Set in 1970, in Mexico City, this is said to be Alfonso Cuaron’s most personal film to date.  The care he’s lavished on this film becomes obvious in the opening credits when you see he’s taken ownership of every key aspect: direction, production, story & script, cinematography and editing.

‘Roma’ is very reminiscent of the British and French New Wave styles of the 1950s and 1960s that promoted a more realistic, pseudo-documentary style of film-making.  The documentary style of this movie is developed through beautiful black and white, naturalistic dialogue, the long-tracking shots and economical use of editing.  Rather than using the bombastic techniques of cinema to show the drama, this all falls to the actors and the story itself.

Using unknown actors is another way of keeping the focus on the seemingly small story and not blowing it big by using famous people.   In her debut role, Yalitza Aparicio is Cleo, maid to a middle-class family and she carries this movie, appearing in virtually every frame.  It’s a powerful performance but a lesson in quiet dignity and unassuming bravery as she bears the pain and disappointments that come her way.  Her priority is the family she works for and in return, they give her an immense amount of love back.

As Cleo’s boss, Sofia, is Marina de Tavira who gives the impression of someone living on the edge of her nerves.  Mirroring Cleo’s tribulations, her life as she knows it is beginning to unravel.  Although the problems are of an equal ordeal to both women, they differ in relation to the social constructs they find themselves in.  The defining common ground they both have is verbalised one night when Sofia returns home and drunkenly says ‘Women, we are alone. No matter what they tell you, we are always alone’, their fortunes are up to this point determined by the men in their lives but are theirs to deal with, on their own.

Having no original score, music of the time and place is played on the radio, at the cinema, at a party, in the street.  The expert use sound in this movie rivals the exceptional cinematography; the bedlam of a hospital, the chaos of a student riot, the sound of a marching band practising in the street, the crashing of waves at the beach, the everyday sounds of the street from people talking, planes flying overhead, dogs barking.  It’s all very beautiful and naturalistic.

This is a classic slow-burner of a movie that through it’s slow and quiet pace draws you in bit-by-bit as you literally follow Cleo through an ultimately dramatic and life-changing year.

StoryScreenplay by Alfonso Cuaron
CastYalitza Aparicio, as Cleo Gutierrez
Marina de Tavira, as Sofia
DirectorAlfonso Cuaron
Running Time135 mins

Black Sails

A tale set up as a prequel to ‘Treasure Island’, it could be argued that ‘Black Sails’ is probably more of re-imagining of a possible prequel given that some characters and outcomes don’t necessarily tally with what transpires later.

As drama, this excels in the ‘Game of Thrones’ sub-genre that now exists in television.  ‘Game of Thrones’ comparisons abound and as a formula that works there, it really works here.  The competing factions, I think maybe 5 or 6 at any one time all working to their own goals, double-crossing and the shock killing off of major characters.  Very few characters are safe and I think it’s only (Long) John Silver, Billy Bones and Ben Gunn that are really required to be alive at the very end.  They also do that semi-regular thing of having the major shock / upheaval happen in the penultimate rather than last episode with the finale being saved for the cliff-hanger link into the next season. And again, like ‘Game of Thrones’ there is a ton of graphic sex and violence and similarly as the story progresses, there’s less sex and the violence gets much worse!  Understandably, the sex is there to establish relationships between characters (or just to give you a further insight into a character) and as those get established, the need for it becomes less.  Conversely, with this kind of action/adventure, the violent scenes become more graphic as the stakes are set higher and the competing factions become more desperate and ruthless.

As well as portraying many of the characters you see or hear about in ‘Treasure Island’, this show appeals to my love of history in that many historical figures are significant characters in this.  Basically, all the main people that aren’t from the book are historical figures, mainly pirates: Captain Vane, Blackbeard, Jack Rackham, Anne Bonny etc.  Though, it should be made clear that ‘Black Sails’ isn’t bound by any historical accuracy so this shouldn’t be taken as too much of a history lesson.

There are some fascinating character studies and without being spoiler-ish, the tracking of the descent of one character from aspiring saviour to despicable villain is devastating and tragic to watch but brilliantly and subtly executed.  However, the true heart of ‘Black Sails’ is the creation of the legends that become Captain Flint and ‘Long’ John Silver.  The dynamic between them shifts from disinterest to irritation to disdain then develops into as close a friendship as two people can possibly get, especially challenging given the environment of deceit, double-crossing and of course, piracy.  The heroes in ‘Black Sails’ are undoubtedly the pirates and the villains are the establishment, particularly the English Government.

Toby Stephens has quickly become one of my favourite actors, I’ve only seen him in this and the superb ‘Lost in Space‘ and based on just those two roles, he excels at the very flawed tough guy that you root for.  I’ve been very impressed also with Zach McGowan in ‘Agents of Shield’ and ‘The 100’ and he plays a very complex role here as Captain Vane, a protege of Blackbeard who’s both ruthless but fiercely loyal, to a fault.

I first saw Luke Roberts in ‘Mile High’ on Sky One back in the day; I really loved his character in that and I was excited to see him come in to this show in seasons 3 & 4.  He really couldn’t be more different in the character of Woodes Rogers, another historical figure (he’s the guy who rescued castaway Alexander Selkirk).  He gives the air of someone wanting to be noble but there’s an underlying fury that as it gets worse, gradually shows that he really is not one of the good guys.

I felt the gender politics were handled sensitively and knowingly without being too 21st Century revisionist about it.  Hannah New as Eleanor Guthrie is pretty much in charge of operations at Nassau as the show opens and this is portrayed effortlessly and logically.  The portrayals of the other major female characters, Jessica Parker Kennedy as Max and Clara Paget as Anne Bonny show how the choices they make are essential for them to just stand even a chance of survival.  This is a tough existence for everyone.   Sometimes, it feels like a cop-out is coming where you see something more traditional for one of the female characters but this typically gets subverted and becomes more of an honest depiction.

I was also happy and comforted in the depiction of sexuality in ‘Black Sails’; I honestly don’t know how same-sex relationships were looked upon in this period, I’m guessing not very favourably.  However, the environment of Nassau is far-removed from that of Great Britain with attitudes being more liberal and so the characters seem freer to love whoever they want to.  Same-sex relationships here are viewed as unremarkable and just as valid as the heterosexual relationships and this, I feel, is a refreshing move in high-profile television programming.

Whilst I thoroughly enjoyed the entire 4 season run, if I had to choose a favourite season it would be the second.  Season two marks a significant shift in the story and the motivations of Captain Flint become clear through the use of progressively revealing flashbacks.  Then everything changes in one instant.  A beautiful touch to signify this change comes at the end of that particular episode where the credits are played out using Nick Cave’s haunting cover of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Avalanche’; this being the only occurrence in the entire run where a song is used instead of the original score.

Lastly, the production values are stunning and meticulously executed in this show.  Every care, down to the smallest of detail is taken to portray life onboard a pirate ship or in the bustling and dangerous town of Nassau.    Flashbacks to Flints’ life in London are also cast with a drab hue in contrast to the blazing sun of the Caribbean.

This is a powerful story that arcs across the 4 seasons with an all encompassing moral that you really have to strive for happiness in love over the acquisition of money or power.

NetworkStarz (viewed on Amazon Prime Video)
CastToby Stephens, as James McGraw / Captain Flint
Hannah New, as Eleanor Guthrie
Luke Arnold, as ‘Long’ John Silver
Jessica Parker Kennedy, as Max
Tom Hopper, as William ‘Billy Bones’ Manderly
Zach McGowan, as Charles Vane
Toby Schmidt, as Jack Rackham
Clara Paget, as Anne Bonny
Luke Roberts, as Woodes Rogers
SeasonS1 (2014): 8 episodes
S2 (2015): 10 episodes
S3 (2016): 10 episodes
S4 (2017): 10 episodes

Nish Kumar ‘It’s in Your Nature to Destroy Yourselves’

I’d seen Nish Kumar fairly recently on ‘Question Time’ then ‘The Mash Report’ and various other appearances on TV so when I saw he was coming to Brighton, I thought it would be great to see him live. I’ve not seen very much live comedy, just Russell Brand and Tom Allen but it’s always been good and Nish definitely kept my streak of seeing good comedy going.

Rose Matafeo

Nish’s support act for his gig at Brighton Dome was Rose Matafeo.  Rose came on and charmed the audience, well most of them…. all except Chris.  Chris was Rose’s first heckler; we were sat directly above so didn’t get to see him and could barely hear much of what he said but it was obvious that his ire became too much for him to bear silently as Rose launched into her ‘men are gits (but not all men)’ bit.   The key thing about stand-up comedy is that by its very nature, it’s not to be taken seriously and Rose she was just highlighting a problem by poking fun at it.   It was a bit like Mike Pence toddling off to see ‘Hamilton’; it’s great to expose yourself to different opinions if you have an open mind but seems a little masochistic to pay to go somewhere to be offended.   Though, I guess if your starting point is irrational, logic won’t tend to play too big a part in your decision making.   Whilst she did seem taken aback, it didn’t throw her off and she shut him down beautifully and assertively but I was curious to hear the content of her routine had she not had this diversion. She finished with some deftly observed impressions that turned the idea of what an impression could be on its side.

After the interval, Nish’s routine inevitably began with a further take down of ‘Chris’ who I gather had been ejected in the interval along with his mates (why didn’t they tell him to sit down and be quiet?).

As you’d expect, he spent a lot of time talking about Brexit and it was refreshing to see the uncensored expression of bemusement and frustration that you’re not really permitted to show on television.  He also recounted his experiences of racial prejudice in relatable situations and by making fun of how on a practical level it frustrates the object of it, the insanity of something like racial profiling becomes inherently ridiculous.  Though, as was mentioned at one point, a gig like this is kind of an echo chamber where you’re preaching to the converted.  I also related to Nish’s frustrations with when those people you’ve looked up to as role models (Woody Allen, Ricky Gervais etc.) then go on to let you down – what are you supposed to do with that?

Nish always comes across as a very charming guy and he really had the Brighton audience on his side.  I especially love how he frequently cracks himself up; when asked how he’d describe dial-up internet, a young lad in the audience replied ‘the internet of yesteryear’ which tickled Nish as much as it did the audience.

Nish’s tour ‘It’s in Your Nature to Destroy Yourselves‘ is on until the end of March 2019 and I’d definitely recommend going along (though Chris should probably think again if he was considering another booking).

ActNish Kumar, supported by Rose Matafeo
VenueBrighton Dome
Date1 February 2019