A killer come back, uneven ground, and a grand finale are just some of what's been setting the tone of my December 2021 & January 2022...
Click "READ MORE" below to see this month's looks, sounds, vibes & flavours...
Dexter: New Blood - after the underwhelming close to season 8, Dexter returns with Clyde Phillips (who oversaw the best seasons) back as showrunner. Picking up where we left off, Dexter is now living under an assumed name in a small snowy town as an ordinary guy, until someone from his past shows up. Seasons 6 through 8 were not great and descended into self-parody at times, the juice drained from the concept, but 'New Blood' reinvigorates the character and brings the viewer a fresh spin on an old familiar friend. I found myself eager to see each new episode with very few mis-steps evident. A fitting and well crafted return.
Cowboy Bebop: Season 1 - I'm completely unfamiliar with the source material (the 26 episode anime series), but I understand that fans of it were not best pleased with Netflix's live action adaptation. Reading their complaints, some of them are a bit silly (e.g. Faye's costume), however the response to some criticisms from fans has been just as silly (it's not a smart idea to antagonise your existing and potential audiences with smug, self-satisfied retorts instead of fair reasons respectfully explained). There are some valid criticisms from what I can make out, despite having never seen the original anime, such as how Faye Valentine is a bit of a smug prick to an irritating degree in the first few episodes until the character settles down into a more appealing groove. Another fair criticism would be the structure of the storytelling, particularly in relation to the backstory surrounding 'Fearless' and 'Vicious'. That all said, I did enjoy the show and was keen to watch another season by the final episode. I enjoyed the style (which was one thing that professional critics seemed to spit on the most, curiously enough), and I particularly enjoyed John Cho as Spike Spiegel and Mustafa Shakir as Jet Black, who kinda stole the whole show for me. Perhaps, with projects like this, more questions need to be asked about who is adapting what and how. It appears as if several anime-to-live-action adaptations have fallen flat with respective fan bases.
Voir - a series of video essays about cinema, sometimes from personal perspectives and sometimes from more theoretical appreciation of filmmaking standpoints. It's not as illuminating as Every Frame A Painting (check it out on YouTube), but it's worth a watch for film fans. However, I wasn't keen on the assertion, in the first episode, that somehow film fandom was 'taken over' by males in some sort of exclusionary effort to sideline female film fans. I've never found that to be the case as, indeed, decades of personal experience has shown the appreciation of film to be a topic to bring people closer to discuss their ideas and their appreciation for films, filmmakers, and genres. Indeed, for film nerds who don't know how to talk to the opposite sex, it's a wonderful meeting ground.
Blair Witch (Blu-Ray) - a re-watch of Adam Wingard & Simon Barrett's sequel to the indie monster hit 1999 film The Blair Witch Project, which ramps up the scale and updates the tech (earpiece cameras, a drone) but hews close to the lore of the first film. It doesn't look or feel as 'real' as the original, but it was never going to be able to recapture the experience of the original movie, because that simply wasn't in the slightest bit possible. However, by sticking to the fundamentals and drizzling some new ingredients here and there, with the addition of a good cast, it works.
Two Doors Down: Series 5 - the most welcome return of Simon Carlyle and Gregor Sharp's hilarious comedy series about the mismatched neighbours of a suburb in Scotland. The set-up is simple and the scenarios are likewise, but the real craft is in the characters and how they play to their types and interact with the others. Only three episodes thus far, due to scheduling issues during filming, but more are on the way.
Silent Action (Blu-Ray) - Sergio Martino's 1975 crime flick starring Luc Merenda, Mel Ferrer, and Tomas Milian. This release from Fractured Visions contains a nice selection of extra features (some new, some old), a booklet of writing on the film, and the soundtrack on CD. It's not as aggressive or shocking as The Violent Professionals (1973, Sergio Martino), but the story is overall easier to follow.
The Witcher: Season 2 - the hole left behind by Game of Thrones remains somewhat unfulfilled. The Witcher goes some way, but many of the problems of the first season remain, such as: Geralt feeling something of a side character in his own damn show, and the obtuse nature of the storytelling. Game of Thrones had a far more complex story and cast of characters, and yet you always understood who everyone was (distinct characterisation), where everything was taking place (distinct visual styles), and what the various machinations at work were all about (alliances, rivalries, heroes and enemies). The Witcher, on the other hand, often leaves me baffled as to exactly who anyone is (beyond Geralt, Yennifer, and Ciri), what is happening (as well as where it's happening and why it's happening), and most of all ... it's too talky. GoT had a spot-on mix of verbal intrigue and pay-off, whereas The Witcher routinely suffers from scene after scene of mumbly dialogue until, at long last, a few minutes of action gets tossed in. I'm not arguing for just a load of smash and bash action, as that would all be meaningless without digging into the juicy meat of the story, but the balance is way off. That all said, I did enjoy it overall - but nowhere near as much as I expected, as I wanted, or as I should have. The show certainly needs to address a few considerable issues, while certain stories from behind-the-scenes leave a worrying taste in the mouth in regards to the show's tone and direction (e.g. the story surrounding a key scene involving Geralt's beloved horse Roach).
Free Guy (Blu-Ray) - Ryan Reynolds once again plays a version of himself, but at least this is one of the times when it's fun. There's a couple of deathly clunky lines of dialogue thrown into the mix to gear-crunching effect, but aside from that it's a really fun flick. Catchphrase!
No Time To Die (Blu-Ray) - after endless delays, I finally got to see the last of the Daniel Craig era Bond films, and it provided a satisfying conclusion. Focused entirely around Bond, the film's villain does suffer from a lack of development and clear motivations, but the film looks the part and has a solid amount of good action spectacle and beautiful locations. Considering the amount of talk surrounding the film, it's interesting to note that the actual fininshed product is quite different to some predictions, and that all comes down to the shitshow that is publicity, social media, and 'woke wars'. There were endless articles and videos and speculations about all sorts of things that were likely either misconstrued or never the case at all, and that shit is not only annoying as hell but ultimately damaging to film & television and popular culture at large. It seems that quite a lot of the bluster surrounding certain films/shows has little to do with the actual content and an awful lot to do with the surrounding commentary and advertising, (not that there aren't certain worrying trends out there, which are leading to woeful characterisation and plots akin to swiss cheese). Bond 25 has its flaws, and it can't match Casino Royale or Skyfall for sheer quality, but it proves to be a memorable and heartfelt film. The best direction for the franchise now would be to 1) leave it be for a few years, and 2) start with an entirely new cast, because the Craig era stands as it's own beginning/middle/end story arc.
Mandy: Series 1 & 2 - written, directed by, and starring Diane Morgan (perhaps most widely known in the guise of the 'Philomena Cunk' character). Each episode is only 15 minutes long, but they make for tight and bizarrely humorous stories surrounding the terminally unemployed oddball Mandy Carter. Diane Morgan's askew sense of humour makes for some truly bizarre moments that draw out full blown belly laughs. The NASA-related episode falls flat, but other than that it's great.
JFK: Destiny Betrayed - four-part documentary form Oliver Stone about the assassination of JFK. It's evident that those involved know an awful lot about the case and the surrounding socio-political and historical context, but the sheer rate at which names and dates and historical events are thrown at the viewer often leads to bafflement. When it does manage to settle down and focus on more concise issues (e.g. the magic bullet, the President's brain etc), it makes a clear and strong case for evident conspiracy ... although who exactly did it for precisely what reasons will likely never be revealed.
Crime Scene: The Times Square Killer - three-part Netflix true crime documentary from Joe Berlinger (The Ted Bundy Tapes). A huge step-up from the overlong and sometimes quite annoying (the online 'sleuths') previous 'Crime Scene' mini-series on the Hotel Cecil in Los Angeles. Toiling in the sinful muck of the Times Square area during the 1970s and 1980s makes for dark and twisted viewing about a little known but quite horrific case of serial murder.
Designated Survivor: Season 1 & 2 - created by David Guggenheim, season one boasts a killer premise as Keifer Sutherland plays the titular role when the entirety of the United States government is blown up in a terrorist incident, thrusting a non-political animal into the seat of the President. Each episode kept the throttle down hard and hits the viewer with hook after hook, making for a thrilling experience that demanded you watch the next episode. What on earth happened, then, with season two? Plagued by repeated firing/hiring of different showrunners (there were something like five or six in total across three seasons), the show seems as if it was ultimately scuppered by a struggle to find - and retain - an identity. The fast-paced political conspiracy thriller of season one was scrapped as the architect for the first season's chaos is dispatched almost immediately in season two before we're dragged down into episodic political events that are resolved within 42 minutes (like a poor man's The West Wing) with silly nonsense side-plots involving frogs or a broken vase slotted in-between with no real overarching thread to tie anything together or demand the viewer stick around. I've rarely, if ever, seen a show collapse so suddenly from one season to the next. I gorged on the entire 21 episodes of season one in five days ... but season two? I've only been able to stomach 6 episodes and I don't think I'll go back to it. It's a shame, because Sutherland was undeniably watchable and charismatic in the seat of the President. A one-season-wonder, unfortunately.
MacGruber: Season 1 - the movie was excellent, and I think I would have preferred a second movie rather than eight half-hour episodes of this show created by Will Forte, Jorma Taccone, and John Solomon. While there's some great belly laughs to be had, the format doesn't quite suit the material or the character, with various scenes stretched-for-time and running out of joke juice. Best entered with modest expectations, because it can't live up to the movie, however there's plenty to keep MacGruber fans entertained.
Peaky Blinders: Series 1 - created by Steven Knight (the writer of excellent films like Eastern Promises and Locke), this BBC drama with a stylish flair is set amidst the criminal gangs of 1920s Birmingham. The sixth and final series is coming up, so I'm decidedly late to the party, but such is the way when there's so many choices of what to watch. Anyway, so far so good, and onwards to series 2.
The Woman In The House Across The Street From The Girl In The Window: Season 1 - created and written by Rachel Ramras, Hugh Davidson, and Larry Dorf, this spoof on a whole sub-genre of fiction that includes Gone Girl, The Woman in the Window, and The Girl On The Train features Kristen Bell in the leading role as a wine-addicted former housewife/painter/grieving parent who becomes obsessed with the goings-on across the road from her suburban life. The humour is dry and deadpan, sometimes so much so that it's subtly flies completely under the radar of the sufficiently mysterious plot, which always manages to hook you in for another episode. At 20-25 minutes for each of the eight episodes it rattles along at a fair old clip, and while it can rarely inspire more than a brief giggle (dialling up the humour just a bit for a second season might be a good idea), it makes for a fun watch.
The Black Angels "Passover", "Directions To See A Ghost" (albums)
Luciano Michelini "La Polizia Accusa: Il Servizio Segreto Uccide" (album) - the score to Sergio Martino's 1975 crime flick 'Silent Action'. Michelini, an accomplished composer who came up under the great Ennio Morricone, is perhaps now most widely known for his piece of music which has become synonymous with Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Chromatics "Toy", "Teacher", "Famous Monsters"
Johnny Jewel "Digital Rain" (album)
Michael Giacchino "The Batman (Trailer Theme)"
The Strokes "Bad Decisions"
John Carpenter "The Fog" (Soundtrack album)
Carpenter Brut "Imaginary Fire (ft. Greg Puciato)"
VIBES & FLAVOURS:
"Cunk On Everything" by Philomena Cunk - numerous topics are covered by the character, as played by Diane Morgan, whose curious outlook on the world inspires cackles of laughter. Great stuff.
"Diddly Squat: A Year On The Farm" by Jeremy Clarkson - an accompaniment to the Amazon Prime show Clarkson's Farm, this might be a brisk read, but it's particularly entertaining and is nicely presented.
"On Set With John Carpenter: The Photographs of Kim Gottlieb-Walker" by Kim Gottlieb-Walker - this coffee table book features gorgeous and excellently composed black and white behind-the-scenes photographs from a selection of John Carpenter's movies: Halloween, The Fog, Escape From New York, Halloween 2, and Christine. The accompanying text also provides some nice background on the making of the movies, such as producer Debra Hill's impressive efforts to get numerous crew members into their respective Unions in spite of the obtuse Catch-22 rules facing them.
"Untold Horror" by Dave Alexander - published by Dark Horse, this lush coffee table book examines the un-made horror movie projects of various filmmakers (including the likes of George A. Romero, Joe Dante, John Landis). It's easy to see why some potential projects spluttered to a halt, but many more leave the reader baffled as to why the Hollywood 'dream factory' failed to see a great concept when it was staring them in the face. Well worth reading for horror fans and particularly so for screenwriters, just because it's so interesting to compare various concepts. The chapter on Brian Yuzna's multitudinous attempts to make a fourth Re-Animator movie is especially fascinating, and left me pondering my own take on certain concepts Yuzna & Co have been working on. One unrealised idea was for 'She-Animator' (an utterly dreadful title, I know), which has certain ideas that could be re-worked into something more satisfying for fans that is also less pandering to obsessional identity politics (and, now, kinda cliched: throwing away an established male character in favour of a female, who is palmed-off with hand-me-down material that disrespects everyone in the equation). Taking the building blocks of the pitch, it was fun for me, from a screenwriting perspective, to alter and re-arrange them into something else in my mind.