Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Pop Culture Picnic: Vol. 1, No. 1

Hello all,
Welcome to this new weekly feature, Pop Culture Picnic. Through compiling this year's list of awards, I was downhearted to see how many shows and films were left out simply due to space, especially seeing some of those problematic shows (such as Danger 5's second season as well as Halt And Catch Fire) were also some I wanted to talk about. Also, considering I watched well over 50 individual series and over 60 films in cinema last years, I thought that starting a new regular reviews feature would be the perfect way to settle my reviewing needs. Pop Culture Picnic will go up every Wednesday, and will feature reviews of whatever I happened to have watched this week. These will also be graded on a scale from A to F. Basically, anything over B+ is a massive recommendation, D and under is something I would suggest avoiding like the plague. That said, let's get to the reviews!

Silver Screen
The Belier Family Review:
France, 2014, directed by Eric Lartigau. In Cinemas Now.
A French dramedy about a deaf family’s daughter who can hear and sing very well, this an interesting film filled with weird detours that don’t really go anywhere. The daughter’s difficulty in choosing between her family and future is well-explored, but a stronger edit removing some of the many unnecessary subplots might make for a tighter and more involving experience. That said, there are at least three exceptionally powerful scenes which stick in the mind long after the credits and which brought tears to my eyes, ensuring that this, while far from being a very great film, is at least memorable.
Grade: B

On The Tube
Season 1, Part 2 Observations:
When I watched the first half of Outlander’s premier season early in the year, it quickly became one of my favourite new shows. Telling the story of a woman who is sent back from the 1940s to 1740s Scotland in the peak of the battles with the Redcoat army, it’s beautiful visuals, highland inspired music, genre-bending plot and a feminist lead who engages in a hot and heavy romance, culiminated in making something unlike anything I’d seen before. The second half of the season doesn’t change this opinion, but does widen it. While the first half was fun with an undercurrent of seriousness, the second half reverses that, making for an emotionally challenging conclusion to the year. One of the most immersive programs I’ve seen, this works twofold, making the fun, romantic episodes incredibly enjoyable. However, it also makes the sudden descent into hell in the season’s final two-parter emotionally devastating, because it features a rape that feels painfully real. While other show’s at the moment are dealing with sexual violence at the moment, very few of them have managed to make it feel as personal and upsetting as Outlander does in its season finale. It was also interesting to read reviews of that episode, particularly from the A.V. Club, as they discussed just how devastating rape can truly be. While Game Of Thrones may see it as simply another form of violence, rape is far more personal, the most intimate act a person can do turned violently upside down. The episode is far from easy to watch and I know at least one person who refuses to watch it, but I truly believe that it was an important, moving and powerful piece of television. It cements Outlander as one of the very best shows currently on TV, through a shift of focus from light and jovial to something far more unsettling. It will be interesting to see how this development shifts the characters as they move to Paris in this year’s new season. I personally can’t wait.
Best Episodes - s1e11: The Devil's Mark (a tearjerking, revelatory episode that sees secrets bursting forth left, right and centre). s1e14: The Search (a much-needed fun episode before it all goes bad). s1e16: To Ransom A Man's Soul (one of the most powerful and devastating episodes of television ever made. A realistic depiction of rape and a powerful statement of love, it’s harrowingly beautiful).
Season Grade: A
Season 4 Observations:
Teen Wolf has always been something of a guilty pleasure. At the start, I watched it for the hot, frequently shirtless guys and the unbelievable levels of homoeroticism. As the series went along, I became more engrossed in it as the quality started to skyrocket, resulting in a genuinely brilliant second half to season 3, which ended on one hell of an emotional moment. To say that season 4 is a step-down in quality is one hell of an understatement. It has so many problems as to shift from one of my favourite guilty pleasures to becoming a hate watch before actually becoming something I might give up on if I was a different sort of person. The plotting is haphazard with the main plot of the season being fairly interesting before being replaced by something deathly dull. That emotional moment at the end of the third season doesn’t have any real impact on the drama and the characterisation of the regulars is weird. For a show that started out as a homoerotic supernatural romance teen drama, it’s stripped everything that defined it, leaving behind the supernatural elements. While there are still some visually impressive moments and creepy monsters, the emotional connection is absent, resulting in a deeply, deeply disappointing season.
Best Episodes – s4e3: Muted (a deeply creepy enemy making for some great horror moments). S4e4: The Benefactor (a series of quieter moments allows the characters to reflect, making this one of the few emotionally satisfying episodes). S4e7: Weaponized (another creepy enemy and a bottle of episodes, this has great moments for most of the main cast, Derek aside). S4e8: Time Of Death (an interesting examination of Scott’s potential darkness which ends up being wasted. Still a fascinating episode).
Season Grade: D-

Season 6 Observations:
One of the most consistently funny sitcoms ever made, Seinfeld is filled with classic episodes and surprisingly complicated plots resulting in chaos for everyone except the four main characters. While the sixth season isn’t quite on the level of the two previous seasons (which were exceptional), it’s still very funny and clever. The lack of a running plot throughout the year does detract as do the increasingly silly plots, but the characterisation remains consistent and the jokes land with a surprising regularity making for a really very enjoyable experience. The days where I watch Seinfeld just seem to be a little better and I always look forward to the next season (which will be happening sometime this month).
Best Episodes – s6e2: The Big Salad. S6e6: The Gymnast. S6e8: The Soup. S6e11: The Race. S6e12: The Label Maker. s6e18: The Doorman. s6e19: The Jimmy. s6e21: The Fuselli Jerry. s6e22: The Diplomat's Club.
Season Grade: A-

Season Ten (Thriller Bark arc) Observations:
After ten seasons, one could be expected that One Piece would be running out of steam. After an exceptionally good pair of long and connected arcs (Water 7 and Enies Lobby) which may be my favourite arc yet, the Thriller Bark saga is a little bit of a step down. Falling prey to an old trope of creating an enemy so powerful that the regulars have to increase their powers in a gimmicky way (this happens on Teen Wolf all the time, but Doctor Who is probably the most glaring example of it with the Doctor’s Jesus moment against the Master). One Piece is usually better at making the developments of the Straw Hats’ abilities appear more natural and lasting so that is disappointing. The arc, however, is enlivened by some connections to the series’ growing mythos especially the ominous presence of not one, but two, incredibly powerful Shichibukai which makes for several great well-executed moments (such as the taking of characters’ shadows and Kuma’s frightening abilities). And even at its weaker moments, One Piece is still a consistently entertaining and enjoyable anime which is well worth the time.
Season Grade: B

Soap Box

At Christmas this year, I was gifted a book featuring 1001 Television Series’ You Must Watch Before You Die. While some I’ve spoken to find such a concept intimidating (how am I gonna get it all done? What if I die tomorrow?), I’ve found these books helpful in the past. My copy of the equivalent film book has been flicked through so many times that it’s now fallen into two parts. At the time of writing, I’ve seen 85 series on the list (which includes Teen Wolf but doesn’t include Rectify, Get Smart or Please Like Me. There is absolutely no justice in the world) but was more interested in what I haven’t seen. As I flipped through the book on Christmas Day, one series struck me as being particularly interesting. I’m not really sure why. It was called Peyton Place and is a long running soap opera (over 500 episodes) that ran from 1964-69. I don’t know what pulled me to it but I decided to give it a go. Most episodes (not sure about all, we’ll see as this goes along) are on YouTube so for the last week I’ve been doing an episode a day and will continue to do so until I come to the end. This bit of Pop Culture Picnic will be where I give my thoughts on this experience. I am also going to be doing the same for the cult soap opera Dark Shadows (which ran from 1966-71 and has about 1200 episodes, all of which have been released on DVD but are cheaper on YouTube). So, let the soapies begin!

Episodes 1-7 Observations:
Peyton Place has been a revelation for me. It’s just so much better than I expected it to be. Following the lives of a handful of characters in small town (guess the name), it’s uncommonly well-written. In just seven episodes, the characters have become nuanced and endlessly fascinating, while the town proves to be oppressive and difficult to live in. Spiralling out from a boy, Rod, catching his father making out with his girlfriend, Betty’s, mother, Julie, all of the story developments have seemed natural and it’s amazing how much has happened in such a short time. Rod has broken up with Betty and started dating Allison Mackenzie, a naive but likable girl who has been sheltered by her mother, Constance. She has a complicated past which is linked to the appearance of Dr. Rossi (who I thought would be the series’ viewpoint character but who has only really interacted with Betty and Constance) and runs the local store. Betty, Rod’s ex-girlfriend (whom he broke up because of the awkwardness with his father), is vengeful and desperate to get him back and is possibly beginning to clue into the fact that her mother may have had something to do with it. Her mother, Julie, is married to the abusive alcoholic George whose an absolute bastard, and he hasn’t even worked out that his wife is having an affair. Also, Rod’s dad is trying to get his son to shut up while Rod’s brother, Norman, is holding a candle for Allison but is too chicken to ask her out. That’s a lot of soapy goodness and it’s written beautifully well, elevating it above the average into something brilliant. There have been so many great moments already, from the moment Rod walked in on his dad and Julie (which is incredibly well-directed) to his beautiful chemistry with Allison, it’s just non-stop wonderful. The acting is also really good, featuring Ryan O’Neal (before he was famous in Love Story) and Mia Farrow (before she was famous for Rosemary’s Baby), the latter of which is really good at showing Allison’s growing awareness. Overall, this has been one really great show and something I am looking forward to continuing for a very long time.
Episodes Grade: A-

Episodes 1-7 Observations:
Oh, dear, how to talk about Dark Shadows? If you know of this, it’s probably because of the (apparently terrible) Tim Burton/Johnny Depp remake, not the fact that it’s a cult soap opera of the 60s which served as an inspiration for other shows like Buffy The Vampire Slayer with its frequent use of supernatural characters and plotlines (ghosts, vampires, werewolves, time travel, alternate realities, etc.). This doesn’t happen until a lot later (like we’re talking about episode 100 before we meet a ghost and about 220 for the series’ most iconic character, Barnabas Collins: Vampire) so for the first batch of episodes, it’s a fairly straightforwardly spooky gothic mystery series. The problem with this series at the moment is pacing. While Peyton Place was broadcast twice a week (and so therefore had to have more detailed, fast-moving plots), Dark Shadows was shown five days a week. You can tell. In Peyton, after 7 episodes, I’d say we’re on the third or fourth day since the show began. On Dark Shadows, we’ve just started the second morning. The series begins as a young woman, Victoria Winters, takes the train to Collinsport, a small fishing town, which is overlooked by Collinswood, a spooky manor which may or may not be haunted. She is to work as a governess at the house, looking after a small boy named David who is the son of Roger Collins, brother of the home’s matriarch and owner Elizabeth Collins Stoddard. The entire first episode is people in the town telling her not to go to the house. It’s spooky and enjoyable enough but also just a bit dull. Now, the series has actually kicked it’s butt into gear, we’ve got some intriguing mysteries. Victoria was abandoned as a child and has no idea who her parents are. The note she was left with had a post mark close to Collinsport and her hiring at the house is very mysterious considering the fact that she hadn’t heard of them and the orphanage did not recommend her for the position. She has decided to stay on in order to find out what happened to her. To do so, she has to deal with the ten-year-old David whose an absolute monster of a child, who goes through her things and thinks Victoria is trying to hurt him because the ghosts said so. Which, okay. Arriving at the same time as her is a man named Burke Devlin, who seems to have worked at Collinsport, but his presence is giving Roger the shivers for reasons yet to become clear. Also, Elizabeth’s husband left her (and her daughter, Caroline Stoddard) so she’s never been out of the house. There is also a handful of side characters (about one introduced per episode) but they haven’t really been important. Although, Sam Evans who Roger seems to be in cahoots with, and his daughter, Maggie, also seem to be turning up frequently, but I’m not sure how they fit into the whole scheme of things. Overall, Dark Shadows remains a lot less impressive than Peyton Place and I can’t help but feel that things won’t really get more interesting until the introduction of the supernatural stuff. Still, the frequent production errors and line fluffs make this an enjoyable if slow series.
Episodes Grade: C+

Next week's edition of Pop Culture Picnic will feature reviews of The Revenant, the third season of Vikings, the local comedy The Ex-PM and others. Hope to see you then. Also, tomorrow will (hopefully) see the release of my NSV awards for TV, which should be very interesting!

David Gumball-Watson

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