Tuesday 31 March 2020

Flavours of the Month: March 2020...

A galactic western, the mystery of murder, and venturing into the wilds of a post-apocalyptic Russia are just some of what's been flavouring my March 2020...

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


The Walking Dead: Season 10B - the tenth season has been good, but also at times a bit slow. It's clear that a drop from 16 to 12 episodes per season (split into two doses of six on either side of Christmas as per the norm) would help the writers not have to play for time and inject considerable momentum into the overall story. Pacing issues aside, there's been some excellent material throughout season 10, and this back-half has contained some of the season's best episodes with episodes twelve through fourteen. The one bloody nuisance? Because of tight production & post-production schedules being impacted (like everything else) by Covid-19, the season finale has been delayed! Talk about delayed gratification.

The Mandalorian: Season 1 - the sequel trilogy's strength is also its weakness, namely the close continuation of established characters. It's impossible to please everyone. Stick too close and you're just copy/pasting, veer too far and you've got a pissy petition on your doorstep demanding the entire thing is re-shot! Rogue One, on the other hand, was dominated by new characters within the same storyline, and was free to do its own thing as a result. Similarly, and moreso in fact, The Mandalorian is able to occupy a familiar world but populate it with new characters. It's also very pleasing to see that 'Mando', even as a kick-arse bounty hunter, isn't without weak points and still faces challenging situations - the spectre of Rey's unearned super abilities in The Force Awakens is most certainly not here. 'Mando' kicks arse as often as he gets his arse kicked, endures bad luck, and faces complex moral situations.

It's also pleasing to see how so much storytelling and characteristion is done in a subtle manner, with small gestures and actions revealing new, deeper, and more complicated layers of our faceless protagonist. The commitment to practical effects (where possible) is also a joy. 'The Kid' feels particularly 'alive' as a result of good old fashioned techniques performed well with subtly-deployed CGI that aims to match the puppet. Boosted by some choice supporting performances (Carl Weathers, Werner Herzog, Gina Carano etc), and a perfectly balanced tone (just enough action, just enough peril, just enough mystery, just enough humour), The Mandalorian could be the guiding light in the Disney era of Star Wars. The fifth and sixth episodes suffer from seeming a bit disjointed from the rest of the episodes (which are all closely linked to one another), feeling like 'filler', but the first season closes strong with the final two episodes.

White House Farm - this six-part drama from ITV, developed and written primarily by Kris Mrksa and directed by Paul Whittington tells the story of the events surrounding the highly publicised multiple murder case in 1985, which saw an Essex farming family slaughtered one night. The immediate conclusion was a cut and dry murder/suicide situation, but as new evidence kept cropping up the case got more complicated. The first four episodes in particular exhibit a gripping sense of tension and mystery as the layers are peeled back, and the show boasts an excellent cast. Very much recommended viewing.

Mindhunter: Seasons 1 & 2 - having read John Douglas & Mark Olshaker's book of the same name, I got all hot and bothered to revisit the Joe Penhall/David Fincher Netflix drama series (which had inspired me to get the book in the first place). I love this show and I really hope that there'll be a third season.

The Trip To Greece - the fourth series of the 'travelogue dramedy', directed by Michael Winterbottom and starring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. While somewhat touched upon in the show itself, there is a sense that the schtick is beginning to wear thin. I'm a big fan of the show, but there's only so much mileage you can get out of two bickering middle aged friends touring about posh restaurants in beautiful places. Coogan and Brydon play versions of themselves, and despite some earlier moments where Steve genuinely laughs at Rob's interjections, the sheer fragility of Steve's ego gradually becomes sad, then irritating, then simply unpleasant. On the one hand there's an intriguing and on-going character study between Rob (self-confident as well as honest and content with his position in life) and Steve (constantly straining to project an image of virtuousness while never truly happy with the fruits of his labour), but on the other hand the underlying bitterness can sometimes leave you questioning why someone doesn't dish out a jolly good slap. There are numerous jabs at Steve's little hypocrisies (railing against media norms while basking in his own crumbling vanity, posturing about the environment while owning a large number of fast cars), although you can't help but wonder if these jabs are somewhat hollow - are they merely the appearance of self-deprecation? Perhaps this is one of the pitfalls encountered with characters who are versions of their performers, that what will attract can often repel at the same time.

Doctor Sleep (Blu-Ray) - the 180 minute long Director's Cut, to be specific. This follow-up has a difficult task to pull off: to simultaneously be an adaptation of Stephen King's book as well as a sequel to Stanley Kubrick's 1980 film adaptation of King's original book (which changed various things). Furthermore, how far does one go with nostalgia and replication? At what point does reference for story's sake become reference for audience's sake? Keen-eyed fans of Kubrick's film will certainly notice a vast array of nods and winks, some subtle and others strikingly obvious, while many cuts from the original film's soundtrack are re-used. At times the understandable adoration of Kubrick's film can become a little distracting, but at other times it can stir potent memories of the horrors that The Overlook Hotel embodies.

The film's main stumbling point, however, is the character of Abra, whose 'shining' powers are so great that come the finale, she never feels to be in any real peril - sapping her climactic scenes of tension - unlike those which take place between Dan Torrence and Rose The Hat, who are much more evenly matched. Conversely, one of the film's most rewarding aspects is the greater exploration of alcoholism - something which Kubrick watered down in his 1980 film - and how it links to dulling more than just childhood trauma for Dan. Overall it's a good film, and I enjoyed it quite a bit, but there were a few elements that occasionally distracted. A few minor tweaks could have navigated those waters, for instance: there are a few key shots that aren't given quite enough room to breathe and fully impact upon the viewer (no spoilers, but the true impact of a major visual near the end is cut off at the knees by a sudden jerk into voice over and a swift scene dissolve) - a little tweaking in the edit could have allowed those moments to land with more dramatic oomph.

The Witcher: Season 1 - having never read any of the books, nor played any of the games, I came to this pretty cold and with bugger all knowledge about it (aside from its generally good reviews). Structurally it's a bit of a struggle at first, but once you begin to gain a grip on the slowly merging timelines you get sucked in more. Geralt is particularly compelling (all brawn, grit, and dry humour with a dose of compromised honour), while Yennefer is similarly fascinating. On occasion the season can feel in a bit of a rush with certain plot threads developing at an extraordinarily rapid pace (e.g. no sooner has Yennefer made a bold decision than she's trying to undo it - many years have passed for her, but for us it's no more than a couple of episodes), and with so many supporting players coming and going with haste it can be tricky to settle into a proper rhythmn, but the show nonetheless draws you in over the course of its eight episodes - and goes some way to fill the hole left behind by Game of Thrones.

Netflix Comedy Specials - Marc Marron "End Times Fun", Berk Kreischer "Hey, Big Boy", and Tom Segura "Ball Hog".

Italian Genre Movies - Almost Human, The Case of the Bloody Iris, Don't Torture A Duckling, Contraband, and The House With The Laughing Windows.


Green Day "Revolution Radio"

Talking Heads "The Overload"

Muse "Origin Of Symmetry"
- a flashback to the year 2001. I felt like I was back in my bedroom doing my homework all over again.

Ringo Deathstarr "Ringo Deathstarr" - their self-titled new album. Favourite track? "Gazin'".


Metro: Exodus (Xbox One) - inspired by Dmitry Glukhovsky's novel Metro 2035, this post-apocalyptic mix of FPS and RPG takes the player beyond the dank tunnels of Moscow's subway system and into the outside world as Artyom and a band of survivors venture into the unknown aboard a battered steam train. After two games which mostly kept the player confined within claustrophobic interiors, Exodus comes as a stylistic shock to the system as the player now finds themselves in open-world areas bathed in sunlight (or moonlight, thanks to the day/night cycle, which adds a frisson of tension as the sun drops low and the howls of mutants emerging from their holes echo through the air). The stealth system needs a bit of work, as you so often begin with good intentions (sneaking about, knocking people out instead of killing them), but usually something goes awry and lead starts flying.

The main problem, though? The load times (at least for the open world sections when you boot up). Christ on a bike, they don't half drag on. In fact, they're about as slow as a rowboat on the Volga level. It's as if the dev team thought "what is the slowest way to traverse our game world?" and thought: rickety old row boat piloted by someone with the upper body strength of a toddler. The only thing slower than moving forward is turning (no small feat amidst the detritus), and the only thing slower than that is going backwards. It's all the more infuriating when you need to get from one point to another, but a dock doesn't have a boat. Is it so much to ask for re-spawning boats that also face in the correct direction? Progress is slow enough in a rowboat, but even on a short journey you'll find yourself assailed by giant crawfish monsters - repeatedly. Row a few feet. Get attacked. Spend precious ammo killing it. Row a few feet. Get attacked twice. More ammo wasted - and off you go to the nearest safehouse to craft more ammo. Even after a short time playing, this task has already become utterly tedious.

Speaking of traversing the world slowly, any time you walk through some branches of a raggedy bush, or some mud, or some snow, you'll slow down to a crawl (as if you're walking through treacle). It also feels slow when you want to turn around (a big F-you to players when you're attacked from behind), and you regularly get caught on things or stumble about on the uneven surface. Why, when you get so many other things right, do game devs insist on leaving things - that are beyond stupid - like the aforementioned grievances, in the final release? A mere few hours with the game immediately unearthed these silly nuisances, and all that silly nuisances do in a game is to make the experience less fun. Still, despite these unnecessary flaws, I enjoyed Metro: Last Light and I'm currently enjoying Metro: Exodus.

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