Friday 31 January 2020

Flavours of the Month: January 2020...

Rebooted snootchie bootchies, a murder mystery on the brink of the 20th Century, and gunplay in a shifting brutalist concrete world are just some of what's been setting the tone of my January 2020...

Click "READ MORE" below to see this month's looks, sounds, vibes & flavours...


The Degenerates: Season 2 - six comedians (including Jim Norton, Donnell Rawlings, and Nikki Glaser) in Las Vegas telling jokes with a politically incorrect edge. Each set is now 15 to 20 minutes (so ten minutes shorter on average than the previous seasons' assortment of stand-up sets), so you can bash through it quite quick or slot it into awkwardly sized time slots between other viewing habits. My personal favourite set was that of Jim Norton, who has proved time and again to be one of the best champions of free speech with his incisive and perfectly constructed arguments in its favour, each observation dripping with dark humour and stabs of off-colour hilarity.

Sick Of It: Series 2 - Sky One's comedy drama starring Karl Pilkington finds the curmudgeonly cab driver discovering a new potential love interest, albeit in his own particular style. It's nice to see that Sky One have given viewers the choice of watching two episodes per week, or streaming all six according to their own viewing habits.

Waterworld (Blu-Ray) - I had never seen this 1995 ecological spectacle movie before, just a few clips here and there, and most of what I knew about it was that it was a supposed box office bomb when it was first released. However, a quarter of a century later I *ahem* dived in to try it out, going straight for the 'Ulysses Cut' (the closest thing to a Director's Cut, combining the extended TV version scenes with the uncensored theatrical version). Despite being just shy of three hours, it actually moves along pretty well, and after examining the report comparing the theatrical and extended cuts, it's no wonder that the theatrical version 'flopped'. With a host of bad press behind it (as much based on reality as it was on journalistic sharks chumming their own waters), it's hardly surprising that the theatrical version (missing a hefty 43 minutes worth of material) was riddled with plot holes, a world that was left half-unexplained to the audience, and a far more interesting character arc for the central protagonist almost entirely absent. The 'Ulysses Cut' restores all of this and, despite a couple of ropey effects (a dodgy CGI beastie, a few scruffy blue screen composites), the bluster of this 'failed' 1990s blockbuster works quite well as a big, brash, out-there kind of movie all these years later. The expansive and informative retrospective documentary also proves quite revealing, including the fact that many perceptions of the film are in fact false - it wasn't a box office flop (it made money), only one very small set sank (temporarily), and the media chose their own recycled narrative instead of the truth.

Scream 1-3 (Blu-Ray) - the first is a legitimate classic of the horror genre with a perfectly pitched mix of writing, directing, acting, editing, music etc. The second is generally quite solid, save for a little padding in the second act, and feels like a natural follow-up. The third? Oh dear. The myriad problems that plagued the film are evident, from a moral panic about violence in media (following the Columbine Massacre in 1999) to simply not having a good enough story to tell, and the move to Hollywood feels totally askew and, oddly enough, layers Scream 3 with an inescapable sense of falseness and fakery with a supporting cast who are little more than unlikeable arseholes. Still, despite its problems, there is some gold to be found in the third flick, most notably of all in the continuing story of franchise heroine Sidney Prescott whose journey from self-imprisonment to emotional freedom is in stark contrast to most of the rest of the movie, which skews towards narcissistic bitchiness and general douchebaggery. While Scream 4 wasn't able to ignite a second trilogy or reclaim the heights of the first two, it was still a decidedly better movie than the disappointing and tonally jarring Scream 3 (which featured soft-pedalled violence, movie industry in-jokes, and slapstick action).

Jay & Silent Bob Reboot (Blu-Ray) - the New Jersey potheads are back, and this time they're out to stop Hollywood rebooting the Bluntman & Chronic movie. Wait, this sounds familiar - but that's the point! This 're-quel' retreads the road movie schtick of Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back, but with a few tweaks here and there (and a cast absolutely crammed to the rafters with famous faces in countless fun cameos). The movie even flirts with commenting on the current 'in' thing in Hollywood: appearing to be 'woke'. Sometimes the movie successfully has fun with it (the pointedly diverse new girl gang who, for the most part, are quite good fun and not above dirty humour themselves), but occasionally the movie inevitably stumbles with the odd *ahem* blunt moment. However, these bits are generally sparse, with the main thrust of the movie centring around the crazy notion of Jay finding out he's a father, a story that actually mines some real emotional depth. Indeed, Ben Affleck's role as an older and wiser Holden MacNeil beautifully dovetails with this in what also amounts to a 'mini sequel' to Chasing Amy. Chock full of references for keen-eyed Askewniverse fans, there may be the odd glimpse of a rough edge here or there (e.g. the peril injected into the late stages of the film doesn't quite land), but Reboot delivers far more than what so many other belated sequels have done in the past. Mixing dick & fart jokes with a genuine sense of love in the face of Smith's own brush with death proves to be a winning combination, exemplifying why the Askewniverse has endured for 25 years and counting.

Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas (Blu-Ray) - Arrow Video's recent deluxe two disc package afforded to Terry Gilliam's raucous adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson's seminal 'gonzo journalism' novel. The very first time I watched this film, many years ago, I got about 30 minutes into it and didn't continue (my attention span was rather scattered back then and I had a habit of having multiple movies 'on the go' simultaneously, watching them all in 10-30 minute chunks before switching to another or doing something else entirely). Eventually, though, I did watch the whole film and since then I've seen it several times, and it just keeps growing on me. Arrow Video's Blu-Ray is, naturally, superb and is crammed full with special features.

The Alienist: Season 1 - based on Caleb Carr's 1994 novel, this mix of historical fiction and murder mystery is set in 1896 New York. Starring Daniel Bruhl, Luke Evans, and Dakota Fanning (and several other familiar faces), it was originally broadcast in early 2018 by TNT, but I'm now catching up with it via Netflix. Originally put forth as a limited series, a sequel series has been ordered based on Carr's follow-up book "The Angel of Darkness". With a gifted investigator who must understand their target in order to capture them while bucking the trends of the law enforcement establishment, you can catch the scent of influence from The Silence of the Lambs (the film of which was released in 1991), but with a strong cast of characters, a dark and twisting story, and a fascinating period setting this series stands out and had me gripped. Bring on the sequel series!



Byproduct "Constrain"

North Exit "Transient Love"

Barry Uhl "Devouring The Devoted"

Petri Alanko & Martin Stig Andersen "Control (Soundtrack)"

Green Day "Oh Yeah!"

Crazy Lixx "XIII"

Francesco De Masi "New York One More Day"

Johnny Steele "Power of the Night"

Lion "Love Is A Lie"

Mitch Murder ft Kristine "Summer of Heat"

Richard Band "Re-Animator (Main Theme)"


Nigel Wingrove & Marc Morris "The Art of The Nasty" - a well made reference book that examines the pre-certification era of VHS tapes (and their cover artwork) in the UK. The opening sections examine the 'Final 39' and the 'Dropped 33' video nasties that found themselves under the gaze of the Director of Public Prosecutions in the early 1980s. The book also delves into various other films - from horror to smut flicks and everything in between - and highlights some of the absurdities of the video nasties moral panic. A must own for fans of exploitation cinema artwork.

Control (Xbox One) - it's always a special thing when a new game from Remedy comes along. Previous releases have included Max Payne, Alan Wake, and Quantum Break, with all of them simultaneously showing off a consistent style of gameplay (3rd person shooter) and decidedly different genres and feels: Noir action, King/Lynch horror, and sci-fi action with an experimental TV series cherry on top. Now we get Control, which sees familiar faces from the Remedy family of actors returning for this fascinating mix of shooter, puzzler, and character drama, which is all wrapped up inside the curious monolithic 'Federal Bureau of Control' building. There's a couple of minor quibbles - the upgrade system feels a smidge over-complicated with a stingy amount of 'mod slots' for character and weapon boosts, your character can sometimes 'crash about' the world as a result of the sheer scale of the in-game physics (objects have a tendency to react violently to your nudges), and the check point system can be a pain in the arse - but these are, generally, small things.

However, there is one big problem - there are no difficulty options whatsoever. I'm not sure why Remedy insist on this sort of tack, as shown with Alan Wake not having an "easy" mode for less-skilled players, and now here with Control, ironically, disallowing any kind of choice over difficulty to suit the individual abilities of a whole range of player skills. It's even more bizarre considering Quantum Break featured the traditional Easy/Normal/Hard modes. Various bosses (e.g. Mold-1, The Former, Tomassi) are absolute bastards that fling too much at you, soak up a vast amount of damage and dish out punishing deaths after 2 or 3 strikes (no regenerating health, either!!!). Some gamers might enjoy a cycle of death/replay/death/rage quit, but many don't, and bumping up against frustrating bosses is not in the slightest bit fun. The last thing a game should ever do to its player is piss them off. Some gamers might want to face-off with difficulty, but other gamers just want to enjoy the narrative, the characters, the design, the gameplay, the world that has been crafted, and do so in peace on a difficulty setting to suit their own skill level and intentions in playing the game. What movie or book blocks its viewer or reader from seeing all of the content they paid for? And yet in videogames this persists. What film has ever blocked some viewers from seeing the conclusion because they're not big enough cinephiles? It's absurd. A full and proper choice in difficulty levels (a common practise) is the most fair option for gamers to choose the experience that they personally want - a pure choice. Forcing all gamers to play according to the same beat pleases nobody in the end. There is absolutely no valid excuse or good reason for Remedy, (a games company that I admire greatly), to have implemented this ridiculous 'one difficulty for all' idea. When it works against you it just makes you not want to play the game and actually spoils everything that you're enjoying about it, which isn't exactly a good thing, is it?!

That glaring frustration aside, Sam Lake's new narrative combines genre tropes and fresh twists on modern myths with a sprinkling of gentle humour, once again proving that Remedy's games stand out from the crowd of copy/paste military FPS games and hot trends (e.g. battle royale). One of the most stunning aspects of the game is the art design, with the FBC's odd mix of retro technology and shifting brutalist architecture which transports the player into a world that is both utterly captivating and just a little bit unsettling. If only they hadn't put a bloody great big smear all over it with that preposterous lack of difficulty options.

Sniper Elite 4 (Xbox One) - after all that banging on about difficulty levels above, what a stark difference this game is. Easy, Normal, Hard, and then two further levels of Hardness, PLUS a custom difficulty option - now that's how you tailor your game for all levels of gaming skill (and the spot-on save system allows for hop in/hop out play sessions of any length). They might as well have subtitled this game 'The Nazi Testicle Shooting Simulator', thanks to the gleefully gory 'x-ray kill cams' that show the damage your sniper's bullet does to the enemies. The game gifts the player free reign to achieve their goals during each mission with large and varied maps, further enhancing the gamer's ability to wreak havoc from a cosy vantage point.

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