Gotham: a Shameless-ly brilliant performance from Cameron Monaghan is no joke

I’ve watched a lot of television the last few days, and one thing has become abundantly clear: with a pair of standout turns in Gotham and Shameless, Cameron Monaghan owned TV this week.

Cameron Monaghan owning TV this week

Like I said, Cameron Monaghan, owning TV this week

I’ll start with Gotham, in which Monaghan took on the iconic role of the Joker. It was a star-making turn in a show that has become essential viewing. In just 16 episodes, Gotham has carved out an iconic spot in the TV schedule. Full to bursting with grittily memorable performances, with Ben McKenzie’s beleaguered crusader for justice Jim Gordon and Robin Lord Taylor’s beautifully off-kilter Penguin leading the pack (“hello, old friend”), the show has a rock-solid grip on its world.

Gordon and Penguin face off... face... off...

Gordon and Penguin face off… face… off…

Gotham is a perpetually cloudy, ominous, dirty, baroque version of itself, like an L.S. Lowry steel mill nightmare, peopled with lowlifes and hoodlums, iconic freaks, and lost souls. It’s dark, uneasy, but it’s shot through with a rough, raucous humor, a wild and wide-eyed glee in its strangeness. The show takes a particular kind of comic book sensibility and runs with it; it’s a fractured, monstrous reality that feels 100% grounded.

It’s also, of course, the home to the future Batman, Catwoman, Poison Ivy, the Riddler… Chief amongst these, of course, is the young Bruce Wayne, and the show has done a fantastic job showing us his slow, steady journey towards becoming the Batman. It does make you kind of wish for a spin-off teen Batman and Catwoman show, since David Mazouz and Camren Bicondova have been consistently fascinating as their younger versions. The producers have said that the show ends when Batman first puts on his suit, which is on one hand a shame, but on another, completely understandable, since Gotham is Jim Gordon’s show, and Ben McKenzie delivers raw, fearless, intense, hilarious and gripping performances week after week.

This week’s episode, “The Blind Fortune Teller,” took on the circus, which allowed the show to dive even deeper into its beautiful weirdness. This circus is run by the Lloyds and — future sidekick alert — the Graysons, two families at war. McKenzie’s Gordon is on an awkward date at the circus with Morena Baccarin’s Dr. Leslie Thompkins, when a fight breaks out in the middle of the show… a fight which ends with the discovery of a body: the snake lady has been murdered, and her son, played by Monaghan, is distraught.

Or so it seemed. Monaghan brought the kind of sensitivity we’ve seen from him in Shameless, at least to start with, as he played the lonely, upset son struggling with his mother’s death. Gordon didn’t buy it though, and in a you-can’t-handle-the-truth showdown in an interview room, Monaghan revealed his character’s true self in an absolutely brilliant and unforgettable 3 minutes of television. We saw flickers of the future Joker rippling across his face as he danced between madness, sadness and psychosis, often in the same beat. And then there was that laugh. Chills. In just a few beats, Monaghan gave an extraordinary, indelible performance that would have been the most iconic moment of the TV week… if Monaghan hadn’t already claimed that title the night before.

Because he also plays Ian in Shameless, a gay teen who has been struggling with bipolar disorder for most of this season. In “Crazy Love,” Ian kidnapped his boyfriend Mickey’s baby and went on a terrifying 18 hour joyride while his friends and family slowly disintegrated with worry and fear. It was a bravura, revelatory performance, culminating in some jaw-droppingly heartbreaking work as Ian finally gets checked in to a mental institution. He played the fear, the overwhelming sadness, the almost total inability to process what was happening, in the most understated of ways.

Cameron Monaghan and Noel Fisher as Ian and Mickey. Broken hearts very much pictured.

Cameron Monaghan and Noel Fisher as Ian and Mickey. Broken hearts very much pictured.

 

“Crazy Love” was written by John Wells, himself one of the most iconic figures in TV today, the creative force behind E.R., The West Wing, Third Watch… and of course, SouthLAnd and Shameless, which made the Gordon-Joker face-off something of a SouthLAnd-Shameless mash-up, since McKenzie played Ben Sherman on 5 seasons of the always amazing and canceled-WAY-too-soon SouthLAnd.

Moment of silence for that show.

We miss you, SouthLAnd

We miss you, SouthLAnd

So in this week’s Shameless, Wells did what he does best: create visual and emotional moments of pure television. He did the heavy lifting at the start of the episode (although he’s a brilliant writer, so it seemed effortless), so that by the end, we were coasting on pure emotion, and it was all down to the actors to play the heartbreak. And play it they did.

I want to take a second here to call out Noel Fisher, who has been one of the most underrated but consistently excellent actors on this show. He plays Mickey, the most-feared motherf**ker on the South Side, who is also Ian’s boyfriend. Fisher has been brilliant throughout, conveying the constant struggle as Mickey fights to maintain his rep while also trying to actually be happy. In “Crazy Love,” Fisher showed Mickey coming apart at the f**king seams. His moments in the car ride back from finding Ian, where he realizes that Ian has to be committed, and in the institution at the end, were genuinely astonishing.

No I wasn't crying, a**hole. F**k you. (quietly sobs in the corner)

No I wasn’t crying, a**hole. F**k you. (quietly sobs in the corner)

But ultimately, the show was really Monaghan’s, as was Gotham. He owned them both with connected, naturalistic, grounded and heartfelt work, and with these back-to-back performances of troubled, unstable characters, Monaghan has surely put himself on the Emmy map.

Gotham is going from strength to strength with dizzying speed, and Shameless is in the midst of one of its best seasons to date.

I love TV.

 

Jupiter Ascending: The Wachowskis in space

The Wachowskis first original story since The Matrix Trilogy is a boundlessly inventive, sprawling space opera, full of none-more-Wachowksi elements (blue-haired cyberpunks on space-bikes, gravity defying martial arts, a chosen one), as well as many surprises (Sean Bean as some kind of bee-master, Channing Tatum as a wolf-man with jet-boots), and a vampiric Eddie Redmayne. It’s completely over the top; shamelessly, beautifully so, and, as such, is hugely entertaining.

Doona Bae as a cyberpunk biker

Doona Bae as a cyberpunk biker

Mila Kunis is the titular Jupiter, the chosen one here, a humble cleaner of toilets who turns out to be something far more important. Multiple factions are hunting her for various reasons; only Channing Tatum’s wolfy Caine Wise can truly protect her from the warring, intergalactic Abrasax family and their treacherous, genocidal ways.

It plays as a frenetic, gorgeous melange of Star Wars (partly the original trilogy, partly the prequels), Guardians of the Galaxy, Speed Racer, Flash Gordon and The Matrix, with a massive injection of  Wachowski imagination and verve. Brilliant ideas collide and explode in a nonstop orgy of concepts and action; there’s a really f**king great movie in here, but there’s also a less impressive one too. It feels like the script could have done with a couple more drafts to really bring out the ideas and the awesomeness to their fullest potential.

They set out to write a story featuring an empowered, kick-ass heroine, hence the title. What they inadvertently ended up with is something that probably should have been called Caine Ascending, since Tatum’s character has the most complete and satisfying arc of anyone in the film, frequently relegating Kunis to the role of scared bystander in need of constant saving. It’s a shame, because a movie about Jupiter actually ascending would have been very cool. If the Wachowskis had switched those character genders, making the movie about a female Caine protecting a male human chosen one, and staging it from her perspective, the Wachowskis would have had their female-led powerhouse movie.

Still, there is much to love here. The Wachowskis do pulpy, visceral sci-fi thrills better than almost anyone, and it’s frequently glorious to behold. The aerial chase scene across the Chicago skyline at sunrise (filmed in six minute batches over many weeks to get the light perfect) is beautiful.

Chicago chase scene

Chicago chase scene

The various species and spaceships are visually stunning — the angry flying dinosaurs are bad-ass! (Yes, there are flying dinosaurs). Michael Giacchino’s score is often lovely. There’s a brilliantly manic Terry Gilliam cameo. And by god, no one, I mean NO ONE, can ground a scene and make it gritty and real like Sean motherf**king Bean. MVP. He has some crazy exposition to say, including the immortal line “bees don’t lie” (much like hips, I presume), and he makes it INTENSE. He could have played the scene in squeaks and grunts and we’d still buy it. He is the man. Him and Tatum come out of this movie with full honors, as both of them are all in, in terms of performance and committing to their roles.

Tatum and Bean. Truthful bees not pictured

Tatum and Bean. Truthful bees not pictured

Overall, this is a freewheeling, entertaining couple of hours from two of the most original and exciting filmmakers around. Could it have been tighter? Yes. Did it need more work to bring out a more propulsive, emotionally connected story? Kinda. Is Sean Bean a bad motherf**ker? You know it. And you should go and see this movie. Original stories need our support, and this is fully worthy of a trip to the cinema. The Wachowskis are legends at this point, having brought us two of the greatest movies ever made (The Matrix and Cloud Atlas). They have incredible imaginations, visceral creativity, and a wholly unique position in Hollywood; let’s help them keep it. Because I want more Wachowski movies.

Lots more.

 

Rating: Four out of five flying dinosaurs 

 

How Star Wars Conquered The Universe

A long time ago, in a small mining town far, far away, a young Chris Taylor discovered Star Wars via the back of a cereal box. Much like Luke on Tatooine, he only experienced the action in brief glimpses — comic books, more cereal boxes — until finally, his small town built a movie theater, and he was able to watch a Star Wars/The Empire Strikes Back double bill right before Return Of The Jedi came out. Which I guess is the equivalent of Luke arriving on Yavin 4? The rest is not exactly history, but is contained in this wonderful book.

how star wars conquered the universe

 

It’s no exaggeration to say that the staggeringly brilliant How Star Wars Conquered The Universe is not just the only complete history of the entire franchise from its Flash Gordon inspirations all the way through to its acquisition by Disney, but it’s also one of the most insightful and entertaining books ever written about movies and pop culture in general. It’s the only place you’ll find a combination of detailed behind the scenes info and a fascinating look into the fandom that has sustained the franchise. And on top of all that, it really is, as advertised on the front cover, an enthralling creativity manual.

Taylor, who by day is deputy editor of Mashable, illuminates the creative development and decision-making process as each movie evolved from scribbled notes to drafts, rewrites and edits. If you’re a writer, you will learn much from Taylor’s Yoda-esque teaching (he lifts up some major metaphorical X-Wings) as he breaks down how and why the various stories had to change on their way to narrative greatness (he also covers the prequels, but there are lessons there too). Side note: this book has helped me with my current creative projects immensely, on a practical and inspirational level. Thanks Chris!

If you’re not a writer, that’s OK, because this is also an expansive overview of the Star Wars universe from its earliest inception. We see Lucas struggling with his vision for “The Star Wars” while making other movies (THX-1138, American Graffiti), and watch its complex development through four drafts and an uncredited “humor polish”, with Brian De Palma apparently responsible for the final version of the opening crawl. That on its own would be enough, quite honestly, but Taylor goes so much further, like a Padawan becoming a full Jedi. He breaks down Empire and Jedi, the infamous Holiday Special, the Ewok movies, the comics, the novelizations, Alan Dean Foster’s “back up” Star Wars sequel that never was (Splinter Of The Mind’s Eye), the Expanded Universe, the Clone Wars, and, most impressively perhaps, the prequels. The chapter devoted to The Phantom Menace follows the fans who lined up for weeks beforehand and builds and builds until it reaches a symphonic, Spinal Tap-esque crescendo with the reactions of those fans as they stumbled out of the midnight showing. Taylor also takes time to walk us through the various stages of grief that many of us experienced after listening to discussions about trade laws and watching Hayden Christensen talk about sand. With the able assistance of Bryan Young (a novelist who also co-hosts the amazing and essential Full Of Sith podcast with Tha Mike Pilot (possibly not his real name) — btw, if you haven’t listened to it, subscribe now), Taylor goes through intensive Prequel Therapy. It actually helps.

Fans waiting for The Phantom Menace. Therapy not pictured

Fans waiting for The Phantom Menace. Therapy not pictured

It’s a book about the fans as much as the franchise, and Taylor gives us a compassionate, even-handed view of all aspects of the fandom, from the 501st to the R2 builders, from Steve Sansweet’s Rancho Obi-Wan (the world’s largest collection of Star Wars memorabilia which therefore serves as a de facto time machine back to all of our childhoods) to those fans who wait in line for weeks at a time, to the homemade spoofs and homages (like the classic Troopers). There are many realms in the fandom, just as there are in the franchise itself; Star Wars has created a fandom that reflects it, and its fans are incredibly dedicated and creative, which Taylor wonderfully illustrates.

The book backs up its title over and over again, showing how the world has been swept away by what ultimately comes back to an R2 unit telling a story to the keepers of the Journal Of The Whills. It’s engrossing, moving, inspiring, and at every point, reminds you why you fell in love with this world. Even if you’re not a hardcore fan, it’s essential reading. If you’re more of a casual fan, and just want an entertaining and frequently very funny analysis of movies, pop culture, merchandizing, and how all of this has changed in the wake of Star Wars, you’ll love it. And if, like me, the original trilogy defined your childhood, with Star Wars as the first movie I ever saw in the cinema (right around the time I was watching those same black and white Flash Gordon serials that originally inspired Lucas on TV), and catching the 70mm first run of Empire with Roger Christian’s Black Angel short in front of it… if you’re one of so many who have special, cherished memories of these movies and the toys (oh god, the toys! Taylor spends a lot of time on this phenomenon too, from the “cardboard for Christmas” beginnings to the peak where there were more Star Wars figures on the planet than U.S. citizens), then this book approaches the miraculous.

That’s a lot of praise, but then, this is a book that works on so many levels, is written so well and flows so smoothly even with the many thousands of details that Taylor somehow weaves together, that even this level of praise doesn’t do this masterpiece justice. It’s more level-headed than this review, that’s for sure, and it’s that clear-eyed, patiently wise tone that helps this book make sense of the sprawling universe that Lucas set into motion. Written with an elegant, clear style, laced with generous quantities of British wit throughout, it’s always engaging, and full of knowledge, information, and entertainment.

Basically, to sum up: the force is strong with this one (sorry, I had to go there).

TL;DR It’s great, buy it.

(And then probably buy it again when the revised — “special” perhaps? — edition comes out with all the skinny on Episode VII).

Rating:

Five out of five binary sunsets

New writing alert! Altered Sequence book two published!

Hello. Just wanted to drop an update: book two of my YA sci-fi series ALTERED SEQUENCE is now available! It’s called CORRUPTED, and picks up right where ALTERED left off… As of right now, ALTERED is $0.99, and CORRUPTED is $2.99. Details of both books below!

 

CORRUPTED is available for Kindle at Amazon US and nook at Barnes & Noble.

Also: Buy For Kindle UK

Get CORRUPTED in paperback!

Altered Sequence Book One: ALTERED

ALTERED is available for Kindle at Amazon and nook at Barnes & Noble.

Also: Buy For Kindle UK

Get ALTERED in paperback!

8 great albums to listen to in the fall

Bon Iver – Bon Iver

Bon_Iver

Put this one on, and the mist practically seeps from the speakers, wet leaves begin to fall, and the nights draw in. It’s perfect for those times when you just want to look out the window and feel all melancholy and romantic. Key track for a playlist: Perth

The Cure – Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me / Disintegration

Kiss me

 

Disintegration

Two sides of autumn here. Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me is the fiery one, the brightly colored leaves, blue sky-cold days, sun setting on a Friday afternoon in all kinds of fire. Disintegration is for those days of cold, heavy rain, thick mist lingering in bare, sharpened trees, nights when rain pounds the roof and the windows. Key tracks for a playlist: The Kiss / How Beautiful You Are / Prayers For Rain / The Same Deep Water As You

Lamb – Between Darkness And Wonder

lamb

A gorgeous, softly electronic album that feels like raw, cold dusks after the sun has set but the sky is still smeared with orange and dark blue. Key tracks for a playlist: Stronger / Please

Kosheen – Resist

Kosheen_resist

Like walking home through the wet leaves shiny in the streetlights because it’s already dark at 5pm. Key track for a playlist: Resist

UNKLE – Never Never Land

UNKLE

Blustery, sunny October days when anything is possible. Leaves swirl in oranges and reds, tiny clouds scudding in the endless blue, the air cool but not cold. Key tracks for a playlist: What Are You To Me? / Invasion

New Moon soundtrack

New Moon

Full of autumnal atmospheres, this one — from the lushly melancholic sounds of Editors, Grizzly Bear, Bon Iver (the fall music MVP) and St Vincent, to the more driving indie vibes of Death Cab For Cutie, The Killers and Muse, to the epically brilliant Thom Yorke track Hearing Damage, this is an album to put on your headphones and watch the season changing. While wondering if your vampire signifiant other is EVER going to get back in touch. Key tracks for a playlist: Hearing Damage / No Sound But The Wind

Radiohead – In Rainbows

In Rainbows

Lonely, windswept electronica, full of lovely, yearning melodies and aching choruses — again, get those headphones on, and lose yourself in the deeply ambient sadness of Thom Yorke and the gang. Key tracks for a playlist: Weird Fishes / All I Need