Big Little Lies: the first two episodes

So Sky Atlantic have a new flagship show out, Big Little Lies, written by David E. Kelly and based on a novel of the same name, penned by the wonderfully named Liane Moriarty.

And, as you’d expect, it’s got a formidable cast. One which includes Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern, Zoe Kravitz, Alexander Skarsgard and Shailene Woodley. Along with Academy Award nominated director Jean-Marc Vallee at the helm. Perhaps most notable for directing the acclaimed Dallas Buyers Club. But also for directing Witherspoon and Dern in Wild – a rather beautiful and underrated film. So, he’s got game. And as we all know, TV is big game these days. 

Now in terms of the story, I’m only two episodes in, but it’s layered – nay, dripping – with intrigue. You’ll be hooked fast. Indeed, Wikipedia describe it as a dark comedy drama and, whilst this is true, a simpler reference might be to say it’s Broadchurch meets Desperate Housewives, which is reductive, but gives you a rough idea. It’s far more cinematically shot and beautiful to look at than either of those, though. (Just saying.)

So in terms of story, what we have, is a number – for the most part – of highly privileged families that live near the beautiful Californian coastal town of Monterey. And the first scene opens with a crime; one where the details are murky and unknown to us. We’re then introduced – through Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley) who’s new to the town – to the rest of its key players. In particular Madeline MacKenzie (Reese Witherspoon, in excellent form); a mother who specialises in poking her nose into everybody’s business and manipulating most scenarios to her own ends, often leveraging her children in the process. But there’s more to her than you first expect – naturally.

And whilst she drives much of the plot in these first episodes, the rest of the cast, in particular Jane (Woodley), Celeste (Nicole Kidman) and Renata (Laura Dern), have more to them than first seems the case as well. So within a couple of scenes you’ll think you have them nailed as characters, then they subvert expectations – like good actors should. (And Kelly, as writer, no doubt had a hand in this as well.)

As these moments are ultimately where life resides right? In the wrinkles, the gaps between floorboards, the conversations between the sheets, the furtive glances and simmering silences of words left unsaid, or words said but loaded with subtext.

This will get you asking questions upon questions. What’s the crime that took place? What’s Jane’s backstory? Is there more to Celeste’s relationship than on show? Why do Renata and Madeline almost loathe each other? Why does Madeline feel the need to control things so much? Is everyone a suspect? They all seem to want to kill each other. 

And the list goes on…

Furthermore, other than Billions, with Damian Lewis and Paul Giamatti (another on Sky Atlantic), a show hasn’t gripped me so quickly in quite the same way in some time. It’s a marvel in that respect, what clever screenwriting.

So in essence, it’s painfully human. It’s got more nuanced, flawed and complex characters than you can shake a stick at – and actors that have us believing in them from the get-go. It’s beautifully shot (hats off to Vallee), and it’s achieved all this in a mere couple of episodes. Plus it’s got an 86% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, so I’m not alone in my assessment. 

This also means that if you didn’t catch it there’s still time. So do it. You know you want to.

Aloha! Clooney delves deep for Descendants

the descendants clooney woodleyAfter hearing good things I recently decided to watch The Descendants and was glad I did, it’s a great film.  The first from writer-director Alexander Payne in eight years, his last being the brilliant Sideways.

In terms of plot, it tells the tale of wealthy Hawaiian lawyer and land baron Matt King (Clooney), who is trying to re-connect with his daughters – 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and 10-year-old Scotty (Amara Miller) – after his wife is seriously injured in a boating accident, from which it’s unlikely she’ll recover.

Career-high performance from Clooney?

Right from the start it’s clear our George is back to his best. If he ever suffered a dip in the last few years you could argue this was The American which felt lacklustre, both in terms of his performance and the film as a whole. Incidentally, that review was one of my first blog posts.

Here, though, he goes from strength to strength in terms of performance, as Matt is required first to deal with two unruly daughters, then break the news to friends and family that his wife will never wake up. He’s then hit by a telling revelation from daughter Alexandra that drive his actions for the rest of the movie.

Payne’s middle-aged men in meltdown

Having really liked both Sideways and The Descendants, I’ve now decided I’m a fan of Alexander Payne. His films – at least those two – have a wistful, melancholic quality to them, but are sprinkled with funny, heart-warming and tender moments.

They’re also painfully well-observed, with flawed, compelling characters. From Paul Giamatti’s bitter and tortured Miles through to Clooney’s naive and wounded Matt, Payne has a knack for creating middle-aged men in meltdown.

All the praise cannot just go to Payne though, this is one of the best performances I’ve seen Clooney produce. Gone is his natural suave and poise, as he strips his character down to produce an incredibly raw, subtle and affecting performance – one that will no doubt stand out as a career highlight for years to come.