Thursday, 21 January 2016

Pop Culture Picnic: Volume 1, Number 3

Hello all,
Sorry that this week's edition is so late, had a very busy week. That's not to say this is a lighter Pop Culture Picnic, as this features reviews of Carol, The Leftovers, Brooklyn Nine-Nine-Nine and The Legend Of Korra!

Second Hand News

Finally after months of speculation and debate, this week saw the release of theAcademy Award nominations. They were just as fascinating and frustrating as always, with surprising nominations for Mad Max: Fury Road (which I predicted would be too mainstream for the Academy's taste) and Bridge Of Spies (a patriotic movie that did very little to inspire confidence). However, for every wonderful inclusion (World of Tomorrow for best animated short feature!), there were a series of difficult exclusions. For the second year in a row, there was not a single actor of colour nominated (despite strong reviews for Creed and Straight Outta Compton. I didn't see either of these so will reserve judgement for the moment) while Carol was largely snubbed. A beautiful lesbian romance (which I watched this week and is reviewed below), it received nods for best actress and best supporting actress, but was looked for best picture and best director. This is incredibly frustrating, and while I don't necessarily agree with this article on possible reasons for the snub (in regards to it featuring a queer plot that doesn't end in tears), it raises a couple of interesting points, particularly around queer cinema's fondness for a sad ending. Over the next few weeks, I'll be watching and reviewing each of the films nominated, with a special edition of Pop Culture Picnic uploaded shortly before the ceremony.
   This week also saw the sad passing of Alan Rickman, mere days after David Bowie. He was a brilliant actor with a glorious voice and a powerful presence. While I know of him largely because of his role as Severus Snape in the Harry Potter films, he has a huge catalogue of great films which I'm looking forward to discovering. To pay tribute to him, I have reviewed the first four Harry Potter films in the 'Heroes' section further down, with a plan to review the remaining films next week.

Silver Screen

Carol review
2015, US, directed by Todd Haynes. In Cinemas Now.
Beautiful, powerful and simply stunning, Carol is a new landmark in queer cinema. In the 1950s, two women,  Therese and Carol, fall in love, but their happiness is threatened after Carol's ex-husband denies her access to her child. Early on in the film, one of the characters watches Sunset Blvd., stating that he is interested in the juxtaposition between what they say and how they feel. It acts as a sort of guide into this film, which at first glance could appear to be cold and dispassionate. This view couldn't be more wrong. Carol is a film of furtive glances and tiny gestures which carry a world of emotion. This also serves a duel meaning, serving to show the oppressive nature of 50s society towards queer people as well as serving to bring the viewer closer into the film. The love story absorbed me, filling my heart with passion, joy and deep sadness. It's story takes cues from other romantic classics such as Brief Encounter, but refuses to become too painful with a genuinely hopeful and moving conclusion, radical in its simplicity. It's also beautifully shot, with brilliant colour on gorgeously grainy film stock, movingly scored and powerfully acted by two of the best performers out there. Rooney Mara shows a world of pain and lust, but Cate Blanchett delivers a powerhouse performance. The scene where Carol's pent-up emotion explodes had me both cheering and in tears. It's a film of largely quiet moments, but serves to bring on a tidal wave of emotion. Brave and genuinely hopeful, Carol is an absolute masterpiece.
Grade: A

The Harry Potter Series - Part I

Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone review
2001, UK/US, directed by Chris Columbus. On DVD.
As the beginning to one of the most successful film franchises ever, Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone very much feels like an opening chapter. It takes over an hour for the plot to kick in, with a lot of set-up. There's nothing particularly wrong with this, but it does serve to make it less interesting than it perhaps could've been (the same thing happened with the books). The characters are all introduced here, setting up the age old good and evil plot that will serve the franchise well, and Hogwarts is just as wonderful as it always was. There are several great moments here, but in general, this film just feels a little more forgettable than some of the series' highlights.
Grade: B+

Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets review
2002, UK/US/Germany, directed by Chris Columbus. On DVD.
For a long time, Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets was my favourite film in the series. It remains one of the most memorable, with a number of genuinely creepy moments (the opening of the Chamber, the Spiders), but the plot again fails to come together in ways to be truly satisfying (Voldemort is defeated in a way that seems surprisingly easy). Overall, though, this is a deeply entertaining, creepy and funny film with some truly exceptional moments.
Grade: A-

Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban review
2004, UK/US, directed by Alfonso Cuaron. On DVD.
My personal favourite of the series, Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban is stunningly cinematic and satisfying on every level. The plot is complex and emotionally involving and it works even better on a second viewing to appreciate just how cleverly all the pieces have been moved into place. The visuals are absolutely gorgeous, particularly the scene of the climax with beautiful full-moon lighting, and this manages to be one of the scariest films in the series, due to the appearance of the skeletal Dementors. While there is some weirdness in regards to Hogwarts' location (it seems to have moved, especially Hagrid's hut which is at the bottom of a hill but which was on flat land) and Dumbledore has changed (I actually prefer Michael Gambon's performance as he seems less stern and imbues the role with a lot of heart), this is a glorious piece of cinema. Wonderful.
Grade: A

Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire review
2005, UK/US, directed by Mike Newell. On DVD.
Menacing, dark and surprisingly entertaining, Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire is an another fantastic entry into the series. The three main set-pieces are wonderful, especially the creepy maze which will be the site of one of the saga's greatest tragedies. That moment, combined with the resurrection of Voldemort, puts in place a new order of things going into the latter years. This feeling is added to by the side focus on romance, as Harry, Ron, Hermoine and the rest of the gang enter puberty and the dating years via a school dance (Hermoine looks glorious in that pink dress), but it is the darkness, horror and sadness of this film's climax that lingers. The only reason this isn't getting the highest marks is because Ron and Hermoine have such a tiny role in this film.
Grade: A-

On The Tube

Season One Observations:
The Leftovers is the hardest show I've ever sat down to watch. Now, I live on dark and depressing TV shows. Of last year's top 20 series' over half of them I'd say I found difficult to watch at some point or another, simply because the emotion became overwhelming. But nothing is as emotionally exhausting and exceptional as The Leftovers. One day, 2% of the world's population just disappears. The show follows those left behind as they struggle to cope with not only the loss of their loved ones, but why they left and they're still here. This is a show that challenges the viewer, not only through a refusal to offer any explanation as to what happened to those 2%, but through being almost unbearably bleak and depressing. It's a show that's both deeply personal and profoundly complex, with each and every person having a very different reaction to it. Some I've spoken to find it addictive as they grow desperate to work out the mystery, others find it too hard and give up after a handful of episodes. It can be read as a meditation on trauma, depression, PTSD, faith, hope and organised religion, largely because it's so deeply symbolic and ambiguous. While that could be a problem, it is what makes The Leftovers such an incredibly brilliant show, but also such a difficult one. Usually, I can bash through a complete disc (about four episodes) in one sitting, but not with this series. I never did more than two episodes at once as it was simply too exhausting. However, this is one of the best shows I've ever seen simply because it refuses to let the viewer off the hook, allowing us to engage with a set of characters, asking us which ones resonate with us and why. It's profound, difficult and revolutionary television, and a true must-see series.
Best Episodes - s1e3: Two Boats And A Helicopter. s1e5: Gladys. s1e6: Guest. s1e8: Cairo. s1e10: The Prodigal Son Returns.
Grade: A

Season Two Observations:
One of television's most consistently funny and enjoyable comedies, Brooklyn Nine-Nine works because of the strength of its ensemble cast. There's no weak link and watching the characters interact in new and interesting ways is often the highlight of an episode (also the incredibly quotable dialogue and silly games). The show's second season expands upon the first by adding a romantic subplot between Jake and Amy, which acts as an undercurrent to the other action. Put simply, once Parks And Recreation comes to an end (still waiting for them to release it on DVD), I can take solace that another workplace comedy centred around funny people making light of situations has taken its place.
Best Episodes – s2e2: Chocolate Milk. s2e3: The Jimmy Jab Games. s2e5: The Mole. s2e8: USPIS. s2e9: The Road Trip. s2e12: Beach House. s2e15: Windbreaker City. s2e17: Boyle-Linetti Wedding. s2e18: Captain Peralta. s2e22: The Chopper. s2e23: Johnny And Dora.
Grade: A-

Book One - Air Observations:
After the glorious heights of Avatar: The Last Airbender's final season, I had high hopes for The Legend Of Korra. With the promise of a strong female lead and a time jump, it seemed primed to be better than it's prequel. Sadly, the first season did not live up to these expectations. The series itself looks gorgeous, with beautiful background painting, and the characters are wonderful (love Tenzin). It also has a nice sense of legacy in regards to connections to the original. The problem with the first season is that the central conflict, that of Amon vs. Korra, doesn't feel strong enough, and the motivations behind his attacks are flimsy (but are thematically connected to the rest of the show). The ending is a frustrating, but necessary, cop-out but ultimately Korra feels less like the sum of its parts. Then again, so did Avatar's first season, so my hopes remain high.
Best Episodes – s1e3: The Revelation. s1e6: And The Winner Is... s1e9: Out Of The Past. s1e10: Turning The Tides. s1e12: Endgame.
Grade: B

Series Observations:
Combining silliness with incredible action sequences, One Punch Man is one of those animes that is just indescribably awesome. Saitama is a hero who has a problem; he has become so powerful that he can decimate any enemy with a single punch, leaving him very, very bored. It's a silly premise, but the show works because his boredom and deadpan style when facing any enemy contrasts with how massive and seemingly impenetrable said enemy is, giving the series a lot of humour. As the series goes along, we learn more about the world Saitama lives in and he gets a student in Genos, making for something that is not just action-packed, but addictive. It's also spectacularly made, with smooth beautiful, yet kinetic animation and a fantastic theme song (ONE PUNCH!!!!), all adding up to something that is just brilliant. Words fail when describing something as jaw-droppingly cool as this series, other than to say watch it.
Grade: A

Series Observations:
I delayed watching One Week Friends for many months, simply because I knew it was going to be an emotional and sad experience. A female student, Kaori, has a condition which causes memories of her friends to disappear every Monday, so she has isolated herself to save any potential friends from being hurt. However, when fellow student, Yuuki, tries to get close to her, she opens up beautiful and moving ways. The sadness of her condition is contrasted with a series that can occasionally be so sweet it borders on saccharine. Also, for the first half of the series very little happens apart from Yuuki and Kaori getting steadily closer, but then the second half reveals a gut punch of a twist, turning this into something on par with Clannad's level of emotional devestation. This tonal shift is a little jarring, but the series is best seen as a meditation on what it means to be a friend and opening yourself up to people, with all the happiness and pain that can bring. This makes for a sweet and emotional experience that is well worth the watch.
Grade: B+

Soap Box

Episodes 15-21 Observations:
Another massive week on Peyton Place, with the introduction of new plots and the death of a fairly major character.
   Rod Harrington and Betty Anderson's marriage acts as a catalyst to many of the events this week. His family disapproves of the marriage, particularly his father, Lesley Harrington (who we learn has a long-standing feud with the Andersons, after he and Betty's father, George, were school friends were school friends but drifted apart after Lesley refused to join the war effort). This is particularly frustrating considering that Lesley was also middle-class but married rich in Catherine Harrington (nee Peyton). Meanwhile, a sickly Catherine asks her doctor, Morton (also head of the local hospital) to look into the circumstances of their marriage. He discovers that Betty lost the baby and confronts her doctor, Rossi, asking why he didn't feel the need to tell Rod or the Harringtons. Rossi tells him that it was because confidentiality is a thing and accuses Morton of being too emotionally invested in the Harringtons, something which pisses off the doctor. Rossi leaves to go on a date with Constance Mackenzie (Allison's isolated mother who was friends with Rossi many years ago), but his house, the old Carson place, where Elliot Carson murdered his wife many years ago (and was jailed for but he is now appealing), freaks her out for no apparent reason. He manages to calm her down and they kiss, before he is called to Catherine, whose condition has worsened. Realising that her life hangs in the balance (and that Morton misdiagnosed her), he rushes her to the hospital, and asks Lesley if he can have his permission to perform surgery. He denies it, having put his full trust in Morton (who has two hours away). Eventually, he gives in and Rossi operates. Morton enters halfway through and complications ensue. Suddenly, and without any fanfare, Catherine Harrington dies. It's a scene of devastating jaw-dropping silence which promises to have epic repercussions for Rossi and Morton. As all this is happening, Betty and Rod have a massive argument and she contemplates moving away, but Allison (Rod's ex) stops her in a surprisingly moving scene. After the death of his mother, Betty asks Allison to be her friend, but grows jealous when Rod drives her home (she had reason to be, seeing Rod admitted he still held feelings for her). She and Rod have another massive argument, which leads to her finally, finally revealing that she lost the baby, which was just as sad, juicy and awesome as I had hoped. A spectacular end to what was a very big week.
   Peyton Place continues to up the ante, and many of the big scenes this week were exceptionally well-filmed. I still can't get the moment where Catherine dies out of my mind. It was just so disturbingly simple and realistic. Her death could have dire consequences for everyone in the community and I personally can't wait to see where it all goes.
Episodes Grade: A

Episodes 15-21 Observations:
This week, Dark Shadows flirts with being a good show but then decides against it.
   The story begins on a bang as Roger Collins has a car accident placing his life in jeopardy. He survived with only minor wounds but his thirst for vengeance against Burke Devlin grows, especially when he learns that Victoria saw Burke standing over Roger's car holding a wrench. The cause of his accident was the removal of a bleeder valve, causing his brakes to fail. However, in a genuinely shocking twist, we learn that it wasn't Burke who removed the valve, but Roger's troubled young son, David. This had been set-up ever since we first met the little boy, and was actually revealed when we saw him holding a bolt sometime last week, but it worked well, simply by refusing to go down the safe and expected route. It also sets up further anger for Burke who is now being accused of something he didn't actually do. When Roger and Victoria confront him, he unsurprisingly denies responsibility, but she believes him. In regards to information about the past events, we did get some small clues. The circumstances surrounding the manslaughter were that Roger and Burke were in a car that killed a man. We also learn that Burke Devlin was a model for Sam (whose a painter) which explains more about how he's connected to the whole thing.
   This isn't much and it's frustrating that it moves so slowly, especially when the David plotline could actually make for interesting television. I can hope.
Episodes Grade: C+

Next week's edition of Pop Culture Picnic will be on time and will feature reviews of Room, The Danish Girl, the first seasons of Sealab 2021 and Jane The Virgin as well as featuring the conclusion of the Harry Potter retrospective. Hope to see you all then!

David Gumball-Watson

1 comment:

  1. Great work! Love these reviews. If you haven't seen it already, I recommend the movie 'Perfume: the story of a murderer'--Alan Rickman doesn't come in until later in the movie if my memory serves me right, but it was a really creepy/interesting film (based on a novel) overall and I enjoyed his performance.