Saturday, October 15, 2016

Sharon Horgan's Divorce: Sex Goes Upstate, or Husbands and Wives Sideways

When Sharon Horgan was interviewed on Radio 4’s Today programme, she was asked whether it was possible to make divorce funny. Horgan’s reply, like her writing, was a masterpiece of vague certainty and unbending doubt. She cited a remark made by Gwyneth Paltrow - the actress who coined the phrase “conscious uncoupling” to describe her own emotional trainwreck. Paltrow reportedly asked her father Bruce how he managed to stay married for 33 years, and he replied. “Well, we never wanted to get divorced at the same time.” 
SJP and THC: Lacking in TLC
Horgan’s Divorce (Sky On Demand/Now TV) is funny, but the humour is tempered by an undertow of sadness and an emotional complexity. Also, it stars Sarah Jessica Parker, an actor whose reputation rests on her turn as the sexy, insecure singleton in Sex and the City; the show which turned feminism into a gay fantasy of shagging shoe-fetishists, while falling back always on the comforting notion that everything could be fixed with a cuddle from Mr Big. Chris Noth, aka Mr Big, subsequently became the semi-corrupt ham that Julianna Margulies had to stand by in The Good Wife, so Parker’s progress is overdue, but there are signs that she knows what she’s is escaping from. Her character, Frances, isn’t Carrie, though there is a joke about her laptop being thrown through a window. Meanwhile, upstate, she’s older and sadder, and marooned in parenthood, still bewildered, and incapable of holding onto a thought for more than 10 minutes. That’s where the tragicomedy lies. The fact that Parker’s character is married to, and in the business of uncoupling from, Thomas Haden Church (the dude from Sideways) is equally appropriate, because Church - as Robert - now represents dull dependability and flattened fury, where once he was a charmingly straightforward fool. 
Is it really funny? It is, though the bittersweet notes are dialled up. “I want to save my life,” says Frances, “while I still care about it.” So, yes, everyone is self-involved, and blind to their own failings, hankering for romance in the snowdrifts of midlife. For Frances, this includes a miscalculation about a long-term affair in which she says “I love you, I think”, and he orders an 18 inch thin-crust Hawaiian. Is it possible to laugh about divorce? It is, and it’s also the only sane way to approach it. For Horgan, it represents a more mature approach to comedy, though the script is still speckled with explosive indiscretions. Watch out for the tongue darts. 
The first series of The Missing (BBC iPlayer) started with a fictional parallel to the disappearance of Madeleine McCann and developed into a fraught drama about parental fear. Dramatically, it went awry, though it was a good vehicle for James Nesbitt as the dad who Took Things Too Far. Happily, the reboot sees the retired French detective Julien Baptiste (Tcheky Karyo) returning, eased out a retirement in which he smashes up his beehives while shouting “I cannot bring us honey, I can at least bring us firewood.” This time, he’s investigating a decade-old double disappearance, which includes the return from the dead of a girl who claims to have been kept in a dungeon. 
It’s not a simple case, and it’s made no easier by the fact that the action flits between time periods and locations. Happily Baptiste shaves his head as he goes gallivanting in Iraq. (‘You’re looking at a dying man,” he says, which may explain his obsessive risk taking). Keeley Hawes and David Morrissey are the distraught parents. Hawes has a mother’s steely determination. Morrissey has plastic surgery and a shifty look. 

Serial Box 
Well, National Treasure (All 4) ended as it had to, with a verdict in the case against the despicable comedian Paul Finchley (Robbie Coltrane). No spoilers, but he was obviously guilty of being a duplicitous rat, though those were not the charges on which he was facing trial. There was fine writing in Jack Thorne’s Yewtree drama, particularly the speech from Paul’s long-suffering wife Marie (Julie Walters) about the three layers of Finchley’s character (“there’s this third layer, and on that, you’re capable of anything”). The acting was terrific, with Coltrane’s slow-dissolve encouraged by Walters’ acidic gaze, and the cinematic direction was notable, with cameras peering unwanted though doors. The scene of Coltrane observing himself in a mirror through bloodshot eyes while shaving was extraordinary. 
Publishedin the London Evening Standard on 14 October, 2016

Sunday, October 9, 2016

The new Westworld is an entertainment about entertainment, a shoot-’em-up about shoot-’em-ups, an artificial intelligence about Artificial Intelligence

Ooh er: Thandie Newton
You might think that the first episode the handsome android theme park drama Westworld (Sky On Demand/Now TV) would be about the scenery, or the sex, or the stylised violence. Or perhaps you’re more into logic, the intelligence rather than the artifice, so you’d care to venture beyond the saloon, over the gorgeous horizons of Moab, and into the stuff about existence, and consciousness, and narratives, to a place where it’s possible to appreciate that when the computerised humanoids start to have odd thoughts, and one of them says, “These violent delights have violent ends,” it’s a nod to Romeo and Juliet, and not a pull-quote from the cover of a video nasty. 
All of these vistas are on view, and all are enticing in their way. But in the end, after the scalping and the stabbing and the hanging and the rutting and the boozing and the endless cycle of pianola tunes soundtracking the witless paintball hedonism of the rich and idiotic in some near-future dystopia, the point of Westworld can be located in the death of a fly. To be fair, the fly makes several entrances, so it’s not exactly a shock when it makes an exit, particularly when it looks so out of place in such a manicured environment. (Michael Crichton, the creator of Westworld, wasn’t keen on people messing with nature). And then at the end, Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), a pretty robot who is starting to develop glitches in her software, swats and kills it. And Dolores, like the rest of the “hosts” in Westworld, is meant to be incapable of causing harm. The violent end signals the deepening of the violent delight.
As well as being a story about stories, an entertainment about entertainment, a shoot-’em-up about shoot-’em-ups, Westworld is an upgrade of Crichton’s 1973 film, in which Yul Brynner, with a black hat on his billiard-bald head and Alka-Seltzer fizzing on his beautiful hard face, went a bit funny. The reboot, by (Christopher’s screenwriting brother) Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, tilts its sympathies more towards the androids, known as “hosts”, who have the benefit of misunderstood machines. The humans, known as “Guests”, are merely spoilt thrill-seekers. And between these two groups there is a third category - the theme park workers, who get to set the narratives and play God. Any similarity to filmmakers is entirely deliberate, and forgivably indulgent, though it is noticeable that the show is at its most entertaining when it is trading in crude fantasy, and at its most artificial when it tries to evinced the intrigue of futuristic office politics. Anthony Hopkins is a fine Dr Frankenstein, and Ed Harris is the psycho in the black hat whose stylised brutality takes things to another level. Harris is a fabulous monster, but the design of the show places audience sympathies on Thandie Newton’s robot tart, who seems intent on acquiring a heart. 
Fans of 24 will be alarmed to discover that Keifer Sutherland has been reinvented as a fading politician with an interest in affordable homes. Happily, in the admirably schlocky Designated Survivor (Netflix), the President is wiped out in a terrorist attack, so Keifer has to evolve from a busy dad who cooks bad eggs and makes weary parent eyes at Natascha McElhone, into the leader of the free world. The transformation is easier than you might think. First he takes off his hoody and borrows a suit. Then he stares down the camera. But something’s wrong. “Mr President,” says a flunkey, “your glasses. They’re not very presidential.” 

Serial Box 
The emotional manipulation continues in the post-Savile celebrity abuser drama National Treasure (All 4). It’s clear now, that Paul (Robbie Coltrane) is guilty of many things, though not necessarily the thing he is accused of. His wife, Marie (Julie Walters) - whose marital status comes with the prefix “long-suffering” permanently attached - has started to remember uncomfortable things, and Paul is certainly guilty of emotionally abusing his addict daughter Dee (Andrea Riseborough), regaling her with a tale of his own childhood abuse in order to win her sympathies. It’s self-serving, but that doesn’t mean it’s untrue. And what of Paul’s comic sidekick Karl (Tim McInnerny) who keeps flirting with Marie, while hinting of the things he could have told the police? He looks a punchline in search of a joke. 
(Published in London Evening Standard, Friday 7 October, 2016)