw, and the surreal sense of dislocation. While it sounds ridiculous, Buddyboy is not the kind of story that you’ll ever forget.