Thursday, 25 February 2016

Pop Culture Picnic: Volume 1, Number 7

Hello all,
Again sorry for the lateness on this week's Pop Culture Picnic. Laptop problems this time, as my beloved computer decided to stop playing DVDs. Thankfully, I've been able to borrow mum's until I can get mine fixed, but it still feels pretty strange! Meanwhile, a pretty big week, as I start a number of new series' as well as giving my personal Oscar predictions. It's an exciting time of the year!

Second Hand News

So, the time has come. Next Monday, the 29th of February, is the Academy Awards. I have managed to see most of the films nominated and so will thus provide my own Oscar predictions. First, I'll state who I want to win and then who I think will win. Next week, we'll see how many I got right.
Best Original Score: Ennio Morricone for The Hateful Eight. Morricione's music is one of the best things about this film; atmospheric, menacing and catchy. He should have it in the bag, although Carter Burwell's romantic score for Carol or the intense Sicario score could cause an upset. However, if the overly patriotic Bridge Of Spies soundtrack wins, I'm gonna cry.
Best Documentary: The Look Of Silence. While I have yet to see Oppenheimer's follow-up to the jaw-dropping The Act Of Killing, if there is any justice in this world it should win. Victims of abuse face up their abusers? It's got it in the bag. That said, the brilliant but depressing Amy could also win.
Best Supporting Actress: Rooney Mara in Carol. It's category fraud (seeing Rooney Mara's character is just as important if not more so than Cate Blanchett's), but it's a great, meaty role. I also loved Jennifer Jason Leigh's scheming, having a whale of a time performance in The Hateful Eight but many are predicting Alicia Vikander for The Danish Girl. Vikander had a great year in 2015, doing great work in Testament Of Youth, Ex Machina and half a dozen other films, but she, like The Danish Girl itself, was far from notable or awards worthy.
Best Actress: Charlotte Rampling in 45 Years. In contrast, this is one of the hardest categories, with everyone of the nominees turning in exceptional, awards-worthy performances (except for Jennifer Lawrence on autopilot in the terrible Joy). There's been a lot of chatter about Brie Larson's spectacular performance in Room, film club was in love with Saiorse Ronan's beautiful acting in Brooklyn and Cate Blanchett in Carol is glorious. However, I've picked Charlotte Rampling for her emotional, brillaint performance which relies heavily on facial expression and visual storytelling to do the work. But there's no real downside here, a great set of films and a great set of nominees.
Best Actor: Leonardo Dicaprio in The Revenant. It's more than past time Leo got an award and this could really do it for him, especially seeing it's such a lightweight category. The only real competition he may have is Michael Fassbender for Steve Jobs (although I would probably argue it was the script and production that made that film work) or Matt Damon for The Martian (which was okay, I suppose). However, if Eddie Redmayne wins for his crappy Danish Girl performance, which was heavy on the face-touching and low on actual pathos, I'm gonna scream.
Best Director: George Miller in Mad Max: Fury Road. It's another wide-open category, with no real losers, but I'm saying George Miller. While I seriously doubt Mad Max has the Academy support to win Best Picture, his kinetic, action-packed direction was a true piece of cinematic authorship. Alejandro G. Inarritu could cause an upset with The Revenant, but he won last year and I don't like it when that happens so I'm sticking with Miller.
Best Picture: Room. It's the first year I've really followed the Academy Awards and it's one of the most interesting sets of films in recent years. Very few of the nominees are biopics and the selections are eclectic and spread over multiple genres. While many are arguing for Spotlight, The Revenant and The Big Short, I believe Room has the staying power and Academy flavour to get it over the line. While I would argue that Brooklyn and Mad Max: Fury Road are better films, I just don't think they're really Academy Award winning films. As for Bridge Of Spies (way too patriotic and a real shock nominee) and The Martian (fun but disposable)? I don't think they've got a snowball's chance in hell. However, I could be pleasantly surprised. I love Oscar season.

Silver Screen
45 Years review
2015, UK, directed by Andrew Haigh. In Cinemas Now.
One of the most quietly devastating, beautiful and honest portraits of marriage I've ever seen, 45 Years is a masterly film. Just days before Clare and Tom's 45th anniversary, a letter arrives containing word that Tom's long-lost lover's body has been found. What transpires over the next week is like watching a marriage implode, as long-held secrets and resentments are brought forth to the surface, before being rapidly suppressed again. One of the most remarkable things about this film is that there are no big speeches, no massive confrontations or anything so pedestrian. Instead we get Charlotte Rampling's career best performance as Clare, a woman realising that her entire life may have been a lie; that the man she loves has been hiding something massive. It's heartbreaking as her strong internal conflict is displayed through the expressions on her face and her body language. While it's largely her film, credit must also go to director Andrew Haigh who has become one of the most interesting individuals working in the profession after this, Weekend (something which this film seems to mirror, seeing that film was about two men on the cusp of starting a relationship) and his work on Looking. However, it's the ending of this film that cements its status as a truly great work. At the anniversary party, the couple dance to The Platters' 'Smoke Gets In Your Eyes' and it's beautiful, tragic and ambiguous. Unforgettable filmmaking.
Grade: A

Screen Classics

Batman: The Movie review
1966, US, directed by Leslie H. Martinson. Available on DVD.
There's no denying that the 60s Batman series and subsequent film are ridiculous, kooky and stupid. The thing that one can't help but wonder when watching this is how aware the players were. Did Adam West know that Batman's morality comes across as idealistic? Did the writers know the story has no logic? Did the audience take this seriously or did they see it as a tongue-in-cheek parody? Which way are we supposed to see it? Nothing else I've seen is so confusing, but it also holds a mysterious power. I sat through the first season of the TV show early last year (marathoning that was a bad idea though. My brain felt like it was turning to mush) and despite thinking it was one of the most stupid things I've ever seen, I've often wanted to go back and do more. The movie's a good way back in, as it combines the show's greatest villains (the Joker, the Riddler, the Penguin and Catwoman) in a downright odd caper, but it continues to raise the question over whether it's tongue in cheek. Take an early scene where Batman is using the Batcopter to infiltrate a ship. Suddenly, the ship disappears and a shark bites his leg. Robin, who is driving the Batcopter, lifts it into the sky. The clearly very rubber shark remains attached and Batman punches away at it, before asking Robin to get the Shark Repellent Batspray. On any logical level, this is stupid, but if you can turn your brain off, it's hilarious in its stupidity. It's like if Sharknado was high art. So, if you see this straight, you're gonna hate it. But if you're in the mood for some fun and laughs, this is highly entertaining fun.
Grade: B

After Darkness review
1985, Switzerland, directed by Sergio Guerraz & Dominique Othenin-Girard. Available on US DVD.
After Darkness is a very obscure 1985 Swiss horror movie which I picked up cheap secondhand. It sounded interesting because it had a great cast (John Hurt and Julian Sands) so I placed it in the DVD player and hoped for the best. It was awful. I only watched it a week ago and I can't really remember all that much about it. Hell, I couldn't even remember much about it the next day. It's dull, boring and stupid all at the same time, with some weird Freudian incest and psychotherapy stuff going on. I've got no idea what it was about, what the themes were, why the characters behaved the way they did or why I bothered to watch the whole 1 hour 40 minute runtime of this thing. Basically, if you see this, avoid it like the plague. I only paid $2.25 for it. It wasn't worth it.
Grade: D-

On The Tube

Season One review:
The thing about the current state of Peak TV, with literally hundreds of new series' being released each year, is that some shows inevitably fall through the cracks. For an avid TV watcher such as I, the way I try to get around this is by looking at the general feel and best of lists at the end of the year. Even this, though, isn't flawless (as evidenced by my general dislike of The Affair), so sometimes you just have to go with word of mouth and a gut feeling. The 100 was one such program. Ever since it aired, I'd heard varying things about it, from the professional view that the characters were cliché to my friend's assessment that I simply had to watch it. So, after several weeks of average TV, I decided to give this a go. By God, it's awesome.
   87 years after a nuclear war, humanity is surviving in a tiny space station (termed The Ark) floating above Earth. The problem is the Ark is rapidly running out of oxygen. Desperate, the ship's council sends 100 young prisoners to Earth to see if the planet is survivable. Once on the ground, the dangers of the planet are nothing compared to the tensions within their own group.
   What's really, really great about this show is that for once it isn't overly depressing. The 100 is concerned with horrible moral decisions of which there is no real good outcome, and that often takes an emotional toll. There's a scene in episode 5 on the Ark which is probably one of the most beautiful yet heartbreaking things I've seen this year. The show, however, never gets stuck in these depressions, meaning it's a lot easier to watch than most critically well-regarded TV. As for the characters, it is a bit odd that they all look like super models, but once the show kicks into gear and they're covered in blood and mud, it makes it a little easier to forgive. It's actually in character where the show is probably it's most innovative. In a show like this one, there's always the threat of death, and the fact that that never seems to affect anyone we know is frustrating. Not on The 100. It has a high body count of people we care about which ups the stakes and makes for something incredibly exciting. I was so enamoured by this show that I'll be doing the second season next Pop Culture Picnic. If it can keep up the standard of the first, this may be one of my favourite new shows.
Best Episodes - s1e1: Pilot. s1e3: Earth Skills (Aka Earth Kills). s1e5: Twilight's Last Gleaming. s1e6: His Sister's Keeper. s1e7: Contents Under Pressure. s1e9: Unity Day. s1e10: I Am Become Death. s1e12: We Are Grounders Part I. s1e13: We Are Grounders Part II.
Season Grade: A-

Season Three review:
Starting a new season of The X-Files is an event. Mum, dad and I all eagerly sit around the television and over the next few months, we'll watch it all, complaining or relishing how creepy and entertaining it all is. Because I do this show in such a completely different way than many of the others I cover here (which are generally watched within the space of a week. We started X-Files season three in January and are only now at an end), it's harder to know how cohesive the whole thing is, but what I can say is that season three had some of the show's best episodes yet. These are almost always monster-of-the-week (stand alone stories) as even at this early stage, the mythology episodes are beginning to drag. But what great episodes they are. The two Darin Morgan scripts, 'Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose' and 'Jose Chung's "From Outer Space"' are not only some of the greatest X-Files episodes, but some of the greatest television episodes of all time. The third season also saw a lovely expansion of the relationship between Mulder and Scully with greater character depth and motivation, and some of the season's better episodes were those which saw the character's become emotionally involved in their cases. However, as I mentioned earlier, the mythology episodes are falling behind. They're dull, ambiguous and pretentious and very few of them actually work at defining anything. The lack of resolution on this show rivals Seinfeld at times, but here it's more frustrating, especially as we're supposed to actually be invested in the outcome of the mythology. Most of the time, there's a sense of frustration rather than excitement towards the end of the season, as we know the show will inevitably return to its ever expanding arc. It's a big problem, one that will surely grow as we continue, but for the moment this remains one of those show's I love and can't wait to continue watching.
Best Episodes – s3e2: Paper Clip. s3e4: Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose. s3e6: 2Shy. s3e8: Oubliette. s3e9: Nisei. s3e10: 731. s3e12: War Of The Coprophages. s3e14: Grotesque. s3e17: Pusher. s3e20: Jose Chung's "From Outer Space". s3e22: Quagmire.
Season Grade: A-

Series review:
Very few documentaries are as fascinating and complex as The Killing Season. Examining the factors that went into the messy Kevin Rudd/Julia Gillard fight for the Prime Ministerial position which led to the implosion of labor and a farcical state of Australian politics, it interviews many of the key players and provides the facts in a clear and engaging manner. For anyone who has wondered what the hell went wrong, this is brilliant, open and honest with no-one coming out looking anything less than human. It goes around the traditional perceptions of Rudd and Gillard to see them as complex people. Yes, Rudd was ruthless and downright mean but he was also kind with an ability to deal with the public exceptionally well. This show refuses to paint anyone in black and white, offering shades of grey and human tragedy to what had often been a very sensationalised time of politics. What it succeeds best in doing is to make us not sure about how to believe, as everyone has wildly differentiating accounts, forcing the viewer to make up our own mind. As someone who was horrified and fascinated by this saga, The Killing Season was a fascinating piece of television, a Shakespearian tragedy of betrayal, lies, deceit, heartbreak and greed. Essential viewing.
Series Grade: A

Season One Observations:
I started The Venture Bros. based on the recommendation of the local DVD store guy, who stated that it was the best thing he'd ever seen, with complex characterisation, mind-blowing plot developments and consistent humour. Naturally, I was desperate to watch it and I'm so glad I did. It concerns two teenage brothers, Hank and Dean, their scientist dad, Dr. Venture, their bodyguard and the adventures they have. It riffs directly on such adventure stories as Johnny Quest and The Hardy Boys, but unearths a hidden darkness lurking just below the surface. Hank and Dean are useless heroes while Dr. Venture is selfish, mean and forever living in his successful father's shadow. However, the show's best character is Venture's self-proclaimed arch-nemesis The Monarch. He's a crappy villain, constantly dealing with his own ineptitude and thinking he's much better than he is. I say self-proclaimed because Venture just thinks him annoying rather than terrifying. The Monarch is such a pathetic villain that you can't help but feel sorry for him, surrounded by stupid henchman and his awesome best girl Dr. Girlfriend. What's even more interesting than the great character work, is the world building. By the end of the season, we have a sense of this world and the people that inhabit it, as in just 13 episodes we have a wonderful, expansive supporting cast. It took a while before this great, addictive quality kicked in, but the ending of the season is jaw-dropping, promising even more exciting developments in the future.
Best Episodes – s1e4: Eeny, Meeney, Miney... Magic! s1e6: Tag Sale - You're It! s1e7: Home Insecurity. s1e8: Ghosts Of The Sargasso. s1e10: Are You There God? It's Me, Dean. s1e11: Past Tense. s1e12: The Trial Of The Monarch. s1e13: Return To Spider Skull Island.
Season Grade: A-

Season One Observations:
Love, Chunibyo & Other Delusions is a great little series, dealing with grief, identity politics, maturity and regret with humour and fun. A chunibyo is a Japanese phenomenon where a young person starts to believe and act as though they are magically gifted superhero. Most people grow past this and look back with deep embarassment, but Rikka is a bit different. She refuses to grow up and mature, still believing that she is a superhero well into high school. When she overhears Yuta (a former chunibyo) in a moment of weakness, the two start to grow closer, eventually getting to the secret of why she truly believes it. What starts out as funny, that Rikka's reality is delusional, eventually gives way to something more profound and moving. This is her reality and it is wrong for anyone else to try and change her, especially seeing she's just putting on an identity to cope, and we all do that, even if our identity is on the surface more 'normal'. That's a fascinating point and the basis of identity politics and I was amazed that this seemingly silly anime made such a pressing and clever argument. What's even more amazing is that this is one of those anime that just works. The supporting cast is lovely, the humour lands, as do the moment where it gets dramatic. Even the romance is sweet and lovely, as it becomes clear that the two really would make one another better and happier. A glorious slice of anime goodness.
Season Grade: A

In next week's Pop Culture Picnic, I'll be debriefing the Academy Awards, reviewing Trumbo, season two of The 100 and Sealab 2021 and season three of Please Like Me, and more. See you then!

David Gumball-Watson

Thursday, 18 February 2016

Pop Culture Picnic: Volume 1, Number 6

Hello all,
It's a very late issue of Pop Culture Picnic this week, largely because I am covering two weeks worth of material (The Affair dragged everything down so not much else got down). As such, it's a bumper issue this week, hope you like it!

Silver Screen

Spotlight review
2015, US, directed by Tom McCarthy. In Cinemas Now.
A difficult, uncompromising and ultimately very challenging film, Spotlight tells the true story of how a team of Boston journalists uncovered the horrific legacy of child sexual abuse within the Catholic church. In doing so, it shines a light on an issue that is growing in significance as more and more sad cases come to light, and the film does a powerful job of showing just how institutionalised the abuse is. One of the most damning scenes comes when a man says that a male priest preying on a young boy is not about homosexual desire, but about power and the accessibility of this young child. The film is about the little people who, sick of being abused, finally stand up and demand their story be heard. In this way, it acts as a powerful ode to the strength of the victims in being brave enough to come forward and tell their often harrowing and tear-jerking stories. However, the film is also notable for providing a realistic and interesting portrayal of what being a journalist means. It's about the grunt work, the menial tasks which go into an investigation, but also about how being a good journalist means putting one's personal prejudices aside in order to present the truth. For many working on the case, this hits them in a deeply personal way and it's to their testament that they still tell the story. However, that said, this is a more conventional film and one that is also frequently hard to watch, meaning it's a hard film to love, but an essential one.
Grade: A-

Deadpool review
2016, US, directed by Tim Miller. In Cinemas Now.
From it's opening pan over a frozen scene of chaotic violence set to Juice Newton's 'Angel Of The Morning' and featuring glorious self-depreciating credits, it's clear that Deadpool is like no superhero movie before it. It's  fourth-wall breaking, violent, crude and very, very entertaining featuring a terrific performance from Ryan Reynolds as the slightly insane titular hero. The best moments in the film come from those that directly riff on or make fun of the tropes found within the Marvel Cinematic Universe or the character's own earlier failed appearance in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, but for all its silliness, the film still adheres to the basic superhero origin story. There's nothing particularly wrong with that, especially seeing Deadpool's frequent quips and inventiveness make for something deliriously funny, but there is a feeling that there's a missed opportunity, especially in regards to the villain and supporting cast. One of the big problems is that it is obligated to the X-Men franchise in certain ways, and it'll be interesting to see how he fits into things in the future. For the moment, however, the film, for all its failings, is worth it for Ryan Reynolds' frenetic performance, filled with irreverent and silly humour.
Grade: B+

Steve Jobs review
2015, US, directed by Danny Boyle. In Cinemas Now.
Steve Jobs was not a film I was looking forward to. I'd heard almost nothing about it and am not really the biggest fan of Jobs or the Apple corporation. However, I was blown away by this film, because it uses form in fascinating ways. It tells the story of Jobs, not as a biopic but more in terms of the essence of the man, shown through his interactions with people. The film is divided into three parts, each set shortly before an important product launch, and uses this to tell a tightly plotted and interesting chamber play. It's basically just a lot of conversations, but they're well-written and highlight just how much of an arse Jobs could be, especially to his daughter. He comes across as a frequently unlikable egomaniac with a God complex but also as a genius. It was interesting to watch this with film club as it led to a long and fascinating conversation about how in order to be these powerful, influential people like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, you have to be ruthless and a bastard, and it's something the film deals with really well. It's especially clearly seen in Jobs' interactions with Seth Rogen's character who insists that you can be influential without being cruel, but there is more evidence against that argument than for it. Speaking of actors, this is filled with great ones, from Michael Fassbender's portrayal of Jobs as a ruthless planner to Jeff Daniels in a complex role as the former head of Apple and Kate Winslet as a loyal but uncomfortable supporter, it's a veritable smorgasbord of great, powerful performances. The problem with the film is that it does occasionally fall into Steve Jobs' worship, especially in its last ten minutes or so, when the storytelling becomes inconsistent with what the rest of the film has been trying to do. It's a significant problem, but one overcome by just how well this film works on a structural level. The three segments are distinct in not only their storytelling, but also visual and aural feel, specific to the time and location, making for a wonderfully layered and enjoyable film.
Grade: A-

Brooklyn review
2015, UK, directed by Tom Crowley. In Cinemas Now.
Of all the films that were critically adored last year, Brooklyn seems the most strange, simply because it is so ordinary. An Irish woman, unable to find employment, emigrates to Brooklyn, America and struggles with homesickness before falling in love. However, when a tragedy calls her back home and she meets another man, where will she choose? There's nothing overly special about its storyline, there are no evil people or fights against injustices, just a simple story beautifully told. It's a tale of good people trying to do their best in difficult situations, which is surprisingly rare and makes for something absolutely charming and lovely. The romance is sweet and the characters funny, but when it comes for them to feel sadness, we feel their pain. A lot of that has to do with Saiorse Ronan's gorgeous performances, but it's also to do with the pull between home and future and the life we choose for ourselves. One of the film's most beautiful scenes features a man singing a traditional Irish tune at a Brooklyn Christmas, like a call back home. It hits something beautiful and simple within us, as well as touching on themes of homesickness and family, and for that reason, this film should be celebrated. Gorgeous filmmaking.
Grade: A

Screen Millennium

Diary Of June review
2005, South Korea, directed by Im Kyung-Soo. On DVD as Bystanders.
It's exceedingly rare for a mystery thriller to include some sort of social commentary, mainly because they're more concerned with getting the audience's pulse to race than with making them think. It's to Diary Of June's credit (released in Australia under the spoilery title Bystanders) that it takes time to address an important social issue, that of bullying in high schools, and to tie it to a serial killer plotline. The revelation of who the real bystanders are is interesting and does make for something a lot more thought provoking than it initially appears. If you ever want to see this, look away now, largely because I want to discuss this in some detail, but also because I may not remember this film in the future. It wasn't that spectacular. The ending of the film suggests that the real bystanders are the parents and adults that accuse rather than ask allow bullying to occur. It's a damning statement for a film to make, but a fascinating one, seeing as how heavily it places the blame at the hands of the bullied boy's mother. The plot of the film concerns the serial killing of several young students, all of which had a hand in bullying a young boy who killed himself months before. Is it possible that he's back to claim vengeance? Nope, it's his mum and I'm not really spoiling anything there, seeing the film claims to be a mystery but only really puts one suspect forth. There are other problems too. It's slow and filled with weird narrative diversions, dead ends and set pieces that don't really add up to anything in a logical way, making for a generally unsatisfying film experience. However, that idea at the film's core, makes up for it in a big way, suggesting that even in the most average of films there is something to be treasured.
Grade: C

Berberian Sound Studio review
2012, UK, directed by Peter Strickland. On DVD.
Disturbing, visceral and very, very odd, Berberian Sound Studio is both a horror film and a tribute to those unsung masters of the genre. A sound engineer, Gilderoy, work on a nasty Italian shock film starts to affect him psychologically, making for a demented headtrip of a movie. The most disturbing scenes of the film serve a dual purpose, such as when Gilderoy tries to create the sound effect for a woman's head being cut in half by taking a machete to a lettuce. These scenes are filled with implied menace and violence, but also show the dedication that those working on a horror film are put through in order to make the films seem more realistic. It's critical of the level of violence in these films, but also seems to take some sort of voyeuristic pleasure in it, bringing to mind films such as Peeping Tom and Suspiria. Despite being no actual violence, the implied horror is even more unsettling (there are some places a red hot poker should never, ever go), making for a deeply disturbing experience. However, Berberian Sound Studio probably attempts a little too much, bringing in so many ideas that it's hard to exactly get a grip on what's going on, although I suppose that is probably at least part of the point. Surreal cinema at its most disturbing.
Grade: B+

On The Tube

Season One review:
Messy and complicated, The Affair is one of the most challenging shows I've seen in a very long time, largely because I didn't like it very much. It's not that it's bad TV like Teen Wolf or How To Get Away With Murder, but I wouldn't say it's very good either. It's clever, in a way, but it never really connected with me in any emotional way. There's a few reasons for this. The show tells the story of an affair between a man, Noah, and a woman, Alison, who are married to other people. That alone is a lot to deal with. People who cheat on their partners are not exactly well-liked so the show is already going against the traditional public opinion of these people as selfish and unlikable (which was one of the aims of the show). The problem is that the show doesn't present these people as two star-crossed lovers, but as two deeply damaged people who just happened to be there when their marriages were unstable, which makes it really hard to root for them as a couple. The show, however, seems to think that they are pulled together by a profound love, but everything else seems to go against that.
   Part of my issue could be with the structure of the show. The Affair is told from two points of view, so any event will be focalised through either Noah or Alison, showcasing their vastly different opinions and memories of these things. This occasionally makes for brilliant, thematically complex storytelling, commenting on how gender interacts with the way we see things, as well as showcasing that a point of view like Alison's is rarer on network TV. It also makes Noah seem like an entitled white arsehole most of the time so it's hard to sympathise, especially seeing his wife Helen is actually the most likable character in the show. But that's beside the point.
   The device also initially works well as an examination of subjective memory, but later devolves into more of a spot the difference and becomes increasingly unrealistic (seemingly traumatic events which one would be imagined with at least some degree of similar clarity diverge simply because this is a show about differing memories). It's also a trait the show gives in to and it's sad to watch it's decline from something achingly realistic to something more soapy and fanciful later in the show. The fact that we're actually supposed to care about Noah or Alison seems odd, largely because their partners have a far more compelling story, despite being filtered through someone else's memory. I'm not saying that this show's unlikable because they're both cheating, because I've seen shows which make cheating on a spouse complicated and sad for all involved, but also understandable to a certain extent (hell, the first couple of seasons of Grey's were centred on Meredith sleeping with the married Derek Shepherd, and that's the show's power couple and his wife, Addison, became such a compelling character she got her own spin-off). The big problem with The Affair is that I didn't buy it and it could be because I'm straight and so don't get elite white man who has masculinity problems or sad woman who lost her baby situations, but whatever the reason, this show came across as cold and unlikable. It became so difficult for me to watch that it created a backlog in terms of my TV watching, even though objectively I know it isn't as bad as I say. The acting is phenomenal and the second season's introduction of viewpoints for the two spouses should make for more interesting viewing, but for the moment, this just seems redundant.
Best Episodes - s1e1: Episode 1. s1e4: Episode 4. s1e5: Episode 5. s1e7: Episode 7. s1e10: Episode 10.
Season Grade: C
Season One review:
Like most good TV, Soap can be watched in multiple different ways. The controversial soap opera parody that took the 70s by storm is very, very good, and it's because it refuses to stick in the one genre. The show follows two families, the rich Tates and the middle-class Campbells, and spoofs soap opera conventions in a loving and very funny way. It's one of the silliest programs you'll ever see with ludicrous plot developments and hilarious scenes, such as Bob, the politically incorrect ventriloquist dummy, Burt Campbell's belief that he can turn invisible simply by clicking his fingers and Jessica Tate's naivety at her murder trial which she seems to see more as a tea party. But what's really notable about this show is that those ridiculous moments can get real and all too human in an instant. Burt's belief that he can turn invisible is a reaction to the death of his son and he admits to his wife, Mary, that he fears he will never be able to return to normal. Jessica Tate's naivety falls away in a devestating moment where she admits to husband, Chester, just how terrified she is that she'll go to jail. It happens frequently, allowing these very funny people to humanise their characters in a way that helps to invest the audience deeply in their lives. Billy Crystal's character, Jodie Campbell, is gay and attempts suicide in one episode, and the reality with which it is dealt with brought me to tears. It's staggering, and I've never seen any other show that blends the dramatic and the ridiculous with such ease and skill. My parents watching this didn't see it as funny, largely because of that huge emphasis on drama, but were addicted enough to want to power through the season really quickly, suggesting that it also works well as a straight soap opera with occasional silly bits. Whichever way one views Soap, there is no denying that it's incredibly well-written, grounding everything in a wonderful humanity, regardless of how bonkers it all gets.
Best Episodes - s1e1: Episode 1. s1e4: Episode 4. s1e8: Episode 8. s1e9: Episode 9. s1e10: Episode 10. s1e11: Episode 11. s1e13: Episode 13. s1e16: Episode 16. s1e18: Episode 18. s1e19: Episode 19. s1e20: Episode 20. s1e23: Episode 23. s1e25: Episode 25.
Season Grade: A
Season Five review:
By the fifth season, it's clear that the golden age of The Simpsons has arrived. After a pretty wonderful fourth year, the series ups its game in nearly all respects, having numerous classic episodes and great moments. While my personal favourite was 'Cape Feare' (a Sideshow Bob episode that was both scary and very, very entertaining), episodes such as 'Treehouse Of Horror IV' (featuring the Homer and the Devil segment), 'Bart's Inner Child' (a great episode with a neat satire of psychology), 'Deep Space Homer' (a silly premise sees Homer sent to space but it makes up for it with some of the show's best gags, the chip homage to 2001 being a notable example) and 'Secrets Of A Successful Marriage' (a lovely Homer and Marge episode, which I generally find to be winners), almost all of the episodes from this season are enjoyable, entertaining but with a nice biting satire. Also, this is the season where we get some shading to more of the supporting characters, such as Apu, Grampa and Skinner, which is nice to see and helps to establish this as a show more concerned with a representation of America through a small town, rather than a portrait of a family. As the show's golden age continues into its sixth year, I can't wait.
Best Episodes – s5e2: Cape Feare. s5e4: Rosebud. s5e5: Treehouse Of Horror IV. s5e6: Marge On The Lam. s5e7: Bart's Inner Child. s5e9: The Last Temptation Of Homer. s5e13: Homer And Apu. s5e14: Lisa vs. Malibu Stacey. s5e15: Deep Space Homer. s5e20: The Boy Who Knew Too Much. s5e22: Secrets Of A Successful Marriage.
Season Grade: A
Series Observations:
As a viewer of anime, I'm often very defensive of the form. When people argue that it's just a silly cartoon, I'll rage away, pointing them to such masterpieces as Attack On Titan, Nichijou and One Piece, and generally mounting a pretty convincing case. But then I'll watch something like Dog & Scissors and I sort of see where they're coming from. Everything about this show is stupid. It revolves around a man whose so obsessed with reading that, after he's shot dead, he'll do anything to be returned to life. In his case, that means being turned into a dog and being tortured by his favourite author who has an odd obsession with scissors. So far, so weird, but that's not even the end of it. Over the course of 12 episodes, we're introduced to the dog boy's sister (whose just a little too close), the author's editor (a masochist who enjoys being cut by said author) and a number of bonkers plot developments, largely related to weird sex. I must admit that anime such as this are somewhat guilty pleasures of mine, especially when done well (Is This A Zombie? being the most notable example, as I grew to care for the characters despite the ludicrous circumstances). Dog & Scissors is not done well, really. It's just weird, especially when there are signs that it could've been better had it just committed to its premise. The idea of a guy being resurrected as a dog actually makes for a pretty interesting examination of grief in places, especially as all the villains are largely motivated by the fact that they miss him. However, it never really adds up to anything. Any legitimate attempt to enjoy the show sort of goes out the window when the series ends with the author getting drunk, imagining getting married to the dog and actually acting on her desire to consummate their relationship, which must be seen to be believed. Weird. Weird. Gross. Weird.
Series Grade: D
Season Four (King Picollo saga) review:
For as long as I've been watching Dragon Ball, it's been something I've done more out of obligation than anything else. After an incredibly good first arc, much of the rest of the show has been dull and boring, but I kept watching because (a) I wanted to watch Dragon Ball Z and (b) I was emotionally invested in these characters. And then, suddenly, all my loyalty has paid off in a beautiful way. At the end of the previous saga, one of the show's main characters was killed off, signalling a changing of the tone and attitude of the program. While it had previously been a light, funny martial arts romp, shit got real and fast. It's to the show's credit that it stays that way for the entirety of this arc. With the rise of the evil King Piccolo, we see serious defeats, major character deaths and many huge, shocking developments which serve to actually make for a show that was entertaining and addictive. While there are still signs of the show's shakiness (the introduction of supporting character Yajirobe does nothing for me), the huge leap in quality is astounding and exceptional, making for a show that is primed and ready to enter its final saga, which promises to be brilliant. I may actually miss this show when it's gone (although, then I've got like 8 seasons of Dragon Ball Z, so it's not really going anywhere).
Season Grade: A-
Soapy Goodness
Episodes 36-42 observations:
It's all set-up on a muted week of Peyton Place drama.
   Constance Mackenzie (Alison's mother) confronts Rod about how unfair he is being to Alison by continuing to pursue her, despite being married to Betty (who is still out of contact). Later, Julie (Betty's mother and wife to George) leaves the Mackenzie's (where she had been living to recover after her husband George's manic depressive episode) to move back to her own home but it just seems to upset her, so Rossi offers her Laura's old position. She doesn't know whether it's a good idea and instead goes out for dinner with Leslie Harrington (her old flame and general asshole).
   At the same time, Betty surfaces in New York and struggles to find a job and make a life for herself until she meets and moves in with a woman named Sharon. Feeling more comfortable in herself, she calls her mother. However, as Julie is with Leslie, she misses the call. The narrator informs us that this small act will have wide-reaching consequences for many people over the coming months, so watch this space. When Julie learns that Betty tried to call, she is saddened, largely because she thinks if her daughter had found out that George was in hospital, she would've returned home. The problem is George is growing ever more distant, refusing to acknowledge his daughter's mere existence.
   Elliot talks to the local barkeep, Ada Jacks to try and get some information about the crime for which he was sent to jail. He also continues to bond with his daughter, Alison (who doesn't know he's her father). Meanwhile, his own father, Eli Carson (who has a history of heart problems), is hospitalised as a precaution, but not before Rossi sends Elliot to the pharmacist to get some medicine. There, he meets Calvin Hanley (father of Elizabeth, Eli's murdered wife), who really hates him. Later, he meets Paul Hanley (son of Calvin and the boy who's testimony sent Elliot to prison 18 years ago), and promises to find the truth, something that might be difficult as Paul is now Alison's teacher (as she moves to Peyton College). These two characters have an increased presence, and neither of them is very likable. Paul is a worldly know-it-all jerk and Calvin's a prudish sexist.
   Alison, meanwhile, is trying to remain friends with Rod and Norman despite the romantic complications involved. The Mackenzie's, though, seem to thrive on romantic complication as we learn that the only reason Constance and Elliot were never married was because his wife wouldn't give him a divorce. Realising that these two are fated, Rossi (local doctor and Constance's boyfriend) gets frustrated, especially after she scolds him for bringing up the past, despite the fact that she does that most of the time anyway. As the week continues, she distances herself and they have it out, finally breaking up. Their relationship was sweet enough but as soon as Elliot was back on the scene, it was clear their romance would never last.
   Meanwhile, Eli goes in for heart surgery and survives thankfully while Alison has upset the awful Paul Hanley after scolding his treatment of Elliot Carson. Her description of Carson as a man who, despite everything has happened, still thinks that underneath it all, people are fundamentally good, is glorious, explaining so much about both characters.
   In New York, Betty decides to move in with Sharon, who we learn is a bit like Holly Golightly from Breakfast At Tiffany's, in that she has wealthy boyfriends who support her financially in exchange for sexual favours. Sharon states that Betty will become a New York Cinderella, and so organises a date for her with a lecherous but wealthy man named Roy. Later that night, he forces his way into her apartment and makes advances on a clearly uncomfortable Betty. When she runs, he thinks it's a game and chases her until she becomes a terrified, sobbing mess. Realising what he's done, he gives a sincere apology before telling her to go back to Peyton Place. She doesn't belong in New York. It's a great scene, disturbing and sad, and it's nice to see that the small town manipulator Betty was becoming is herself deeply out of her depth in the big city. It's just another example of the excellent character work that is being done with her. That night, she calls her mother and learns that George isn't well and decides to return home, something which saddens Sharon (who had finally found a friend) and throwing a spanner in Leslie's plans to force Rod to divorce her.
   Once returning home, Betty gets three stellar scenes, showcasing how New York has allowed her character to grow. The first with her mother, Julie, is focused on her guilt for leaving home and finally accepting that she had a role in the way things went down with her husband and her father. The second, with her father George, is desperate and sad, reminding us of how far gone he has become as well as how much she loves him despite everything that's happened. The third, with Dr. Rossi, is the best as they discuss love and freedom. It was a great, lovely conversation scene that spoke to both characters and made both seem deeper and better people.
   It was a quiet end to what had been a very subdued week of set-up for the soap-opera. Betty's departure to New York was both brilliant (in that it allowed her to grow) but also problematic, as it subtracted her from the ability to engage with the other characters, meaning that the romance plots took over, rather than the dramatic ones.
Episodes Grade: B+
Episodes 36-42 observations:
After a truly great couple of weeks, Dark Shadows gets back to the dull and disinteresting in a deeply disappointing week.
   Elizabeth (matriarch of Collinwood) scolds the young David (Roger's son who tried to kill him) for being mean to his governess Victoria (as she had found out he tried to kill his father) and that he also has to help himself if he wants to grow into a well-adjusted adult. Later, Victoria hears sobbing and finds a locked door in the basement. Is it ghosts? The Collinwood character, Matthew Morgan (whose actor was replaced this week), seems to think so, suggesting that the crying was that of resident hinted-at ghost Josette Collins. He maintains that it is in no way connected to the door in the basement, something Elizabeth confirms, but Vicky is not convinced.
   Meanwhile, Bill Malloy (manager of the Collins shipyard and close friends with Elizabeth) realises that Burke Devlin (guy who was jailed for murder on the Collins' testimony and is vowing revenge) is getting to her, so offers to make him a deal. If Burke leaves Elizabeth, Carolyn (her daughter) and David alone, he will prove that Burke was innocent. Sounds dangerous, Bill. Later, Carolyn flirts with Burke (despite her having a boyfriend, Joe, and Burke being a malevolent meanie) before Roger intervenes.
   Bill's amateur detective work leads him to the door of Sam Evans (painter and co-conspirator with Roger). As the two get drunk together, Bill learns that Sam is the only thing between Roger and a prison sentence. It had long been hinted at, but confirmation is nice. Later, Sam's daughter, Maggie, comes him and tries to get answers from Roger, an exercise that is doomed to fail. Sam himself decides to visit Collinwood and talk to Elizabeth, but he gives up no answers.
   Meanwhile, Burke confirms that he's planning on ruining the Collins financially after visiting a neighbouring town, which is still less cool than his speak of vengeance made it sound. There, Carolyn continues to crush on him which is still horrible and weird.
   It's set-up of the worst kind as we learn very little. What made Roger's attempted murder such a great mini-arc was that there was a sense of stakes, that perhaps the Collins greatest threat was not external (in the form of Burke Devlin) but internal, in terms of their own paranoia and unsettled tensions. The fact that this week continues to set-up Burke Devlin as something dangerous and powerful, makes for uninspired and slow viewing.
Episodes Grade: C-
In next week's edition of Pop Culture Picnic, I will be reviewing the new film 45 Years, the third season of The X-Files and the first seasons of The 100 and The Venture Bros! Hope to see you then.
David Gumball-Watson

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Pop Culture Picnic: Volume 1, Number 5

Hello all,
Sorry again for lateness, busy week again for me. This week was a bit of a disappointment with only The Hateful Eight being worth the watch as some of my favourites start to give diminishing returns, sadly.

Second Hand News

I find the death of famous people to be such an odd thing. It's an occasion to take stock of what we have lost and pay tribute, but I often find that it's the death of those less well-known that affect me more deeply. In the last week, the American actor Abe Vigoda and the French film director Jacques Rivette died. Vigoda was known for his roles in The Godfather and the sitcom Barney Miller, but he was perhaps more famously known because of his supposed death. In 1982, People magazine called him "the late Abe Vigoda", except he was alive. For the rest of his life, it became something of a running joke, something which he happily played along with and encouraged. He made fun of it with gusto and grace. This little anecdote tells so much of who this man was that it makes me sad that I only knew of him after he died. Similarly, Jacques Rivette was a hugely influential French film director. It's highly likely that he was the first French New Wave filmmaker. It was only because his film was delayed until later that Jean-Luc Godard (Breathless) and Francois Truffaut (Jules And Jim) became more well-known. However, I knew of Rivette. His film Celine And Julie Go Boating is a kaleidoscopic fantasy which I've been desperate to see for a very long time. It's something of a cinematic holy grail for me. I find it sort of sad that I didn't managed to see it before he passed away. Needless to say, it's shot close to the top of films that I really need to see. So, death is weird. We only really know of people once they're gone.

Silver Screen

The Hateful Eight review
2015, US, directed by Quentin Tarantino. In Cinemas Now.
Tarantino films are always a love it or hate it experience. Some will exit the cinema raving about his style and technique and others will say that was the worst film they'd ever seen. The Hateful Eight, the director's newest offering, seems to divide opinion in a similar way. I personally loved this film with a passion. It's the coolest, cleverest, most exciting film I've seen since Mad Max: Fury Road. Set sometime after the American Civil War (at at a time when all the old conflicts are still fresh in the survivor's mind), eight strangers become trapped in a small cabin by a blizzard. Each of them has secrets, each of them has a reason to kill and no-one can possibly leave this unscathed. It's a chamber play; the cinematic/theatrical equivalent to a bottle episode on TV, and a film of two basic halves. The first hour or so features very little action, and is heavy on the dialogue. I've heard some people complain about how boring this part was, but I truly believe it's necessary if the rest of the film is to make sense. It is here that we establish these characters really don't like one another and each of them has a different political belief on justice, society, race and gender. It's well-written and perfectly acted, but the film's second half is what truly cements this as an unforgettable film. All of that carefully crafted tension explodes in a cacophony of stunning, epic violence. It starts slow with this long, disturbing speech about vengeance before it slides rapidly downhill with blood vomit, faces and scrotums shot off and blood and brain matter covering every surface in the cabin. It's almost unbearable to watch, but like a car accident, you can't turn away. A large reason for that is that many of these characters (not all, but that's for a very deliberate reason) are well-established and detailed. They're also perfectly acted by such wonderful actors as Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell and Tim Roth, but it's Jennifer Jason Leigh's Daisy Domergue that steals the show. She's having a whale of a time despite knowing that she'll soon face the hangman's noose; a performance filled with little fun gestures (the moment she imitates being hanged is one of the film's funniest moments) but also deep malice and anger. However, the true MVP of The Hateful Eight is composer Ennio Morricone. His score is perfect, intense, thrilling and downright enjoyable all at the same time. None of the film's big scenes would work anywhere near as well if it weren't for his work and it's interesting to see how well the two work together. One of my favourite moments from the film is such a small one. Some tense music starts up before stopping suddenly. As if seeming to sense this, Daisy taps impatiently on the table, matching the beat of the kick started music. It's such a clever little bit but it works exceptionally well. The Hateful Eight is an example of cinema firing on all cylinders, working as a clever character piece, a mystery, a horror film, a Western and a political examination of modern America, but never falling prey to any of these genres, instead becoming its own thing. One of Tarantino's best.
Grade: A
The Harry Potter Series - Part II

Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix review
2007, UK/US, directed by David Yates. On DVD.
The Order Of The Phoenix is the only Harry Potter film I'd never seen before starting this marathon. I knew of it as the one with the pink lady (Umbridge) and that it held a strong reputation in the hearts of fans. They weren't mistaken. Umbridge is an unforgettably nasty character and the scene where she sacks Emma Thompson's Sybill is the one of the series' most surprisingly moving moments. That said, this is a bit of a dull film in places, a little overlong and at some points, I was just wishing it would come to an end. But what an ending it is. In what is the series' greatest climax, Harry and the gang fight the Death Eaters in a series of incredible locations, all with a distinct visual palate. The most memorable is the fight in the crystal ball chamber which is lit with this gorgeous, eerie green light, but there's also a pretty spectacular Voldemort fight in the Ministry. Uneven, but it's best moments make up for its slower ones.
Grade: A-

Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince review
2009, UK/US, directed by David Yates. On DVD.
I really expected to like The Half-Blood Prince. After all, this is the one with the great, powerful, moving ending, how could it suck? By being unbearably slow and weirdly plotted. The film's climax comes out of nowhere. It's not established, apart from the vaguest hints, so feels very out of place. What this leaves is about an hour-and-a-half of crappy romantic entanglements, long conversations and dreary visuals. Even with that jaw-dropping climax, this is still easily the worst Harry Potter film of them all.
Grade: B-

Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows, Part 1 review
2010, UK/US, directed by David Yates. On DVD.
For a long time, I thought this was the worst Harry Potter film. I was wrong, but it's still not very good. The decision to split the final book in two parts is an iffy one, as this leaves this film heavy on dialogue, set-up and romantic complications. This is just boring, and by the time we were about halfway, mum and I just wanted it to end. Of course, the ending is perfect; easily the series' saddest moment, it brought me (and many others) to tears. But that can't make up for something as dull as this.
Grade: B

Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows, Part 2 review
2011, UK/US, directed by David Yates. On DVD.
Here we are, at the end of the world's biggest film series. It had a lot to live up to. This was the conclusion of a ten year film saga, so it had to be good. Fortunately, it is. It's very, very good. It looks gorgeous. It's moving ("Always"). It's exciting. It's suitably epic and awesome, with a beautiful score. It's good fun to see so many of the recurring characters back in a battle for Hogwarts, bringing it back to where this all started so many years ago and each of them gets a good moment (McGonnigal's "I've always wanted to do that spell" being a personal favourite). However, this is Snape's film. The extended exposition/flashback scene where we learn the motivations for everything that has happened is beautiful, and is easily the film's finest moment. That, along with the scene where the characters count the dead, truly show how well this franchise had built up an amazing, unforgettable cast of supporting actors. That's not to say this film is perfect. The bit about Harry Potter's death is a cop-out (he doesn't die! I don't know how it works...), but this film's best moments are enough to forgive any small misgivings. One of the very best Harry Potter films. It's a wonderful expression of just how much this series changed lives, a gorgeous hymn to Hogwarts and all who lived there.

On The Tube

Season One review:
How To Get Away With Murder is the biggest disappointment I've had in recent memory. I so expected to love this show. A group of law students are hired by their high-profile lecturer's law firm to learn how to defend people who are charged with a crime. However, a murder with a link to their lecturer's personal life, ensures that no-one will get out of this unscathed. Executive produced by Shonda Rhimes (Grey's Anatomy, Scandal), featuring gay characters, Viola Davis and with the single best television show title ever, it sounded awesome. It's not, though. It's hard to pinpoint exactly what the show's biggest failing is. It could be that the show's main arc is dragged out, making what should be interesting (and is, in places) boring. It could be the show's refusal to get at the heart of these characters (except Viola Davis' Annalise, but we'll get to her in a moment). We don't know what makes them tick or behave in the way they do, other than seeming to act in self-interest most of the time. Love doesn't seem to exist in this Universe, it's just another thing to get what you want.
   I hate to compare to Grey's Anatomy, but it was here that I noticed the show's biggest failings. One of the very best things about Grey's is the fact that we know so much about Meredith and Christina and Alex and Bailey, and we knew a lot about them in the first season. Character work is one of those things a show needs to get right. It's what distinguishes a good show from a bad one, or at least a watchable one. One of the reasons why I love soaps is because we get to know a character. It makes you want to know what will happen to these people. It's why, no matter how bad it gets, I'll stick with a show like Vikings, Glee or even Seinfeld until the bitter end. Because I care about these people. Grey's did this so well by using the medical cases that the surgeons were working on to comment on an aspect of their personal lives. So, for example, say Meredith was having trouble in her relationship. She'd get a patient who was in relationship trouble of their own. It's not usually that obvious, but it's amazing to watch how well this show weaves the professional and personal, allowing the case of the week stories to get to the heart of these characters.
   It's important to note that the best case of the week (by far) is that which has a personal relevance to Annalise. She riles at the system's injustices for black people in an impassioned speech that is clearly also coming from personal experience. It wouldn't be that hard for this show to make likable (or at least relatable) characters, simply by having their investment in cases actually say and mean something to them. However, this is also the writer's fault in other ways. Knowing that they had an actress of Viola Davis' skill, they frequently give Annalise the best storylines, the best dialogue and the best moments. The episodes selected below as my best of the season are those that which feature Davis at her best, acting the hell out of what, in lesser hands, could sound stupid. She gives Annalise a rich internal life and an emotional arc to follow the season through. She is easily the best reason to watch this show (and her performance is what saves this from getting a significantly lower rating) and almost makes up for it's many other failings. Unfortunately, this series is a disappointment, and a big one at that. I hope it improves soon (especially as the season finale was actually really good).
Best Episodes - s1e1: Pilot. s1e4: Let's Get To Scooping. s1e6: Freakin' Whack-A-Mole. s1e9: Kill Me, Kill Me, Kill Me. s1e13: Mama's Here Now. s1e15: It's All My Fault.
Season Grade: C+

Season Seven review (SPOILERS!):
There's a point in Seinfeld that divides the audience, a moment so controversial and complicated that will test just how willing you are to go along with this show. I am talking, of course, about the death of Susan. In season seven, George gets engaged to the woman he dated in season four, but soon realises that he is not suited for marriage. He spends the rest of the season trying to get out of it. And then, in the final episode, he does. Through his cheapness, he buys wedding invitations with poisonous glue. As she licks away, she starts to sweat, before her eyes roll back in head. She keels over and dies. And George and the rest of the gang really don't seem to care. They're happy that George is free from the marriage. It's cold, callous and cruel. It's this moment that separates and tests a viewer's resolve. Undoubtedly, some will find this funny, but I found it just too horrible. She is punished for his inability to get out of it, to be brave. It's savage and I know some people find this funny but I just can't.
   But then again, this was the season where I realised just how unlikable these characters are becoming. They're self-destructive, as their relationships fall apart. They can't compromise in a relationship, or look past the most minute failings. Watched at around the same time as How To Get Away With Murder, it's difficult to stomach, but when it's themselves who are at the short end of the stick, then that's funny. But increasingly this season, their actions have a detrimental effect on everyone around them. The show remains as clever, intricately written and funny as ever, but it's clear that the show is also losing track of just what made this series great in the first place. With creator and writer Larry David's departure at the end of this season, this doesn't bode well for the series' future.
Best Episodes – s7e1: The Engagement. s7e4: The Wink. s7e6: The Soup Nazi. s7e7: The Secret Code. s7e10: The Gum. s7e12: The Caddy. s7e13: The Seven. s7e20: The Calzone. s7e21/22: The Bottle Deposit. s7e24: The Invitations.
Season Grade: A-

Soap Box

Episodes 29-35 recap:
Two departures and an arrival make for an incident-packed and emotional week in Peyton Place.
   Following on from last week's revelation that Dr. Morton's friend, Bradley, had been responsible for the rigging of Catherine's autopsy (meaning that Dr. Rossi's original diagnosis was right), Morton is racked with guilt. This isn't helped when Leslie (Catherine's widower and generally an asshole) tries to use this knowledge to manipulate the surgeon into helping him get the mills back. Laura (Rossi's secretary and Leslie's sister) tries to use her influence to get Rossi back with the hospital, but it's not necessary. In a surprising twist, Morton tells Rossi the truth. Bradley has resigned and Morton considers doing the same. However, Rossi tells him to stay and fight, to correct the problems in the hospital and teach the young doctor what he knows. Like when Alison convinced Betty to stay last week, this shows an impressive blurring of the lines between friend and enemy, suggesting that if only events has been different they could've been friends. It's an impressive end to what had been a very strong plot.
   George, meanwhile, is released from the hospital (where he was after his attack on wife Julie). Realising that he may have a problem, he asks his daughter, Betty, what she would think if he were to see a psychiatrist. In a genuinely moving moment, she tells him that it would make her proud. He resolves to get help but, as soon as he sees Julie, she tells him that she wishes to leave him and walks out, going to live with Constance (mother of Allison and seeing Rossi). He tells her he will not divorce her. A few days later, Betty goes to see her mother. She blames her for George's behaviour (seeing that she was having an affair with Leslie), stating that at least he's trying to get help. Betty then goes to see her father who is coping with his wife's departure by drinking himself into a spiral of depression, self-loathing and psychosis. As part of his drunken ramblings, she learns that he only advised her to marry Rod to get back at Leslie (seeing Rod is his son). She is understandably hurt, a feeling that increases when he calls her Julie, truly showing the extent of his crazy. She goes home to Rod and for the first time in a long while they don't argue. They just have this sad acceptance that their marriage is at an end. He cannot love her like she wants and she seems to realise the truth to this and says goodbye.
   Later that night, in the cold snow, Allison sees Betty at the bus station. However, this time, she can't talk her out of leaving. It's such a beautiful, sad scene, tying into a lot of the themes and character work already established, as well as being stunningly acted, directed and scored. She really feels like the scapegoat for all the tragedy that has happened since the show begin. And yes, she was responsible for some of it, but we all make stupid decisions. So, as she gets on the bus, I cried. Betty has long been one of my favourite characters, so her departure is just devastating.
   Some weeks later, Rod's family has hired a private detective. They learnt she was in Boston for a couple of days, hoping someone would come get her (sob) but now she's gone. George doesn't take this knowledge well, especially when he sees Rod and Allison together. Her empathy for Betty's situation really sells her character for the first time in the show and I'm actually starting to care about what happens. This is good, because she's about to be the subject of a very big plot.
   At around the same time, Elliot Carson (in jail for supposedly murdering his wife Elizabeth many years ago) has his parole hearing. He makes a bad impression on them, but they allow him to go free. This is not good news for Constance who confirms to Rossi what I had long suspected; that Elliot is Allison's father. He returns, though, knowing that he will be judged as guilty by the town as long as he is alive.
   Meanwhile, Betty calls her mother to let her know that she is in New York and that she is safe. But it is of no comfort to George. His worst fears of losing everyone are coming true (largely because of his own actions but that's what makes this so painful). He meets with Leslie (his nemesis) and it's clear that he's losing grip. As he walks back, Elliot meets him at the bandstand. They're old friends and they reminisce about the glory of war and how that was simpler. It's a very sad scene, as it becomes clear just how much life has screwed over these characters. George can't cope so he lashes out. He goes back to his office where a rent collector demands payment. He kicks him out, barricades the room and loads an army issue pistol. Realising what's happening, Julie and Rossi try to convince him to come out. However, it's Elliot who proves to be the real asset. Realising that George has regressed to his days in the war, he is able to enter the room and apprehend him, ensuring the only casualty is a phone that had been shot. Realising that he can't live like this, George begs Rossi for help. He's hospitalised and Rossi tells Julie the preliminary diagnosis: George is manic depressive. Nowadays it's called bipolar. And my dad has it. The plot suddenly hit a dark, personal nerve and it'll be interesting to see where it goes. Later, Elliot meets Allison (his daughter) and Leslie (whom we learn is also his nemesis. Awesome). He also learns his predictions of the town's attitude was right and that his father, the one person he thought he could trust, never believed he was innocent. His dead wife, Elizabeth, after all, wasn't the nicest person.
   This week ends with another departure. Laura tells Rossi that she is leaving Peyton Place. It feels a little sudden, but she explains it well, that she has tried to push him and that that's not okay. But she also knows who she is now and she can live wherever she wants. She's able to move on. I think that's sort of lovely.
   It was another big week of the show, but it was also very plot heavy. There were some great, emotional scenes, but a lot of it does feel like set-up for the weeks to come. I personally can't wait. I just hope Betty comes back soon.
Grade: A-

Episodes 29-35 recap:
The conclusion of the Roger's car accident arc gives Dark Shadows it's best week yet.
   As you'll remember from last week, David, the nine year old son of Roger, ran away from home after his babysitter Victoria Winters discovered that he was responsible for his father's car accident. He tries to pin the death on Burke (the man who has returned to town to wreak vengeance on the Collins for what they did to him), while the other members of the household try to find him and come to terms with the possibility that such a young child was responsible for an attempted murder.
   The week begins with a strange new friendship. While trying to break into Burke's room, David meets the man for the first time. He places the bleeder valve in Burke's couch but soon feels guilty, as the two share a conspiratorial chemistry with a shared belief that they are outsiders in the eyes of the Collins. Burke offers to drive David home. Once there, Roger confronts his son who denies rigging the car before Burke produces the bleeder valve. He covers for David (didn't see that one coming) in order to remain friends with the boy. However, he also warns Victoria to be careful around the young David. She brushes it off, trying to apologise to David, but he vows revenge on her betrayal.
   Meanwhile, Elizabeth (matriarch of the Collins household) agonises over whether David is responsible for the crime. She comes to realise that he is guilty, but she also will not allow Roger to send his son away. In this triumphant, glorious scene, she stands up to him. It's so good, I'm just gonna leave it all here for you.
 "I want to help David, not turn him away. You say this [holds up the bleeder valve] adds up to nine years? Well, I'm telling you it adds up to more than nine years. To a boy, lying on his bed trembling with fear, afraid of everything and everyone! [...] I've seen you with him, Roger. I've seen the hatred pour out of you; smothering him, driving him deeper and deeper into his own fears, until he had nowhere to turn. Nothing excuses him, let me make that clear. Nothing! But he has been forced to live his lifetime with your guilt!
Roger, our family stands together. We always have and we always will. I think I've proved that to you in the past. I want to do as much for your son. And don't tell me he's not your son cause I won't accept that! He belongs to them [points to the pictures that surround the room], just as we do. Jeremiah, Isaac, Benjamin. All of them. And he's the youngest. And the last. And he's the last. And he needs out help. And we're going to give it to him, here. I've made up my mind. David is going to stay here. And I expect you to remember that he's not a criminal. I expect you to leave him alone and allow Miss Winters and me to give him the happiness and attention he deserves."

   It's a scene that works perfectly, confirming just how awesome Elizabeth is and how horrible Roger has been. When the sheriff arrives, she tells him that the bleeder valve was loose and it must have just fallen off. He believes her and it brings an end to this mini-arc. This was such a brilliant arc, forcing the Burke Devlin to move forward and reinforcing character bonds. That it ends with such a gloriously uplifting moment inspires confidence for the show's future.
   However, there was still three more episodes in the week left and it's back to the usual sort of thing. Joe (Carolyn's boyfriend) gets drunk and stumbles into the Collins household, unleashing a savage and devastating verbal berating to Elizabeth. Because of the added emotional investment I have in her character, this was such a sad moment. Carolyn seems to realise this too as her relationship with Joe starts to fall apart. She also gets angry at Victoria for seeing Burke Devlin (it was innocent, he may have had information on her parents, but didn't. Unsurprisingly). She gets jealous, turning on Vicky. It feels out of character, but works better than it should because Carolyn points out as much. She's afraid of Victoria leaving and so lashed out. It's a nice character beat and a quiet end to a good week.
   In other arc news, we learn that Roger's wife (and David's mother), Laura, is in the hospital. No explanation why. Also, in regards to the supernatural, one of the episodes opened on a genuinely creepy sequence with Victoria in the house alone on a stormy night when she seems to see a ghost. It's possible that it was Roger, but it's never explained either way. So, a ghost. It was a great week for the show which filled me with hope that the show continues on its upward trajectory.
Grade: B+

In next week's Pop Culture Picnic, I'll be reviewing Oscar favourite Spotlight, the first season of The Affair, the fifth season of The Simpsons and more! Hope to see you all then.

David Gumball-Watson