Chaotic car-nage, the perils of prequelitis, and a murder-filled motel is just some of what's been setting the tone of my June/July 2022...
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Enter The Void (Blu-Ray) - Gaspar Noe's splendid sense of visual adventure is in full-swing in this 2009 circling-the-drain drug trip as a newly-deceased dealer floats free of his mortal body to explore Tokyo at night. Rising to a neon-hued climax (in more ways than one), it can sometimes meander, but the ride is well worth it.
Obi-Wan Kenobi - The Mandalorian is a great show, which introduced new characters into a familiar landscape that it could cherry pick from as much or as little as it liked, and is a show boasting great writing and directing. Then along came The Book Of Boba Fett, which routinely got lost up its own flashbacks, got tangled up in references, squandered the potential of its main character, and only rallied in the final three episodes (two of which were exclusively 'guest episodes' of The Mandalorian!). Now we have Obi-Wan Kenobi, and it's quite the disappointment. The writing and direction are, quite frankly, rather poor. Characters are under-written, the plot is riddled with chasm-sized gaps in logic, several chase/action scenes are laughably bad, and supposedly tough villains are rendered as merely petulant colleagues from work. The Inquisitors are supposed to be intimidating, striking fear into all, but they're blocked by the flimsiest awning you've ever seen in your life? Come on, now, stop taking the piss.
McGregor gives it his best, especially in the final episode with a key confrontation, but there's only so much an actor can do with material this undercooked and poorly thought out. Indeed, all the actors are stuck with scripts that are themselves lumbered with the biggest problem of all - this series is a prequel set a decade before A New Hope, and so there is no actual peril or mystery. Obi-Wan will be fine. Leia will be fine. Reva won't achieve her goals because we already know the fates of numerous characters, and so on. Everyone is imprisoned by the established facts of the saga, and discovering the origin of, say, a weapon holster, simply isn't interesting, while fan-tickling name-drops and line-copies similarly don't justify the whole endeavour.
Rogue One worked as a prequel to A New Hope because the main cast of characters were new and weren't linked to already established story in later events: so anything could happen to them (and did). All said and done, Obi-Wan Kenobi has no real purpose and is poorly executed, hindered by prequelitis, sloppy screenwriting, lacklustre direction (the infuriating 'shaky cam' during murky fight scenes is a particular gripe), and an absense of logic that is, at times, so bad as to be actually insulting to the audience's intelligence. A damn shame, indeed, because even the good bits come with a whiff of disappointment, or even end up making characters look like total scumbags because this show makes them, for instance, essentially guilty of the deaths of countless innocents. If this is the trajectory of Disney's 'content factory' approach to Star Wars, then I'm not holding out much hope for the myriad series they have on their upcoming slate (the dizzying amount of Star Wars shows coming up stinks of the same arrogance that ponged-out Universal's clusterfuck attempt to start a 'Universal Monsters Cinematic Universe'). Season 3 of The Mandalorian can't come soon enough to, hopefully, set things right again. However, there's more spin-offs before then and, frankly, the sharply descending quality of The Book of Boba Fett and especially Obi-Wan Kenobi have all-but turned me off them completely. Please don't fuck up season three of The Mandalorian!
The Boys: Season 3 - the second season suffered a little from 'difficult second album syndrome', but still worked nicely. Meanwhile, this third season feels revitalised and rarely sets a foot wrong. There is an obsession for any and every show to be 'socially relevant' as much as possible these days, and sometimes this can turn out to be a sloppy mess of forced messaging, dislocating the audience from the movie/show that they're trying to fully invest in, but The Boys manages to justify it with its approach of 'our world, but superheroes are real'. Indeed, a visit to a Vought theme park roasts the corporate co-opting of socio-political movements and inclusivity as the cynical cash-grab stock-price-juicer that it is ("BLM BLTs", "Woke Wok" and so on). A smattering of gleefully gruesome and grotesque highlights (what happens when one accidentally sneezes inside a urethra, 'Herogasm', etc) juggles the tone nicely, while the advancing threat of a now-unchecked Homelander (strongly characterised, wonderfully performed) provides a terrifying antagonist. Quite satisfying. Roll on season four!
The Outlaws: Series 2 - building upon what was established in the first series, co-star and co-writer Stephen Merchant's comedy/drama finds solid footing in its second batch of six episodes. There's potentially room for more, but it could just as easily, and perhaps more advisedly, be left where it is and still satisfy.
The Heroin Busters (Blu-Ray) - co-written and directed by Enzo G. Castellari, co-written by Massimo de Rita, and starring Fabio Testi and David Hemmings, this 1977 Italian crime thriller trots the globe as it plots-out a global drug-running conspiracy. It may not pack the same punch as The Big Racket, but it certainly crescendos in grand fashion with an extensive climactic chase scene that weaves dirt bikes through decaying outdoor theatres, utilises a construction site for a lead-flinging foot chase, and stages a dog fight between two aeroplanes as its cherry on top.
The Batman (Blu-Ray) - Matt Reeves' even darker take on the black-clad avenger of Gotham may be long, occasionally too long, but the stripped-back tone to focus on detective work and brutal vengeance breathes fresh air into a particularly familiar character, who has been on our screens in countless forms over the years. Some sequences, such as the train station beat down, are particularly effective, leaning into the 'fear of what is lurking in the shadows' aspect, while the Zodiac-meets-Social-Media take on The Riddler (accompanied by Paul Dano's chilling performance) gets the hairs standing on the back of your neck.
Robert Pattinson was mocked by some for taking on the role, but he has consistently explored an interesting array of stories, films, and filmmakers since his days as a twinkly vampire, and he once again 'brings it' as this 'Year Two' version of Batman/Bruce Wayne. Great cast, impressively gloomy tone, and a raw sense of brutal justice are just some of what makes this incarnation so memorable, proving once again that DC is generally better served with more isolated films instead of the strictures of the MCU approach (especially now that Marvel's cinematic and televisual outings are more frequently feeling less inspired and more like 'content' filler for Disney+). A sequel would be most welcome! Kudos to Warner Brothers for included a handsome host of special features that properly dig into the making of the movie, none of that dull EPK 'selling you the movie you already paid for' bullshit found on too many other releases.
Bates Motel: Season 1, 2, 3, 4, & 5 - developed by Carlton Cuse, Kerry Ehrin, and Anthony Cipriano, this contemporary-set prequel-of-sorts to Psycho originally ran between 2013 and 2017. I was aware of it, but never got around to it. The first season powers along nicely, and while season two starts and ends strong, its middle portion is lumbered with flabby plot filler and meandering side stories that don't really go anywhere particularly interesting. Still, strong central performances (Farmiga, Highmore, and Carbonell chief among them) as well as the overall story and setting keep you going through the lulls. Season three rediscovers the mojo and pulls the focus back onto the Bates family and the motel, diving deeper into Norman's psychological problems while also giving a satisfying side story about some of the immediate fallout from the town's underbelly being exposed. Seasons 4 and 5 continue in a similarly satisfying vein, with each of them wielding some surprisingly effective emotional heft. All said and done, and with the sole exception of the second season's problems, it's an excellent show.
Stranger Things: Season 4 Volume 2 - the last two episodes of the season pay off big with emotional heft and kick assery abound (that trailer-top Metallica moment alone!). Some subplots meandered or took a smidge too long in the first volume, but the sense of propulsion in these final two episodes is spectacular. It's also quite impressive from a storytelling perspective, as several strands of the plot are interwoven with spot-on pacing and juxtaposition. Bring on season five!
The Offer - 2022 is the 50th anniversary of the 1972 cinema classic The Godfather, and this Paramount+ mini-series, created by Michael Tolkin, recounts the making of the movie as a 10-episode drama. Some events have been moved around or tweaked, certain characterisations feel 'a bit 2022 in 1972', and the pacing of the first few episodes is uneven, however it is consistently entertaining with a cast of characters who are enjoyable to spend time with. Cinephiles will get the most bang for their buck.
Death Race 1, 2, 3, & 4 (DVD) - I remember generally liking the 2008 Paul W.S. Anderson remake of Roger Corman's violent camp comedy Death Race 2000, but was disappointed that it almost entirely swept aside the savagely satirical 'Carmageddon' aspect (i.e. splattering pedestrians for points). A re-watch on Prime painted an improved picture of the movie, a solid action thriller with crunchy car chaos and Jason Statham on top form doing what he does best. Looking at how the original movie was adapted and reworked, I appreciate the remake better now than I did in 2008. I'd never seen any of the sequels, but a cheap DVD of the first three movies (a fourth came out a couple of years ago) let me mostly catch up. Straight-to-video, the second and third movies lack the budget of Anderson's flick and it shows, but there's enough action going on that filler is kept to a minimum for the most part and, enjoyably, the sequels double-down on punchier violence in the 'unrated' versions (DR1 was a '15' while DR2 and DR3 are both rated '18'). The stumbling points of DR2 and DR3: Inferno, though, come down to the scripts. They're certainly not bad, but it's the finesse that's lacking.
We're talking about certain structural things, characterisation, introducing concepts to the audience, pacing the reveal of your drivers and their cars etc. These are the points where it fumbles things somewhat, not to mention the overly choppy action sequences in the second movie, which too often feel like a mish-mash shots almost randomly smashed together in the edit than a properly mapped-out sequence. The plot of the second movie perhaps works a little better than the third, but Inferno has better action overall while the fresh location (the ever-popular more-bang-for-your-tax-dollar South Africa) helps inject a little something different to the franchise's fondness for rusty shades of industrial greys. While the budgets may be lower, these straight-to-video sequels can still give good value entertainment to franchise fans. Universal's "1440" subsidiary arm for such fare has also delivered the more recent Tremors sequels (a franchise that I'm a huge fan of). It'd be fun to work on some of these kinds of movies, but to also get the chance to write tighter scripts that inject a better sense of characterisation and story pacing, as these seem to be the first place Universal 1440's fare gets into some trouble.
Finally, there's Death Race: Beyond Anarchy, directed by Don Michael Paul (of Tremors 5/6/7) who co-writes with Tony Giglio (of the previous Death Race sequels). Taking place after the events of the 2008 movie, it's Death Race meets Escape From New York meets Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, and for my money it's the best of the sequels. A little more could have been made of the wider socio-political context of the world in which the film is set (a new moralism on-the-rise against a backdrop of economic turmoil has deemed the sport illegal but still operational), but the overall pacing is strong with decent characteristion, plus plenty of exploitable elements. Indeed, overall this is probably the most violent of the four films and certainly boasts the most nudity, lending the movie an enjoyable modern-day-grindhouse feel. The production is also grander, with a large scale location that is well decorated and populated to pull off the 'self-governing super-max prison' idea. The budget is unknown, but the previous sequels were about $7 million each. Was it the move to Bulgaria for filming that really paid off, or was there a bit more cash injected? Either way, it never feels cheap and gives the viewer plenty of bang for their buck. Apparently it's going to be the final entry in the franchise, but considering how enjoyable Beyond Anarchy was, that really is a shame.
Two Doors Down: Series 5 - the first two episodes and the 2021 Christmas Special were shown at the tail-end of last year, so it's great to get the remaining four episodes on our screens. Love this show!
James May: Our Man In Italy
Kate Bush "Running Up That Hill"
Rammstein "Rammstein" (album), "Zeit" (album), "Mutter" (album)
Deron Miller "Acoustified!" (album)
Wendy Carlos "The Shining: Unused Soundtrack" (album)
Rob Zombie "The Lunar Injection Kool Aid Eclipse Conspiracy" (album)
Metallica "Master of Puppets"
Alice Cooper "Detroit Stories" (album)
VIBES & FLAVOURS:
"Abandoned Asylums" by Matt Van der Velde - a photo book about, well, what it says on the cover. Split into sections covering different mental health institutions, the reader gets a better appreciation of the architectural merit of these buildings, which have nevertheless been home to some horrific abuses and rampant stigmatism. Some segments are accompanied by side stories about famous patients, doctors, or objects, which prove to be particularly revealing and fascinating.
"Widespread Panic" by James Ellroy - the first portion of this 'confession of a tabloid tyrant' was originally published as a 'Kindle Single' before later being expanded into a novel. Written from the perspective of Freddy Otash, the author has used an excessive amount of alliteration (to give it the voice of a celebrity gossip magazine of the era), which actually gets in the way of the reader not only finding a flow but also getting a grasp of the narrative: the key players, how they connect, and who's doing what to whom and why. Far from Ellroy's best work, and casuals will struggle with it, but those who have consumed a great deal of Ellroy's writing will still find enjoyment despite the aggressive amount of alliteration.
"Cinema Sewer: Volume 8" by Robin Bougie - the final 'book form' outing of the Cinema Sewer zine, which came to an end earlier this year with its 34th issue. You can see it's maybe running out of steam a little, but it's still quite good indeed, diving into some fascinating stories from the seamier side of filmmaking and movie culture.
Batman Arkham Knight: Premium Edition (Xbox One) - I never played Arkham Asylum or Arkham City from the Xbox 360 generation, and this third and final entry in the trilogy just so happened to be on sale. I figured I'd never get through three games back-to-back, so just opted for the latest. As happens every time you get a new game, you've got to get into the control scheme, and being new to the Arkham series there are certain gameplay aspects that take a little getting used to before you figure out the rules, but after getting into it I'm having a lot of fun soaring around Gotham on a rain-slick Halloween night kicking boatloads of bad guy bottom.
"A Decent Ride" by Irvine Welsh