The Queen’s Gambit Belongs To Taylor-Joy



Arriving almost stealthily but just in time to prove 2020 isn’t all bad, The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix is a riveting story of loss, genius, addiction and chess.

Smartly and economically written, gorgeously designed and shot, and with an excellent score (by Carlos Rafael Rivera) the series however, is owned lock, stock and barrel by Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch, Emma).

The actor plays orphan Beth Harmon and the seven episodes detail her meteoric rise through the world chess rankings. Director/writer Scott Frank (Godless) makes full use of Taylor-Joy’s eyes throughout, which seem to sometimes threaten to burn right through the screen. It’s a frequently astonishing performance, one that starts from those eyes and manifests a dark and fascinating inner life for her character. This was clearly a rather special collaboration between the two.

Based on a 1983 thriller novel by Walter Tevis (who also wrote The Hustler, The Colour of Money and The Man Who Fell To Earth), the story moves forward propulsively but never less than thoughtfully and also highlights a complicated but tender relationship between Beth and her adoptive mother, played by Marielle Heller.

The cast is uniformly good, featuring superb turns from the likes of Isla Johnston (as young Beth), Bill Camp (the care home janitor who spark’s Beth’s nascent talent) and Moses Ingram (as Beth’s closest friend, a character we should definitely have seen more of in the narrative).

But this is Taylor-Joy’s show and a great showcase for the young actor. Frank and Taylor-Joy give us a fascinating, magnetic character in Beth, and mostly avoid making her talent magical by highlighting her obsessive and destructive traits.

The Queen’s Gambit feels very much like a piece of classic Hollywood storytelling, yet rises above that with a cool boldness that feels utterly compelling.

The series brings a wonderful, stylish slice of viewing joy (sorry, not sorry) to a pretty awful year.

Rogue One Writer For Disney Plus Star Wars Show

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Tony Gilroy, co-writer of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, has jumped aboard the Disney Plus series based on that film’s central character, Cassian Andor.

Variety just dropped an exclusive report, stating that Gilroy would write and direct several episodes for the forthcoming, as yet untitled, live action show for Disney’s streaming channel.

The series will star Diego Luna, reprising his role from Rogue One, and follows Rebel agent Andor in adventures set before the events of that film, in the early days of the Rebellion against the Empire. Alan Tudyk will also return as K-2SO, Andor’s droll droid sidekick.

Gilroy was originally an uncredited writer on Rogue One, and came onto the production to handle extensive reshoots on the film, earning a screenwriting credit in the process. After the reshoots, he is also said to have worked closely with director Gareth Edwards to supervise the editing of the film.

No air date has been set for the show, but previous reports suggest it will launch in 2021. Disney Plus launches in the US and other markets (but not here in Norway, curse you Disney) on November 12th.

Doctor Who – New Doctor, Same As The Old Doctor

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Spoiler-free review of The Woman Who Fell To Earth.

So, the bit you really want to know first about tonight’s Doctor Who (the first for Thirteenth Doctor, Jodi Whittaker): it wasn’t the end of the world.

That is, the opening episode of (New Who) season eleven wasn’t really about the end of the world, I’ll come back to that, but what’s really important is that OUR world didn’t end because the Doctor has regenerated into… gasp… a woman.

When the first teaser trailer dropped on BBC revealing Whittaker, a very vocal number of fans lost their collective minds that their favourite, alien shape-shifter was going to change gender after more than fifty years as a variety of men.

The precise reasoning behind this anger felt rather nebulous, and certainly doesn’t bear up to scrutiny, especially given that from the moment Whittaker makes her entrance by falling through the roof of a train she literally (and figuratively) fully inhabits the frock coat of her predecessor(s).

The plot, which I’ll skip over to avoid spoilers (but there are aliens and lots of running around), is fairly light (actually, too light) and really simply serves as a mechanism to introduce the new Doctor and her team of companions. And it achieves this very well: new showrunner Chris Chibnall (along with a fabulous production team), moves everything along at a rate of knots and each of the characters are gifted with vulnerability, warmth and humanity (and I’m including The Doctor in that, of course, the most human of aliens) so that the we don’t notice the slight story.

It’s of note that the show is shorn of the self-reference that seems to have been weighing it down for the past few seasons. As a fan since the mid-1960s, it’s fun to see old stories and the show’s vast mythology used, but I also recognise that can be an unnecessary ball and chain to storytelling, particularly when it comes to keeping things light enough for casual viewers. Here’s hoping this continues across the season, as it all felt nicely fresh in this episode.

Of course, as this is a regeneration episode, we haven’t really seen The Doctor’s full, new persona yet, but all the important stuff is there: she’s quirky, brave, resourceful and stands up for what’s right. So, pretty much exactly the same as her previous selves. Whittaker hits all the right notes of humour and heroism and is The Doctor. Just like that. Really, strange, stuck-in-the-mud fans, what were you worried about!?

On the technical side, the show, shot with Cooke and Angenieux anamorphic widescreen lenses for the first time, looks an absolute treat, managing to make Sheffield look wonderful, which is no mean feat (sorry, Sheffield-dwellers).

So, we have a new Doctor – yes, a woman – starring in a new series of Doctor Who (albeit now on Sunday nights) and the world is still turning.

Next thing you know we’ll be getting a black James Bond. Then the world really will end, you wait and see…

The Deuce: Maybe It’s Time You Watched This Show

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HBO’s The Deuce is, as the good folk over at Birth.Movies.Death nailed it: “the best show nobody watches” and maybe it’s time to rectify that. Check out the season two trailer:

David Simon and George Pelecanos, two of the creators behind The Wire, have been quietly producing one of the most engaging and fascinating shows on TV and y’all haven’t been making much noise about it.

The Deuce is set around 42nd Street and Times Square in the 1970s and follows the lives of a disparate group whose lives are intertwined with the lights of the marquees and the sweaty trades that ply behind them: sex workers, junkies, hustlers, cops and those that pull their purse strings, and wraps around them the story of the emergence of the porn industry into its brief life as ‘porno chic.’

It has an ensemble cast to die for, brilliantly headed up by James Franco (doing superb work in double roles, as brothers Frankie and Vinnie) and Maggie Gyllenhaal (as sex worker Eileen “Candy” Merrell, who engineers a life behind the camera in porn), and features the same kind of measured, unwinding storytelling and sharp eye for character that made The Wire so watchable. It also shares with that show a certain tarnished poetry of the streets, making the criss-crossing lives of those who inhabit them beautiful and vivid, without ever glamorising or papering over their often harsh realities. You can practically smell the disinfectant from the peep shows.

The second season will jump forward some four of five years, to the late 1970s, and if we’re really lucky HBO will renew The Deuce for its third and final season, where Simon and Pelecanos plan to show the beginning of the end of the Times Square fleshpots in the late 1980s, before Disney moved in and made it the family-friendly, conglomorate branded tourist spot it is today.

If you aren’t watching this show you’re missing out on one of the single best pieces of drama on TV. Time to buy a ticket to The Deuce now…

This Woman’s Work – The Return of The Handmaid’s Tale

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The Handmaid’s Tale returns to television for a second season, amid much hand-wringing about the very need for a continuation and fears of over-extending the natural life of – let’s not kid ourselves – one of the finest pieces of drama ever created for the medium.

Margaret Atwood’s book is no easy read, and the television show is likewise a tough watch – which speaks to the power of its message and the power of its drama, of course, but both have much to say and the show features an embarrassment of riches across the production board, from casting to direction. Elisabeth Moss, eminently watchable in anything, is mesmerizing here, often speaking more with a sustained close-up than reams of pages of dialogue could ever articulate.

And so these worries of diluting something so perfect are not without reason, of course. The first season is a dark gem of narrative, self-sustained and as satisfying as something so horrific can be. Did we really need to see what happened to Offred after she climbed into the back of that van? Do we even want to spend more time in Atwood’s dystopian world – which, like the very best speculative fiction skews uncomfortably close to the world we live in – and suffer more with these characters?

If the first two episodes of the second season are an indicator the answer is a resounding yes. Of course two episodes is not enough to give an overview of the journey viewers will be taken on but the first episode alone contains one of the single most powerful moments of the entire run to date.

I’ll stay firmly in non-spoiler territory, but the moment is such an incredibly produced, terrible and sublime mixture of pathos, horror and humour, that you can’t help but feel we’re in safe hands. Accompanied by the ghostly wails of Kate Bush and This Woman’s Work (see? You’re sold already, right?), it was genuinely difficult to know the proper reaction – outrage, sadness, laughter…? All of the preceeding, actually.

Any piece of dramatic fiction that produces such a complex and literally breathtaking mixture of feelings, and which also engages lively conversation, lingering still two days after viewing, proves the production is still worthy of trust and gets my full support.

So far at least, the return of The Handmaid’s Tale is very welcome and the hand-wringing can pause.

Castle Rock – “This Place” Trailer Unnerves…

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The Stephen King screen renaissance seems set to continue (we’ll conveniently ignore The Dark Tower) with a new series, coming from Hulu this summer.

The network has the very welcome team of King and producer J.J. Abrams working on Castle Rock, from Warner Bros. TV and Abrams’ Bad Robot, and here’s the latest trailer to unnerve you…

The official synopsis for the show reads:

“A psychological-horror series set in the Stephen King multiverse, Castle Rock combines the mythological scale and intimate character storytelling of King’s best-loved works, weaving an epic saga of darkness and light, played out on a few square miles of Maine woodland. The fictional Maine town of Castle Rock has figured prominently in King’s literary career: CujoThe Dark HalfIT, and Needful Things, as well as novella “The Body” and numerous short stories such as “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” are either set there or contain references to Castle Rock. Castle Rock is an original suspense/thriller — a first-of-its-kind reimagining that explores the themes and worlds uniting the entire King canon, while brushing up against some of his most iconic and beloved stories.”

If that sets your pulse racing as much as it does mine then we can all settle down together on the sofa when the show drops on July 25th. I just recently revisited the 1994 TV mini-series of The Stand, and despite having a screenplay from King himself that sorry production left me seriously jonesing for a genuinely great small screen take on the novelist’s work (short take: King & co pretty much ballsed-up one of his greatest works).

Will Castle Rock float with Andy Muschietti’s It, or will it linger with the undead stench of Nikolaj Arcel’s The Dark Tower? We’ll know soon enough…

There’s Something Happening Here – The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2 Trailer

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If you haven’t yet caught Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, starring the brilliant Elisabeth Moss, you’ve missed out on one of the finest TV dramas of 2017.

Now would be a good time to catch up with this harrowing story, as Hulu have dropped the trailer for the second season and announced an airdate of April 25th.

This timely series takes place in a brutal, dystopian future of gender politics and the new season steps into new territory as it expands the storyline past Atwood’s novel. Thankfully, the author is very much involved and if season two is even half as good as the original then the TV landscape for 2018 will be shaping up very nicely.

Meanwhile, here’s the trailer to whet your appetite…

What Year Is This? – The Triumph of Twin Peaks

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CAUTION: SPOILERS

Sunday night’s double dose of episodes finally (?) brought David Lynch’s magnum opus to an end. Of sorts.

But anyone expecting a cosy, happy denouement wrapped up in a neat bow for the residents of Washington State’s most bizarre town (and beyond, with these eighteen episodes) has either never paid attention to the auteur’s work or is going to have to try to take comfort from events in previous installments because Lynch was determined to go out with a take-no-prisoners bang of the bleakest kind.

Episode 17 gave us a more conventional climax (or as conventional as anything can be with Lynch), seeing many of the characters driving the narrative coming together (in the Sheriff’s office of Twin Peaks, naturally) and the evil spirit of Bob finally (perhaps, we’ll come back to that) laid to rest. But Cooper says “Now there are some things that will change…” and seemingly the first thing to do so (after a conversation with David Bowie, now played by a steaming teapot, of course) is that Cooper attempts to go back in time and save Laura Palmer before her terrible final night. But is he successful? The infinity loop image made in the steam produced by David Bowie’s teapot (and isn’t that a hell of a sentence to type) suggests otherwise.

Lynch still has another fifty minutes to go and he doesn’t waste a second of them as he makes even more sweeping changes, launching Cooper and Diane into an alternate time/world where they have adopted different personas (Richard and Linda) and where Laura Palmer – in the persona of Carrie –  is now living in Odessa, Texas, and still apparently in a world of trouble, with a dead body in her apartment. So perhaps Cooper’s plan to save Laura did work…

Cooper persuades Carrie to travel with him to Twin Peaks, and much of the episode is taken up by their largely silent journey, and its here that Lynch begins to ratchet up the tension. Along the way, Lynch drops in hints and portents that things are not as they should be (the white horse which appeared in Sarah Palmer’s visions, character names which harken back to clues spread out over the past twenty five years).

Arriving at the old Palmer house, both Cooper and Laura slowly come to the realisation that evil is eternal in a deliciously directed and acted scene, leaving us with an ending both shocking and horrifying, and one for which we may never receive answers. Will the evil which has haunted Twin Peaks play out again and again? Will the fight for Laura’s soul ever end? Does this speak to wider questions of evil’s ever-present existence in the world (theirs or ours)? Will Cooper and Laura ever free themselves from wherever they are now, or have those characters ceased to exist? Would this set off a whole new set of mysteries were the show ever to return (though I guess that last question answers itself, but still…)?

“The past dictates the future,” Cooper intones, during the penultimate episode, further suggesting an endless cycle of events, in which our characters appear to be trapped.

How often are we given drama that truly challenges us, that manages to leave us with a resolution which makes perfect sense yet leaves us with more questions than we started with? How often are we given eighteen hours of drama only to be left screaming for more?

Lynch has given us the show he wanted to make back in 1990, except now he deals with a network (Showtime, and plaudits to them) which understands that in order for this to happen the artist must be allowed to unfurl the story at his own pace, in his own way: each week has given viewers a unique and thoroughly new experience, from romance to comedy to outright existentialism and finally, returning to horror, where it all began.

Art exists to challenge and provoke, to make us view the world from other perspectives, and Lynch and his team have done this for eighteen hours. The return to Twin Peaks has been more than any of us could have oped for,  in this viewer’s eyes it is a triumph which will enthrall, amuse, terrify, frustrate, mystify and even make you cry. It is one of the most astonishing pieces of TV ever.

And we shouldn’t expect answers from Lynch anytime soon. However, in the 2004 book Nightmares in Red, White and Blue: The Evolution of the American Horror Film, by Joseph Maddrey, Lynch says:

“Being in darkness and confusion is interesting to me. But behind it you can rise out of that and see things the way the really are. That there is some sort of truth to the whole thing, if you could just get to that point where you could see it, and live it, and feel it … I think it is a long, long, way off. In the meantime there’s suffering and darkness and confusion and absurdities, and it’s people kind of going in circles. It’s fantastic. It’s like a strange carnival: it’s a lot of fun, but it’s a lot of pain.”

That would seem to be a statement which not only fits with his entire body of work, but also feels quite specific to this last season of Twin Peaks.

Cooper/Richard’s chilling final line and Laura/Carrie’s final, blood-curdling scream will resonate with you for days after, as in its final seconds Twin Peaks returns to the horror which has run through its icy veins from the show’s first moments of discovering a teenage body wrapped in plastic on a lonely beach.

“She’s dead… wrapped in plastic,” said Pete Martell on discovering Laura’s body back in 1990, and perhaps she always will be.