Thursday, 10 March 2016

Pop Culture Picnic: Volume 1, Number 9

Hello all,
A little bit of a light PCP this week, but the greatness of some of these things made up for it, I think. Also as I mentioned last week, Monday saw me start my new University course. It was a disastrous first day and I am planning on writing a blog post about it before next week's PCP, so watch this space. No matter what happens though, I will be continuing Pop Culture Picnic, even if it is in a shortened form (I'd rather do it shorter than make this fortnightly) and with a heavier focus on movies (they're shorter so easier to get numerous done in a week). So hope you enjoy it for a long time to come!

Silver Screen

Hail, Caesar! review
2016, US, directed by Joel & Ethan Coen. In Cinemas Now.
Many of the Coen brothers best films feature a vein of arch weirdness. Take Fargo for example. It's a dark story filled with violence, but it also has that Minnesota-nice accent and Marge Gunderson which ensures it remains an enjoyable experience. As a big fan of many of their films, I was very much looking forward to Hail, Caesar, but it was a disappointment. In the 1950s, Eddie Mannix tries to solve the many problems and scandals that arise at Capitol Pictures, not least of all being the kidnap of Baird Whitlock by a group of Communists. There's a lot to like about this film, especially in individual scenes which can be clever and funny (there's a great debate about the depiction of God and an awesome bit with Frances McDormand as editor C.C.), but too often it feels like there's too much going on. There are so many subplots that few of them really serve to engage in any way. One that does work is Alden Ehrenreich's scene-stealing as turn as Hobie Doyle, an actor known for his Westerns who tries to do a serious dramatic role and just can't follow the direction of Laurence Laurentz. The scene where Laurentz tries to tell Hobie how to read a very simple line is a masterpiece of comedic timing, forever growing in intensity and awkwardness. It's a shame the rest of the film isn't as satisfying. It frequently tips over into arch, broad comedy which isn't always successful and seems a little like the Coens are trying too hard. A late scene in the film featuring a Russian sub is one of the stupidest things I've seen and not in a good way. It's hard to know what to take away from the film. Is it a nice, if overly simplistic parody of 50s filmmaking (Channing Tatum's uber-gay dance scene is great, but an obvious joke)? An examination of faith and cinema? Or just a bunch of actors trying too hard? It's so disappointing when one of your favourite filmmakers misfires. Here, the Coen brothers do so spectacularly. A great big swing-and-miss of a film.
Grade: C

Heaven Knows What review
2015, US, directed by Josh & Benny Safdie. Available on DVD.
Detailing the daily life of a drug addict, Heaven Knows What is frequently a tough film to watch. It's opening scene is horrific as a young woman, Harley, is cruelly told by her boyfriend, Ilya, to kill herself. So she grabs a razor blade and tells him she's going to do it. He urges her on and she does it. It's so horrific, so disturbing on so many levels, but it grabs the viewer's attention and holds it for the rest of the film. A lot of why this works as well as it does is because of Arielle Holmes' stunning lead performance. In a film heavily based on her own life, she's captivating, with big, expressive eyes and a natural presence. There's not much of a story to this film, just a series of events in Harley's life as she struggles to get money, and wrestles with an on/off relationship with the very disturbed Ilya, but it's fascinating, horrifying and beautiful in equal measure. In many ways, it's a very sad film, as there seems very little hope for the character or the people she surrounds herself with. To contrast with this, Heaven Knows What is also beautifully shot on the streets of New York and has an excellent, deliberately jarring score which features synthy, sci-fi versions of Debussy, but this film will be most remembered for the unforgettable Arielle Holmes. I can't wait to see where she goes next.
Grade: A-

Silver Screen Classics

Coffy review
1973, US, directed by Jack Hill. Available on DVD.
Blaxploitation is such a weird film genre. Coming to prominence in the 70s, it generally features a black protagonist fighting for rights against a traditionally white protagonist. Naturally, there's some subtle political subversiveness, especially in those that feature Pam Grier. A beautiful, unforgettably awesome woman, Grier is one of those cool action heroes, forever linked with the genre (she's a Tarantino favourite). I predominantly known her from the razor sharp, extremely cool Foxy Brown (made a year later than Coffy), and was excited to see her in something else. Unfortunately, Coffy sucks. For a start, Coffy is a less interesting character than Foxy and a weaker person in general. When she's captured, she doesn't really fight back which considering Foxy's awesome resourcefulness is supremely frustrating. More annoying is that her antagonist is a white male (before we realise that it's actually her boyfriend who's actually the bigger jerk) and the frequent level of violence is never questioned in any substantial way. Worse is the fact that it is clearly an exploitation film. While Foxy Brown did have nudity, it was done in a way that feels less obvious (she'd get out of bed and happen to have no top on, for example). Here, it's downright stupid. There's a crap fight scene which feels like wish fulfilment as Coffy fights with a group of women who have ridiculously easy to rip t-shirts revealing bouncing breasts every time they fall down. It's so, so pointless. Looking at it, Coffy feels less like a film, than an early draft of ingredients that would be utilised better in a later film. Just crappy exploitation.
Grade: C-

Assault On Precinct 13 review
1976, US, directed by John Carpenter. Available on DVD.
Assault On Precinct 13 is notable for a couple of reasons. First, it's directed by John Carpenter (Halloween, The Thing, They Live) an influential genre god. Looking at Precinct 13's grimy depiction of urban decay, it's clear that the setting of It Follows (basically an amazing feature length Carpenter homage) owes more to this film than Halloween. Second, it features one of the most infamously violent and horrifically cold scenes ever put to film (the ice-cream truck, which I want to discuss in-depth, but will do so elsewhere because the shock value is part of the reason it's so disturbing). Last, but not least, it's perhaps the only example of the urban horror film. It's not clear from the storyline, but this is a masterpiece. A police station is being closed down, policed by a tiny handful of people and holding a handful of violent criminals. However, when a man shoots a gang member in revenge and seeks refuge in the police station, the night turns into all-out war, as the ragtag bunch will have to do anything to stay alive. What this film does very well, is use genre conventions to tell a completely different story. While it's more frequently compared to the Howard Hawks/John Wayne western Rio Bravo, Assault On Precinct 13 seems to owe more to Night Of The Living Dead. The gang members are violent, ruthless and have zero lines of dialogue. They're like zombies, forever coming, unbeatable and with creepy, almost supernatural powers and inhumanity. Watching them invade, it's an example of horror coming to the urban in a way that is far more pervasive than a group of zombies. While some critics have argued this as a downside, I believe that it's one of the film's most important aspects. Two years later, Carpenter will once again bring the horror to the suburban in Halloween and this film prefigures that in a fascinating way. Another way of looking at, is the film's look at cycles of violence. A man taking revenge brings the violence to those in the precinct who have to use violence to survive. It's horrible but fascinating. There's also a nice sense of place, especially as it all takes place over one night (reminding me of a better paced and structured The Warriors). The one thing that doesn't really work for me is the romantic subplot which feels shoehorned in, but Assault On Precinct 13 remains compellingly watchable, humourless, ruthless but also absolutely gripping. It's also anchored by a great, addictive score and gorgeous widescreen cinematography. An incredible, staggering piece of cinema and one of the very best films from a visionary director.
Grade: A

On The Tube

Season Eleven review
I'm always amazed at what Grey's Anatomy has managed to accomplished. The medical drama has ran for more than eleven years and, despite numerous disasters, has survived and thrived to become a pretty consistently excellent show. Season eleven, however, is one of show's most depressing years. Following the departure of Christina Yang, the arrival of a sister she never knew she had and her husband potentially moving to Washington, it's understandably Meredith-centric. While her character has never been the most interesting in the show, it does the seemingly impossible of actually making you care about her, especially as we get more of an understanding of the way she is. Her childhood has always been seen in fragments, so to see all the pieces come together to get a new understanding is incredibly satisfying on an emotional and an intellectual level. It's she that actually saves the series from falling into unbearably sad territory as she discovers how to be her own person. It's something greatly appreciated, especially with all the pain elsewhere, including Jackson and April's baby, Hermann's brain tumor (undoubtedly more moving because she was played by Geena Davis), Arizona and Callie's divorce (sad but necessary, considering how damaging their relationship had become), Amelia's ongoing struggles with addictions (which was one of the best things about the spin-off Private Practice, so it's nice to see that story has impact here) and the horrible, inevitable and tragic death of one of the show's most beloved characters. It's a big, ballsy move and one that wasn't appreciated at the time, but I truly believe the show's writers had no other choice. The method of the death (needlessly mean) and the aftermath (two episodes set over a year, denying the audience the chance to grieve along with this family) were deeply problematic, but I have it on good authority that season twelve will further examine this turn of events. What's most amazing about Grey's though is, that no matter how dark it gets, there's always the knowledge that there's a light on the horizon. That no matter how shit things get, we can move past it and be stronger and better because of it. In many ways, it's such a hopeful show, so it's easy to get invested in these characters. It's fair to say that Grey's is the ongoing show with characters I am most invested in and want the best for, so I will always keep watching this show. It's not a masterpiece, it's gloriously proudly soapy and it's for that reason, that I love it, despite the pain.
Best Episodes – s11e2: Puzzle With A Piece Missing. s11e4: Only Mama Knows. s11e5: Bend & Break. s11e8: Risk. s11e10: The Bed’s Too Big Without You. s11e11: All I Could Do Was Cry. s11e12: The Great Pretender. s11e14: The Distance. s11e16: Don’t Dream It’s Over. s11e20: One Flight Down. s11e21: How To Save A Life. s11e22: She's Leaving Home, Parts 1 and 2. s11e24: You're My Home.
Season Grade: A-

Series review
The Tatami Galaxy is one of those things you're amazed you've never really heard of before. Directed by Masaaki Yuasat, it redefines what animation is capable of, in terms of both a storytelling and a production, and the combination of the two. It's less a TV show than a piece of literary art. An unnamed protagonist tries to have a 'rose-coloured campus life' so joins a club (termed circles) which he throws everything into. However, at the end of two years, he realises that through fate and/or his own personal choice, he has failed at everyone of his endeavours and so wishes for a reset. Each episode sees him restarting his life, joining a different circle and once again failing, always unaware that this has all happened before. On a formal level that's fascinating, largely because of the thematic implications. The protagonist is constantly blaming his fate on the choices he made on that first day, but what's immediately clear that is not the original choice, but the choices he has continued to make ever since. More interestingly, we learn a lot about the characters around him simply by observing the roles they play in each 'universe'. For example, in the second episode, the protagonist and Ozu, his demon-faced friend, join the movie circle and make a damning movie about the group's president. That president is then a main character from that point on, always using our prior knowledge of him to strengthen our understanding of his place in this college ecosystem and it happens frequently. This small tiny thing that seems unimportant comes back in a significant way later on, always done to expand character. Also, those big key events (say, for example, that movie) are undertaken by different characters, meaning that the same basic events happen. Later on, the protagonist joins three circles at once and that first episode is quite confusing, as there's all these things we're not quite sure about. Later episodes in the three-episode arc fill in that information in ways that are ingenious and we get such a complete picture of what's going on, without repeating exposition. It says so much with so little. That's not even starting on the animation. The series uses an interesting and dynamic hybrid style (animation with heavily edited real-life footage) which results in jaw-dropping, gorgeous visuals. However, even these visuals are done in service of characterisation, as each person's physical features are accentuated according to our understanding of them. There's also some interesting stuff with colour (especially seeing the last episode of the series seems to suggest that there had been a different colour scheme for each episode which I hadn't noticed, but am desperate to discover) and lighting, to ensure that nothing is what it seems. However, for a Western viewer, there is a small problem. The dialogue is incredibly fast-paced, resulting in a tight focus which forces you to speed-read the subtitles, often meaning that I missed some of the visual impact. It's because of this that I think a re-watch is essential to really get what it's doing, especially seeing how well the clues to everything are positioned. And then, if that wasn't good enough, the last two episodes somehow manage to up the quality, turning everything we know on its head and becoming a surreal, horrific nightmare straight out of Kafka but with a greater thematic resonance. It's exceptional with that rare thing in anime, a truly satisfying ending and with perfect opening and ending themes (that ending is so, so catchy). I think the word masterpiece gets thrown around a little too lightly by critics (myself included), but I think this is that rare thing; an absolute work of genius with everything firing on all cylinders to create such unity of vision that it has to be admired. More than an anime, this is a goddamn work of art.
Series Grade: A

Playlist can be found here.

I Will Be There (Odessa) [Grey’s Anatomy]
Feels Like Coming Home (Jetta) [Grey’s Anatomy]
I Think I’m In Love (Kat Dahlia) [Grey’s Anatomy]
Weekend (Priory) [Grey’s Anatomy]
Seasons (Hollow Wood) [Grey’s Anatomy]
Saturn (Sleeping At Last) [Grey’s Anatomy]
Mercy! You Need Saving (Neulore) [Grey’s Anatomy]
Parallel Lines (Future Reference, Aron Wright) [Grey’s Anatomy]
Gulls (David Gray) [Grey’s Anatomy]
Into The Fire (Erin McCarley) [Grey’s Anatomy]
Sedona (Houndmouth) [Grey’s Anatomy]
You Were Supposed To Be Different (Aron Wright) [Grey’s Anatomy]
Chasing Cars (The Wind And The Wave) [Grey’s Anatomy]
I'll Never Go Away (Erin McCarley, Gabe Dixon) [Grey’s Anatomy]
As God Dictates (Various) [The Tatami Galaxy]
Assault On Precinct 13 Main Theme (John Carpenter) [Assault On Precinct 13]
I Need A Minute (Ariel Pink) [Heaven Knows What]
Power Of The Mind (Headhunterz) [Heaven Knows What]

In next week's edition of Pop Culture Picnic, I will (hopefully) be reviewing The Lady In The Van, season 1 of Upstairs Downstairs, season 8 of Seinfeld and My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU. See you then!

David Gumball-Watson

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