TV Binge-Watch: ‘Chernobyl’

Over the past few days, I have watched all five episodes of the HBO/Sky Atlantic mini-series, ‘Chernobyl’. When this appeared on my NOW TV streaming box, I recalled reading many good reviews, so really wanted to see it. Investing more than five hours in one series is potentially risky, but I am pleased to say it paid off.

For anyone who didn’t know, the Ukrainian site of the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl suffered a catastrophic accident, on the 26th of April, 1986. There was an explosion that exposed the reactor core, resulting in a leak of radiation that spread far and wide across the Soviet Union, and up into northern Europe too. This serious drama examines what happened, what caused it, and how the authorities reacted to it. Also how so many brave people sacrificed their lives in the hope of containing it.

As dramas go, this is excellent. Helped by a real period feel, and locations that also seem to be very authentic, it never fails to convince, at any level. The mostly British cast brings a touch of class to the acting, backed up by the ever-reliable Stellan Skarsgard. Jared Harris takes the lead, with the wonderful British actresses Emily Watson and Jessie Buckley in significant roles. For the script, we have some use of actual official documents to go on, then a lot of supposition from the writers.

But this is not really about who did what, and why. It takes us into a nightmare world, that of the ultimate doomsday scenario. Incredibly brave fire-fighters and helicopter pilots who receive so high a dose of radiation, their lives are measured in moments, or days. The control room workers present at the time of the explosion, who may or may not have been negligent. It matters little, as they barely survive past the time when they are able to speculate on the poor engineering that caused the accident.

Being ‘our version’ of Gorbachev’s Soviet Union, much is made of KGB interference, and how suspicions and bureaucracy interfere in the attempts to discover the truth.

But you can forget all that. Just sit back, and watch some wonderful performances, disturbing set-piece events, special effects that feel real, and a tribute to the brave people and their families who tried to help. Be warned, excellent make-up reproduces the effects of burns and radiation poisoning in all too gruesome detail. Thousands of people are conscripted into the area to clear up after evacuation, and many are employed to just wander around killing domestic pets that present a radiation risk. This is a far from easy watch, but in a world where we are still heavily dependent on nuclear power, it is perhaps something that everyone should see.

One scene is stuck in my mind. When the firemen and helicopter pilots who were first on scene are all dead, the authorities seal their bodies inside welded lead coffins. They are then buried in a mass grave, as their families watch tearfully from the edge. Some hold photos of their loved ones, but one young woman has only her husband’s shoe in her hand. A cement mixer truck arrives, and begins to entomb the lead coffins in a sea of concrete as the relatives look on.

Powerful indeed, and deeply affecting.

Film thoughts: Photography

A long time before I ever owned a camera, I was being taken to the cinema every week by my parents. Most of the time, I just enjoyed the experience of being in the luxurious change of surroundings, staring up at the huge screen, the action playing out before my wide eyes, and the escape from the everyday working-class life it provided. I didn’t think much about directors, scriptwriters, casting, lighting, and editing. And I didn’t have a clue about cinematography.

Then something in me changed.

I was only ten years old when I was taken to see the film ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. I thought it was wonderful, one of the best films I had ever seen up to then, if not the best. The huge epic had it all. Wonderful scenery, a great cast, historical interest, and breathtaking set-piece action sequences. I couldn’t stop talking about how good it was for weeks. It was probably about another six months before it dawned on me why I thought seeing that film was such a magical experience, and why so many scenes were indelibly imprinted on my memory.

It was photographed. Just look at this.

As any real film-fan will tell you, pointing a film camera at a scene and yelling ‘Action’ is no guarantee of producing something wonderful to behold. Of all the tens of thousands of films made, really memorable photography is not something that is often mentioned. People discuss the performances of the cast, social relevance, new genres, special effects, costumes, and make-up. But whether or not a film is photographed is a topic that rarely comes up.

Once I had realised why I liked David Lean’s film so much, I began to watch films with a very different ‘eye’. I still didn’t own a camera, but I began to look out for scenes that were more like moving photos, than people passing by the lens of a camera. David Lean gave us so many more like this, from ‘Great Expectations’, to ‘Ryan’s Daughter’. Other directors featured heavily in my formative years of such appreciation, including the incomparable Akira Kurosawa, and Russian film-maker Andrei Tarkovsky.

But I always bang on about films with subtitles and British film-makers on this blog. So to highlight what appeals to me about a film being ‘photographed’, I will feature more modern films instead, and all made in America, with various casts, by a mix of directors.

In 1973, I had been very impressed with a film called ‘Badlands’, directed by someone called Terrence Malick. Five years later, I heard about a new film he had made, and went to see it. The romantic love triangle story was not my usual attraction to a cinema, but with a strong cast, and that name of Malick again, I decided to give it a try. ‘Days of Heaven’ was set in 1916, in Texas, but filmed in Canada on a very small budget. I sat looking in wonder at the screen. The plot was almost irrelevant, as I gazed at the wonderful images. This confirmed what I had suspected five years earlier. That man Malick knew how a film should be photographed. The Academy later agreed with me, giving the film the Oscar for Best Cinematography.

Twenty years later, and Malick caught my attention again. War films are rarely photographed. They concentrate on action, with huge casts, and lots going on. But in his film set during the Pacific War battle of Guadalcanal, he changed the rules. Can a war film be ‘beautiful’? You bet it can. From the idyllic beaches of remote islands, to the swaying grasslands of the interior, Malick manages to show us wonder, alongside the barbarity of war.

2007 was one of the best years for photographed films, with two outstanding examples that excited me a great deal. The first one I got to see was ‘There Will Be Blood’, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. I was attracted by the casting of Daniel Day Lewis, a British actor who famously immerses himself in any role. I read some surprisingly bad reviews of the film, but was still determined to go and see it. Twelve years later, and I can recall scenes at will. I can feel the heat off the screen, and smell the oil spurting from the wells. And mainly because this was a film that was truly photographed, allowing those scenes to imprint themselves on my mind.

I can take or leave a lot of films in the genre popularly called ‘Westerns’. I have seen a lot, and remember those I have enjoyed. Up to then, I probably thought of John Ford’s famous film ‘The Searchers’ as perhaps a great example of using photographed scenery in a film. But with a few exceptions, I never really considered Westerns to be ‘my thing’, especially when it came to being blown away by watching one. And then I went to see a film with an annoyingly long title, ‘The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford’, made by Andrew Dominik. I was attracted to the film not by the star, Brad Pitt, but by his co-star, Casey Affleck, someone I thought was one of the best actors of his generation.
What I didn’t expect, was to discover one of the finest examples of a ‘photographed film’ I had ever seen. It is just sublime to watch.

So there you have five examples, from 1962, to 2007. I could list quite a lot more of course, but I would prefer to know your choices.
Please add them, in the comments.

Blogathon Review: The Big Chill (1983)

I was asked by Emma to participate in her Jeff Goldblum Blogathon.

Other reviews of films featuring Jeff can be found via links here.
Who’s Reviewing What? – The Jeff Goldblum Blogathon 2019

I have chosen the film ‘The Big Chill’, which impressed me a great deal, when I was 31 years old.

I was pretty much in the target market for this film about 30-somethings getting together for a reunion, after one of their best friends commits suicide. I was the right age, a fan of Woody Allen films, and the music on the soundtrack was right up my street too. And then there’s the cast. All at the beginnings of good careers back then, we get Kevin Kline, Jeff Goldblum, Tom Berenger, Glenn Close, Meg Tilly, and William Hurt. Plus a couple more I won’t bother to type out.

Direction by Lawrence Kasdan is always reliable, and he co-wrote the film too.

So with no plot spoilers, I won’t just tell the whole story, or even remark too much about the changes that the friends experience after meeting up following fifteen years apart. There are the expected flirtations, a lot of angst, and some home truths declared. In between some partying, and all that great music I mentioned too. Some critics didn’t like the fact that the film had little structure. There is no real middle, and certainly no comfortable ending. Nothing is nicely tied up, and viewers are left to make up their own minds about where the various members of the group might end up. I didn’t mind that, and considered that it presumed an intelligence in the viewer.

Always a plus point, for me.

For a review with no story , I am left with just two things then. The script, and the cast. The former is great. Crackling at times, never too sentimental, and with some snappy dialogue that has your head flicking between the protagonists, wondering what they will say next. As for the cast, they were carefully chosen, and it shows. A younger, bespectacled Jeff Goldblum impresses, as does an edgy Kevin Kline. Nobody feels ‘spare’, or added for effect, and they interact like people who really have been friends for a long time. That’s not something that is always easy to pull off, in an ensemble cast like this one.

We have to remember that this was released in 1983. Films like those were something of a flavour of the month back then, and perhaps these days would have more swearing, and maybe even a couple of random killings. This film is all about the words, and the emotions they convey. Jealousy, dissatisfaction, boredom, compromise, and perceived failure. And great music, don’t forget the music.

I don’t know about you, but I have had a few weekends like that…

Here’s a trailer.

Netflix Review: After Life Series 1

***Warnings for very bad language, drug use, suicide, and sexual references***

Ricky Gervais might well be an acquired taste for many people. He can often be very smug, and hard to like. His film roles are forgettable at best, though his one-man stand up concerts show moments of true brilliance. And when it comes to television, he is the master of observation. Whether in ‘The Office’, ‘Extras’, or the superb ‘Derek’, nobody does pathos mixed with comedy better.

It’s a shame that ‘After Life’ is restricted to Netflix subscribers. I hope that it gets a mainstream TV showing somewhere, one day. Or even a DVD release as a box set. Because it is just wonderful. One of the best things I have ever seen on TV, and a sheer gem of entertainment, tucked away on the streaming service.

Gervais is Tony Johnson, a journalist on a run-of-the-mill local newspaper in a quiet British coastal town. He has recently lost his adored wife to breast cancer, and is completely unable to come to terms with that loss, or to be able to manage the grief that consumes him. If it was not for having to care for the family dog, he might well commit suicide.

So he decides to live a life caring about nothing and nobody. He is rude, aggressive, sarcastic, often spiteful. He shows his colleagues at the newspaper no respect, and despises the stories that he has to trot out for local interest. And his elderly father is in a care home, suffering from Dementia, so he reluctantly visits the old man every day. From this unlikely mix, writer and creator Gervais has conjured up an overwhelmingly good drama. One that can make you laugh one moment, and then be fighting back tears the next. And all in a thirty-minute episode.

It reads like a documentary none of us want to watch. Suicidal thoughts, prostitution, grief and heartbreak, drug use, incredibly bad swearing, and a man facing the abyss of loneliness. But Gervias is a master of the absurd, and his observational skills are yet again put to great use in this series. The familiar cast (many have been in his other productions) is made up of some of the finest character actors in Britain today. The script is bitingly sharp, and location filming makes it all seem very real.

This about a lot of things. True love, trust, memories, and the inability to cope with a drastic change in circumstances. How you deal with colleagues and others you come across, when your own life is in complete upheaval. Very little affects an old cynic like me, but I am not ashamed to say that I watch this with tears rolling down my face. And they are rarely tears of laughter.

It is just perfect. Nothing I have seen in years comes close.
(Except for ‘Fleabag’.)

If you have access to Netflix, please try to watch it.

Just been watching…(101)

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)

I have to say straight away that I am not a huge fan of the British band Queen. I thought that ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ was an amazing song at the time, and they have some ‘anthems’ that everybody can sing and enjoy. But I was very much a fan of completely different kinds of music, and never owned a single album by this band. But this is a film review, so I will rate it as such.

I would probably never have bothered to watch this, had not the DVD turned up in the house. But once it started, I thought ‘why not’? I am not sure if die-hard fans of the band will enjoy this. In fact, I do know one man who loves the group, but hated the film. I can see it from a very neutral perspective, and have no bias either way.

The first thing I should say is that this is a film about Freddie Mercury. The rest of the band is featured of course, alongside the manager, record company executives, and Freddie’s love interests. But it is all about Freddie, and the actor playing him (Rami Malek) is rarely off screen throughout. It has a rather ‘retro’ feel, looking at the rise of the famous group in much the same way as many other music biopics have done in the past. Arguments about songs, snippets of performances, world tours, sitting in dressing rooms, travelling in buses. You know the deal.

Factually, it glosses over a lot of actual events, and introduces some supposed ‘facts’ that are just not true. No doubt this is done for dramatic effect, but even a non-fan like myself found some things irritating. Much is made of Freddie’s sexuality, drug use, heavy drinking, and apparent ‘prima-donna’ personality. He comes across as someone I don’t think I would have wanted to know.

On the plus side, (yes, there are plus sides) Malek does Mercury well, even singing the songs. He struts, preens, and poses as we might expect, and he doesn’t attempt a straight impersonation. Given how well-known Mercury was, this was a good decision. But for me, this also means that he never completely convinces in the role, and despite the huge number of awards won by the film, I was far from impressed. The rest of the casting is first rate; with the reliable Tom Hollander, Aiden Gillen, and an unrecognisable Mike Myers all doing well.

I didn’t feel it though, as you can probably tell. I would sooner watch the real band in concert, to be honest.

Still, what do I know? Here’s a trailer.

Some films set At Sea

Another film post, from 2013. I don’t think many of you have ever seen this one.


Perhaps it is because we are an island race, or have a history of seafaring trade, that we have long been fascinated by tales of the sea. Pirates, Buccaneers, and brave sailors of the World’s Navies, have all featured in literature, films, and TV programmes. I cannot swim, and get seasick going across The Channel, but I love films set on the seven seas. And here a few, for you to consider.

A Night to Remember. Long before James Cameron’s fictional account of the sinking of the RMS Titanic in 1997, other films had tried to portray this maritime disaster. Prior to Cameron’s woeful effort, there had been at least ten films made about it, the first one less than one month after the actual sinking, in 1912. This British film, from 1958, is by far the best, and outshines all before, or after. Kenneth More takes the lead…

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Retro Review: Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

Written and directed by Preston Sturges, and starring the great combination of Joel McCrea and the beautiful Veronica Lake, this comedy gets little mention today, and is worth revisiting.

McCrea plays film director John Sullivan, famous for his popular comedies. But he feels that his work has no significance, and yearns to make socially-important documentaries. With this in mind, Sullivan dresses as a tramp, and sets off on a road trip, intent on discovering how hard life can be for the lowest in society. His studio boss arranges for a bus to follow him, containing his usual luxuries, as well as a butler and valet. But Sullivan is unhappy with this arrangement, choosing to go off alone, and to travel by hitch-hiking.

On the way, he meets a girl, (Lake) a failed actress trying to return home. Believing him to be down and out she pays for his breakfast, and he is so touched by this, he takes a car from his own luxury home, in order to give her a lift. But his staff are unaware of this, and report the car stolen, resulting in Sullivan and the girl being arrested for stealing the vehicle. The girl then discovers his true identity, and decides to accompany him, dressing as a boy to blend in.

Eventually, the pair discover just how hard life can be, sleeping in homeless shelters, and eating free food from soup kitchens. When Sullivan is seen to be handing out $5 notes to help other tramps, he is beaten and robbed for the money. More confusion reigns when Sullivan forgets who he is after the beating, and attacks a railway guard, getting him a term in a prison camp. When his memory returns, he is unable to convince anyone who is really is, and why he got there, but during his time in prison, he finally learns that comedy films and laughter actually mean a great deal more to those unfortunates than any serious documentary ever could.

When his photo hits the front page of the newspapers, the girl remembers him, and his plight is publicised, leading to his release from prison.
Everything ends well, for all concerned.

This sounds lightweight, I know. But it is a real tale of morals, greed, privilege, and discovery. At times very funny, and at others poignant indeed. If you have never seen it, I recommend it for being something very different, with a great cast of actors delivering completely convincing performances.