Spooky doings, doublethink, and an alternative history are just some of what has been setting the tone of my February and March 2021...
Click "READ MORE" below to see this month's looks, sounds, vibes & flavours...
American Horror Story: Season 4 "Freak Show" - having enjoyed season one, really enjoyed season two, and been thoroughly unimpressed by season three, it has taken me quite a long time to get around to season four. Inevitably it still suffers from some issues that seem to be inherent in the AHS series (inconsistent writing, occasional overloads of camp silliness, and a sometimes limiting mainstream view of horror), and while thirteen is clearly too many episodes (leading to some mid-way bloat and water treading), it craps all over the previous season and generally works well, even if the storytelling often gets muddled (e.g. strangely-placed flashbacks and flash forwards that never actually happen). The first few episodes really suck you in, before the aforementioned bloat muddies the waters and strains attention spans, until the heartbreaking tenth episode rolls up with superb performances elevating the material to heights that you wish the show would aspire to more often. From this point on things get back on-track and build towards a satisfying conclusion.
Friday Night Dinner - created and written by Robert Popper, this Channel 4 sitcom has been running since 2011. I've only just got around to it because with so much competing for your attention it's easy to overlook a real gem, such as this one. Superbly crafted characters, writing, and performances get me wheezing with laughter through all thirty-seven episodes (at the time of writing).
Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel - four part Netflix true crime documentary about the notorious Los Angeles hotel that is located in the dangerous Skid Row area. From the director of The Ted Bundy Tapes, it's a slickly made series that tells the story well. However, considering the dark past of the hotel, it's a shame that a little more of that wasn't explored, because the main case can't quite sustain four episodes. Much of the 'web sleuth' material frustrates (especially in episode three). It's all a load of assumptions, blind beliefs, and conspiracy fantasies. However, it's good that the documentary does make a point to reaffirm the innocence of a man who was hounded, to the point of attempted suicide, by the 'web sleuth community', but more could have been done to condemn their out of control actions, to extract more contrition and awareness of what trouble their sloppy conspiracies and echo chamber 'investigations' caused.
American Horror Story: Season 5 "Hotel" - liberally taking inspiration from The Shining, the real-life Hotel Cecil in Los Angeles, and the story of H. H. Holmes' custom-built guest house (amongst many other influences), season five is extremely stylish with a predilection for sadistic violence (sometimes repulsive just for the sake of it) against a great needle-drop soundtrack, but it does generally lack the emotional character investment found in the first, second, and fourth seasons. As the episodes unfold you do eventually come to find attachments and sympathies with characters like Liz Taylor and Iris, but for the most part it's style over deeper substance. On the other hand, it is interesting to see how much it pushes boundaries for a US Cable TV show: violence, sure (it is American, after all), but particularly in sexual terms (remember the nation's puritan roots). The location and set design work well, jiving with the overall sense of style, but the constituent parts of the whole story feel somewhat 'patched together' with greatly varying quality. Even if you didn't get emotionally attached to many of the characters, every time a scene-stealer like Even Peters' James March turned up on-screen you couldn't help but watch a little closer. While rarely horrifying in the true sense of the word, instead skewing towards the grotesque and the lurid, "Hotel" was nevertheless cut-through with a dark wit. All said and done, the pacing of "Hotel" was far more consistent than "Freak Show", and it was certainly never boring.
Beyond Re-Animator (Blu-Ray) - the belated third film in the franchise is undoubtedly the weakest, carrying over only Jeffrey Combs and Brian Yuzna from the previous movies and limited by budget and production constraints, but in its own right it's a pretty decent flick with various stand-out scenes and elements (including the silhouetted punch-up between an undead rat and a severed todger!). With Herbert West finding a new piece of the re-animating puzzle, it's a real shame that nothing has yet come of the proposed fourth film 'House of Re-Animator' taking place inside the White House. There's so much potential for a final chapter in the series and time isn't exactly on anyone's side. Someone finance it!
The Walking Dead: Season 10C - these six extra episodes have been tacked onto the 10th season and tell some additional smaller, character-based stories, while also covering some ground that season 11 would have examined (such as the backstory to Maggie's return). The limits of filming under Covid restrictions are evident as the episodes proceed, but perhaps the smaller scale of these stories is also partly down to the somewhat 'last minute' nature of them. Hopefully Season 11 won't feel too restrained and be able to serve up a satisfyingly grand close to the story.
The Man In The High Castle: Season 1 & 2 - Amazon Prime's lavish adaptation of Philip K. Dick's novel, which posits a world where the Allies lost World War II and America has been occupied and carved up by the Germans and the Japanese. It takes a little getting into initially, a bit of a slow burner, but gradually over the course of the first season you begin to find emotional connections with some of the key players that keep you watching, connections which strengthen as the second season evolves.
Chernobyl - Channel 5 aired a documentary recently in which Ben Fogle visited Pripyat, Chernobyl, and the Nuclear Power Plant itself, so that got me all hot and bothered to re-watch this Sky/HBO miniseries, created and written by Craig Mazin. I was awed by it the first time, and second time around it remains an incredible piece of historical drama and a masterful piece of writing. Truly superb.
Formula 1: Drive To Survive: Season 3 - the 2020 season was full of drama and action, so Netflix were certainly not left wanting for material to cover in the very welcome return of their documentary series covering Formula 1. Huge credit goes to the editors and key creatives for shepherding such a vast amount of footage into consistently gripping television.
Petri Alanko & Martin Stig Andersen "Control" (soundtrack album)
Moby "Chord Sounds", "Look Back In", and "Tiny Elephants"
Foo Fighters "Medicine At Midnight" (album), "Concrete & Gold" (album), "Sonic Highways" (album), "Wasting Light" (album)
Tangerine Dream "Betrayal"
Green Day "Here Comes The Shock"
Mick Gordon "MeatHook"
The Jesus and Mary Chain "Upside Down: The Best Of" (album) - with the spring sun beginning to shine, and in spite of current circumstances, I've found some pleasure in taking the car for a run, window down, and playing 'Happy When It Rains' loud.
Rob Zombie "The Lunar Injection Kool Aid Eclipse Conspiracy" (album), "The Electric Warlock Acid Witch Satanic Orgy Celebration Dispenser" (album), "Venomous Rat Regeneration Vendor" (album), "Hellbilly Deluxe 2" (album) - the latest album (the first one listed here) is a solid effort and most welcome as it has been a good few years since RZ's previous outing (the second one listed here). However, the inclusion of six interlude tracks can't help but mess with the pacing of the album at times. They mostly add little (e.g. 'Hovering Over The Dull Earth') or just get in the way (e.g. 'What You Gonna Do With That Gun Mama?') The odd interlude? Sure, but six of them? Still, the album contains some rock solid tracks such as 'King Freak', 'The Satanic Rites of Blacula', 'Boom Boom Boom', 'The Ballad of Sleazy Rider', and 'The Eternal Struggles of the Howling Man' (cringy "power to the people" breakdown aside).
Travis "Where You Stand" (album)
Hildur Guðnadóttir "The Door", "Bridge of Death", "End Credits" - from the soundtrack to the Chernobyl miniseries.
Homin Lviv Municipal Choir "Vichnaya Pamyat" - from the haunting closing historical montage to the Chernobyl miniseries.
VIBES & FLAVOURS:
Robin Bougie "Cinema Sewer: Vol. 2" - the little extra amount of variety to the content, compared to the first volume, is welcome and helps keep things fresh as you turn through the pages with extra comic strips and reader mail sidebars etc dotted around for added spice. Again, not for the easily offended by any means, but it's fascinating reading for fans of fringe cinema and entertainment of all varieties.
George Orwell "1984" - even though it was published at the end of the 1940s, Orwell's prose certainly doesn't feel that old and, scarily, his story is as relevant as ever. There are entire passages of the book which could be copied out verbatim and shared online as philosophical/warning memes. 'Cancel Culture' and the censoring of old films because they do not adhere to up-to-the-minute political correctness (or, indeed, corporate whims) - among other present day notions - are terrifyingly close to numerous ideas in this text, from The Party's eradication of history to the Two Minutes Hate. The subjugation of thought, the normalising of ostracisation, the erosion of language (see Oceania's dwindling dictionary), and the ever-present snooping eye of Big Brother are just some of the many things Orwell implored us to be vigilant in rejecting. More than 70 years on, how good a job are we actually doing? I would say this should be required reading on every single school curriculum in the world, but that'd be awfully Orwellian, wouldn't it?
Doom Eternal (Xbox One) - spending more time with it, you gradually get more used to the resource management stuff (health, ammo, armour), even if it does occasionally get in the way of pacing (e.g. farming armour from a lone zombie). However, the platforming puzzles are still irritating. They don't really add much to the game beyond needlessly complex routes to get to some out-of-the-way door, and invariably deaden the pace of the action. Speaking of action, Doom 2016 seemed to better handle arena fights, because Doom Eternal tends to just mob you with enemies who often pile on to the point that you can't physically get to other areas of the arena in order to deploy that 'keep moving to stay alive' mentality. Indeed, sometimes you get so spamming with enemies and attacks that you don't even see that there's a whole area you can fight within. However, when these issues aren't getting in the way, the glory kills are delightfully grotesque, and certain sections really shine - such as when you finally get your mits on the MeatHook Shotgun (bolstered by Mick Gordon's pummelling soundtrack).
What's interesting, though, is how much more fun I'm having with the game now that I've completed it and am replaying the levels with cheats enabled. With no concern for health or ammo, I can now actually 'rip and tear' like the Doom Slayer should, slingin' out the chainsaw and meathookin' demon scum with bloodthirsty abandon.