My Thoughts on Channel 4’s Flowers

A Terrifically Bleak Comedy With Unyielding Empathy.

How suitable for a series heralded by such inherent bleakness to come into the world by way of a cozy storybook rhyme. Here may be “baggles” and “Grubbs”, but Will Sharpe’s Flowers feels about as far-flung from bedtime fancy as can be. Actually, that’s a lie. They feel about half there, with the idyllic shells of folks children might dream about, only to find that these characters have problems far too complex to be able to make sense of all alone.

Indeed, that’s exactly what Flowers seems to exude. It observes the frustration of hopelessness, offering glimpses of quirky cheer and off-the-cuff japes to convince you happiness still – somewhere – exists. But as the six-part tale progresses, I came to understand that it was an assumed cheeriness; an ephemeral comedy, that transcended deeper and deeper into uncertainty by the second. It’s unrestrained, unrelenting and unashamedly odd.

This dark, amusing and mystically sad creature could have only been understood as a comedy, because it’s the only way that ensures the breadth of emotion that confronted me during Flowers’ first episode remained entirely unexpected.

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The show overlooks a country townhouse; a dwelling with all the superficial quirk of a lone holiday cottage, without the comfort of escape. Maurice (Julian Barratt – perfectly cast) is a windblown children’s author; creator of Grubbs, a Lewis-Carrolly series beloved by seemingly all but his stony editors. His wife, Deborah (Olivia Colman), is a try-hard trombone teacher determined to find happiness, whose fitful us she’s also neck-deep in turmoil. Shacked up with them are their squabblesome adult twins (artist Amy (Sophia Di Martino) and inventor Donald (Daniel Rigby)) and Lilliputian Nana ambles along the hallway time to time, in quite her own world. Along for the ride is Maurice’s Asian artist, Shun (Sharpe: maker of tea, giver of compliments, pitcher of incurably raunchy book covers. He’s a peppy spring chicken amidst withered battery hens, but his undervalued presence carries essential weight in this perceptually-warped tale.

This is the Flowers family, who boogie to baroque concertos and bite each other’s heads off at restaurants. But they’re also the Grubbs of Maurice’s books, and the friction the dual-identity causes is both striking and entirely intended. For Maurice’s contemplative, tumty-tum rhymes merely voice what Flowers has us sensing from the very beginning – that no matter how idyllic the rolling countryside hills might look, how many cosily-knitted shawls we see or how ferociously their wearers smile, all is not perfect. Perfect doesn’t even carry weight here.

Flowers is Lovecraftian in in that it takes you inside a vague half-world of maddened townsfolk and creatures of nightmare. The creepy plastic surgeon next door eyes up Deborah’s bone structure, whilst the sympathetic farm-hand makes routine visits to the grave of his late wife with cheese on toast and a bottle of Lea n’ Perrins. Or at least it’s true to say that it doesn’t just do those things. There’s a reason for each and every character’s actions; one that instantly binds our own experiences to them, heedless of our fear of them becoming just that bit too recognisable. There’s one scene in particular, that takes place between the submerged couple, in their thoroughly rained-on car. It’s simple, it’s a line you know is coming, but the weight of self-defeat just. Colman states, “If I don’t know what’s going on with you, I can’t help.” And my heart cries, because Maurice doesn’t really know either. We don’t know either.

Di Martino as Amy begins as a mixture of archetypal teen and aloof artist, keeping to her pant-strewn room, suffering for her art, the ush. But her transmogrification from aloof artist to belaboured empath is inspired, reminding of a blossoming Katherine Parkinson in that she’s as deeply human as she is inextricably odd. Olivia Colman, of course, fits right in, always keeping the viewer at a distance, and allowing her zealous pursuit of happy-families to communicate the distressing (and very real) powerlessness depression is notorious for conjuring up.

And it’s power these characters seem so hungry for, too. They’re fighting tooth-and-nail for some sort of control; to mean something to someone, amid unwavering barrages of criticism (perceived and otherwise). Folks endeavouring for warmth – mere moth people who cosy up to the hurtful, the arrogant, the cold for reassurance, only to find their wings irrevocably, repeatedly, singed.

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But every time you begin to relate, to feel something amidst the numbing chaos, the shouting, the fights and the voices in your head, the show experiences a complete tonal shift. It’s a programme that – unlike most comedies, dramas or lamentably accruing game shows – doesn’t try to make you feel anything. It merely throws feelings at you at such a rapid rate that you come away feeling battered, frustrated, hurt, and ultimately closer to Maurice Flowers than can you could ever expect. It’s a piece of unrelenting empathy. All the while the jittery editing captures moments of blind fury almost in tandem with oppressive intimacy. The latter is decidedly less comfortable; we’re breathed on by sympathetics or browbeat by critics – yet another disastrous effect left in depression’s blue wake.

Flowers is harsh, crushing and inescapably grim. It hurts to watch, but so does connecting to others amidst crippling darkness, and it’s unique as a comedy in that it offers little more than titters to lighten its deepest tragedies. When you realise its tapering dark humour just underscores its psychological themes, it’s not much of a comedy at all. It is, however, one of the most honest expressive contemporary pieces on depression and frustration on television. Narrative cliche already told me that the Flowers family is more than meets the eye. What I didn’t expect was that I was one of them.


Ratchet and Clank Review – Up Your (Half)Arsenal

As the bedroom-dwelling fare of my cupboard and shelf may insinuate, I’m a sucker for a platformer. Having had my heart hacked into early-on by Crash Bandicoot 3 and Super Mario Land, I’ve propelled myself (sometimes with very little sleep and surprisingly vocal excitement) into those late-90’s-early-00’s series heralded by many and enjoyed by even more. And Insomniac’s runny, gunny and crudely funny Ratchet and Clank remains amongst the best series to grace the early noughties. The 2002 original was something of a breakthrough for Insomniac; whilst evidently encumbered with slow character controls and dysfunctional aim system, the series introduced a wry wackiness to the third person shooter. What a shame its silver-screen counterpart contributes no similar notabilities, for it wears its faults on its sleeves whilst keeping its redeeming features firmly out of reach.

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Like its interactive better-half, the film reimagines the story of 2002’s shooty-platformer. Ratchet and Clank’s opening moments extend the spanning Solana Galaxy, complete with fizzling subtitles alluding to their various names (Novalis, and so on), before cutting to the first recognisable mug of the series. Chairman Drek – here named Alonzo Drek – plans to explode the populated planets of the galaxy by way of his own personal ‘De-Planetiser’, in order to use the fragments to fashion his very own, perfect planet to house his race, Frankenstein-style.

The rest of the film overlooks the evolution of the plucky, co-titular Lombax, Ratchet – from humble mechanic to hands-down space hero. Ratchet’s attempts to join the Galactic Rangers to help fend off the repugnant Drek are repeatedly shot down by the hopelessly self-enamoured Captain Qwark. Only after a defective repairbot – the scientifically-minded Clank – flees Drek’s intergalactic clutches to promptly crash on Ratchet’s home planet does life turn around for the Lombax mechanic, and between the bot’s logical mind and Ratchet’s tail-to-the-wall bravado.

Visually, the film endeavours to match the clear-fibred looks of the various animal-folk native to other recent animated ventures such as Zootropolis, the intergalactic realms of Ratchet and Clank‘s toonish multiverse is stunningly reformed and remastered, but without the luxury of exploring such a dimension oneself, these worlds can’t help but feel a little alien – and not in an literal, Blargian way.

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It sounds much like the premise of a Ratchet and Clank game (something no doubt intended), but over the course of my hour-and-a-half sitting I found myself surprised at just how little Ratchet and Clank the film actually contained. Many moments in the film feel like wasted opportunities to be funny, shoehorning in hyper-relevant social media jokes when a brief cameo from Skid McMarx or the ubiquitous Lizard vendor would’ve charmed so much more. The game’s most prominent aspect – the voluminous arsenal of wacky firearms – was strikingly missed here, instead merely glossed over in a forced gamestyle montage, with the series’ enemies receiving a similar treatment. Whilst the swarming horde of yoo-hoo­ing Zurkon was a fun little nod, conflicts were lacking, and ultimately left me a little deflated considering jaunty lock-n-loads and varied enemy encounters was Ratchet and Clank’s thing.

Of course, that and its winning proclivity for including as many double-entendres into both gameplay and title as humanly (Blargally?) possible. But alas, these were nowhere to be found either. Considering the heightened awareness many films are showing of their audiences (examples might include the recent LEGO Movie and quite nearly all of Pixar’s films), a little naughtiness can be accommodated in many animated films without being clocked by younger audiences. Given that the film is likely aimed at fans of the original game (who’ve since grown into adults quite possibly proficient in the language of the innuendo), I was expecting at least a smattering of nods to some of the series’ bluer titles (Up Your Arsenal remains a favourite of mine). But the closest we get to a euphemism here is a distinctively bum-rushed narrative. Whilst Drek is entertaining and personable, his actions never garner sufficient purpose or intent to drive his maniacal planetary possession. His prompt replacement by the crazed Dr. Nefarious does little to remedy the situation, furthermore, as the filmmakers merely replace a superficial, yet mildly entertaining antagonist with one of lesser substance and none of the supposed charm. Instead, his actions are allowed to revel in a manic futility, with his actions hurriedly trussed up at the end with an explanation more predictable than a secondary school anti-smoking play.

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One positive that can be said of the film is that its cast proffers the pipes of the original Ratchet and Clank alumni. The film is carried by James Arnold Taylor’s Ratchet, and David Kay’re endearingly nonplussed tone as the quizzical repairbot, Clank. Jim Ward also returns, lending a recognisable buffoonishness as the hopelessly doltish Captain Qwark.
Decidedly not returning in this film-of-the-game however is Kevin Michael Richardson as its iron-fisted tyrant, Chairman Drek. The dastardly boots are instead filed by Paul Giamatti, whose childlike exclamations and Plankton-esque sincerity actually make for one of the film’s most enjoyable moments, if not always attaining the gravelly threat that made Richardson’s Chairman Drek a truly formidable dictator.

Following Prince of Persia, DOOM and the condemnable Agent 47, my past experiences with video game adaptations has been somewhat traumatic, so I almost want to commend the film for its competence as a fun and respectful throwback to the original game- but overall it appeared a rickety patchwork of game cutscenes that had been hurriedly stitched together for release, with the evident gaps left for gameplay sections all but filled in with the cinematic equivalent of a sharpie pen. It’s a shame in many ways; even with low expectations, fans of the series will likely find the tie-in for the Ratchet and Clank reboot superficial and disappointing, but the silver lining here is that there’s always the opportunity to play the film in a better-rounded, cohesive PS4 reboot. Not many films have that luxury.