Thursday, 31 March 2016

Pop Culture Picnic: Volume 1, Number 11


Hello all,
In this week's epic edition of Pop Culture Picnic, I review two big week's worth of material. Some of the shows and films in here are just amazing and were great to review. Hope you like reading it!

Silver Screen

The Daughter review
2016, Australia, directed by Simon Stone. In Cinemas Now.
As a keen supporter of local cinema and a fan of gothic, emotionally dark drama, I was looking forward to The Daughter. In the weeks before it was release, it was heavily advertised, so much so that my excitement steadily diminished. When I finally sat down to watch it, I found it to be an engrossing, complex and intelligent drama, albeit one that didn't really stand out from the crowd. In a small Australian logging town, a man, Christian, returns home from America for his father's wedding, with a secret that, if revealed, could destroy the lives of many. It's a slow-burning that grows in intensity, finally reaching an almost unbearable climax when due to his own pain and suffering, he reveals a horrible truth. The fact that he reveals in such a cold, savage and hurtful manner made him one of the most hateful characters this year, but it could also be because I had something of a bias towards his character as he's played by Paul Schneider (who played Brandanoquitz in Parks And Recreation. His departure was one of the key reasons the show got better). But still, I'm often of the opinion that just because you're in a bad place doesn't mean you should destroy others. It seems petty and small. What was interesting about this was that some of the people in film club actively disagreed with me, that he wasn't the worst person in the film. No, the subject of the secret who never revealed it was a worse person. I'm of the opinion that some secrets are necessary in order to avoid hurting people, but it's interesting that this film brought up such conflicting points of views and arguments. It helps that the cast is excellent. Sam Neill, Geoffrey Rush, Miranda Otto and Anna Torv are joined by rising star Odessa Young as the likable young woman at the centre of this web of secrets and lies. All of the characters in the film are well-drawn, if not necessarily likable and, like many Australian films, the recognisable (and beautifully shot) landscape becomes an incredibly important part of the story. Overall, a complex, morally challenging and dark Australian drama. It loses points because of the presence of Brandanoquitz and because it favours a needlessly ambiguous ending.
Grade: B+

My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 review
2016, US, directed by Kirk Jones. In Cinemas Now.
As a follow up to the deeply disappointing My Big Fat Greek Wedding (reviewed in this week's Silver Screen Classics), I was not looking forward to this film. Unfortunately, it was worse than I imagined. The stereotypes of the first film are even more damning, the writing is awful with an almost nonexistent storyline which somehow manages to have to much going on and be really, really boring at the same time. It's also badly acted, overly sentimental and just horrible. Watching this in the cinema, I was swayed by its emotional pull at times, but I realised later it was probably boredom induced delirium. Pointless, plotless, pathetic. Don't waste your time on this big fat Greek stinker.
Grade: D-

Eye In The Sky review
2016, UK, directed by Gavin Hood. In Cinemas Now.
Intense, fascinating and incredibly complex, Eye In The Sky is a thrilling film looking at the issues surrounding the use of drone warfare. Set over numerous locations (meaning that the four main characters never meet in person), a team of British soldiers using the latest spyware discover that a group of terrorists have holed up in a house in Africa. As they are loaded up with suicide bomb vests, it becomes a race against time to get approval from the many levels of government to deploy a drone strike. However, even if that approval is found, what will they do when they discover an innocent young girl selling bread is just outside the door? The moral dilemmas that this film presents are mind-blowingly difficult, as the individuals are forced to way up the cost of saving one girl over the lives of the hundreds that may die if the bomb vests are activated. By the end, the film has become almost unbearably tense, on the level of something like 2015's memorable Sicario. But this may be an even better film, superbly acted by an excellent cast including Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul and Alan Rickman in one of his last film roles, and raising interesting political questions about soldier training and the horrors they are forced to endure, drone warfare and the chain of command. This is a disturbing film, no doubt about it, but one that rings true in a horrifying way.
Grade: A-

Tangerine review
2015, US, directed by Sean Baker. Available On DVD.
Tangerine was a film I'd been wanting to see for some time. Shot on an iPhone in the streets of L.A. with a largely unprofessional cast, it tells the story of two transgender women, Alexandra and Sin Dee over one Christmas Eve. Sin Dee, who has just been released from jail, learns that her pimp/boyfriend, Chester, has been sleeping with someone else. She and Alexandra try to track him down and teach him a lesson. It's an incredible film. Visually, it's stunning, especially considering the limitations of how it was shot. Never before has iPhone video looked so gorgeous, showing off the beautiful blue and orange sky over L.A. in such an incredible way that it sort of acts almost like a really impressive advert. But more than that, Tangerine is an important film in regards to the portrayal of transgender characters. Comparing this to something like The Danish Girl, there's a sense of naturalism to the performances, helped no end by the fact that director Sean Baker cast actual transwomen. But there's also a real sense of over-the-top silliness. Throughout the film, the two women interact with many others, creating both a vibrant portrait of L.A. as well as a great cast of supporting characters from Chester, his new girlfriend and an Armenian taxi driver and his family. The way that all these seemingly disparate elements come together at the end is like some great screwball comedy in the vain of Bringing Up Baby or The Philadelphia Story, making for a film that is far more entertaining and memorable than it probably should be. So much more than just that iPhone movie, this is a brave and brilliant portrait of a community that is rarely shown on the silver screen. A classic in the making.
Grade: A

Iris review
2015, US, directed by Albert Maysles. Available On DVD.
Albert Maysles, the great documentary filmmaker behind such masterpieces as Shelter, Grey Gardens and Gimme Shelter, died on March 5 2015. It was a devastating loss but this, one of his last films, is sadly a little disappointing. The subject of the doco, New York fashion icon Iris Apfel, is appealing enough, able to wear the most insane combination of clothing and make it look stylish and cool. She's also a great presence and incredibly inspiring in her determination to wear what she feels and not give two stuffs about other people's opinions (something she shares with Little Edie, the subject of perhaps Maysles' most memorable film, Grey Gardens). But, on the whole though, this film is boring. Yes, her fashions are fascinating, but this feels a lot longer than it's surprisingly short 70 minute runtime. It's not the greatest testament to Maysles' but does prove that even in his final years, he was finding new and fascinating people to interview.
Grade: C+

Bone Tomahawk review
2015, US, directed by S. Craig Zahler. Available On DVD.
Containing what has been opined as one of the most brutal deaths in all of cinema, Bone Tomahawk is an odd-hybrid of the horror and the western. When, in the old West, three people are kidnapped from a small town by vicious cannibals, a band of determined men must venture out, facing not only the cannibals but each other. Starring Kurt Russell and with scenes of nasty violence, comparisons to The Hateful Eight, but sadly don't work in Bone Tomahawk's favour. The violence of the film's final act is horrific, brutal and unforgettable, especially in the nightmare-inducing body-splitting scene, but for much of the first hour-and-a-half, this basically consists of the characters talking. There's nothing wrong with that, especially in a cast this great, with Richard Jenkins' lovable back-up deputy being the most likable of the lot, but visually it's dull. The direction is flat, the colours muted and it just looks cold and visually uninteresting. This is a big problem for a couple of reasons. First, as while it's mainly conversation, it should still look interesting (unfair comparison to The Hateful Eight, but the conversations in that were beautifully shot). Second, the two genres it's trying to hybridise, the Western and the Horror, rely very heavily on visuals to create atmosphere. That final half-an-hour is visually a little more inspired, but it still feels like something's missing. Some critics stated that this was the best horror film of 2015 and I can see how it's already garnering a cult following, but in a medium as visual as film this is incredibly disappointing. Interesting but flawed.
Grade: B-

Silver Screen Classics

Un Chant D'Amour review
Short Film. 1950, France, directed by Jean Genet. Available on YouTube.
A short, experimental film about homosexual love and desire, Un Chant D'Amour was long banned for what was seen as obscene content. Even now, it's openness in portraying male sexuality is shocking, occasionally coming off as particularly arty porn, but what's most notable about it are the tender and more romantic moments. The storyline is thin to the point of nonexistence, but some of the images here are aching in their tenderness and beauty. Two men in prison blow cigarette smoke through a hole in the wall, the other imagining it was his breath. They swing a bouquet of flowers between the cells, forever trying to catch it but never able to. A prison guard forces one of the men to suck his gun (an object of phallic desire) in an attempt to crush his spirit, but the two prisoners love remains pure if unconsummated. The film is notable for being not only an early depiction of what it means to desire as a queer person, but also as something that remains relevant and beautiful today. It's a film that rewards multiple viewings, made easier due to its short runtime, but even without understanding all of the images this is a tender, sexy and moving film.
Grade: A-

All That Heaven Allows review
1955, US, directed by Douglas Sirk. Available On DVD.
Earlier this week, I was thinking about how none of the classic films I've watched this year have really struck me. I was missing the greatness that only an older film can offer. Then, like my prayers were being answered, along comes All That Heaven Allows. Douglas Sirk's most beloved and influential film is a pretty much perfect film. Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman reunite, utilising the chemistry present in Magnificent Obsession to show two people caught in a difficult situation. Cary Scott (played by Wyman) is an attractive, lonely and upper class widower who falls in love with her much younger, poorer gardener, Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson). They share a whirlwind romance, but it's not long before social pressure starts to press down on the couple. Her children see him as nothing more than a gold digger, her society friends ostracise her and basically every good thing in her life falls apart simply because she fell in love. It's heartbreaking to watch, especially as we've seen how she and Ron make each other better, opening one another up to a world they weren't previously aware of.
   This film is an unapologetically emotional melodrama but unlike Magnificent Obsession, the obstacles in the couple's path feel realistic and hurtful, especially her children. When they start to be bullied because of the affair, she ends the relationship. But then, they move away from home, telling her that she should've been stricter with them and that she should sell the house. And then, seeing how devastated she is, they buy her a television. It's beyond painful. Having created such likable, complex characters it's hard to see them go through so much, but the film makes a clever and enormously relatable point; that no one else should decide whose good for you. That you have to be yourself, no matter what. That's such a deeply moving and relatable point while ideas of repression and persecution make this one immensely relatable film. But that's not even the best bit.
   Shot in glorious, gorgeous technicolour, it's absolutely stunning. The colours of everything are so rich and beautiful, especially in any of the scenes with the massive window at Ron's place. Just when you think it can't get any more gorgeous, the film somehow manages to up itself, proving to be not only emotionally beautiful, but visually so as well. This is also one of the most influential films of all time. It's been remade twice, each shifting the political axis (this one concerned with class and ageism) just slightly. Rainer Werner Fassbinder's celebrated German film Ali: Fear Eats The Soul uses the framework to tell a story concerned with immigration and a more extreme case of ageism, while Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven brings in race as well as sexuality. It's visual aesthetic has been referenced in films such as Francois Ozon's 8 Women, while the recent Carol can also be seen to have some linkage back to this film. But none of them compare to the overwhelming emotional power this film has. An absolute cinematic masterpiece and undoubtedly one of the best films I've ever seen, this is gorgeous in every sense of the word.
Grade: A

My Big Fat Greek Wedding review
2001, US, directed by Joel Zwick. Available On DVD.
In preparation for watching My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2, I forked out $10 on a DVD copy of the first film. Never having seen it, I was excited to give it a go, especially considering it's the highest grossing romantic comedy of all time. What a disappointment this film is. The characters are stereotypical, the film itself is dull and despite some quotable lines ("put some windex on it!") and memorable moments, it never really works. Part of that could be because of the stiff acting from the two leads (who have zero chemistry) but it's hard to know what goes so wrong. A whopping great let-down and a waste of time and money.
Grade: D+

On The Tube

Miniseries review
Politically timely, the miniseries Show Me A Hero is a beautiful, fascinating and complex piece of television. It dramatizes the battle to desegregate public housing that rocked the city of Yonkers, NY in the late 80s/early 90s. For a long time, public housing for black people had been in apartment towers, in an area far removed from the rest of the city. When a judge orders the city to build scattered site public townhouses, spread out into the upper middle-class, predominantly white, areas, it challenges long-held views on race, political stubbornness and what it means to have a house. One of the most important ideas which is brought forward is that of Defensible Housing which theorises that if we have our own home we are more likely to treat it respect than say an apartment tower which is more impersonal.
   When the government refuses to build them, the court fines the city, forcing them to decide would they rather be desegregated or bankrupt? The mayor at the time, Nick Wasicsko, was only 28 and the challenging nature of this debate ruins his life. As played by Oscar Isaac, he's a great, complicated figure, one that is more interested in doing what it takes to save the city than what is right. That the two goals align makes him an unlikely defender of civil rights. However, while he's the most prominent character, I would argue that he's not the most interesting.
   Mary Dorman, as portrayed by Catherine Keener, is a fascinating character, someone who was initially against the idea of the housing on principle until she sees the conditions that these people have been forced to live in, becoming one of their most vocal defenders. It's a transformation that happens on the periphery but it seems even more powerful because of it. LaTanya Richard Jackson as the blind Norma O'Neal who can't get white people to her neighbourhood to help her. That's not to mention the rest of the cast that includes Jim Belushi, Alfred Molina, Winona Ryder, Bob Balaban and Jon Bernthal. What the show succeeds at most profoundly is showing the workings of a community, how the big decisions made by the parliament affect those underneath them. While it's true that Wasicsko falls by the wayside in the latter part of the series, it's here where things really shine, as we see the impact that his and others actions have had. At the end of the final episode, we get this gorgeous, transcendent, tragic montage showing what happened to these people in the years after the series. It's a traditional thing to happen at the end of a biopic, but what makes this so beautiful is that we recognise how far these people have come, and how far they will still have to go. Racism, systematic or otherwise, is still a huge issue in America, while issues of public housing and its relation to class have a universal relevance, making for a perfectly acted, fascinating series that draws the viewer in through its subtle emotional and intellectual pull.
Series Grade: A

Season Three review:
Rectify is one of the most perfect TV shows ever made. Ranking second in last year's TV awards (which was the highest position for an ongoing series), I was a tiny bit nervous about starting the show's third season. Could it possibly much up? The short answer is yes. It's a sublime piece of television, so subtle, gentle and emotional, with torrents of feeling and conflict conveyed in the tiniest gesture until it becomes almost overwhelming in its beauty. The third season focuses heavily on character, especially in regards to Teddy and his wife Tawney. What this series has done in regards to Teddy, who initially seemed like such a stereotypical asshole character and who is now making steps to becoming a better person for his wife and family, is beautiful and shows the understanding of character and motivation that drives this series. In many ways, it's a series about what it means to be human, fallible and flawed. But it's also a mystery, and while that falls by the wayside this season, there is still the incredible excitement of piecing together the clues. To be honest, I wouldn't really care that if, when this series finishes, we still have no idea what really happened the night of Hannah Dean's murder. Speaking of the series finishing, it has now been confirmed that Rectify is coming to an end after its fourth season. When the news broke, I was devastated, but watching this season, it makes more sense. This was a year about people and families splintering apart to become better people without one another. What makes the season finale such an incredible piece of television is the fact that for once, the show gives itself over to joy and a sense of circularity. It almost feels like a series finale, considering how many things are wrapped up. That we've still got one more year with these characters is, like the series, devastating in all the right ways. Rectify remains powerful, life-changing, achingly beautiful television. Like nothing else before or since.
Best Episodes – s3e1: Hoorah. s3e2: Thrill Ride. s3e4: Girl Jesus. s3e5: The Future. s3e6: The Source.
Season Grade: A

Season Eleven review:
Yes, I watch Midsomer Murders. Murder mysteries are something of a guilty pleasure of mine, a turn your brain off and be entertained for a while. What makes Midsomer one of the more effective series' of this type is the way it combines the beautiful English countryside with inventive murders and a vein of campy insanity. By its eleventh season, the show could do this in its sleep, but there are still great episodes to be found. One of the series' most horrific murders happens this season where a woman's body is found stuffed in a dry cleaner (it just seems like a really nasty way to go), while 'Talking To The Dead' is a memorably creepy episode, with ghosts, bodies showing up in odd places and a cast of eccentric characters. That said, while this would never go on anyone's list of best TV shows ever made, as a nice bit of turn your brain off and watch the craziness, it's hard to beat.
Best Episodes – s11e3: Left For Dead. s11e4: Midsomer Life. s11e6: Talking To The Dead.
Season Grade: B-

Season Six review:
One of The Simpsons' most perfect seasons yet, this includes some of the show's most unforgettable and funny episodes. It's around this point that I started getting episodes that I actually remember ('Itchy & Scratchy Land' for example) and the show became more of a nostalgic pleasure than ever before. It's also around this time that the show's popularity remained unfathomable and it's not hard to see with a nice mix of heart and laughs. 'Itchy & Scratchy Land' is a clever riff on Disneyland/Westworld and is lovable mainly for Marge's frustration at being unable to have a perfect holiday. 'Treehouse Of Horror V' is as epic and eerily scary as ever, with this instalment featuring two great segments in The Shinning ("Go crazy." "Don't mind if I do!") and Time and Punishment. 'Homer Badman' is the closest The Simpsons has come to a bottle episode, skewering feminism and the media to perfection and becoming one of the series' best episodes yet. 'Grampa Vs. Sexual Inadequacy' is a sweet, lovely look at the relationship between Homer and his father. The most moving episodes of the season, 'And Maggie Makes Three' (looking at the sacrifices Homer has made for his family, deepening his character in beautiful ways) and 'Lisa's Wedding' (the flashforward episode, it includes a lovely message about the importance of family, despite the differences we may have), demonstrate the show's ability to deepen characters in realistic ways. That's not to mention that this season also includes 'Homer The Great' (Homer joins a masonic cult) and 'Bart Vs. Australia' (funny but very, very stereotypical), before it all comes to an end with 'Who Shot Mr. Burns? (Part One)'. It's the show's most grandiose moment, but by god, that cliff-hanger is well-executed (ahem). With some of the show's all-time classics, The Simpsons is showing no signs of winding down in quality.
Best Episodes – s6e1: Bart Of Darkness. s6e4: Itchy & Scratchy Land. s6e5: Sideshow Bob Roberts. s6e6: Treehouse Of Horror V. s6e9: Homer Badman. s6e10: Grampa vs. Sexual Inadequacy. s6e13: And Maggie Makes Three. s6e14: Bart's Comet. s6e17: Homer vs. Patty and Selma. s6e19: Lisa's Wedding. s6e23: The Springfield Connection. s6e24: Lemon Of Troy. s6e25: Who Shot Mr. Burns? (Part One).
Season Grade: A

Season Two review:
In its second season, Inside Amy Schumer is sharper, funnier and more memorable. Continuing to skewer all aspects of gender, sexuality and modern day etiquette, the quality of the sketches increasing exponentially, heightening the everyday to point out just how ridiculous it is. Amy Schumer is a fantastic comedian and while it's true the quality of her stand-up dips a little this season, it helps to balance the quality of the sketches, making it seem more even handed. It's also hilarious, but as always, watch out for Bridget Everett turning in another perfect appearance in the final episode with the song 'What I Gotta Do' which is rude, crude and will be stuck in your head for days.
Best Episodes – s2e2: I'm So Bad. s2e3: A Chick Who Can Hang. s2e5: Allergic To Nuts. s2e6: Down For Whatever. s2e10: Slut-Shaming.
Season Grade: B+ 

Season One review:
The thing that makes Catastrophe so easy to watch is also one of its biggest problems. At a mere six half-an-hour episodes, one can power through this in a couple of hours but that also makes it a tiny bit forgettable. Which is a big shame, because Catastrophe is one of the most realistic, moving and lovable TV romantic comedies I've seen in a while. On a trip to Britain, the American Rob meets the Irish Sharon, spending a lust-filled week together. When Sharon falls pregnant, they must face what their relationship means and if they have any real feelings towards one another. It's really funny, insightful and with achingly real characters (Sharon, in particular, who is just wonderful) trying to make the best of a difficult situation. In some ways, it's similar to Jane The Virgin, but this is cruder and less soapy. It's a series filled with grace and humanity, especially in the excellent episodes 4 (which features complications with the unborm baby) and 6 (where Sharon and Rob get married and promptly implode). Sadly though, it's a little too short to make a huge impact, but this is a great new comedy.
Best Episodes – s1e1: Episode 1. s1e2: Episode 2. s1e4: Episode 4. s1e6: Episode 6.
Season Grade: A-

Season One review:
When I heard that a complete series release of The Powerpuff Girls was coming to DVD locally, I could barely contain my excitement. Over the years, I've been desperate to see it, but have only managed to pick up a few small collections here and there, so was incredibly happy to finally watch it in its entirety. In almost every way, it's better than I imagined; funny, iconic, subversive and maintaining a fine balance between great art and accessible pop culture. What's most notable about is the way that it represents complex ideas of gender, sexuality and notions of good and evil in a way that is easily accessible and understandable to a younger audience. As an adult, it's great fun to watch, also because of the unforgettable characters, especially the villains, Mojo Jojo and Him being my favourites. Some of the best episodes of the season (as with many a cartoon show I can name) are those that mess with the form, allowing us to understand the villains better, such as in 'Telephonies' (where the Gangreeen Gang tricks the Powerpuff Girls into beating the other villains on their days off) and the excellent, hilarious 'Just Another Manic Mojo' (a day in the life of Mojo, with such greatness as 'I forgot my wallet. Curses!"), or the girls, such as in the Rashomon-esque 'The Bare Facts'. Starting The Powerpuff Girls is a great new journey and I'm looking forward to continuing it in the coming months.
Best Episodes – s1e2: Monkey See, Doggie Do/Mommy Fearest. s1e3: Octi Evil/Geshundfight. s1e6: Telephonies/Tough Love. s1e7: Major Competition/Mr. Mojo's Rising. s1e9: Bubblevicious/The Bare Facts. s1e11: Just Another Manic Mojo/Mime For A Change. s1e12: The Rowdyruff Boys.
Season Grade: A-

Season One review:
With an amusing cast of supporting characters and clever observations of teenage behaviour, My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU sets itself apart from other anime set in high school. The character work in this series is fantastic as we come to learn the psychological underpinnings of the main trio. Most notable is the work done on the male character who in this sort of series is generally bland and uninteresting, but is here cynical and hiding wells of deep sadness and loneliness. One of the observations about his behaviour in one of the last episodes is devastating. The problem is that this series just isn't memorable enough to get a higher ranking and, while I've heard that the second season uses this as a springboard for an even more insightful and emotional examination of what it means to be in high school, this remains a largely forgettable, if slightly above average series.
Season Grade: B+

PCPlaylist
Playlist can be found here.

Capture & Release (Beautiful Bodies)
War Inside Your Heart (Beautiful Bodies)
Ravens (Beautiful Bodies)
Got Beats (Duwell) [Tangerine]
Growing Pains (Maria Mena)
Love Is A Battlefield (Pat Benatar) [The Daughter]
What I Gotta Do (Bridget Everett) [Inside Amy Schumer]
Lift Me Up (Bruce Springsteen) [Show Me A Hero]
We Sink (CHVRCHES) [Catastrophe]
The Big Apple (Klein & MBO) [Iris]

Thanks for reading! In next week's edition of PCP, I'll be reviewing  the new film Rams, second season of the gothic horror Penny Dreadful, the first season of Togetherness and bringing an end to a journey I started way back in 2014, it's the end of Dragon Ball! See you then.

Regards,
David Gumball-Watson

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