Thursday, 31 December 2020

Oh, and... Six more shows that made 2020 better

So I started a list of TV shows that I liked in 2020, and wrote about them here

I was going to include loads, but only got to seven, because I'm very lazy. But I'm happy to inform you that I've mustered up the energy to complete the list, and here it is. Six more TV shows that made me happy in this, the stupidest of years. 


I Hate Suzie

This is about Billie Piper, and she basically plays Billie Piper, if Billie Piper was 

a) lots less together than in real life and 

b) beset by a constant stream of impossible disasters

Her character - Suzie - is an actress who used to be a pop star when she was a teenager, and then went on to be in a popular sci-fi TV show. So there's the 'very similar' bit. But then her life is thrown into turmoil when someone leaks some sex pictures of her onto the internet. 

Each half hour episode is like accompanying Suzie as she tumbles down a hill and tries to work out which way is up. We experience all her emotions in vivid HD and surround sound, from despair to anger to hilarity to remorse. It is frequently hilarious, as Suzie's layers are peeled away and she reveals incredible, vulnerable humanity and soul. 

There is a whole episode about masturbation, during which your mum and dad will definitely walk in, even if they live miles away or died years ago. 



The Mandalorian

It's not really an original observation to say that this show is great, but I don't care. The Mandalorian kicks ass, and absolutely nails Star Wars in a way that recent films haven't always managed. 

My favourite thing about it is the commitment to action and incident. Each episode is *about* something, and the narrative charges towards that "something" with great determination and glee.

"Kill the big monster". "Rescue the guy". "Get to the place". Each episode is powered by a simple concept like this, and everything that happens unfolds naturally from the core premise.

There's something very appealing about this, especially in an age where Quality TV likes to take its sweet time wandering towards any kind of narrative conclusion. Yes, I like a slow burn plot arc as much as anyone. But between the opening of an episode and its closing credits, something should happen. And ideally that something will involve people shooting lasers at each other.

Best of all is the concept art that plays under the credits each week. Big, bold images that capture the visual power of each instalment. Though I strongly suspect that the actual concept art was just frenzied crayon scribblings of Stormtroopers being blown up by minor characters from the Star Wars universe, which used up all the red crayon and made John Favreau's mum come up to see what all the noise was about.



Normal People

They would never do crayon drawings of this show. Well, they'd only need to do one, anyway - a picture of two people sitting in a room, staring into space with their mouths resolutely closed, in case they accidentally shared any information with each other. 

This is a show about two people falling in love. We follow them over a number of years, and your likely response to their romance will be to shout a combination of the following phrases at the screen:

i)  Oh, you're both so adorable and sweet and realistic!

ii) For the love of God, both of you, would you ever communicate even the most basic information about your feelings?

iii) Oh, yet another incredibly explicit sex scene. And, oh, hello mum, who has just walked in and is wondering why I am watching porn. I'm not! It's art! And why are you here when you live 200 miles away?

iv) I am very moved by the way your love is expressed in subtle and beautiful moments of tenderness.

v) Good grief, will you please talk to each other, rather than living in constant pain because you completely invented the other person's point of view in your head and now you're cross?

Anyway. It's very good, the acting is great and it has a brilliant soundtrack. 



The Queen's Gambit

Chess is very exciting already, so imagine how much more exciting it is when it forms the backbone of a thrilling, beautifully shot drama? That's right - so exciting you might die of joy. 

This show is a thing of absolute wonder (even if you don't really give a toss about chess). The central performance of Queen Gambit herself is astonishing, and would captivate even if she was playing a woman who was really into collecting and cataloguing carpet samples. 

This is one of those shows that just purrs like a finely tuned engine, running smoothly along with such confidence and brilliance that you think, "Man, other TV series are just dicking about. What's their problem? This looks easy!"

I assume it was not easy. It is genius. 




This Country

I did not want to watch This Country for ages, and I think that speaks badly of my own character. I think I looked at the people in it and went, "Ugh - they look like the kind of common, irritating stupid people who I have no real time for. I don't want to see them while I'm enjoying myself with my massive TV. I would like to see spaceships and robots, please!"

Well, it turns out that I was wrong by quite a significant margin. And indeed it is exactly my prissy attitude that this show is directly aimed at. This is an amazingly sweet, funny and often moving show and it sneaks in some proper social commentary while it's there. 

One of the great things fiction can do is to increase empathy for those not like you. This Country does exactly that with the young, white underclass of small town communities. And, like all good comedy, it does it by reminding us that we're all idiots, really. Yes, these people can be selfish and impetuous and unwilling to change, and that's hilarious. But they're also human and fragile and ultimately very, very loveable. And if I think I'm not stupid in exactly the same ways, I'm kidding myself.

It's also the most I've laughed all year.



What We Do In The Shadows

I don't have any startling insights into this show, except to say that it's fantastically funny and constantly inventive. Series one was great and did a good job of hitting the beats of the (excellent) film which spawned it. Series two develops further and strikes out on its own a bit more, playing with the characters and ideas in a way which shows real confidence in the premise, the actors and the scripts. 

Maybe this is the most I've laughed, actually? I don't know. I laugh a lot. Perhaps I'm having a breakdown? That would make sense of a lot of things.



So that's it. 13 excellent TV shows which I've really enjoyed. Honourable mentions also go to:


Better Call Saul - consistently good, to the point where it feels redundant to mention it

Feel Good - something I've only recently started, because lovely Charlotte Richie from Ghosts is in it

Home - which I probably should have included, as it's both hilarious and extremely relevant

The Boys - excitingly violent TV that charges in its own direction with great joy. 


There you go. A reminder that part one of this list can be found here

Wednesday, 30 December 2020

Seven TV shows that made 2020 better.

Afternoon. Nice facial expression!

Like everyone else I have spent most of 2020 gazing at screens and shouting "Please entertain me - all the humans I know are hiding in their houses and won't let me in."

Screens have, obligingly, done their best to make me happy. They can't laugh at my jokes, stroke my face or bring me tea, which is what I mostly want, but they can bring me some reasonable diversions in the form of film, TV programmes and computer games. 

Here are seven of the best TV shows I've seen this year. No, they are not all from 2020. No, there is no real logic to their inclusion. And no, seven is not a sensible number for a list. 

But they are all great, and if you don't know them, you should check them out. 



Bojack Horseman

I avoided this show for a while, because who has time for another animated series about anthropomorphised animals manifesting the joys and terrors of human failure?

This year, due to all the lockdown, I got into the habit of going for an early morning walk and then having breakfast with an episode of Bojack. It soon got its hooks into me, and I joined all the other people who think that it's magnificent. 

Incredibly sharp and funny, desperately true and sad, full of both joyous silliness and profound insight. The line that stays with me is this: "When you meet someone new, you see them through rose tinted glasses. Which means you tend to miss all the red flags."



Cheers

I got a big box set of Cheers DVDs for my birthday. I wondered if it would hold up, nearly 40 years later. I wondered how much of my joy in it came from the associations: Friday nights, no more school for a few days, watching it with the family and allowed to stay up late. 

To my delight and relief, it turns out that it's still brilliant. The characters are utterly believable and relatable. The dialogue crackles with invention and wit. Few sitcoms since have come close to its success, both in terms of gag rate and of genuine human warmth.

Time has not been unkind to the show. Attitudes to gender and sexuality are of their time, but there's a clear will to be progressive within the limitations of the culture. Gay people are strange and unsettling to these characters, but not unwelcome and never the target of cheap laughs. 

In some ways Cheers is the product of a better time. There is an underlying assumption that the audience is intelligent enough to pick up on nuance, and educated enough to understand cultural references. Characters are conflicted and flawed and don't dissolve down to catchphrases and quirks (Friends, Big Bang Theory - I'm looking at you). 

Best of all, it really did take me back to those Friday nights. It's a different family on the sofa now, eating our sausages and chips and rejoicing in the weekend. But there's the same glow of pleasure as the Cheers logo glints in the light, and we visit the place where everybody knows your name. 



The End of the F***ing World. 

Despite the asterisks (which appear to be part of the official title), this is a challenging title for a show, and - as I've discovered - a hard sell when recommending it. But I do recommend it, without reservation.

This is the story of two teenagers who go on the run for no massively good reason, like a very low key British Bonnie and Clyde. They might be in love, though being teenagers it's hard even for them to be sure. They get into a variety of scrapes.

Tonally, we're in 'very black comedy' territory. There's a lot of deadpan humour and the whole thing is very slightly outlandish. But then there is murder, and assault, and all manner of pain. And the brilliance of this show is that it takes these things absolutely seriously without ever abandoning its energy and sense of droll humour. 

The two leads are outstanding. As in "Peep Show" we are privy to their internal monologues and a lot of the joy comes from the dissonance between outwardly stated intentions and private thoughts. Their relationship is beautiful and fumbling and stupid and composed entirely of dark, dark romance. 




Staged

Michael Sheen and David Tennant chat to each other over Zoom during lockdown. They are playing themselves, more or less, and they are both delightful and engaging company for these bite sized little episodes. 

If you've seen the Trip, it's a bit like that but loads cheaper, and rather more loveable. Each instalment is like a little hug. It made me smile throughout.



Gangs of London

This show is not like a hug. Unless the person hugging you is doing it with the intention of crushing you to death. This is, without a doubt, one of the most violent things I have ever seen on screen. 

It is also tremendously exciting. Basically it does exactly what the title suggests. There are many gangs. In London. They exist in an uneasy peace until the Big Gang Leader Guy - played by Chief O'Brien from Deep Space Nine - gets assassinated. That's not a spoiler - that's the premise. 

Then everyone goes mental and starts attacking each other, like if Game of Thrones was set now and everyone was 20% more horrible to each other. The violence is breath-taking, so don't watch it if that's not your thing. But if you enjoy thrilling action, this is edge of the seat stuff, audacious in its ambition and nerve.



Ghosts

You have already seen Ghosts. I know this because, when I discovered it and recommended it to people, they all said, "Yes, we've seen it. We recommended it to you. Why do you never listen to anything anyone ever says?"

Ghosts looks like a kids TV show but isn't - not quite.  A couple inherit a big old house. Alison - played by the luminous Charlotte Richie - has a near death experience and as a result she can now see ghosts! And it turns out the house is full of them. 

Various ghosts live in the house - all having died at different points in the history of the house. They form a kind of dysfunctional family unit, and now Alison is more or less mum. It's fairly basic sitcom business - each week there's an issue with a visitor, or one of the ghosts has a crisis, and it gets sorted out. 

As the episodes progress, there emerges an unexpected warmth and wonder from these fairly standard interactions. We start to learn about the pasts of the characters, and often there's a great deal of sadness underlying the black comedy of their lives and deaths. It's very silly and broad in places, but I've been moved to tears more than once by the brilliance of the writing and the performances of the cast.



Hunters

Another series which has more going on under the surface than is at first apparent. 

Basically, it's the 1970s and a Jewish kid gets involved with a group of Nazi hunters. It turns out that a whole bunch of Nazis escaped arrest after the war, and reinvented themselves as good American citizens. Well, the Hunters have no time for that kind of nonsense, so they seek them out and exact justice, with a strong emphasis on 'poetic'.

It's quite brash and in your face, and kind of hyper-real. Tarantino is a clear influence. And for a while it seems like it might just be an exercise in day-glo wish fulfilment. But then it starts to do all sorts of clever and interesting things which took me by surprise and elevated it substantially beyond my initial impressions. 

There's a strong intent to educate going on. Like last year's excellent "Watchmen", this is a show which wants to tap modern day America on the shoulder and say, "Please remember - your culture is built heavily on foundations of racism and self interest". 

There's also some powerful, tender character work. One episode in particular holds a scene on two characters for an astonishing ten minutes to discuss grief, vengeance and forgiveness. It's one of the most riveting things I've seen all year and it deserves your time, even if it does look daft as a brush.



That's all for now. I have another six, and you can find them here, if you're so inclined. 


Stay warm and safe, for you are great. 







Tuesday, 10 November 2020

Rob's Amazing Film Collection - Part Five: The Beyond to The Blues Brothers





For some reason I'm putting my film collection online and talking about it. Even though

a) There's literally no reason why anyone should care

b) A lot of these films I've either not seen in ages or - worse - never seen ever, despite owning for years

c) A film collection is a constantly shifting thing. There's already stuff in "A" that wasn't there when I started this. 

d) I'm so lazy, there's no way I'll get to Z before I die. 


But here we are anyway. 




The Beyond



This is a super weird Italian horror film from the early 80s. That's my absolute favourite period for horror, and this film exemplifies exactly why. 

It's batshit crazy, with a plot that makes zero sense, but it's so visually compelling and furiously inventive that you simply don't care. The imagery has this kind of austere bleakness: part art film, part documentary. The early 80s didn't seem to care where 'horror' fit in with the other genres. It just played by itself, doing its own macabre things. 

As a result, it ends up having a sense of both absolute silliness and pervasive dread. Amazing. 



The Bicycle Thieves



Well I hope you enjoyed all the things I had to say about that last film, because we're about to go through a phase of "I literally can't remember anything". 

I watched this so that I could show it to some film students and say, "How would you like to study Italian neo-realism, everyone?" Their answer was silent, but definitive. They would not like to watch any more films like this, thank you, and god damn me for even considering it. 

I was secretly quite glad. I didn't really enjoy myself watching this, and had my students liked it, I would have had to buy loads more films like it, with their total lack of spaceships or zombies, and they would sit on my shelves to this day, silently judging me. 

The films, not the students. 

No, I haven't watched it since. Why do I keep it? Because.. I don't know. It's art or something?




Big Night




Haven't watched it. Bought it because it was cheap. It looks good, and I'm sure I'd love it.

I pick it up occasionally, and think, "Yeah - I should watch this. I bet it would be fun."

But then I don't. Why don't I? Have I been subjected to some kind of hypnosis? It's the only possible explanation. 



The Big Sleep



Film Noir is, I'm afraid, always going to be a historical period for me, more than a genre. It's films are documents of time, not things to be enjoyed in their own right. 

I envy those who do enjoy them, and I can see why they are attractive. But I've never been able to emotionally engage with them. It's like jazz. I'd like to be one of those people who love it. But it looks like a lot of work to get to the point where it starts being fun. 

Last time I tried to watch this I genuinely fell asleep. I feel sleepy thinking about it. It's the word 'sleep'. It's an excellent word, which really carries the essence of its meaning. Don't call films "Sleep" if you want me to stay awake during them. 




Big Fish




I haven't watched this for a while. I seem to remember it being a perfectly enjoyable and visually pleasing piece of work. Is it Tim Burton? I'm going to go and check. You stay there. Don't do anything weird in front of Ewan. 

It is Tim Burton. I had a feeling it was, but then another part of my brain kept saying, "How can it be? It's good."

He used to be good, didn't he, Tim Burton? Before he filled his veins with sticky, sweet CGI and became obsessed with putting Johnny Depp in an increasingly bizarre series of hats. 




Billy Elliot


You'll be relieved and delighted to find that I've watched this quite recently. And I can report that I found it "good".

Looking back now, it seems like part of a mini genre, that sprang up around the mid to late 90s. Full Monty, Brassed Off, that kind of thing. Working class, socially active cinema that managed the neat trick of having some mainstream quirk without selling out its ideals.

The 'miners on strike' edge of it seems more sad than angry, and I found more relevance this time in the sexual politics of the thing. For the most part, the challenging of gender roles is done really well, and with some subtlety. It did stick out a bit that they gave him a camp, gay best friend, to point out how not camp and gay Billy was. But otherwise, pretty nuanced, and full of heart. 



The Birds



It's been a while since I saw The Birds. I think every time I consider watching it, I just go, "Well, why watch that, when I could watch Psycho?" And so I watch Psycho. 

I know. You can watch more than one thing. And I promise I'll get onto it.  I can't remember most of the plot. Surely there's more to it than people going, "Oooh, that's quite a number of birds, isn't it? More than usual. Gosh, what a lot of birds!" and then being eaten. 

Doesn't it end with them just driving off, slowly, so that the birds don't see them? That's the sort of ending you write when you've run out of time to finish your homework.




The Birth of a Nation



I've never made it all the way through this film. But it's not like all those others I've not seen, where I was just too lazy, or tired, or got distracted by computer games. No. This film offers many compelling reasons to leave it unfinished, namely:

i) It is nearly 3 hours long. No film is meant to be that long. 90 minutes is ideal, and I'll allow 2 hours before I start looking at my non existent watch, and coughing loudly.

ii) It is in black and white, and silent. Which means I get distracted and start doing my own dialogue. This entertains me, but does tend to mean I lose track of what's actually going on. 

iii) It is super racist. It was made in olden times, when you could just be openly racist in films and everyone had to say, "Well, this seems fine." It is not fine. 




Black Dynamite



I like the fact that this film lives next to The Birth of a Nation on the shelf. It's like a sitcom about a really racist DVD who finds that a black couple have moved in next door. 

This is a film bought for me by my friend Andy, who is constantly trying to get me to look at new and interesting things, and stop just watching Total Recall again. I resisted for ages, until he became furious and demanded I watch it with him.

He was right and it's very good and funny. 




Black Hawk Down




To my recollection, this is just a film about a helicopter crashing, and then everyone getting shot at for about two hours. I don't think anything else happens. It might be based on a true story, but that's not really an excuse for just hitting me with noise and editing for ages. 

I think it might be trying to create sensation, rather than develop plot. You know, making me feel what it was like. Well, yes, if that's the case, well done. I did feel trapped and sad and assaulted. But I don't think my suffering really compared to that of any actual soldier, and I was mostly bored. 

Chris Nolan's Dunkirk tried a similar thing. I cunningly did not buy it, having learned my lesson here.




The Black Hole



Now we're talking!

The Black Hole is very odd. It is, in almost every sense, a kids Disney space film, with cute robots and exciting space battles. That's why I went to see it in 1980 and I very much imagine it came into being entirely as a way to grab the attention of Star Wars obsessed child geeks like myself. 

However. While it is all of the above, it is also, somehow, a trippy, existential journey into the screaming void of madness. It's like Event Horizon for kids, or Heart of Darkness with lasers. A madman commands a ghostly space hulk, manned by living corpses! A man is torn apart by spinning knives! They get sucked into hell, possibly!

It's amazing, and a bit rubbish, and beautiful. I had all the toys, and loved making them fight, but I was also drawn to the sheer darkness of a film where the heroes struggle against the terrible pull of the universe itself, and fail. 




BlackKKlansman




This is a super great film and I was very much in love with it when I saw it. Did it win the Oscar? I bet it didn't. It's too good. I've not seen much Spike Lee, and that's something I need to rectify. 

I very much liked how brazen the politics were. At first you think, "Oh, this is a clever, de-contextualised way of discussing the issues of race that have come to the fore under the Trump administration". Then the film says, "I am talking about Trump! Donald Trump. He is racist! I mostly mean him! Trumpy Trumpy Racisty Trump!"

I feel very woke for liking it, obviously, but am also consumed with fear that I have accidentally transposed the photo for this with the one for Black Dynamite, and that I am secretly racist.




Black Panther




A film I've watched very recently, as part of a full Marvel watch-through. Yes, that's what I do when I should be watching Big Night and educating myself in Film Noir and Italian Neo-Realism. I watch superheroes hitting each other. 

Well I've no defence, really. I like 'em. And this most recent viewing of Black Panther came, as chance would have it, on the day that Chadwick Boseman - the eponymous King Cat himself - passed away. This had the unavoidable effect of making the whole thing much more poignant. 

It's hard to know if things like this should be disassociated from a film or not. A film should stand on its own, really. Black Panther was already in an impossible place in that regard, of course, bearing as it did the weight of  First Black Superhero Movie (even if it wasn't, really). It is a really good film, but it will never be just a film. Certainly not now its young and beloved star died so young. 

We're kidding ourselves, of course, if we think any film can be divorced from its context. And I'm impressed with Black Panther for grasping the horns so comprehensively, and going "I am about race and the historical context of identity! Deal with it!" I just feel like I'll never quite *see* this film.  




Black Sheep




This film is not, to my knowledge, about race at all. Unless there's some subtext I've forgotten about. It's about zombie sheep.

I can't remember if it's any good. I've seen it once, quite some time ago, and I seem to remember liking it. But then I get very giddy about zombies, so am not necessarily the best judge of quality in this regard. 




Black Swan




One of those films that I will watch only very occasionally, but very much appreciate every time I get down to it. It's a very peculiar tasting film. Bitter, and with flavours that don't seem to go together. Like if someone put garlic on a Curly Wurly. 

This is a very powerful and scary piece of work, that makes great use of the medium to play games with your brain. It's quite a trick to make you unsure what you just saw, but still invested in the outcomes. 

It's about ballet, but otherwise good. 




Blade Runner



When I first saw Blade Runner I did not like it. 

Same for the second, third and fourth times. Did. Not. Like. But, somehow, I knew I was wrong. That's weird, isn't it? Most of the time when I dislike a film I'm in no doubt about who is to blame. It's the stupid useless film's fault for being boring or too long or suggesting there's going to be nudity and then not having any.

But even at 14 or thereabouts, I sensed that Blade Runner was good, and I was dumb. 

In my defence, it was widely advertised as "That guy who plays Han Solo and Indiana Jones chases robots in flying cars!" Which doesn't really prepare a young man for the ponderous arty concoction of owls eyes, enhanced photos and a villain who is defeated when he decides to give up, sit down and ramble on about the Shoulder of Orion. 

It's a film that grows in stature every time I see it, and I love it very much. Well done young me for persevering.




Blade Runner 2049



A film that breaks many rules. It's really long, but it earns its length. It's a belated sequel to an outright classic, but it manages to build on the original without cheapening what made it work. It stars Jared Leto but it isn't a horrible stupid test of your patience and will to live.

I'm a big fan of this film for many reasons. The colours. The humour. Ryan Gosling's adorable little jump when he's surprised. What I like best, though, it the way it skilfully subverts audience expectations and deconstructs the kind of hero myths that we take for granted, but probably shouldn't.




The Blues Brothers



Finally, for this little run, is another film I used to watch a lot as a child. 

We must have recorded this off the TV, onto the family Betamax. I watched it endlessly. It's one of those films that's not-very-good-really, for lots of reasons, but also perfect, for exactly the same reasons. I get the feeling it's not very beloved these days, probably due to endless annoying people quoting the lines, and also middle aged men dressing up and doing bad covers of the songs. 

Plus it's not really a film, but an exercise in showing off famous people in little set pieces. I still don't quite get the genre of "Look, it's people from Saturday Night Live - are you not entertained?" It seems a bit self satisfied. 

As a kid, though, none of that mattered. I didn't know who these comedians were. I didn't really know that the musicians were famous, either, or that I was meant to be impressed just by them being there. And I certainly didn't care about structure. It was just a cool film about lots of funny things happening to some guys. 

Wouldn't it be nice just to see a film, and enjoy it without context?



Well, that's it. Thanks for sticking with me through this nonsense. See you next time, if you can stand more.