Tuesday 31 October 2023

Flavours of the Month: September/October 2023...

Gothic tragedy, dystopian revolution, and some nice Chianti is just some of what's been setting the tone of my September/October 2023...

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


Hannibal: Season 3 - after the unexpected change of tone and pace for the first seven episodes (which could, at times, get frustratingly pretentious), like a reworking of Thomas Harris' "Hannibal" sequel to The Silence of the Lambs, the final season switches gears back to familiar structural territory combined with a retelling of the Red Dragon story, albeit with some unique twists of its own to suit this particular exploration of Harris' source material. The climax, in particular, goes its own way, but ultimately works well for Bryan Fuller's incarnation of the material.

Disenchantment: Season 5 - the final season of Matt Groening and Josh Weinstein's animated show on Netflix. Consistently, it has never reached the heights of the long-ago prime era The Simpsons nor (most of) Futurama's numerous runs, lacking the spot-on humour and baseline gag rate of its predecessors. However, what it lacks in terms of laughs (but, to be fair, the background signage was always very funny), it made up ground for with its beautifully designed world and animation. It certainly didn't help that there was no 'previously on' reminders for this season, made worse when the show brings back some of the more obscure supporting players and you can't remember who they are, what they did, or why they're back. Again, as with previous seasons, it took a little time for me to get back into the swing of things, but I enjoyed it more as I got reaquainted with the world of Dreamland and its surrounding areas. There were still some rather hamfisted beats here and there, or some stunningly limp 'jokes' thrown around, but flaws aside I'm glad I saw out the five seasons. Am I ever likely to revisit it, though? Ah, well, that's another thing entirely.

Spy Ops - eight-part Netflix documentary series about various undercover operations, some during the Cold War and some in the wake of 9/11. The subject matter is undoubtedly fascinating, but the series stumbles in its telling of these stories, which routinely prove to be extremely complex and laden with far-reaching historical backstories that involve so many players and so much required context that the viewer can easily become lost in proceedings. Even when given two episodes, a single topic proves too unwieldy, the storytelling methods too scattered and undefined, to really paint a clear picture of all the 'who/what/when/why/how' basics. Even the spycraft element of spy operations is inconsistently explored, as if the series cannot quite decide where it wants to place its focus, which in-turn exacerbates the existing troubles with storytelling.

The Silence of the Lambs (Blu-Ray)

The Walking Dead: Daryl Dixon
- of all the numerous spin-offs there have now been, this one is by far the best. 'Fear' has never found firm footing and has been massively inconsistent, I couldn't even stomach 'World Beyond', 'Tales' was dreadful, and 'Dead City' was a patchy affair that was overall a bit disappointing. 'Daryl Dixon', on the other hand, is comparatively far better written, with superior pacing, characterisation, and location work with the French setting injecting a fresh flavour into a familiar experience. There's the odd flaw here or there, but all said and done I've really got into this particular spin-off and am very much looking forward to season two. Here's hoping the next spin-off ('The Ones Who Live') won't drop the ball and keep this rediscovered quality going.

Hannibal (Blu-Ray)

Bob's Burgers: Season 13

The Continental
- set in 1970s New York, this three episode John Wick spin-off prequel series centering on the 'assassin hotel' featured in the film series gets off to a strong start, wobbles in the middle, and then unleashes all manner of action-fest awesomeness in the final episode. Some side characters and subplots feel a bit soft, or even a bit 'fillery', but when it's firing on all cylinders it packs a wallop.

Only Murders In The Building: Season 3 - Steven Martin and John Hoffman's murder mystery comedy series returns for more cosy New York vibes laced with death and the peeling back of numerous layers to get to the truth. Perhaps it's me coming from the perspective of a writer, but the twists in the middle somewhat flag the pacing as you just know it's far too early to reveal the truth, but you're nonetheless intrigued to find out how these mini-twists further complicate things or reveal hidden aspects of the cast of characters. Over-the-piece, the third season feels a little more confident on its feet after the initial stumbles of the second season's early episodes (which were surmounted), and the tease for a fourth season definitely leaves me wanting more from this highly enjoyable show.

Gen V: Season 1 - a spin-off from Amazon's successful adaptation of The Boys, which focuses on 'God U', a college for up-and-coming 'supes' designed to figure out their path, be it as a crime fighting superhero or a mere social media influencer or even, at worst, wind up in 'the woods', a medical testing facility in an underground lab. The characters are mostly well written and acted, and have a good amount of complexity to them, but there's only so many areas you can explore before things start repeating, and The Boys has covered an awful lot of ground already.

It seems that the main struggles for the characters are all internal for what seems like too long before the external threat begins to come into play, giving off an air that the show doesn't quite have enough meat to chew on for its eight episode run. The show is a bit of an odd duck, never really doing enough to prove its true worth in adding something juicy to everything that's already been covered in the main show, and yet I have still mostly quite enjoyed it ... but you can't help but come away feeling there's a little something missing.

The show also has some curious idiosyncracies of its own, too. There's a distracting pre-occupation with mocking or mutilating the male genetalia, which is often found attached to someone perverted or abusive, while there is a simultaneous aversion to female nudity that's comparatively like clutching at one's pearls. Similarly, the show - much likes its parent show - mocks the corporate corruption of social justice issues and co-opting for identity politics, something which is justifiably directed. However, it sometimes rings hollow as there's always an inescapable whiff that they're trying to have their cake and eat it too. And for goodness sake, how much longer is the franchise going to keep going back to the same old well of 'mommy/daddy issues' for its protagonists?

Big Vape: The Incendiary Rise and Fall of Juul - four-part Netflix documentary about the e-cig company. I don't smoke and have no interest in vaping, but as a complex story of big tech's idiotic mantra of 'move fast and break stuff' it proves to be a fascinating and informative watch, as a noble pursuit very quickly becomes increasingly corrupted.

The Fall of The House of Usher - a new ghost story series from Mike Flanagan, the man behind adaptations such as Doctor Sleep, The Haunting of Hill House, and The Haunting of Bly Manor? Yes please! Combining a series of Edgar Allan Poe tales into one intertwined narrative, about the obscenely wealthy American establishment family at the head of a major pharmaceutical corporation, is a shrewd idea, transposing classic stories into a modern setting where they mostly still work. However, considering the type of family at the heart of this series, Flanagan's latest is lacking the broader range of characters (and personalities) as found in his other works. The Ushers are almost universally a rather vile bunch, an assortment of self-obsessed, pill popping, pleasure seekers (some infinitely more vapid than others) with raging egos and a slew of personality defects that range from life-threatening narcisism to rampant sexual misconduct to seething misandry (and everything inbetween).

With this in mind, The Fall of the House of Usher is unfortunately a step down from Midnight Mass, which held far more heart, and therefore emotional investment, for the viewer (similarly, Bly Manor certainly knew how to elicit a lump in one's throat). Yes, it's delicious to see how each of the Usher family falls prey to their impending doom, but with almost every single one of them being quite terrible people the viewer can only get so close. Similarly, Usher shifts to a mood that focuses more on creeping dread rather than horror. There's a handful of jump scares, but surprisingly little in the way of what fans of Flanagan's previous works might be expecting in certain regards.

Another slightly odd stumbling block for the series is its handling of diversity. The issue is not to do with the boxes being ticked, none of which are in the slightest bit objectionable, but rather the manner in which they're ticked-off a list, particularly in the first episode, with a speed and abundance which proves to be somewhat distracting. One can sense the very conscious behind-the-scenes choices being made, as if by the blunt hand of corporate diktat, packaging human beings into labelled containers for the attainment of a boost to the parent company's stock price.

It's also strange within the context - an elite establishment family - as not even the Kardashians are this diverse. Furthermore, there is a strange lack of diversity in the diversity, which pretty much limits itself to only skin colour and sexual orientation. Then again, Hollywood's approach to diversity has typically been handled with the deftness of a toddler smashing together primary coloured toy bricks. It is why, for instance, that still to this day Asian Americans are routinely overlooked, save for a handful of breakout hits like Crazy Rich Asians, or the superb Everything Everywhere All At Once. Getting back on-track, though, none of the Ushers are, for example, neurodiverse, deaf, blind, have any kind of mental disability, and the only mere glimpse of physical disability is practically blink-and-you'll-miss-it. Much like in corporations the world over, there is no view from a wheelchair, for instance.

Now, does everything have to be included in every single project? Of course not, that'd be rather silly and almost impossible to deploy without placing all manner of constrictive requirements on every single story being told - and it's just not true to the lived experiences of most people in any walk of life. The point, however, is that with such a marked 'ticking of boxes', in an almost 'exposition dump' style in that first episode, those which are left 'unticked' somewhat flag-up the farce of the methodology.

Indeed, there are moments, in this otherwise beautifully written series, that feel cumbersome when issues merging into the realm of identity politics rear their head. Suddenly, the subtlety, craft, and all-round panache that the series presents as standard is abandoned. The representation of the 1970s, for example, feels more like the skewed view of someone from 2023 (with a gender studies degree and an antagonistic TikTok account), rather than the time period itself, rendering it something of a crude and unintentional joke at times. Even characters within that 1970s context act and speak as if they are actually living in 2023, rather than as someone who was born in the 1950s. It's handled about as well as the contorted attempt at linking-in The Murders at the Rue Morgue to the overall story, and the titular scene for that portion doesn't even take place within a morgue! These fumbled moments are at odds with the quality of most of the writing on-show throughout the series, and while they are fortunately not too frequent, they do prove distracting when they crop up, pulling you out of the overall experience.

Long-winded aside ... aside ... The Fall of The House of Usher was still an entertaining viewing experience, even if it failed to hook the viewer on a more heartfelt, emotional level. The actors all do a wonderful job with their material (even if an overabundance of characters spreads their respective tales too thin, their motivations often paper thin), and all aspects of the production are gorgeously brought to the screen. Considering how much it gets right, the handful of faults that Usher drags along with it seem all-the-more odd. A slight bit of tweaking to the aforementioned range of small issues and it would've been bang-on.

The Black Cat (Blu-Ray) - this take on Edgar Allan Poe's tale often gets lost in the shuffle of Lucio Fulci's gore-drenched turn in his late career that was birthed with 1979's Zombie Flesh Eaters, and then continued with a slew of bloody, ultra-violent horror fever dreams: 1980's City of the Living Dead, 1981's double-whammy of The Beyond and The House By The Cemetery, and then 1982's The New York Ripper, which notoriously sickened the British Board of Film Censors. This one isn't as gruesome as the others, quite suitably for the material, but it's not without it's own setpieces of in-your-face death and destruction, which are all-the-more surprising considering the quaint and sleepy English village setting.

The Reckoning - based on Dan Davies' book "In Plain Sight: The Life and Lies of Jimmy Savile", this docudrama written by Neil McKay (who wrote the superb mini-series Appropriate Adult), initially seemed like a questionable proposition when first announced. For one, Steve Coogan playing the part of Savile appeared like a strange choice, not to mention the involvement of the BBC, which came across to many like marking one's own homework. However, produced by ITV (and broadcast by the BBC), this actually turned out to be a gripping and fascinating four-parter, particularly from a psychological and sociological perspective, even though there has already been a raft of documentaries on the subject (such as the one by Netflix, which was very well made). Coogan's central performance, too, is disturbingly uncanny and multi-layered, thriving on the strength of the material he's been given.

City of the Living Dead (Blu-Ray)

Upload: Season 3
- Greg Daniels' sci-fi comedy drama makes a very welcome return, which came as a bit of a surprise as somehow I'd convinced myself the show had been cancelled. I could've sworn I read something about that, or that its future was in doubt, so it was a very nice surprise to see this was coming back. We're only half-way through the season, but so far so good. Great concept, humorous and intriguing situations, nicely drawn characters, and a mix of heartfelt moments with some genuine laugh out loud silliness makes this one a winner.

Big Mouth: Season 7 - aside from a couple of irritating celebrity cameos and an 'international episode' that didn't really work, this turned out to be a pretty solid season. The main reason for this is undoubtedly having a clear goal in-mind for the season: the kids graduating middle school and entering high school, which adds a sense of propulsion and direction to the story that has been lacking in recent years. It was also very interesting to note that, having spent the past six seasons as a monotone one-note joke of a character, the autistic kid in the class - Caleb - finally gets some actual story and characterisation, leading to some great material, such as the episode that sees him teamed-up with the character of Matthew at the mall. What took so long?

The Beyond (Blu-Ray)

The House By The Cemetery (Blu-Ray)

What We Do In The Shadows: Season 5

Creepshow: Season 4
- still patchy, and one's own mileage will vary from story to story (some are half-baked duds), but this has certainly been an improvement over the thoroughly disappointing season three.


Transvison Vamp "Baby I Don't Care" (album)

Airbourne "Boneshaker" (album), "Breakin' Outta Hell" (album), "Give It All You Got", "Rock N Roll", "Turn Up The Trouble"

The Pixies "Where Is My Mind?"

Donovan "Colours"

Limp Bizkit "Break Stuff" and "Nookie"

John Carpenter "Anthology II (Movie Themes 1976-1988)" (album)

Green Day "The American Dream Is Killing Me"

Hall & Oates "You Make My Dreams"

The Exectutioners "It's Goin' Down"


"The Making of Creepshow 2" by Lee Karr

Homefront: The Revolution (Xbox Series S) - first person shooter from 2016. I had played the original game back on the Xbox360, and recall it being a brief but generally enjoyable (if somewhat scruffy) game. The sequel, by comparison, is more polished and expands upon the idea of an occupied North America while making good use of CryEngine to give its dilapidated urban streets and buildings a shabby sadness by day and a nightmarish threat by night. There's some scattered bugs still present, but I didn't encounter anything game-breaking. The DLCs are brief blasts, but add some extra detail to the overall story, although it's really only the third one ("Beyond The Walls") that really packs the best punch in a countryside setting, climaxing as a more impressive ending than what's there in the main game.

It's not a particularly original game by any stretch of the imagination (the influence of the FarCry formula is quite evident), with a straight forward story and set of characters to go along with it ... but, much like a solid B-Movie actioner, this gets the job done, even if the rinse/repeat cycle of clearing out a new section of the map (and I do love a bit of 'map clearing') can get a bit tired after a while. The critics were fairly harsh on it, but they're not exactly known as bastions of common sense or integrity considering some of the drivel that gets lauded or excused.

Call of Duty Black Ops: Cold War (Xbox Series S) - some tweaks to the long-established formula work well in the campaign mode (I don't truck with online multiplayer or zombies modes), with a suitably murky style that combines a strong variety of locations with pulpy spy thrills. There is some beautiful level design throughout with well crafted characters populating the cast.

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