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

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