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

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