Music biz excess snuffed out too soon, alternative history meets flying lead, and the guy you send to kill the Boogey Man: some of what's been flavouring my February 2017...
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Vinyl - HBO cancelled this after one season (reversing their initial order of a second season), but the vibe of the music scene in 1970s New York intrigued me, and coming from the folks behind Boardwalk Empire and The Wolf of Wall Street, I figured it was worth a watch. It's certainly not bad, by no means, but it's not great either. In the early episodes it feels overly enamoured with the era, seeking to cram in too many 'Rock God appearances' in guest roles that never lead anywhere plot wise in particular, robbing the protagonists and supporting players of much-needed screen time to let us get to know them as the show gets going.
Indeed, in some regards the show feels in a rush - particularly in getting to the 'coke and wild excess' breakdown of Bobby Canavale's record company owner Richie Finestra, which doesn't feel earned. Perhaps it would have played out better to hold back longer - teasing Richie's history of excess while drawing out his time on-the-wagon a bit longer. Likewise, in conjunction with that, the 'manslaughter incident' could have been pushed deeper into the season - at which point Richie could fall off-the-wagon in a more spectacular fashion.
Boardwalk Empire, after the first two (utterly superb) seasons, slumped gradually and consistently until the end, indulging in too much 'gangster shtick' while sidelining some of the most intriguing characters (such as Maggie Shroeder), and frankly, the show never recovered from that jaw-dropping season two finale (one of the most gripping and stunning hours of TV drama I've ever watched). Similarly, Vinyl gets too carried away with the allure of the setting, but - in the last two or three episodes - the characters suddenly bed-in and are afforded some greater depths and interesting plot twists ... and then the season ends and there's no more episodes to come, just when I got hooked! It's such a shame, if only the series had been more focused on character earlier on and spread out the fun 'music legend cameo' stuff throughout the entire season (even trimmed it a little), then it might have landed on its feet more steadily. Short-lived, but I enjoyed it while it lasted - wobbles aside. Wouldn't it be nice if HBO reversed their reversal and stumped up for another season?
Long Way Down: Special Edition - I had seen this in its original six-episode incarnation four times already, but this was my first time seeing the extended ten-episode version. The additional material gives the journey a bit more room to breathe and we get to see some nice little asides here and there that not only show us some more sights and encounters, but which also bring us deeper into Ewan and Charley's adventure. It doesn't beat Long Way Round (which I've watched more times than I can remember) - but LWD comes a very respectable second ... now if only they could find the time to do Long Way Up.
The Walking Dead: Season 7B - after an absolutely stellar premiere episode (one of the all-time greatest episodes of TWD), it's fair to say that Season 7 (thus far) has been as uneven as Season 3. There's been some great episodes throughout (7x01, 7x02, 7x03, 7x08, and 7x09, 7x11 were all robust-to-excellent), but the others in-between have been up-and-down affairs with strong and weak points lumped together (7x06 was the low point, in my honest opinion). There have been certain moments of iffy logic dotted throughout that just needed a few small tweaks to make them stand up to scrutiny, so it was disappointing to see some of these weaker plot points left untouched. It's also irritating to see newly-introduced communities - Oceanside and The Scavengers - feeling a bit cliched, populated by humourless know-it-alls with po-faced or smug-looking leaders. The try-hard theatricality of The Scavengers (all in black, walking back and forth to make a big show of forming a circle around Team Rick) was a bit of an eye roll moment, and the people of Oceanside kept you at a distance with all but one member earning your sympathy.
Everyone in the TWD universe has been through hell, but these new characters need to show their vulnerabilities and failings to we the viewer to let us inside, even if they remain closed-off to Team Rick. Just look at The Hilltop and The Kingdom - we get clued-in to Ezekiel's truth by the end of his introductory episode (and who didn't love Jerry from the get-go?), while Gregory and Jesus from The Hilltop are two compelling sides of a warring coin. Hopefully season 7B can up its game in the last six episodes, but I can't help feeling that the impending war is going to be put off until Season 8A in October. At least give us something good to chew on as an appetiser to see us through the six month season break, and hopefully Season 8 will see the TWD team brush off the cobwebs, smooth off the rough edges, and tighten up the logic gaps. Season 7 isn't a bust, but as I said above, it's the most uneven outing since Season 3 ... Gimple & Co need to be careful not to let things slide further, or tie themselves up in needlessly complicated plotting knots.
Don't Answer The Phone! (DVD) - read the full review here.
Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers (Blu-Ray) - read the full review here.
John Wick 2 - we checked this out at the cinema and boy, does it throw a shed load of action at your face! Eliciting winces and wails from its bravura show of adrenaline-fuelled spectacle, JW2 hits the ground running with a roaring motorbike vs muscle car chase that pummels your ear drums, before diving into an impressive sequence as Wick punches, kicks, and drives his way through a Russian gangster's garage. The brutal efficiency of Wick is as arresting as ever and the wince-inducing nature of some of his take-downs make for guilty thrills. Then things slow down and get fairly talky - but at least the talky stuff unfolds more of the world of John Wick and how it all works. It maybe goes on just a touch too long, but as Wick literally suits and arms up - choosing a tailored 'tactical' suit (with a very handy bullet proof lining) and a selection of exquisitely designed weapons - audience anticipation rises. We watch as he sets up his escape, takes on a mission, and then makes said exfiltration in an exceedingly capable manner - just when we were gagging for more action.
From that point on the pacing rarely flags, and while the stripped-back simplicity of the first movie is somewhat missing in favour of an expanding universe, the killer thrills - and Keanu Reeves' astonishing abilities in the role - are present in abundance. Importantly, despite taking its world seriously in terms of scale and detail, JW2 still has a pulverising sense of black humour. John Wick isn't a comedian, but only the po-faced won't find dark humour in Wick running out of ammo, pinning his latest victim (who's half-dead) to the ground with the business end of his shotgun as he slips a fresh shell into the breach and promptly finishes off the goon. And remember how we were told in the first movie that John Wick took someone out with a pencil? Now we get to see how well he wields a sharpened HB.
Supporting turns from Common, Ruby Rose, Peter Stormare, Lance Reddick, and Ian McShane all help to flesh out and populate this intricate underworld of assassins as allies, enemies, and something in-between. The original movie is definitely leaner and more focused, but so was The Raid when compared to it's prestigious and elaborate follow up The Raid II - but both films are fantastic in their own right, and it's much the same case here with the John Wick franchise. Bring on a part three, thank you very much.
Ultimate 80s - a four disc compilation of tunes from the decade that was. As with all compilations there's going to be tracks you skip past, but the first two discs are quite strong (with the listen-to-skip ratio switching over for the other two discs).
Sturgill Simpson "Sugar Daddy" - the title track for HBO's prematurely-ended series 'Vinyl'.
The 69 Eyes "Wasting The Dawn" - the Helsinki Vampires' 1999 album. The title track, "Hand of God", and "Next Stop Paradise" are my personal favourites from this particular outing. I first discovered this band about 15 years ago and those particular tracks have spun back around in my playlist at innumerable intervals over the years.
80 Hits of the 80s - another four disc compilation of tunes from the decade that was, and similarly the first two discs are the best with the other two a case of diminishing returns (the fourth disc was, for me, rather duff save for 'International Rescue' and '19'). Compared to "Ultimate 80s", though? This one pips it, but ideally you'd have the best from both and end up with a rock solid four disc set. There's several "Oh, it's that one? Neat!" tracks on this set - those songs where you know the chorus, but you didn't know the name.
Nine Inch Nails "The Slip" - favourite track on the album? 'Discipline'. Someone remixed the famous solo dance scene from Saturday Night Fever to this song on YouTube, which is worth a peek.
Cat's Eyes "Opening Credits Song" and "Coat of Arms" - the opening and closing tracks from The Duke of Burgundy, Peter Strickland's sublime ode to the erotic films of the 1960s and 1970s by filmmakers such as Jess Franco. It's a wonderful film and these two pieces of music are beautifully realised, both nailing the changing tone with aplomb.
VIBES & FLAVOURS:
Murder at the Grindhouse - word count? North of 63,500 at the moment. There's lots of writing (and re-writing) left to do, but things are still moving forward nicely. I've been busy with some other projects this month, hence the slow-down, but as long as you keep things ticking over in-between you're always further ahead than you would have otherwise been.
Wolfenstein: The New Order (Xbox One) - another game of 'catch-up'. The movement and aim controls are in need of finessing, and some of the graphical details are a bit scruffy (to be fair this is an early entry in the current console generation), but the old school shooter feel makes it fun. Doom, by contrast, was far more polished (graphically speaking as well as in terms of slick gameplay) and was an all-round better package, but The New Order ticks many boxes and does a solid job of resurrecting a classic property (the opening level is pleasingly nostalgic in its feel).
Occasionally the tone shifts quite dramatically - the horrors of the Nazis aren't swept aside (see the moment where you're thrown into an incinerator beneath emaciated bodies), so those likely to be offended by such imagery need not apply ... even I was a bit stunned by that swipe from the blue, in a level that also sees you pilot an arse-kicking mech ... like I said, the tone can shift suddenly.
There are some irksome details that could have been polished - having to hit "X" to pick up every piece of ammo and armour manually is silly. Why wouldn't I want to max out my armour, ammo, and health? Fair enough for 'overcharge' health and secrets, but those other things should just be a simple case of 'walk over and collect'. The hunt for secrets in every nook and cranny - just like in those old school shooters - does tend to sap the pace, and a little up front clarity when dealing with a boss would be preferable to getting chucked in at the deep end before you've had a chance to notice the necessary clues to said boss' destruction. Oh, and the audio mix is terrible at times - during the boss fight with The London Monitor I was receiving instructions on how to destroy it from an ally over Blaskowicz's headset, but it came across as a whisper and was obliterated by the thundering explosions overhead. Small things like that are just sloppy and take the shine off proceedings. The ending is a bit weak, but the characterisation throughout was strong - I actually cared about the characters - and found the 'quiet levels' inside the resistance HQ to be one of my favourite parts.
I'll see about picking up the follow-up prequel "The Old Blood": half the length, but being set in the 1940s it's a chance to play out that nostalgia you get from the opening level of "The New Blood". The alternative 1960 world is interesting, but I did rather miss the World War II setting with gnarly old castles and the like.