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

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