Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Pop Culture Picnic: Volume 1, Number 2

Hello all,
Welcome to the second edition of Pop Culture Picnic! It's a bit of a sad issue this week as NSV pays tribute to the late, great David Bowie. You'll also note two new sections, one Second Hand News which will be devoted to any pop culture news that broke in the past week, while the second Heroes will be a semi-regular feature devoted to classic movies all centred around a single theme.

Second Hand News

Undoubtedly the biggest pop culture news this week was the unexpected and sad passing ofthe iconic David Bowie. More than just a great singer, he was an artist committed to art and media in its many forms, being an actor, fashion icon and androgynous performer who changed the way we perceive singers. With his piercing eyes, glorious voice and incredible appearance, it was like he was an alien that fell to Earth. The news of his passing came as a huge shock, partially because he'd only just released an album, Blackstar, on Friday, but also because I think many people, myself included, were convinced he was an immortal chameleon. However, he was all too human, as we learnt that he had passed away at the age of 69 after an 18 month battle with cancer. He will be sorely missed and ever since the news, I've had "Heroes" and Starman playing on a loop. As a special tribute to Bowie, I've reviewed three of the films I most associate with him further down this post. They, and his music, act as a lasting tribute to one of the greatest performers' who ever lived.
   This was a week defined by endings, though, with the news that not one, but two, of my favourite TV shows will soon be coming to end. Rectify, which came in at number 2 in this year's NSV awards, was renewed by Sundance for a fourth and final season. While I am happy that the show's creators have been given an extra season to wrap up loose ends (which seems to be the norm following a similar move with The Leftovers), its cancellation is incredibly sad. It was such a unique, beautiful and challenging show, that I'm amazed it lasted as long as it did. Also, Lena Dunham's critically acclaimed and beloved Girls has been confirmed to be ending after season six in 2017. While some people fell out of love with the series, I was, and continue to be, obsessed with it. It was such a rude but heartfelt and influential show that I was sad to hear that it will soon be coming to an end. Still, all things must end in time and I'm happy that Dunham chose to end the show when the time felt right rather than just keeping it going on and on.
   Also, while it may have been significantly overshadowed by the passing of David Bowie, the Golden Globes were this week. While not traditionally a very strong indicator of success at the (more important) Academy Awards, the choices for winners was an interesting mix of deserved and surprising winners. The Revenant's win for best drama and di Caprio's performance were well-deserved (particularly di Caprio who deserves to finally win an Oscar for such a physically demanding role), The Martian's win for best comedy and Jennifer Lawrence's win for Joy are odd. The Martian was an interesting film, but I think comedy's the wrong category for it, while Joy was such a terrible film that I'm amazed it won anything. Worse was the win for Spectre's song 'Writing's On The Wall' which was easily one of the worst Bond themes ever and won over more deserving songs 'See You Again' and 'Love Me Like You Do'. In regards to the television categories, I am still yet to see Mr. Robot (which won for best drama) or Mozart In The Jungle (best comedy) but Jon Hamm's win for Mad Men and Taraji P. Henson's gong for Empire (an uneven show, but her performance made it worth the watch) were both deserved winners. With Academy Award nominations released this Thursday, it really feels like awards season is heating up.
   Also, in personal news, some of you may know that I finished my Professional and Creative Writing course late last year. While I was iffy about my direction for this year, I applied to do another course, Film and Television, and waited to see what I would be doing with my life. I found out this week that it has been approved, meaning that I will (probably) be going back to University this year. So that's quite exciting for me!

Silver Screen

The Revenant review:
2015, US, directed by Alejandro G. Inarritu. In Cinemas Now.
At nearly three hours with a difficult, exhausting story and insanely brutal violence, The Revenant is not an easy film to sit through. Telling the story of a man, Hugh Glass (played by Leonardo di Caprio) who, after a series of horrifying incidents, is left to fend for himself in the middle of some of America's most difficult terrain in the early 1800s, this is like Bear Grylls on speed. It's a dark film, filled with horrible and intense violence (watch out for a bear attack) and uncomfortable racism against the Native Americans, but it's better seen as a survival story against terrible odds. Left crippled and in pain, Glass' journey is fraught with pain and sheer, grim determination to get revenge. It's one of the most physically demanding roles I've ever seen, as di Caprio wades through icy water, crawls across rocks and falls from incredible heights, but more than that he gives Glass a rich internal life with what, for large amounts of time, is basically a performance of grunts and body movements. As some people from film club argued, if this role doesn't give Leo the Academy Award, he might as well give up acting. Also, for a film of such brutal intensity, it frequently looks gorgeous, with beautiful cinematography playing up the richly scenic nature of this area of America. From a directorial stand point, this is filled with quiet moments of intense stillness, quite unlike the fast and frenetic nature of director Alejandro G. Inarritu's previous film, Birdman. One of the best films I've seen in a while, this is a disturbing, visceral and horrifying film, as exhausting as it is visually beautiful. An absolute must-see film.
Grade: A

Birdman review:
2014, US, directed by Alejandro G. Inarritu. On DVD.
After hearing a lot about this film and about to watch Inarritu's next film, The Revenant, I finally sat down to watch Birdman. I'm still not sure I've truly made up my mind about this film. It's something that stays with you for days afterwards as you try to knot out it's complicated plotline, kinetic filmmaking and symbolic images, frequently changing your mind about what it might all mean. Ostensibly about an actor (more well-known for having once played a cinematic superhero) who tries to do a serious play which is met with one chaotic mishap after another, it can be said to be more about identity, acting and the nature of film itself. Casting Michael Keaton (more well-known for playing Batman in the Tim Burton versions) in the lead adds a metatextual quality to what is already a postmodern film about the blurring of the lines between fact and fiction. He acts brilliantly in a complex role, and is ably supported by co-stars Emma Stone, Edward Norton and Naomi Watts. There's also the small matter of how it's filmed. Cleverly made to look as though it were one long shot, it condenses the weeks-long narrative (taking the play from early rehearsals all the way to opening night) to look like one hellish night. On a first viewing, Birdman is an exceedingly complex but fascinating film, but I think I'd need at least one or two more viewings to really understand what it's trying to say. At the moment though, this remains an interesting and brilliant piece of filmmaking.
Grade: A-

Descendants review:
2015, US, directed by Kenny Ortega. On DVD.
The children of some of Disney's most infamous villains, such as Maleficent (Kristin Chenoweth) and the Evil Queen (Kathy Najimy), try to live up to their parent's legacies after joining a school made up of children descended from the heroes. With a premise like that, how could you lose? By being a TV movie on the Disney channel, that's how. There's nothing exactly wrong with this film, and it does have good moments, such as the songs and the scenes where the villain parents meet are actually funny, but it never really comes together. If you go in with expectations low, this is a relatively entertaining but forgettable slice of TV movie silliness, with a cast of attractive people. However, the moment the film stops dead to make way for a three minute music video with flashbacks to scenes from five minutes ago, makes it impossible to take things seriously. Unintentionally hilarious doesn't begin to cover it.
Grade: C
The Films Of David Bowie
The Man Who Fell To Earth review:
1976, UK, directed by Nicolas Roeg, adapted from a review completed in July 2015. On DVD.
Strange and confusing, Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth frequently gives one the sensation of a daydream. Spectacular imagery collides and decades pass as David Bowie’s lead character, an alien, falls prey to earthly temptations such as alcohol, sex and money. Somehow it’s both very clear and as thick as fog, meaning that any number of interpretations can be read into it. It can be read as an examination of contemporary culture, an attack on the American dream, a cautionary tale about greed or an epic and tragic science fiction story. It manages to be possibly all of these things and none of them. The most memorable scene to me features Bowie using a gun firing blanks while having sex with the female lead character. The scene features the use of a classic song from the 60s to demonstrate the pervasive links between sex and violence in modern day society to stunning effect. The film, like his more well-known film Labyrinth, drew on Bowie’s alien quality to produce an odd, complex and immersive viewing experience. He is involving and commands the attention in a demanding role, proving that not only was he an excellent singer, a musical legend and a true pop culture icon, Bowie really could act. While I think the two main power players, Bowie and Roeg, made better, more accessible films (Labyrinth and Don't Look Now, respectively), The Man Who Fell To Earth remains a difficult, thought-provoking and challenging film well-worth seeking out.
Grade: A-
The Hunger review:
1983, UK, directed by Tony Scott. On DVD.
The Hunger really should be a lot more entertaining than it is. With a cast such as David Bowie, Catherine Denueve and Susan Sarandon, and featuring some weird blood-sucking vampires, it should be a piece of camp gloriousness. Instead, what we get from this horror film is 92 minutes of largely dull storyline. There are occasional good moments, such as a visually stunning opening scene and a fantastic climax, but it's not enough to make up for a film that quite frequently looks like a music video and has a thin plot to match. Worse, the cast is wasted. After less than half-an-hour, Bowie is caked in make-up making him unrecognisable before exiting shortly after. The regal Catherine Deneueve crawls around on the floor and has a weird, unsexy and tedious lesbian sex scene with Susan Sarandon. Reading this review, this film actually sounds interesting which is why I was so desperate to watch it for such a long time. But this is a curiosity that doesn't live up to it's premise. A truly terrible, forgettable and boring film. Skip this one.
Grade: D-
Labyrinth review:
1986, UK, directed by Jim Henson. On DVD.
Easily David Bowie's most well-known film, Labyrinth is the true definition of a cult classic. After a young woman's (Jennifer Connelly) wish for goblins to take her brother away is granted, she must find her way through a massive labyrinth filled with strange creatures to get him back. Along the way, though, there's weird diversions galore. A brilliantly entertaining film that, like all good fairytales, has a hidden darkness at it's core. By taking influence from classic stories such as The Wizard of Oz, Alice In Wonderland, Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, Labyrinth bends them all to tell its own tale, making for an existential, terrifying and excellent film. The supporting cast is unforgettable and it has a unique visual palette. However, the main attraction here is Bowie. As the Goblin King, he exudes menace, eroticism and ambiguity. He's the reason the Ballroom scene works as well as it does, becoming the most weirdly sexy/menacing scene since the original Fright Night. His music ensures that it sounds like nothing else, giving it both a very 80s feel and making it timeless. Combined with the mastery of Jim Henson, Bowie was able to become something iconic with Labyrinth. It's one of the weirdest films you'll ever see but it's entertaining and unforgettable. When the news filtered through that Bowie had passed, watching this was how my family paid tribute. Now, as well as being a glorious fantasy film, this is a stunning tribute to an artist unlike anyone else.
Grade: A
On The Tube
Season Three Observations:
Like Teen Wolf, Vikings is not really one of those shows I look forward to. It's entertaining enough, an engaging and brutal look at a fascinating period of history, but after an awesome first season, it followed it up with a second that seemed safe (despite a couple of huge plot developments). The third season continues this trend. There's nothing exactly wrong with Vikings, it just never really seems to come together. These 10 episodes saw the shocking death of two major characters, as well as an attack on Paris, but for all its posturing towards being good TV, it frequently stumbles into its own traps. In its second year, Vikings took lead character, Ragnar's, power as read; that no matter what the problem, he would get past it because he was just better than the others. It was a problem that House Of Cards also had in its second year, but while Cards made big steps towards making Frank Underwood more fallible, Vikings just continued to show Ragnar as undeniably powerful. While there's nothing wrong with this, it does make for a less compelling series. If we know he's gonna win all the time, what's the point of watching? A development towards the end of the season should've been jaw-dropping but because of what we already know, it was just predictable and safe. This was even more frustrating seeing the series had gone some way to making him a flawed character before lazily reinforcing how great he is. The supporting characters, such as Lagertha, ensure that I'll keep watching but unless we start making bigger problems for the ambitious Ragnar, this could fast become Teen Wolf levels of frustrating.
Best Episodes - s3e3: Warrior's Fate. s3e4: Scarred. s3e6: Born Again. s3e8: To The Gates!
Season Grade: C+
One Foot In The Grave Season Four Observations:
For a sitcom about one grumpy pensioner and his exasperated wife, One Foot In The Grave really shouldn't be as good as it is. However, I would go so far as to say that this British sitcom is one of the funniest shows ever made. Key to its success is the chaotic and larger-than-life situations that Victor Meldrew gets dragged into and his epic frustration at every little thing. His catchphrase "I don't believe it" perfectly sums up just how epically weird some of the situations that he finds himself in are. However, while it's frequently eccentric and bonkers, Grave is grounded in a darkness and tragic reality. Some of the best episodes are those which are not just hilarious but which feature an absolutely devastating twist, a real punch-to-the-gut to end the story. In the very first episode of the season, we've got a hilarious moment where Meldrew is buried up to his neck in his backyard after he insults the gardener followed by this absolutely shattering moment where his wife, Margaret, tells him her mother has passed away. The moment isn't played for laughs, ensuring that the sitcom remains realistic and tinged with a touch of sadness. Other highlights of this season include perhaps the series' most memorable episode, 'Hearts Of Darkness', in which a nice country trip becomes an epic odyssey, featuring two character's feet stuck in cement, a silly game of trivial pursuit and a demented nursing home. It's easily one of the funniest episodes the series ever did.
   However, the series was also formally inventive, with each season included a bottle episode. For those of you not up-to-date on TV lingo, a bottle episode is one with only the main cast members and a handful of sets. They're also generally told in real time and are done to save budget, but can often lead to some of the most intriguing episodes of a show, due to forcing the creators to be more inventive. Notable examples include Doctor Who's 'Midnight' and 'Heaven Sent' and Seinfeld's 'The Chinese Restaurant' and 'The Parking Garage' among others. One Foot In The Grave's bottle episodes, however, were some of the most inventive. Last season saw one set entirely in a car, while this year sees Victor home alone, talking to himself about life, the universe and everything for 25 minutes in 'The Trial'. It's a brave piece of television and brilliantly acted from Richard Wilson, showing the sitcom's stunning versatility, by being simultaneously hilarious and packing a huge emotional impact.
Best Episodes – s4e1: The Pit And The Pendulum. s4e2: Descent Into The Maelstrom. s4e3: Hearts Of Darkness. s4e5: The Trial.
Season Grade: A
Series Observations:
Created, written by and starring one of the most recognisable Australian comedians in Shaun Micallef, The Ex-PM is an entertaining if largely forgettable piece of local comedy. Micallef is good in the lead role as hapless ex-prime minister, Andrew Dugdale, who is determined to ensure a legacy for himself, while Lucy Honigman plays his determined and likable biographer. The two share a nice chemistry and some of the show's best moments come from their interactions. However, the supporting cast is too broad (something the show acknowledges early on) and silly and it's deeply political bent makes for something so uniquely Australian that even I got lost. Despite all of this, the best bits come from Dugdale's frustrations with the ABC. For a show that was broadcast there, it shows a whole lot of balls to attack it. One can't imagine any other channel allowing something like that to air, so kudos. Overall, a disarming but average series good for a laugh but not much more.
Best Episodes - e3: Immortality. e5: Legacy. 
Series Grade: C
Season One Observations:
Rude, crude and very, very funny, Broad City is one of the most purely entertaining and addictive shows I've seen in a while. Over the ten episode first season, we follow Abbi and Ilana, two New Yorkers, in what could be called a slacker comedy, but that would be pointlessly reductive. It's better to say that this is like a funnier, sillier and more entertaining version of Girls, but even that's ignoring just how likable the two leads are. They aren't so consciously self-destructive as Hannah, which makes it more enjoyable to spend the time with them. It's brilliantly written, gloriously surreal (watch out for Garol) and downright hilarious, and with a likable supporting cast. However, the real joy of the series is to watch the chemistry between Abbi and Ilana. Despite being very different people (Abbi's more responsible, Ilana not so much), they remain good friends, supporting one another despite their differences. It's a great portrayal of what it means to be in a friendship. They share a complicated relationship but love one another all the same. Then there's the sometimes strange, frequently crude situations they find themselves in, from getting locked out of Ilana's apartment to having seafood in a fancy restaurant then having a huge allergic reaction. It's chaotically funny and I love it despite its frequent crudeness. Very entertaining, there's not a single dud episode, making this not only one of TV's best comedies, but a very early frontrunner for the NSV awards. Watch it, y'all!
Best Episodes – s1e2: Pussy Weed. s1e3: Working Girls. s1e4: The Lockout. s1e7: Hurricane Wanda. s1e8: Destination: Wedding. s1e10: The Last Supper.
Season Grade: A
Soap Box
Episodes 8-14 Observations:
A very, very big week for Peyton Place ensures that it remains a brilliant and fast-paced series. The main event was the Founder's Day Festival, which took place over four days, which saw intrigue aplenty.
   Developments for this week include learning that Dr. Rossi left New York for Peyton Place because he was frustrated by how impersonal it was. He has taken to seeing his receptionist Miss Brooks who is the sister of Leslie Harrington, father to Rod and Norman, much to the jealousy of Allison's mother, Constance. Betty, Rod's ex, Leslie, leading her to work out what happened between him and her mother, Julie. She tells her mother, leading her to break things off with Leslie (finally! That plot was going nowhere and, as she admits, has only caused people pain). Meanwhile, Rod tells Allison that he loves her, before he is interrupted by Betty. They share an achingly real conversation, before she drops the bombshell; she's pregnant. Distracted, Rod drives out and doesn't see the oncoming truck, leading to a collision. Thankfully, both are okay, but Betty has lost the baby and probably Rod. That is, until her father, George, comes in. At the moment, George is ostensibly the biggest villain in the show, but he has depth piled onto him. This week, he gets one of the best scenes of the show so far where he talks to Rossi about his anger management issues, which takes a surreal and sad turn when he imagines being a baseball hero. He's understandably devastated about Betty's accident (seeing they used to be close, she was his 'princess'), but is more intent on revenge on Leslie and Rod. When he learns that Leslie offered Betty to move out of town, he puts the idea in his daughter's head about not telling Rod that she lost the baby, meaning he is forced to marry her. After a time jump of a month, we find out she followed his advice and married Rod. Which, OMG. The bigger shock is the moment he punches Leslie in the face.
   However, while this sounds very soapy, it's grounded in an emotional reality. The events of Founder's Day Festival became about the loss of childhood innocence. Catherine Harrington, wife of Leslie, gets a moving scene with her son, Norman, where she laments his growing distance. Constance and Julie share a similar scene, debating about how much they leeway they should give their children to grow up, while George also talks about his 'little girl' but Julie tells him she's not his little girl anymore. Even Allison gets in on the act, as the car accident really seems to get to her in a personal way. It's this thematic resonance and beautiful acting that ensures a focus on humanity and character even as the show gives in to its more soapier (and addictive) tendencies.
Episodes Grade: A
Episodes 8-14 Observations:
While a largely very slow week for Dark Shadows, things do pick up and we're finally given some answers.
    Developments for this week include the revelation that Caroline Stoddard's boyfriend, Joe Haskell, has asked her to marry him many times, but she doesn't want to leave the house. Elizabeth, her mother, tries to persuade her otherwise, but Caroline doesn't listen and instead sticks her nose in, meeting with the mysterious Burke Devlin. Seeing that he seems to be leaving in a few days and with seemingly no ill-will towards the Collins' family, she invites him to the house. He and Elizabeth meet but the real fireworks come when he meets Roger. Then, in one episode, we get a massive infodump about the past which goes as follows: Years ago, Burke was on trial for the manslaughter of a man. It was Roger's testimony that convicted him, which was especially suspicious given that Roger married Burke's sweetheart the day after he was sent to prison. After so many episodes of beating around the bush to get some concrete information towards the mystery is helpful. Also helpful is Maggie Evans talking to her father, Sam, and wondering how he's connected, meaning we're not supposed to know yet (that's good seeing I thought I'd missed something). Roger, however, was threatening Sam so we know something's up. He also hates his young son, David and left the city about a month ago to move to Collinsport for unknown reasons. There's still a lot of questions to be answered here (who was the man? Did Burke really do it? Is he really not going to exact revenge? How is Sam involved? And Roger? Who his wife and why did he leave?) but the presence of some answers is a good sign.
   The problem is this is still devastatingly slow, and the lack of focus on main character Victoria Winters this week, puts her own mystery (where did she come from?) to the back burner for the moment. Will next week give more answers, and will it be better structured (a lot of that information comes from one episode which is frustrating. Drip feed the audience, it helps)? Join Pop Culture Picnic next week to find out...
Episodes Grade: C
Next week's edition of Pop Culture Picnic will feature reviews of the hotly anticipated Carol, the first season of The Leftovers, the second season of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, the excellent anime One Punch Man and others. See you all then!
David Gumball-Watson

No comments:

Post a Comment