Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Pop Culture Picnic: Volume 1, Number 4

Hello all,
A bit of a light edition of Pop Culture Picnic this week. I blame Jane The Virgin's 22 episode season, but it was well worth it, as you'll see below. Also, I have to apologise but the second half of my Harry Potter retrospective has been delayed until next week. I just ran out of time this week, sorry! Anyway, hope you enjoy.

Second Hand News

While a bit of a slow week in regards to entertainment news (somewhat thankfully after the last two weeks), Doctor Who fans were given a shock when it was announced that Steven Moffat will be leaving the series to be replaced by Chris Chibnall. I must admit that I'm concerned. When Moffat took over, he had a proven track record, having written such classics as Blink and The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, and I knew the series was in good hands. While some people may argue this, I do believe that he's done pretty well during his five years. While some of the later Matt Smith stories were terrible (the whole of season seven, for example), he did a pretty good course correction by casting Peter Capaldi as the Doctor allowing for fresh storytelling (although, we did have the plainest person in the world in the form of Clara). However, I've often thought the series needed a new creator, save becoming stale, so I was happy that Moffat was leaving. The news of his successor, though, does not inspire confidence. Chris Chibnall is a good writer (having created the superlative murder mystery tragedy Broadchurch) but his Doctor Who track record is less inspiring, having been the writer of 42 and The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood. It's not that these were bad episodes, but they were plain. I am excited to see the new direction, but if those episodes are indicative of the quality, I am once again concerned about the series' future. Also, what has been less widely reported, is that we aren't getting any new Doctor Who in 2016 until Christmas, which is deeply frustrating. When a series is as popular as this one, why would you wait?

Silver Screen

Room review
2015, Canada/Ireland, directed by Lenny Abrahamson. In Cinemas Now.
Moving and powerful, Room is a difficult film to watch.  A woman, Ma, and her 5 year old son, Jack, are held captive in a tiny  room. As their captor becomes increasingly dangerous, the two must escape from the room, something made even more difficult by the fact that room is the only world Jack knows. Even if they do escape, will Jack and Ma ever adjust to the outside world again? The film is by turns suspenseful and emotionally damaging, but it succeeds by grounding the viewer in the lives of these two characters. It's a deeply intimate experience, becoming more than just a film but something that we too struggle with. Writing about this film is proving to be an immense challenge as I struggle to sum up how I felt about it, and I believe this would be true for anyone who goes to see it. It's such an individual film. In the cinema I watched it in, I was sat with a woman on one side and an elderly man on the other. As the film went along, it was interesting to note our reactions to it. In the deeply suspenseful escape scene, I felt bad because I instinctually reached out for the screen, gesturing Jack to get down, but no-one seemed to notice. In fact, the elderly man whisper-screamed Jack! and had his hands to his face. The fact that it could provoke such responses from the viewer is to its credit, but this works as more than a kidnap/captivity drama. Room takes up only about a third of the film, with the rest of the runtime dedicated to examining how Ma and Jack are coping with real life after being so isolated. It is in these moments that the film really sings, becoming even more emotional and intimate. The tiniest scenes prove the most significant, with the appearance of a dog bringing several people in film club to tears. This film's story is so powerful that it's easy to forget just how strong the performances are. Brie Larson (one of my favourite actresses ever since her astounding performance in Short Term 12) is finally getting the recognition she deserves for what is a very challenging role as Ma, seeing how she struggles to deal with the constant abuse and the inability to accept what happened to her. As Jack, the young Jacob Tremblay is exceptional, showing a wisdom and emotional range far beyond his years. Even the supporting actors do brilliantly here, with Joan Allen (as Jack's grandmother) and Tom McManus (as the grandmother's boyfriend) show a world of emotional empathy. This a deeply empathetic, life-affirming and hopeful film. It's never easy to watch and I'm not entirely sure I'd want to sit through it again, but I can say that I am far richer because of it.
Grade: A

The Danish Girl review
2015, UK, directed by Tom Hooper. In Cinemas Now.
I had high hopes for The Danish Girl. It's a biopic of one of the first people ever to receive a sex-change operation, the Danish artist Einar/Lili, and her relationship with her (ex) wife, Gerda. Unfortunately, it didn't really do anything for me. Visually, this is a stunning film. Eddie Redmayne makes a gorgeous woman and the costumes and locations are jaw-droppingly beautiful. The problem is that I didn't find it emotionally resonant. This is the story of a love that goes beyond traditional ideas of sex and gender, and yet it never engages the audience in that. It tells rather than shows us. One of the most successful scenes in the film shows Einar hiring a prostitute to imitate her actions. As she runs her hand over her body, it shows the difficulty Einar has existing in this body. It's a concrete and powerful moment that works wonderfully. The film itself doesn't, falling into tired tropes and going on far too long, coming to a natural ending then continuing until it gets to something more inevitable. Worse, are the liberties the film takes in regards to showing what really happened. Reading into the true story of events proves to be a difficult experience, considering that the reality would perhaps have made a film that is more interesting, as would more of a focus on Einar/Lili than Gerda. Alicia Vikander does good work, but she's done better elsewhere over the past 12 months (she was in Testament of Youth and Ex Machina) and Eddie Redmayne just sort of stares into the distance most of the time, as though yearning for a better life. Or it could be he's just bored, it's hard to tell. Finn, whom I saw it with, liked it, so it could just be me. But for whatever reason, this keeps the viewer at an emotional distance. Pretty to look at, but not much else sadly.
Grade: C+

On The Tube

Season One observations:
Jane The Virgin has no right being as good as it is. It's premise, that a virgin, Jane, is accidentally artificially inseminated with her former crush's (Rafael) sperm (by her former crush's sister), quickly becomes the least silly thing about it, as all manner of ridiculous soap opera complications barrel the plot forward. Complications that are so mind-bogglingly complex that it's surprising that it's as easy to follow as it is with each new episode bringing new twists and turns, making it supremely addictive. Add to this, the fact that it's all narrated by a very charming Latin Lover narrator who is basically another character on the show, acting as not only a provider of exposition (in fun text that appears onscreen ensuring that the viewer never loses track of what's going on), but as another viewer of the series, cheering on key relationships and encouraging characters to speak their minds. It's whimsical and silly, but it also works really well at tugging at the heartstrings. All of the characters on this show, as ridiculous as they may be, feel like real people reacting to increasingly absurd situations in a way that feels realistic. By the end of this 22 episode season, I grew to care for each and every one of these people as the show refuses to paint them as heroes or villains, but in shades of bright, vibrant colours. I haven't had this much fun or been as addicted to a TV series since Grey's Anatomy or Ugly Betty. It features a brilliantly diverse cast of Latina characters whose passions inform the series, as well as their love for telenovelas (a sort of serial drama popular in Latin America, defined by their over the top plots and character developments). To me, the sign of a really great TV series is how much you miss it when you complete the season. I'm going to miss Jane The Virgin a lot. It brought me to tears, made me laugh and was gripping and enjoyable. It truly has something for everyone and I can't wait for the next season.
Best Episodes - s1e1: Chapter One. s1e4: Chapter Four. s1e6: Chapter Six. s1e8: Chapter Eight. s1e9: Chapter Nine. s1e12: Chapter Twelve. s1e13: Chapter Thirteen. s1e16: Chapter Sixteen. s1e18: Chapter Eighteen. s1e19: Chapter Nineteen. s1e20: Chapter Twenty. s1e21: Chapter Twenty-One. s1e22: Chapter Twenty-Two.
Season Grade: A

Season One observations:
Oh, Sealab 2021. You silly, hilarious and clever piece of television, you! Created by Adam Reed (also creator of Archer, one of my TV favourites), it uses recycled animation from an old Hanna Barbera cartoon (Sealab 2020), dubs it and adds more explosions and weirdness. It's a highly quotable series ("There goes my nipples again!", "Does this photo make me look fat?" "No, but your ass does.") but is perhaps more notable for just how ingenious it is. The first episode is basically one long conversation between the crewmembers about the pros and cons of putting your brain in a robot  body, which grows increasingly complex, as they all ignore the fact that the base is in serious danger of exploding. Later episodes include a very silly (but hilarious) time travel paradox, a hallucinogenic piece of weirdness that boldly makes no sense, Captain Murphy (the inept leader of the base and the show's funniest character) trapped under a drink machine for a year (that one needs to be seen to be believed) and the entire crew stuck in a closet. At only ten minutes, the episodes pack a lot of plot and silliness in, but are never less than entertaining. A few episodes are a little less interesting and formally inventive, but each instalment has some great jokes and moments and I'm looking forward to continuing it over the coming months.
Best Episodes – s1e1: I, Robot. s1e4: Chickmate. s1e5: Lost In Time. s1e6: Predator. s1e8: Waking Quinn. s1e9: All That Jazz. s1e11: In The Closet.
Season Grade: A-

Soap Box
Episodes 22-28 observations:
The fall-out from the death of Catherine Harrington makes for another interesting week on Peyton Place.
   At a hearing, Dr. Rossi must defend his decision to operate on Catherine if he hopes to retain his licence to practice in the hospital and stay in Peyton Place. He believes he will be cleared as the autopsy on her body will reveal that he was justified as she had a perforated ulcer. Except it doesn't. The pathologist, Dr. Bradley, states that there was no ulcer and Rossi had no reason to operate. His licence is suspended, but he suspects Dr. Morton (head of the hospital whose had it in for Rossi since day one) may have been forced the pathologist to lie. He learned Bradley did the autopsy alone as well as disposed of the healthy tissue samples he supposedly recovered (both of which are far from standard procedure).
   Meanwhile, Catherine's will is read. Leslie Harrington (her widower, male form of widow, according to the internet) is hoping to inherit the Peyton Mills (which she had owned, being a former Peyton, but which he had been running). However, a last minute addendum to the will ensures that he still doesn't get it, as ownership is passed to her father. In related Harrington news, Betty is living the high-life and refuses to divorce Rod after Leslie tells her to. Rod (Leslie's son) offers her money to divorce him, but she angrily refuses. Later, he runs into Allison (Constance's daughter) and the two share a tender moment that is interrupted by a very drunk George (father of Betty and wife to Julie).
   Oh, George. He has a very big week. His business venture, an insurance company which he created after leaving Leslie's Mills, is failing. He begins to fear that he'll lose everything, so turns to drinking. Problem is that with alcohol, George is a very abusive and scary man. He abuses his wife Julie before realising that he may need help. He goes to Rossi who suggests that he see a psychiatrist, but George refuses, not wanting to be seen as crazy. Any scenes with these two are usually pretty great, and this is no exception. George compares himself to Rossi (both are being driven to desperation by small town madness and frustration) before getting some pills and going home. While looking through George's files, Rossi discovers that Dr. Bradley (the pathologist) used to be a surgeon and that his change of profession is very odd. He confronts him but gets nowhere. Bradley grows furious and calls Laura Brooks (former wife of surgeon Brooks, current secretary to Rossi and sister of Leslie) to arrange a lunch meeting. She learns that Bradley's final operation as a surgeon was supported by both Morton and Brooks. Her husband never mentioned it to her, which seems needlessly mysterious. The patient, Laura and Rossi discover, is Matthew Swain (friend to Constance and Allison, head of the local newspaper) who seems to be developing a grudge against Rossi's probing.
   Sometime later, George returns to the office and scares Julie out of the office. She runs to Leslie (her former fling) to ask him to beg for George's job back and nothing more. He agrees (in attempt to get Julie back) but George sees her leaving the mill. What follows is a scene of nail biting tension and absolute terror. A very, very drunk George returns home and explodes, throwing his glass at Julie before stating that he needs to teach her a lesson and holding up a bottle menacingly. She manages to knock him out with a phone (!), but it's the scariest we've ever seen George. He's such a great character, so self-destructive and complex, that it's horrific to see him spiral like this. She calls Rossi who rushes George to the hospital, but he is kicked out (no hospital licence remember). He grows furious and confronts Bradley again, suggesting that something happened in the operation on Matt, and he rigged the autopsy to thank Morton for saving his career. Once Rossi leaves, Bradley goes to Morton and tells him that he did lie about the autopsy. Catherine really did have a perforated ulcer. In a shocking twist, we learn that Morton didn't know, which makes him seem just a little less horrible. Then he goes back to being horrible by telling Bradley that he will cover it up, determined to make Rossi's suspension permanent. Upon learning of her father's attack on Julie, Betty goes to see her mother (who is staying with Constance). She goes from being incredibly sympathetic (telling Allison how difficult it was to live in a house with constant arguments) to an evil bitch (blaming her mother for George's breakdown as well as the disintegration of her marriage to Rod, which is just needlessly harsh.)
   If that wasn't enough, this week also saw the introduction of a significant new subplot. Matt tells Constance that Elliot Carson (killer of his wife whose serving time in jail) may soon be free, which concerns her. She wonders what effect this will have on Allison (her daughter). This is probably because Elliot is actually Allison's father which she doesn't know about, bringing Constance deep stress. Matt visits Elliot in the prison, to find out whether he should give a good recommendation to the parole board. He is intent on getting released and finding whoever is really responsible for his wife's murder (no! Please don't! I already have to deal with that on Dark Shadows!)
   This would all be far too complicated if it weren't for great acting and writing, which adds thematic constructs. This week alone we see another mention of the aftermath of the war (someone suggests it as a possible motive for Elliot's supposed actions), the idea that things were once better (they weren't), the oppressive nature of small towns, growing up (Allison states that real life is not like the movies, because there are no endings, happy or otherwise, while Constance suggests that we live our lives based on the decisions we made in our youth) and a new theme with Betty suggesting that relationships are strong until people get married. Then love and happiness die. She's not coping with Rod very well. Another pretty much perfect week of Peyton Place.
Episodes Grade: A

Episodes 22-28 observations:
The revelation that young David was responsible for Roger's car accident allows Dark Shadows to up its game.
   The town sheriff investigates Roger's car accident, trying to take into account all accounts, not just Roger's insistence that it was Burke Devlin. He visits Collinsport and finds the wrench. David, realising that his fingerprints are on the wrench, grabs hold of it while the others are talking. Victoria (his babysitter and the main character) scolds him, but he really is turning into a little criminal mastermind. Speaking of Victoria, Elizabeth (matriarch of Collinwood) tells Roger that she hired her for personal reasons. No idea what those personal reasons are. I wouldn't hold your breath either. The mystery of Victoria's background is destined to remain just that. After 1200 episodes, Dark Shadows never revealed the truth about her. Official spin-off material does provide the answer, but I'll wait until the time is right to drop that piece of information. It's easy to see how it got lost, especially with so much of a focus on Burke and Roger, but it's still annoying.
   Anyway, while looking for a letter that David stole, Victoria goes threw his drawers and discovers the bleeder valve (the removal of which caused Roger's accident) and realises that he is responsible. She confronts him with the revelation and he grows furious. He attacks her but she manages to fend him off. When Elizabeth enters (thought she came home, but seeing she hasn't left the house in 18 years, I must've missed something), she tells her but she refuses to believe it, especially when the valve and David disappear. Carolyn comes home and helps search for him, before discovering a mechanics magazine in Victoria's room. The issue contains a detailed breakdown of the operation of the brake mechanism. David gave it to her sometime last week, but I stupidly didn't pick up the clues. I'm sort of proud of Dark Shadows for actually seeding those clues in a way that is only obvious later. Meanwhile, Burke decides to fast track his plans (which seem to involve destroying the Collins financially, especially when we learn he ran an investment company back in New York). Acting on a warrant, the Sherriff searches Burke's room. He (naturally) doesn't find the valve, but does find David trying to break in. The young boy waits at the hotel, while Maggie (owner of the restaurant and daughter of Sam Evans, who did nothing this week, by the way) tries to distract him by making sundaes. It was a surprisingly tense and exciting scene, but as soon as Roger turns up, David disappears again. He doesn't care much about his son until he learns that he was trying to break into Burke Devlin's room.
   There's still not a lot happening on Dark Shadows, and it remains a vastly inferior show to Peyton Place, but this week saw the signs that this could progress into an exciting little show. However, for every David scene there was an interminable one with Burke Devlin making threats to destroy the Collins. Just do it already!
Episodes Grade: B-

In next week's Pop Culture Picnic, I'll be reviewing the new Tarantino The Hateful Eight, starting How To Get Away With Murder (Shonda Rhimes!), the seventh season of Seinfeld and meeting King Picoollo on Dragon Ball! Hope to see you all then!

David Gumball-Watson

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