Sunday 31 January 2021

Flavours of the Month: December 2020/January 2021

Demon slaying, hammering the keyboard, and a litany of streaming darkness is just some of what's been setting the tone of my December 2020/January 2021...

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


The Mandalorian: Season 2 - initially getting off to a slightly slow start, for me at least, the second season gradually found its footing again and maintained its confident sense of tone, place, and characterisation. The season culminated with a tense and emotional finale. Roll on season three!

Crossing Swords: Season 1 - this stop-motion animated comedy from Hulu (broadcast in the UK on ITV2) and from the Stoopid Buddy Studios gang (who gave us Robot Chicken), features versions of those children's 'peg people' toys in a medieval setting. It's an inspired design choice that makes the filthy and farcical stories all the more entertaining. A second season would be most welcome.

Big Mouth: Season 4 - the fourth season of this Netflix animated comedy about the trials and tribulations of puberty proves to be a patchy affair. Some plotlines work wonderfully well, while others kind of fizzle and flail. The show can, on occasion, get dreadfully preachy or thrust too hard into the realms of identity politics in a stifling way, but over-the-piece it does well to tackle various issues in a way that is interesting for the various sub-plots throughout the season. Still, for a show that prides itself (sometimes grossly so) on its progressive politics, it's curious that the Autistic character is seen as nothing more than a one-note joke of monotone literal interpretations of other characters' deeds and dialogue. Perhaps that's the problem with getting so swallowed up with the social politics of the Twitter era: you can't match the impossibly high standards or contend with the fractured and self-consuming logic of it all. Perhaps a case of trying to be rather than being. Indeed, a subplot involving one character's blast of anxiety when they believe they've caused the death of a relative by not sufficiently appeasing a 'masturbation ritual' gave me pause. To invoke that dreary phrase of the moment: "as someone who..." has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, my eyebrow couldn't help but rise at what could be interpreted as the mockery of OCD by way of a wank gag, especially as that sub-plot could have been subtly tweaked to not inadvertently diminish the wretched non-stop life of anxiety that those with OCD endure. All said, a fifth season would be welcome, but season 4 felt a little bit mixed overall.

Tin Star: Season 3 - after the tonally all-over-the-place second season squandered the good will earned by the excellent first season, this final outing (with a shorter six-episode run) proves to be an entertaining bit of revenge action with plenty of humour thrown in. Mind you, it helps if you don't think too hard about various things, because the internal logic of the third season, much like the second, is conspicuously lacking. I wasn't keen on the final moment of the season, either. Was it meant to be literal (in which case - WHY?!) or was it meant to be figurative (in which case - why, 'cos they never did figurative storytelling on the show before). However, it was enjoyable and breezed along nicely.

Blood Machines - superb visuals, great music (care of Carpenter Brut), and a barely comprehensible plot with ropey characterisation, is pretty much what sums up this three-part Shudder exclusive. A spectacular visual treat in search of a better script.

Cursed Films - an intriguing five-part Shudder series that examines supposedly 'cursed' movies, such as The Exorcist and Poltergeist. The episode covering The Omen was particularly good, examining the events from multiple perspectives, arguing at one point that the film was in fact blessed, considering how many times death was avoided. There's also an episode covering Twilight Zone: The Movie, specifically the multitude of events and poor decisions that lead to the death of three actors. Surprisingly, they actually show the event (from a single, more distant angle), which proves startling.

In Search Of Darkness - a gargantuan documentary about 1980s horror movies that clocks in at over 4 hours, yet simply cannot cover everything (no wonder there's a sequel in the works). Each movie gets a pretty brief dose of coverage, suggesting the scope of the documentary is simply far too grand, but the overall examination of 1980s horror proves just how fruitful the decade was for the genre. The talking heads provide a bright and breezy conversational overview of the films covered, except for one, whose conspicuously unnatural vocal tone and rictus grin tends to grate.

Tremors (Blu-Ray) - one of my all-time favourite films, discovered when I was still aged in single digits. Arrow Video, naturally, have done a wonderful job with the restoration, special features, and premium packaging.

The Dark Half (Blu-Ray) - based on the book by Stephen King and directed by George A. Romero, this was the last film that Romero made in his beloved Pittsburgh with many of the people who had worked with him for years. It's overlong and not Romero's best work, but my opinion of this film has absolutely improved over the years. It wasn't suited to my teenage attention span when I originally saw it, but all these years later I've found much more to enjoy about it.

Total Recall (Blu-Ray) - a sci-fi action classic based on Philip K. Dick's short story "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale". There's an excellent hour-long documentary on this recent two-disc 30th Anniversary edition that is well worth checking out. It covers the Carolco film company, who brought numerous classics to our screens, such as Terminator 2, Rambo: First Blood Part II, and Basic Instinct. This edition has been released by StudioCanal - who would do well to stop shoving their lengthy logo animation, nicely made as it is, upon the viewer. It's unskippable every time you load the disc (like on other StudioCanal releases), and is jackhammered into the beginning and end of the film and new docs. It's an irritating nuisance, made worse by the cringe-inducing 'sensitivity warning' before we finally are allowed to reach the menu. StudioCanal should take a hint from Eureka! - you bung in the disc and almost instantly you're at the menu (no time-consuming logos and no naffy 'well, duh' warnings).

Summer of 84 - a coming-of-age teen summer comedy-drama movie that has a horror movie stalking it from a distance until, finally, the darkness catches up. I haven't been this impressed by a movie in a very long time, aided by the fact that, for a rare change, I watched this flick with absolutely minimal prior knowledge other than the title, the poster, and the mini-blurb displayed on the Shudder channel. Aside from that, I knew nothing about the movie, and so I went into it completely fresh and open-minded - and enjoyed the hell out of it. Directed by Francois Simard, Anouk Whissell, and Yoann-Karl Whissell (who gave us "Turbo Kid"), and written by Matt Leslie and Stephen J. Smith, Summer of 84 has been pitched as a 'horror film', but this isn't quite right (see my description above). If you go in expecting a scare-flick or a blood-gushing horror thrill ride, you ain't gonna get it. However, if you let this beautifully shot Canadian indie do it's thing - a slowly peeled-back sense of chilling dread - then you'll be rewarded, all the more-so considering it's decidedly non-Hollywood ending. The odd element in the story could have used a little tweak here or there, but it's only a very minor gripe. After watching the movie I kept thinking about it before bed and it was the first thing I thought about when I woke up the morning after. I loved this movie!

Night Stalker - four-part true crime documentary series from Netflix about the 1980s Los Angeles serial killer case. Presented in a very stylish fashion, befitting of the time and place, the use of actual crime scene photographs (albeit censored) is sometimes jarring ... but then this is always going to be an issue with true crime. Where is the line drawn in the sand regarding how real you get, how much you show, just how truthfully are things presented? Whatever the case, it certainly keeps your attention, clearly tracking events and clues as they unfold while also detailing the efforts of the lead homicide detectives, one of whom had only just a few years earlier been instrumental in cracking the Hillside Strangler case.

Disenchantment: Season 3 - from the makers of Futurama. It's beautifully animated, but the gags are inconsistent.

Cleanin' Up The Town (Blu-Ray) - this independently made British film is the definitive documentary on the making of Ghostbusters. A must-watch for any self-respecting Ghostbusters fan.


Johnny Jewel & Chromatics "Windswept" (album)

Carpenter Brut "Fab Tool (ft. David Eugene Edwards)"

Johnny Jewel "Themes For Television" (album)

Petri Alanko "Red Glow Tunnel Rush"

Travis "The Boy With No Name" (album), "Ode To J. Smith" (album), "Everything At Once" (album), and "10 Songs" (album)

Rob Zombie "The Eternal Struggles of The Howling Man"


Nick Cato "Suburban Grindhouse: From Staten Island to Times Square And All The Sleaze Between" - a collection of columns written by a fan of exploitation cinema. It's a breezy read that you can dip in-and-out of easily, with some entertaining anecdotes thrown-in to bring the reader a flavour of that suburban cinema-going experience of the author's formative years during the 1980s.

Kings of the Strip Mall - it's been tricky to find time to write this past year in the wake of a family health emergency, but I have managed to adapt my novelette "How Mr Snuffles III and Others Met Their Maker" into an eight-part television series (with all episodes scripted in-full). After that, and looking to write something from scratch, I returned to an idea that I had in the first couple of weeks of Lockdown One back in March 2020. In the last year or so I have been experimenting with how I write, often opting to write scenes as-and-when I have a clear idea of them instead of writing chronologically, which has freed up my creative process. In regards to this script - a comedy/drama feature film set in one location - I did minimal (for me, at least) planning, sketching out the story and the characters, and then just leapt in. In the last couple of weeks of December 2020 I managed to carve out some consistent time to play with these new characters and I bashed out the first draft pretty quick. A more polished second draft has now also been completed.

Doom Eternal (Xbox One) - how to take a perfected FPS formula (Doom 2016) and cock it up: needlessly complicate resource management and implement clunky platforming. Instead of spicing up the gameplay with the new 'different kills for different pick-ups' idea, Doom Eternal leaves the player spending too much time trying to manage their resources than simply enjoy their demon slaying. Similarly, the element of platforming puzzles - the design of which aren't always intuitive - often leaves the player standing around trying to figure something out, rather than blasting their way around the map having a bloodthirsty good time. It's all the more annoying when half of the swing bars are either unsighted or too far apart, meaning you'll spend plenty of time re-attempting these shite platforming stunts. Even at the easiest difficulty (I greatly enjoy videogames, but I'm not particularly skilled at them) I've regularly found myself quickly running out of health or, most often, ammunition. Its predecessor kept things simple, lean and mean, and in sharp focus, but still, overly-fussy gameplay changes aside, it's more gory glory killin' chaos.

Robin Bougie "Cinema Sewer Vol. 1" - not for the easily offended or faint of heart, this collection of articles and comics from the underground film zine, and published by FAB Press, makes for fascinating reading for anyone who has an interest in the gritty, sleazy, grungy fringes of cinema, the VHS era, and the early days of online video content.

Chuck Palahniuk "Consider This" - a blend of memoir and writing advice from the Fight Club author.

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