Thursday, 3 March 2016

Pop Culture Picnic: Volume 1, Number 8

Hello all,
Won't bother explaining lateness. By now, you know what to expect haha. It's a big issue of Pop Culture Picnic this week. As well as the usual reviews, I debrief the Academy Awards, as reviewing the very excellent Turbo Kid. As part of this, I am introducing a new category, the PCPlaylist. This is a list of songs that I haven't been able to get out of my head this week and where I heard them from. I've also included a YouTube link so y'all can hear it as well! Hope you enjoy!

Second Hand News

So, the 2016 Academy Awards were on Monday. While I didn’t get a chance to watch the ceremony, I still have some opinions on the way it all turned out. Without further ado, let’s see how many I got right!
Best Original Score: Ennio Morricone for The Hateful Eight. Picked this one and he deserved the award for his propulsive, thrilling score.
Best Documentary: Amy. There’s nothing particularly wrong with this choice (Amy is a great film, ranked 5th in my ranking of last year’s films), but The Look Of Silence is such an important and brave piece of filmmaking that this does feel like a slight disappointment.
Best Supporting Actress: Alicia Vikander in The Danish Girl. So, Alicia Vikander won. She probably should have been up for best actress and her role in the film was never that special to me. That said, some in film club raved about her performance and Vikander is a talented actress (if she’d been nominated for Ex Machina or Testament Of Youth, I’d be more supportive of her nomination), so not a complete failure.
Best Supporting Actor: Mark Rylance in Bridge Of Spies. I am very proud of this one. No-one else I know saw this one coming, but I’ve always had a soft-spot for the performance. Bridge Of Spies was overly patriotic and forgettable, but he was the shining light. That said, I am still yet to see Creed, so Sylvester Stallone might have been robbed, but for the moment I shall bask in the glory.
Best Actress: Brie Larson in Room. With the actresses nominated for this category, there were no bad choices (except Jennifer Lawrence) and I’m happy that Brie Larson won. She’s a great actress (I personally think she was better in Short Term 12, but I sense good things coming to her) and while I do believe Charlotte Rampling gave the better performance, there’s no room to complain here.
Best Actor: Leonardo Dicaprio in The Revenant. Dicaprio’s win was a long-time coming and while The Revenant was one film that hasn’t really stuck with me (good at the time, looking back on it, not so much), I’m happy for him.
Best Director: Alejandro G. Inarritu for The Revenant. Here is where I get annoyed. Inarritu’s direction was fine, but in a category that had Mad Max: Fury Road it’s hard to really get behind him. George Miller was robbed. That said, the fact that Mad Max picked up the technical awards is damn glorious (as is everyone else’s reaction to the way us Aussies were dressed).
Best Picture: Spotlight. Let me get this out of the way first. I liked Spotlight. It was a difficult and brave testament to the men and women that exposed paedophile priests, but ever since, it’s left me cold. It seems to have only won for its timeliness and relevance, which is not how I really do films. To me, the best films are not those that are great because of their context, but because of their timelessness. When people look back on 2015 five years in the future, will they really think Spotlight was the best picture? Or will they remember the white-knuckle ride that was Fury Road, the emotional uplift of Room or Carol’s unexpected warmth? In a year that was filled with great, unusual films up for the award, it’s a shame the Academy went with the one of the most traditional.

Silver Screen

Trumbo review
2015, US, directed by Jay Roach. In Cinemas Now.
To be fair, I wasn’t expecting much from Trumbo. Telling the story of Dalton Trumbo, the screenwriter of such classics as Roman Holiday and Spartacus, and the man who was at least partially responsible for the end of the blacklist, it sounded like a very traditional biopic, with a lack of nuance and an over reliance on hero worship. Sadly, Trumbo fell into exactly that trap. The thing is it could be an interesting story, and one that has the potential to comment on current and topical issues. McCarthyism, the Red Scare and the Blacklist was a difficult period of history, and one which has been analysed from many different perspectives in many different films, largely through allegory (On The Waterfront and The Crucible are notable examples, but even High Noon, The Twilight Zone and innumerable media produced in the 50s has at least the potential to be read in light of the growing fear of Communism and telling on friends). However, it was because it was such a contentious time, that it requires a gentle and nuanced hand to tell the story. Too often, Trumbo comes off as an overly simplistic tale of the little guy fighting the big guy. In truth, the situation was far more complex. Worse, the film tries to fit in every little detail that happened, causing it to be not only simplistic, but overlong and boring. Now, some people might argue that this is the duty of a biopic to tell the entirety of the story, which is something I would fault. Looking at something like (say) Steve Jobs, the best, most interesting biopics are those that take use experimental techniques to not just describe, but to show. With a film like Trumbo, it frequently seems like we are being told how and what to feel in a manipulative way. However, there are moments that do work. A number of the supporting characters (played by Louis C.K. and John Goodman) are wonderful, especially Christian Berkel’s scene-stealing turn as director Otto Preminger. But for most of its runtime, Trumbo is a standard and disappointing end to Oscar season.
Grade: C-

Gayby Baby review
2015, Australia, directed by Maya Newell. On DVD.
As a film reviewer, there are certain films that hit you in such a deeply personal way that it’s hard to divorce your feelings and just see it as a piece of cinema. Prayers For Bobby (which had a major role in my coming out) was one, as was Holding The Man (seeing our life on screen was a transformative experience for Finn and I). Gayby Baby is another. This Australian documentary follows four kids from same-sex families (two mums or two dads) as they face adolescence, homophobia and the general frustration and joy that comes with parents. It’s well-told, normalising the experience of these kids, making their struggles immensely relatable and showing that having two mums is really no different than having a mum and a dad. They too struggle with what the best course is for their children, especially as their kids start to acquire interests and hobbies that are in direct opposition to their own beliefs (one kid wants to do football on Sundays, something his devoutly religious mum doesn’t like, while another set of mums struggle to come to terms with their son’s interest in wrestling). What made this film so personal, however, was the fact that I have often debated whether or not to have kids, for many reasons too complex to get into here, but one particularly strong reason is my sexuality. Is it fair to have a child, if that child is going to be subject to homophobia and have a harder, more emotionally difficult life because of it? It’s not really a debate this film goes into, largely showing that a loving home is the same regardless of the gender of the parents, but that normality is key. In many ways, this is an unremarkable film focussed on the everyday mundanities, tragedies and joy that goes into being a parent and child, but it’s for that reason it deserves great praise.
Grade: A-

Turbo Kid review
2015, Canada/New Zealand, directed by Francois Simard, Anouk Whissell & Yoann-Karl Whissell. On DVD.
There are films like Gayby Baby that hit you on a deep, emotional level and force you to reconsider your life, but then there are films that are just awesome. They don’t really speak to any greater thematic relevance and simply exist to provide joy. These films come along pretty rarely, but that makes them all the more glorious. Turbo Kid is one such film. It tells a simple story and one that heavily riffs on the look and feel of the 80s (one of my favourite decades and one that modern cult cinema keeps returning to, judging by the efforts of It Follows and Drive). In the futuristic year 1997, a nuclear apocalypse has decimated the world, leading to the rise of the sadistic Zeus. After his mysterious new friend Apple is kidnapped, a young orphan (named The Kid) tries everything in his power to get her back. There are so many reasons to love this film. Everything that happens is done gloriously tongue-in-cheek, combining two very different types of 80s films (the fun, feel-good sci-fi and the ultra-violent and gory exploitation film) to make something that feels new. The frequent, gory violence is at once horrific and ridiculously over-the-top, ensuring things never descend into nasty territory. Also helping with that are the two leads. The Kid is fun and his determination despite everything makes him very easy to root for. And then there’s Apple. She should become a cult icon, with her gorgeous pink hair, crazy attitude and lovably na├»ve and kindhearted spirit. This character could so easily be annoying that the fact she’s one of the best things about an already awesome film is incredible. So many times throughout the film I just wanted to be in the world with these people, as their kindness contrasts nicely with the darkness represented by the villains (which I think is why the violence works, because the leads are just so damn likable that we know they have to win). From a production standpoint as well, this is also wonderful. The bright colours of the costume contrasts beautifully with the apocalyptic wasteland, while the synth score by Le Matos is downright awesome. I literally haven’t been able to stop listening to it, and haven’t been able to stop thinking about this film. The night I watched it, I dreamt about the characters and their adventures. Many films can make you think, laugh, cry but it takes something really magical to make you grin like a madman for an hour and a half. Ecstatic entertainment. Watch it. Watch it now.
Grade: A

Screen Classics

In Good Company review
2004, US, directed by Paul Weitz. On DVD.
Another one of the movies in my DVD collection that I’m watching it just so I can get rid of it, In Good Company is one of the most frustrating, boring films I’ve ever had the displeasure to sit through. After a company takes over a sports magazine, Dennis Quaid is given a new boss, the much younger and inexperienced Topher Grace. They’re eventually able to work past their differences, but when Grace falls for Quaid’s daughter, played by a young Scarlett Johansson, everything is thrown into the air. There are so many problems here it’s hard to know where to start. The casting of Topher Grace is one of the film’s bigger problems. He’s constantly smirking, annoying and hateful. His catchphrase ‘tasty’, employed whenever things go his way made me want to punch him. Worse, the film tries to do far too many things all at once. There’s the magazine take-over, Grace’s bonding with Quaid, Grace’s divorce and newfound relationship with Johansson who is 8 years his junior, Quaid’s wife’s pregnancy, the worker lay-off and more. Because it tries to do all at the same time, it ends up collapsing in a heap. In life, things happen at the same time, but in a film with an hour, forty minute runtime, you need to edit down so as to save touching on but never engaging with the topics. As it stands, we never get to know or care about any of these plots. It’s also flatly directed, overlong and dull. It’s only saving grace is a pretty neat soundtrack, but that’s not enough. In awful company, more like.
Grade: D

On The Tube

Season Two review
In almost every way, the second season of The 100 is better than the first. After the jaw-dropping season one finale, the moral dilemmas and complexities of surviving in this post-apocalyptic landscape come into even greater focus. With the remaining original 100 split up, we start to get more of an understanding of the complex ecology of how all of the groups interact with one another. One violent moment of madness has consequences that spiral out of control, impacting everyone on the show, with terrible and tragic consequences. It gives each decision weight, especially as we come to learn more about each group. Characters who had been seen as good or bad start to act differently as circumstances force them into corners, forcing us to question our loyalty to them. In this epic, incredible second season The 100 starts to earn comparisons with Game Of Thrones, as both invested in ideas of consequence, morally grey characters and decisions. Because of my complicated relationship with Thrones (it’s good, but I don’t believe it’s as good as everyone says), The 100 actually comes across as better, especially in regards to its female characters. This show has numerous strong, wonderfully complex female characters in leadership positions, allowing for an interesting feminist discourse. Even more interesting is that this season, the show starts to explore sexuality, especially in the lead character. To have a bisexual lead is rare, to have one be a strong, morally complex woman in a leadership role with it never being questioned is even rarer and better. As usual though, The 100 is at its best when there’s complex moral decisions and tragic character loss. On this show, no-one is safe and every decision has a good and a bad side. To see a show so clever at world and character building is incredible.
Best Episodes – s2e4: Many Happy Returns. s2e6: Fog Of War. s2e7: Long Into An Abyss. s2e8: Spacewalker. s2e11: Coup De Grace. s2e12: Rubicon. s2e14: Bodyguard Of Lies. s2e15: Blood Must Have Blood – Part One. s2e16: Blood Must Have Blood – Part Two.
Season Grade: A-

Anthology Series review:
Time For Murder, a little known British mystery anthology series, contains one of the best television episodes of all time. ‘Bright Smiler’, the series’ first episode, is a masterpiece of tragic tension. Written by Fay Weldon (and one of those things that immediately makes you want to check out everything else she’s ever worked on), it tells the story of a perpetually smiling masseuse (played brilliantly by Jane Asher) with a dark and complex past. As the truth about her and her plans for murderous revenge are revealed, it is up to her masseuse patient (blinded by a mud treatment) to talk her out of it. What’s really great about this is that the people she wants to kill deserve to die. They are horrible, nasty pieces of work, but it’s still murder. By the end of the episode, there are no winners or easy compromises, just tragedy. And it works brilliantly. Jane Asher’s character is sympathetic, pitiful and monstrous (frequently at the same time) and it’s wide open for a feminist analysis for both characters. It’s an exceptional and unforgettable piece of storytelling. My parents and I who had only seen it once many years ago remembered it perfectly as we did this re-watch. Sadly, the rest of the episodes aren’t up to that standard. Each of the six stories is filled with mayhem, madness and murder and all utilise the same set (low budget is so charming). The only story close to ‘Bright Smiler’ is the nasty, mean-spirited and terrifying ‘The Thirteenth Day Of Christmas’ which works largely by following one’s worst expectations. It’s like a 50 minute horror movie. I would also suggest checking out ‘The Murders At Lynch Cross’, mainly because it has a wonderfully twisting, turning narrative with a nice sting in the tail. The others, though, are neat but disposable mysteries. However, the mere presence of ‘Bright Smiler’ ensures that this is essential viewing. It’s on YouTube. Forget the low budget and the cruddy music and be overtaken by the terror and the sadness.
Best Episodes – e1: Bright Smiler. e2: The Murders at Lynch Cross. e5: The Thirteenth Day Of Christmas.
Series Grade: B+

Season Three review
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Please Like Me is the best show on television. Josh Thomas’ wonderful dramedy has consistently proved itself to be a complex examination of growing up, friendship, sexuality and mental illness, treating each with sensitivity and love. It’s a true masterpiece, blending comedy and seriousness, and with a great, likable cast. The show’s third season sees Josh and Arnold settling down, oddly making him (usually the most neurotic) the most stable and allowing the supporting cast to shine. Each of them has their own very real, deeply human anxieties, hopes and dreams, just trying to find their own way in the world. It’s hard to explain what makes this show work so well. It could be the darkness lying just under the surface or the light hiding just underneath that. It could be the honest ways that sexuality and mental illness are portrayed; showing them in a realistic yet somehow also heightened way. It could be that it maintains a distinctly Melbourne flavour yet also being accessible to a global audience. Please Like Me is also cringe-inducingly, painfully awkward. The last episode of the season, a Christmas dinner bottle episode, is tense, thrilling and devastating largely because of the characters have their own anxieties and fears. The show’s third season is arguably its best yet, featuring less of a focus on romantic relationships allowing for even greater examination of its character and themes. Put simply, Please Like Me is the most consistently excellent show on television.
Best Episodes – s3e1: Eggplant. s3e2: Simple Carbohydrates. s3e4: Natural Spring Water. s3e5: Coq Au Vin. s3e6: Pancakes With Faces. s3e9: Champagne. s3e10: Christmas Trifle.
Season Grade: A

Season Two review
I’ve never seen a show as willing to mess with its form and structure than Sealab 2021. Using repurposed animation from an old Hanna Barbera cartoon allows for ever greater levels of insanity and weirdness. In any show, there will be a general structure, be it medical drama, sitcom or soap opera. There will be occasional deviations from this, most generally seen through bottle episodes, but for the most part an audience knows what to expect week in, week out. Sealab 2021? Not so much. At the end of most episodes, a major character will die or the entire base will explode and each story seems to exist in a universe all its own. For example, ‘Legend Of Baggy Pants’ is just ten minutes of Captain Murphy driving around Pod 6 looking for a pro shop that may or may not exist. He’s a dick throughout and there are weird, side things that never really make any sense, but it’s basically just Murphy driving around. Later, we get ‘Bizzaro’ which sees the Sealab crew coming face to face with the Bizarro (parallel universe) versions of themselves which descends into saying Bizarro over and over again. It’s also one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. Then, there’s ‘Vacation’, which has to be seen to be believed because it basically just gives up on itself and the story collapses, and ‘Fusebox’ which is just a picture of Sealab while we hear the characters talk. It’s formally explosive, destroying any semblance of normalty or expectations but it works, for the most part. This experimentation did work better in the first season (which was better at combining the humour with the weird). In the second season, you just end up laughing because you don’t know what else to do.
Best Episodes – s2e1: Der Dieb. s2e4: Legend Of Baggy Pants. s2e5: Hail, Squishface. s2e6: Bizarro. s2e9: Vacation. S2e10: Fusebox.
Season Grade: B+

Season One review
Sketch comedy is always a bit of a mixed bag. For every great sketch, there’s one that doesn’t quite work, and that’s generally an individual thing. It’s because of that reason that Inside Amy Schumer is a bit weird. The titular comedian was excellent in last year’s Trainwreck, but her show is like an X-rated version. The first episode starts with an audition for two girls, one cup with a detailed description of what happens in that video (which, by the way, what the fuck? Why does that video exist?). The rest of the show is just as crude, rude and intermittently funny, touching on everything from facials (and no, I’m not talking about a mad pack) to sexting. However, what really makes the show incredible is the fact that all of this is done for a reason. Schumer’s comedy examines modern days of gender, sexuality and sexual etiquette in a subversive and satirical way. One of the show’s most memorable sketches sees Amy visiting Nutters, a male version of Hooters, which objectifies men and serves to show how odd objectification is. The problem I had with the show’s first season was that it’s not overly funny. It’s amusing, but very few sketches made me belly laugh. The stand-up that frames the show? That’s hilarious (and included on a special feature on the DVD unedited) and made me desperate to seek out more of it. Well that, and the glorious song Bridget Everett sings at the end of the last episode. Overall, though, this is a clever, important and intermittently funny show that is not afraid to go crude, making for a very odd experience.
Best Episodes – s1e1: Bad Decisions. s1e2: Real Sext. s1e4: The Horror. s1e8: Clown Panties. s1e9: Terrible People. s1e10: Sex Tips.
Season Grade: B

Playlist can be found here.

Knocking On Heaven’s Door (RAIGN) [The 100]
I Done You So Wrong (The Paper Kites)
Solsbury Hill (Peter Gabriel) [In Good Company]
Wasteland (Le Matos) [Turbo Kid]
Tequilia Sunrise (Le Matos) [Turbo Kid]
No Tomorrow (Le Matos, Pawws) [Turbo Kid]
Titties (Bridget Everett) [Inside Amy Schumer]
Piece By Piece [Idol version] (Kelly Clarkson)

In next week's Pop Culture Picnic, I'll be reviewing the new Coen Brothers film Hail, Caesar!, The Tatami Galaxy, season eight of Seinfeld and season eleven of Grey's Anatomy! However, a note, next week I'm starting the new Film and Television course so we'll have to see how things go.

David Gumball-Watson

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