Welcome to the second edition of Pop Culture Picnic! It's a bit of a sad issue this week as NSV pays tribute to the late, great David Bowie. You'll also note two new sections, one Second Hand News which will be devoted to any pop culture news that broke in the past week, while the second Heroes will be a semi-regular feature devoted to classic movies all centred around a single theme.
Undoubtedly the biggest pop culture news this week was the unexpected and sad passing ofthe iconic David Bowie. More than just a great singer, he was an artist committed to art and media in its many forms, being an actor, fashion icon and androgynous performer who changed the way we perceive singers. With his piercing eyes, glorious voice and incredible appearance, it was like he was an alien that fell to Earth. The news of his passing came as a huge shock, partially because he'd only just released an album, Blackstar, on Friday, but also because I think many people, myself included, were convinced he was an immortal chameleon. However, he was all too human, as we learnt that he had passed away at the age of 69 after an 18 month battle with cancer. He will be sorely missed and ever since the news, I've had "Heroes" and Starman playing on a loop. As a special tribute to Bowie, I've reviewed three of the films I most associate with him further down this post. They, and his music, act as a lasting tribute to one of the greatest performers' who ever lived.
This was a week defined by endings, though, with the news that not one, but two, of my favourite TV shows will soon be coming to end. Rectify, which came in at number 2 in this year's NSV awards, was renewed by Sundance for a fourth and final season. While I am happy that the show's creators have been given an extra season to wrap up loose ends (which seems to be the norm following a similar move with The Leftovers), its cancellation is incredibly sad. It was such a unique, beautiful and challenging show, that I'm amazed it lasted as long as it did. Also, Lena Dunham's critically acclaimed and beloved Girls has been confirmed to be ending after season six in 2017. While some people fell out of love with the series, I was, and continue to be, obsessed with it. It was such a rude but heartfelt and influential show that I was sad to hear that it will soon be coming to an end. Still, all things must end in time and I'm happy that Dunham chose to end the show when the time felt right rather than just keeping it going on and on.
Also, while it may have been significantly overshadowed by the passing of David Bowie, the Golden Globes were this week. While not traditionally a very strong indicator of success at the (more important) Academy Awards, the choices for winners was an interesting mix of deserved and surprising winners. The Revenant's win for best drama and di Caprio's performance were well-deserved (particularly di Caprio who deserves to finally win an Oscar for such a physically demanding role), The Martian's win for best comedy and Jennifer Lawrence's win for Joy are odd. The Martian was an interesting film, but I think comedy's the wrong category for it, while Joy was such a terrible film that I'm amazed it won anything. Worse was the win for Spectre's song 'Writing's On The Wall' which was easily one of the worst Bond themes ever and won over more deserving songs 'See You Again' and 'Love Me Like You Do'. In regards to the television categories, I am still yet to see Mr. Robot (which won for best drama) or Mozart In The Jungle (best comedy) but Jon Hamm's win for Mad Men and Taraji P. Henson's gong for Empire (an uneven show, but her performance made it worth the watch) were both deserved winners. With Academy Award nominations released this Thursday, it really feels like awards season is heating up.
Also, in personal news, some of you may know that I finished my Professional and Creative Writing course late last year. While I was iffy about my direction for this year, I applied to do another course, Film and Television, and waited to see what I would be doing with my life. I found out this week that it has been approved, meaning that I will (probably) be going back to University this year. So that's quite exciting for me!
The Revenant review:
2015, US, directed by Alejandro G. Inarritu. In Cinemas Now.
At nearly three hours with a difficult, exhausting story and insanely brutal violence, The Revenant is not an easy film to sit through. Telling the story of a man, Hugh Glass (played by Leonardo di Caprio) who, after a series of horrifying incidents, is left to fend for himself in the middle of some of America's most difficult terrain in the early 1800s, this is like Bear Grylls on speed. It's a dark film, filled with horrible and intense violence (watch out for a bear attack) and uncomfortable racism against the Native Americans, but it's better seen as a survival story against terrible odds. Left crippled and in pain, Glass' journey is fraught with pain and sheer, grim determination to get revenge. It's one of the most physically demanding roles I've ever seen, as di Caprio wades through icy water, crawls across rocks and falls from incredible heights, but more than that he gives Glass a rich internal life with what, for large amounts of time, is basically a performance of grunts and body movements. As some people from film club argued, if this role doesn't give Leo the Academy Award, he might as well give up acting. Also, for a film of such brutal intensity, it frequently looks gorgeous, with beautiful cinematography playing up the richly scenic nature of this area of America. From a directorial stand point, this is filled with quiet moments of intense stillness, quite unlike the fast and frenetic nature of director Alejandro G. Inarritu's previous film, Birdman. One of the best films I've seen in a while, this is a disturbing, visceral and horrifying film, as exhausting as it is visually beautiful. An absolute must-see film.
2014, US, directed by Alejandro G. Inarritu. On DVD.
After hearing a lot about this film and about to watch Inarritu's next film, The Revenant, I finally sat down to watch Birdman. I'm still not sure I've truly made up my mind about this film. It's something that stays with you for days afterwards as you try to knot out it's complicated plotline, kinetic filmmaking and symbolic images, frequently changing your mind about what it might all mean. Ostensibly about an actor (more well-known for having once played a cinematic superhero) who tries to do a serious play which is met with one chaotic mishap after another, it can be said to be more about identity, acting and the nature of film itself. Casting Michael Keaton (more well-known for playing Batman in the Tim Burton versions) in the lead adds a metatextual quality to what is already a postmodern film about the blurring of the lines between fact and fiction. He acts brilliantly in a complex role, and is ably supported by co-stars Emma Stone, Edward Norton and Naomi Watts. There's also the small matter of how it's filmed. Cleverly made to look as though it were one long shot, it condenses the weeks-long narrative (taking the play from early rehearsals all the way to opening night) to look like one hellish night. On a first viewing, Birdman is an exceedingly complex but fascinating film, but I think I'd need at least one or two more viewings to really understand what it's trying to say. At the moment though, this remains an interesting and brilliant piece of filmmaking.
1983, UK, directed by Tony Scott. On DVD.
For a sitcom about one grumpy pensioner and his exasperated wife, One Foot In The Grave really shouldn't be as good as it is. However, I would go so far as to say that this British sitcom is one of the funniest shows ever made. Key to its success is the chaotic and larger-than-life situations that Victor Meldrew gets dragged into and his epic frustration at every little thing. His catchphrase "I don't believe it" perfectly sums up just how epically weird some of the situations that he finds himself in are. However, while it's frequently eccentric and bonkers, Grave is grounded in a darkness and tragic reality. Some of the best episodes are those which are not just hilarious but which feature an absolutely devastating twist, a real punch-to-the-gut to end the story. In the very first episode of the season, we've got a hilarious moment where Meldrew is buried up to his neck in his backyard after he insults the gardener followed by this absolutely shattering moment where his wife, Margaret, tells him her mother has passed away. The moment isn't played for laughs, ensuring that the sitcom remains realistic and tinged with a touch of sadness. Other highlights of this season include perhaps the series' most memorable episode, 'Hearts Of Darkness', in which a nice country trip becomes an epic odyssey, featuring two character's feet stuck in cement, a silly game of trivial pursuit and a demented nursing home. It's easily one of the funniest episodes the series ever did.
However, the series was also formally inventive, with each season included a bottle episode. For those of you not up-to-date on TV lingo, a bottle episode is one with only the main cast members and a handful of sets. They're also generally told in real time and are done to save budget, but can often lead to some of the most intriguing episodes of a show, due to forcing the creators to be more inventive. Notable examples include Doctor Who's 'Midnight' and 'Heaven Sent' and Seinfeld's 'The Chinese Restaurant' and 'The Parking Garage' among others. One Foot In The Grave's bottle episodes, however, were some of the most inventive. Last season saw one set entirely in a car, while this year sees Victor home alone, talking to himself about life, the universe and everything for 25 minutes in 'The Trial'. It's a brave piece of television and brilliantly acted from Richard Wilson, showing the sitcom's stunning versatility, by being simultaneously hilarious and packing a huge emotional impact.
Best Episodes – s4e1: The Pit And The Pendulum. s4e2: Descent Into The Maelstrom. s4e3: Hearts Of Darkness. s4e5: The Trial.
Season Grade: A
While a largely very slow week for Dark Shadows, things do pick up and we're finally given some answers.
Developments for this week include the revelation that Caroline Stoddard's boyfriend, Joe Haskell, has asked her to marry him many times, but she doesn't want to leave the house. Elizabeth, her mother, tries to persuade her otherwise, but Caroline doesn't listen and instead sticks her nose in, meeting with the mysterious Burke Devlin. Seeing that he seems to be leaving in a few days and with seemingly no ill-will towards the Collins' family, she invites him to the house. He and Elizabeth meet but the real fireworks come when he meets Roger. Then, in one episode, we get a massive infodump about the past which goes as follows: Years ago, Burke was on trial for the manslaughter of a man. It was Roger's testimony that convicted him, which was especially suspicious given that Roger married Burke's sweetheart the day after he was sent to prison. After so many episodes of beating around the bush to get some concrete information towards the mystery is helpful. Also helpful is Maggie Evans talking to her father, Sam, and wondering how he's connected, meaning we're not supposed to know yet (that's good seeing I thought I'd missed something). Roger, however, was threatening Sam so we know something's up. He also hates his young son, David and left the city about a month ago to move to Collinsport for unknown reasons. There's still a lot of questions to be answered here (who was the man? Did Burke really do it? Is he really not going to exact revenge? How is Sam involved? And Roger? Who his wife and why did he leave?) but the presence of some answers is a good sign.
The problem is this is still devastatingly slow, and the lack of focus on main character Victoria Winters this week, puts her own mystery (where did she come from?) to the back burner for the moment. Will next week give more answers, and will it be better structured (a lot of that information comes from one episode which is frustrating. Drip feed the audience, it helps)? Join Pop Culture Picnic next week to find out...
Episodes Grade: C