Movie review: Doctor Strange

(image via IMP awards)
(image via IMP awards)

 

Doctor Strange, directed by Scott Derrickson, is proof positive that Marvel is capable of putting out more than one type of cookie-cutter superhero movie.

Sure we’ve had Guardians of the Galaxy and Deadpool to reassure us that departing from the well-established, and granted highly successful, pattern that upholds the Marvel Cinematic Universe in all its hyperbolic grandeur, is not only possible but will eminently appeal to the same fans who flock to see Thor and Iron Man.

But they were outliers of a kind, departures so profound from the template that it was almost impossible to call them Marvel films; Doctor Strange on the other hand sits somewhere between The Avengers and Guardians, a hybrid narrative that artfully merges together the appealingly bombastic spectacle of The Avengers with some humour and deep philosophical introspection.

It’s not entirely successful in bringing this unusual superhero film creation to the big screen but it succeeds far more than it fails, giving it in the process a visually impressive look with humanity and heart, something few of its genremates manage with any kind of aplomb.

It is hampered, at least in the first third of a movie by a none-too-likable protagonist in Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch in masterfully imperious mode) whose arrogance as a top flight celebrity neurosurgeon is almost breathtakingly overpowering.

He is utterly consumed by his own talent and ambition, a music obsessive who knows the release of every last song ever recorded, and cannot seem to look past his own needs and interests, particularly when it comes to his on/off relationship with fellow doctor Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) who for god knows what reasons actually seems to like the guy.

It becomes apparent why his vaulting ego and narcissistic soul is given so much prominence when a car accident, entirely of his own making, takes away his ability to conduct surgeries, rendering his CNN-documented highly-egocentric life moot.

Being the man he is, he refuses to accept that there isn’t a way back from his entirely unwelcome new place in the universe, making him determined to reclaim the surgical throne he had so unwillingly vacated.

He even goes so far as to spend the last of his money travelling to Nepal on a quest for Kamar-Taj, a redoubt of the mystic arts preceded over by the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), the mysteriously long-living sorcerer-in-chief who agrees to teach him about worlds beyond the material one which has left him so bereft.

 

 

The stage looks set at that point for your standard transformation story as Strange moves from sceptical materialist to mystical adherent, a man at ease with the idea of a neverending multiverse that holds both promise and danger in equal measure.

Thankfully the script by Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill, largely sidesteps this, with Strange’s ascent to the top of the mystic pile not as smooth as he would like, nor as convention would normally happily dictate.

In fact, so unconventional is his path to learning, wisdom and understanding that when he is accidentally caught in a fight with the film’s rather anodyne Big Bad Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelson), a fallen Master of Kamar-Taj seeking eternal life from the Dark Dimension, a region of the multiverse outside of time, he is not always in complete control of his new gifts nor able to completely successfully prosecute a victory.

He is talented yes, a prodigy who is clearly marked for great things, but he is not an immediate success at the magical game, something that frustrates a man to whom knowledge is power as is his ability to successfully use it to get what he wants.

This less than smooth ascension to the mystical bigtime, accelerated by his ego and Kaecilius’s attacks on the three spellbound Sanctums in Hong Kong, L.A. and London that protect the Earth from subjugation by the evil lord of the Dark Dimension, Dormammu, provides much of the humour in the film, which refreshingly treats the Ancient One, Strange’s friend and colleague Master Mordo (Chiwetel Ejifor) and the librarian Wong (Benedict Wong) as thoroughly normal with extraordinary powers and circumstances.

It’s this balance of down-to-earth, impressive action on sets that fold, twist and bend Inception-style like Escher prints on steroids, and philosophical intimacy that establish Doctor Strange as an entirely unique Marvel beast.

 

 

It is not without its fault however.

Strange, while humbled later on and far more collaborative in outlook and deed, is nevertheless almost too arrogant for far much of the storyline, wearing out his welcome; Cumberbatch is a man born to the role, imbuing him with the necessary hubris, existential devastation and humility tempered with residual arrogance, but the character lacks the emotional smarts to endear him to audiences, leaving you less invested than you be in his fate.

The action pieces too, while visually impressive, are almost too much, consuming great swathes of great time at the expense of the narrative which is sometimes left to founder in large soulless set pieces of questionable worth and value.

Kaecilius too is a fairly lacklustre villain, possessed of dubious motivation and half-hearted execution whose eventual consignment to oblivion – this is giving nothing away; Marvel’s bad guys never prosper in the face of superhero virtue and firepower – merits little to no emotional impact, as does Strange’s victory over him.

Having said that however, it’s a fun engaging film that dares to trifle with the recipe and mostly pulls it off, a timely reminder once again to Marvel that it is possible to adjust the settings and still deliver a larger-than-life film that will, as surely as Strange is a man transformed, do stellar business at the box office, in pretty any dimension you care to name.

 

 

Halloween book review: Stallo by Stefan Spjut

(book cover image courtesy Faber UK)
(book cover image courtesy Faber & Faber UK)

 

“If you go down to the woods today, You’re sure of a big surprise.”

The opening lyrics to the “Teddy Bears’ Picnic” suggest that the worst thing you’ll encounter when you enter woodland are children’s much-loved playthings having a little too much tea and frivolity.

But in Stefan Spjut’s Stallo – published in the US as The Shapeshifters – there are far older and possibly more dangerous inhabitants of the thickset, snow-covered forests of Scandinavia, ancient beings who have the ability to change shape at will, who occupy a role in the folklore of the native Sami people as lumbering villains of nefarious intent.

Often referred to as trolls, these beings don’t so much sit at the end of bridges demanding payment as kidnap small children for their amusement, their ability to physically influence people marking them as a constant threat in innumerable ways.

It’s in the summer of 1978 that Mona Brodin, holidaying in a remote cabin near Lake Vättern with her son Magnus, discovers that the stallo or trolls as they’re more commonly known, far from being the fairytale creatures painted by famed Swedish painter and illustrator John Bauer, whose tragically short life plays a crucial role in the narrative, are still very much active in Sweden and in search of child with whom to play for the term of their natural life.

No one believes of course that her son was snatched by a giant, consigning her anguished accusations of hares and foxes sitting peacefully side-by-side moments before Magnus is kidnapped, as the ravings of a grief-stricken, medical drug-addicted woman not quite in control of her senses.

The truth, as always, is far darker and more complex than that, but as Stallo‘s utterly-engrossing tale unfolds and zips forward to 2004, Spjut’s skilfully gives us cause to wonder whether its trolls or humans who are the more malevolent of beings.

In the best traditions of Scandinavian detective noir thrillers, where a great deal is uncertain and danger lurks on the cusp of every moment and every turn in the road, the Stallo initially seem to live up to their role as the Sami’s instructive bad guys, the harbingers of violence and excess whose unpredictability marks them as dangerous creatures on the edges of our consciousness.

But as Susso Myrén, who operates an amateur cryptozoologist website – this is the study of hidden or unknown animals which include Yeti and Nessie among others – discovers, it may be the people protecting/using the Stallo in some of twisted symbiotic relationship who are the real danger.

What starts out as a simple case of validating the existence of a small ancient dwarf-like man observed by a grandmother watching her and her grandson Mattias from the garden days before he is taken much like Magnus was many years earlier, becomes far more complex, nuanced and darkly-involved than anyone could have foretold.

 

 

Refreshingly Stallo mixes up the usual Scandi-noir vibe and narrative by artfully weaving tales of the Sami’s villainous trolls of old in such a way that they become essential characters in a story which moves rapidly up and down the length and breadth of Sweden, as the sighting of one ancient-looking man escalates into tales of kidnapping, attempted murder, lost lives and the ancient careering very much with the modern.

It’s a compelling story told with verve, razor-sharp, fulsome characterisation and a gifted ability in our often overly-rational modern times where myth and supernatural leanings are the preserve of the suspect and the off-kilter to make the fantastical seem absolutely believable.

At its core though Stallo is about connections and belief as Susso, as much searching for Mattias and Magnus’s whereabouts as attempting to prove the veracity of an odd shapeshifting creature to the back of a bear photographed by her photographer grandfather back in 1987, tries to get to the heart of whether Stallo exist and whether they are the monsters the Sami have long-maintained they are.

And whether it is they who are responsible for a spate of kidnappings down through the years or if they’re may be a much more human explanation for the nightmarish separations of children and parents.

In the grand tradition of Scandinavian storytelling, which recognises that as much dark as light exists in the heart of man, Stallo, while delivering a cracker of a third act that builds to a dramatic conclusion, leaves many things hanging in the balance.

There is no fully neat or completely happy ending here, no validation of the goodness, evil or otherwise of the supernatural creatures who prove to be as much ally as enemy to Susso, her mother Gudrun and on/off/on boyfriend Torbjörn although for the greater part, most dangling narrative are tied together with the skill of a master novelist.

Rather Stallo, while delivering up a wholly-engrossing, richly-told and intellectually and emotionally-substantial story that does end with a sense of justice affirmed and the supernatural woven back into the fabric of everyday life, as least for Susso, Mona and their families, is what you want from a novel that dares to wonder you to “What if somethings is out there?”

It doesn’t glibly serve up the usual suspects presented in a pedestrian manner where the obvious is the order of the day; instead it dares to ask the question, one that powers it through to its engaging, often thrilling and viscerally-satisfying end, who is the greatest threat – ancient being or man, and is life ever as simple as we would like to believe?

 

(alternate cover via Miamona Könyveldéje)
(alternate cover via Miamona Könyveldéje)

Beware the terror of … the vacuum cleaner! Well if you’re Simon’s Cat anyway

(image via YouTube (c) Simon Tofield)
(image via YouTube (c) Simon Tofield)

 

SNAPSHOT
Watch Simon’s Cat face his greatest nemesis, the scary vacuum cleaner in this hilarious animated cat video. ‘The Monster’ is our 2016 Halloween film and features a number of cat fails, an ‘evil’ vacuum cleaner and of course lots of silly, cute and funny antics. (synopsis via Laughing Squid)

If you’re a cat, and if you’re reading this post then it’s highly likely you are not, you will know that many threatening things lurk deep within the shadow’s of the person-who-feeds-you’s house.

Chief among them is the vacuum cleaner, that noisy, smelly, dusty contraception that can leap to nerve-shattering life with little to no warning, aggressively zipping across the carpet and making life hell for a kitteh in search of a quiet, nap-filled life.

Is it possible, particularly at a monster-filled, nightmare-rich time of the year like Halloween to actually quell the savage mechanical beast or perhaps, you know, vanquish it completely with a judicious swing or five of a baseball bat?

Hard to say but Simon’s Cat, who amusingly moves from terror to curious relief to terror throughout this hilarious animated short titled The Monster is going to give it his best effort.

If only to keep his tail from the vacuum cleaner’s unceasingly ravenous maw.

 

 

Road to Gilmore Girls A Year in the Life #6: Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days (S3, E1 review)

"You do much this summer?" "Nah ... you?" "Nah ... oh wait ..." Lorelai and Rory discuss Summer was quite a bit busier than either of them expected (Image via Gilmore Girls wiki (c) Warner Bros)
“You do much this summer?”
“Nah … you?”
“Nah … oh wait …”
Lorelai and Rory discuss Summer was quite a bit busier than either of them expected (Image via Gilmore Girls wiki (c) Warner Bros)

 

If there is one thing the good, fast-talking, quip-ready people of Stars Hollow love, well more than yet another festival – First Annual Stars Hollow End of Summer Madness Festival anyone? It fills in September! Taylor Doose (Michael Winter) is well pleased – it’s having an opinion on something … and naturally, sharing it.

In the season opening episode for season 3, “Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy-Days” a title drawn from the only song that Taylor’s hired barbershop troop seem to know, summer has given everyone a chance to think about life, the universe and everything (which includes, of course, the best use of Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood references) and thus reunited after time apart, to give full vent to the resulting opinions.

Richard and Emily (Edward Herrman and Emily Bishop respectively) have been away in Martha’s Vineyard, sampling divinely-delicious scones – hilariously they buy a packet of the beautifully-packaged mix for Lorelai (Lauren Graham), a known non-baker, who looks at it like an alien drawn from extra-dimensional ether – and looking forward to spending time with Lorelai, Christopher (David Sutcliffe) and Rory (Alexis Bledel), who has been away herself with Paris (Liza Weil) in Washington DC, interning and reading books in closets by torchlight (long story).

Alas, the vision Emily has of Lorelai and Christopher playing much-delayed happy families – a supremely over-optimistic that Richard curtly dismisses as “pictures of Norman Rockwell family Christmases dancing in your head” leading to a “discussion” so heated that Lorelai, sans Rory who is with Dean, sadly slips out of Friday night dinner unnoticed – is dashed and as is the way of things with Lorelai’s highly-demanding mother, it shall not go unremarked.

Sadly, the whole sorry episode is yet another example of the great gulf that still exists between Emily and her daughter, who doesn’t want to bake scones, does not want to be reminded yet again that she is a disappointment to both parents – in this instances it’s Richard who is especially cruel, blithely slipping in stinging critiques of the many failures of Lorelai’s life; it’s almost too painful to watch, testament to creator Amy Sherman-Palladino’s emotionally-insightful dialogue and Herrman’s pitch-perfect delivery – and is deeply saddened by losing Christopher to his pregnant girlfriend.

In one absolutely emotionally-insensitive sense Richard and Emily are bang on – its good that Christopher is stepping up and wanting to be a present dad for his second child; that observation alas reminds Lorelai that despite the best of intentions when Rory was being born, that simply wasn’t possible back then for her and Christopher,

 

Luke and Lorelai sitting in a ... OK not a tree and they're standing in a kitchen in a dream that unsetrles Lorelai who ismn't sure she will ever have that kind of domestic bliss with anyone (Image (c) Warner Bros)
Luke and Lorelai sitting in a … OK not a tree and they’re standing in a kitchen in a dream that unsetrles Lorelai who ismn’t sure she will ever have that kind of domestic bliss with anyone (Image (c) Warner Bros)

 

So deeply saddened, Lorelai heads back into town where the festival is STILL in full manic swing and the barbershop troop still knows just the one song to have some coffee at Luke’s Diner.

Alas, despite dreaming, along with a thousand alarm clocks waking her up, that she and Luke were pregnant, blissfully in love and shacked up at the beginning of the episode – Rory, pretty correctly, interprets this as Lorelai mourning what she lost with Christopher and what he gained with his girlfriend – the reality is that they’ve fought, aren’t speaking and relations are strained.

A deeply-sad Lorelai, in one of those heartrending performances by Graham that underscores that her character is not just a witty oneliner-making machine, pretends to be new customer Mimi who pours her own coffee, sits at the far end of the counter pouring out her grieving heart while the “bar keep” Luke (Scott Patterson) gruffly reassures her that everything will be all right.

Well,of course it will be eventually – shhh! SPOILERS – but for now, Lorelai is sad, coffee is, as always, her comfort in times of need, and she and Luke have made up and at least one thing is right in her world.

OK, make that two things with Rory back from Washington where she has interned with a typically amped-up Paris, who, in-between terrifying legislators such Tom Daschle and Barbara Boxer at mixers, has got a date!

Yes a date, an event which delights and terrifies her in equal measure and is apparently the harbinger of the apocalypse if you are to believe her.

Thankfully her date with Jamie (Brandon Bash) looks like it will go well – he has chosen a restaurant from the Zigat’s Guide, Paris’s holy bible of eating out in cities with which you’re not overly-familiar – which means Rory, now back home can get back to deciding if she likes Dean (Jared Padalecki) or Jess (Milo Ventimiglia) better.

It helps when she gets to the festival, that Jess is kissing a blond, and Dean is puppy dog-sweet available, but it doesn’t help that Lorelai lambasts her daughter for her cruel indecision.

Of course, they kiss and make up as the perfect mother-daughter friends are always wont to do, but the reality is a romantic time bomb is ticking, and in the lovely balance that exists between drama and humour in Gilmore Girls, Rory will have to deal with it sooner or later.

 

Now this is now we like our two most favourite Gilmore Girls - quipping, sharing and being there for each other (image (c) Warner Bros)
Now this is now we like our two most favourite Gilmore Girls – quipping, sharing and being there for each other (image (c) Warner Bros)

 

One couple dealing with emotional ups-and-downs right now is Sookie and Jackson (Melissa McCarthy and Jackson Douglas respectively) who are arguing over how manly their home, which was Sookie’s alone back in the day, should be.

Sookie, in her sweet klutzy way is convinced Jackson wants giant stuffed bears in the corner of the living room and Leon Troutsky mounted on the wall but he does not and their argument, one of many that you know will blow over for the feisty but lovable twosome provides some light relief in a fairly emotionally hefty episode which reminds us once again of how masterfully written Gilmore Girls is, and how well it sits astride its quips and its laments.

For many people the show is all fast-talking silliness, and yes the quirky element is an important, easily-recognisable part of the show’s essential DNA, but it is also heartfelt and emotionally authentic, a show that recognises that for all the joy of being alive, there’s more than enough drama and sadness to accompany it and that two together make the kind of whole of which truly fulfilling lives are made.

This episode, more than most, understands and articulates that, delivering up a handy lesson in life’s great complexity and why the deep friendships that sustains our Gilmore Girls, including the deep bond between them, are necessary to navigate life’s many tricky moments.

  • Pop culture, as you would expect and nay could well demand once you’ve had your fully caffeinated java, is front and centre and includes references to …

MUSIC
References to Peaches and Herbs, Bauhaus and “It’s a Small World” the only solutio, reasons Lorelai to getting “Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days of Summer” out of their heads. But then how do they get ride of “It’s a Small World”? Quelle dilemma!

FILM
Sid and Nancy, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Nell and Reversal of Fortune get a look-in, leading to this delightful observation by Paris.

“They give up careers and become alcoholics, and if you’re Sunny von Bülow, wind up in a coma, completely incapable of stopping Glenn Close from playing you in a movie.”

And the name-dropping of many a celebrity of the day (and yesteryear) including Colin Powell, Freddie Prinze Jr., Oscar Wilde, Dan Quayle and Connie Chung, among many others, all artfully included in Sherman-Palladino’s rich, nuanced storytelling.

 

 

 

Halloween movie review: Already Dead (short film)

(image courtesy Posh Dinosaur Productions)
(image courtesy Posh Dinosaur Productions)

 

Zombies are everywhere these days; pop culture-speaking wise at least.

But what, wonders Already Dead, a masterful short film from Posh Dinosaur Productions, that manages the supremely-difficult balance of being funny and heartfelt, if they were actually “living” among us in society?

Written and directed by Michael James Dean, Already Dead successfully uses the faux-documentary style employed by everyone from Steve Coogan’s Alan Partridge to Rickt Gervais’s The Office to examine what might happen if zombies were simply suffering from a disease and could be treated with a drug called Zombenzine (A pill a day, keeps the zombie away!”).

Not cured mind you, but treated in such a way that their brain-eating proclivities can be largely curbed – as one of the subjects in the film observes there will always be “slip ups”; unfortunately these involve someone dying so it’s not quite one too many beers on the way home from Alcoholics Anonymous – and they can potentially become vital, contributing members of society again.

The key word there is “potentially”.

As Dean’s beautifully-nuanced and surprisingly emotionally-resonant film observes with a keen eye for current social issues such as immigration and diseases such as HIV, there is a great deal of prejudice standing between zombies such as middle aged dad George (Darren Ruston) and school teacher Lynn (Shelley Davenport) returning to anything resembling their former lives.

For a start, the British Government considers them officially dead, meaning they cannot access the National Health System (NHS) and must pay for all their medication. a particular challenge for a group that doesn’t exactly possess the most stellar of employment prospects.

But far more worrying for people like George, his best friend Jeff (Luke Shaw) and Lynn is outright, often violent, bigotry from people like unemployed Marcus who spouts the kind of hateful “Go back where you came from” rhetoric so beloved of the lunar right and uninformed masses.

Even more poignantly for George, this kind of prejudice comes from his own son Freddie (Simon Bellars) who says he no longer a father and that he died the day he was bit in 2001.

It’s heartbreaking to hear George especially address how lonely and alienating it is when people, including your own son, won’t embrace you or come near you, confirming your pariah status with every distrustful stare and crossing of the street.

 

‘Already Dead’ (Trailer) Comedy Horror Film from Posh Dinosaur Productions on Vimeo.

 

It’s this sensitivity to the wider social implications of the effects of Zombenzine widespread use in the community, a perspective sorely missed by Dr Lucille Bomar who sings the drug’s praises as if it is the cure it most assuredly is not, that lends Already Dead such immediacy.

To medical personnel zombies are simply a patient to be treated and nothing more but as you hear George and Lynn talk – Lynn is lucky in that her fiance David (Tony Cook is standing by her despite her occasional attempts to eat him – and to the bigots a pestilence to be exterminated.

But for the zombies themselves, there is no escape from the societal stigma they carry, one perpetuated by Government which has essentially labelled them a non-people.

Taking a more sober but no less engaging approach to that used so brilliantly by What We Do in the Shadows, which shone a faux documentary light, so to speak, on vampire subculture in New Zealand, Already Dead does an intelligent, touching job of reminding us that there is no such thing as a simple fix for trenchant social issues (something that In the Flesh also did so admirably).

Through the all-too-human stories of George, Lynn and Jeff we’re reminded that you can never ignore the humanity inherent in any issue and that slogans, bumper stickers and vitriol-laced pejoratives are no solution when there are people crying out for an ongoing, meaningful way of addressing real issues that affect them daily.

Through references to the media – George ruefully remarks at one point that Hollywood has a lot to answer for when it comes to zombie misinformation – societal conservatism and prevailing official policy, Already Dead manages to pull back the grubby veil on the community’s inability to often move beyond fixed attitudes and plain unvarnished prejudice.

Suffused throughout with delightful comedic flourishes, and bolstered throughout by robust intelligence, emotional insight and a uniformly excellent cast who bring the thorny complexity of a prevailing social issue to authentic life (or death as the case may be), Already Dead is a near-perfect example of what the faux documentary genre can accomplish in shining a necessary light on humanity’s foibles and the need for much more than reflex motions when it comes to the lives, and yes living death, of people.

Mamma Mia! ABBA to reunite … virtually

ABBA in concert 1979 on their final major tour (Image via Get ABBA (c) Universal Music)
ABBA in concert 1979 on their final major tour (Image via Get ABBA (c) Universal Music)

 

Like many ABBA fans, I occasionally find myself daydreaming of ABBA reforming, recording an album of new material, or at the very least pulling a double album of rarities out of their rumoured treasure vault of unreleased songs, and making all my fandom dreams come true.

After all, due to money and circumstance I never got to see ABBA perform live when they toured Australia in 1977 – Brisbane was a 3 hour drive from my hometown of Alstonville and ticket prices, relative to money in the bank, were prohibitive – and the idea of seeing them strut the stage, belting out “Money Money Money” or “That’s Me” is the stuff of giddy daydreams.

Daydreams, I might add, that may possibly come true if a rash of media reports, all of which are gloriously short on detail and rich on press release hyperbole, are to be believed.

According to the good people at The Guardian, ABBA are teaming with entertainment maestro Simon Fuller, the man who gave the world American Idol and its franchise progeny, to give fans an immersive virtual reality concert experience, and it seems, two members of the legendary pop supergroup couldn’t be happier.

“We’re inspired by the limitless possibilities of what the future holds and are loving being a part of creating something new and dramatic here. A time machine that captures the essence of who we were. And are.” (Benny Andersson)

“Our fans around the world are always asking us to reform and so I hope this new Abba creation will excite them as much as it excites me!” (Anni-Frid Lyngstad)

 

 

Pre-prepared statements aside however, the idea that ABBA could be the ones to help push the emerging “hyper-realistic” VR technology to the point where it becomes a realistic entertainment option makes perfect sense.

After all, they were among the music artists who first took to video clips as a way of forestalling having to go out on the road, something the group was never terribly keen on even though once they were on stage, they were the masters of the art form.

Quite how it will look remains a matter for fervent conjecture, or fertile daydreaming perhaps since details won’t be forthcoming till 2017.

But even so, as teaser announcements go, it’s a pretty enticing one, and if it comes with new music into the bargain, then you’ll be able to find me locked in a virtual concert hall somewhere refusing to ever leave again.

Movie review: Hell or High Water

(image via IMP Awards)
(image via IMP Awards)

 

The American Dream was once the gold standard for the socially aspirational, enshrining the enticing idea that with enough grit, determination and in the nascent nation of the USA, boundless opportunity, anyone from anywhere could make something substantial of their lives. Complicit in this philosophy of social betterment was a promise of economic prosperity, a sense that your children would, by definition of your hard work and social ascension, be financially better off than you.

But that was now and this is then, and in the new post-2008 reality of a superpower past its 20th century superpower prime, an already ailing promise is well near its death knell in the semi-arid plains of west Texas, the setting for David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water.

Drawing off a finely-nuanced script by Taylor Sheridan, the film doesn’t pull any punches, presenting you with a litany of woes from depressed local economies and block upon block of boarded shops and ailing enterprises, endless signs advertising debt relief, graffiti lamenting the death of opportunity (“Three tours in Iraq but no bailout for people like us” laments one store-side scribbling) and a general sense among the populace that the banks are the real thieves in a world turned on its head by economic privation.

This is important, not simply to give context to the narrative but because it underscores why people like nascent bank robbers Toby Howard (Chris Pine) and his brother Tanner (Ben Foster) attract as much understanding as gunfire-riddled opprobrium, where the Texas Rangers on their tail such as Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) don’t receive the kind of support they might expect in tracking men who are technically criminals but who could just as easily be described as folk heroes.

And in a very real sense they are.

Toby is the stable, responsible younger brother who remained on the family cattle ranch with his ailing soon to be dead mother, scarping a barely-decent living with no real financial means and none of the once much-ballyhooed opportunity of the American Dream.

 

 

The discovery of considerable oil reserves under the dusty, scrabbly plains on which the ranch’s skinny cattle graze promises the kind of wealth that he can only dream of, being the latest in many generations of poor farmers, an endemic condition he likens at one point to a disease.

The only catch? The Texas Midlands Bank has a lien on the property and unless he can front up with $43,000 USD by the end of the week, his one slim shot at economic prosperity for his two sons will be lost and the bank will take possession of the ranch for a pittance.

So he enlists the aid of his impetuous, reckless but charismatic ex-jail inmate brother – it’s intimated he killed their abusive father, among other things – to pull off a series of robberies at branches of the Texas Midlands Bank, a high-risk strategy with only one real upside and plenty of downsides, in the hope that he can secure some sort of future for his family and break the endless cycle of poverty.

Naturally being an amateur bank robber with no real experience of what’s instore for him, Toby struggles to adapt to the violence and brutality inherent in terrifying people while you rob them blind. He never quite adjusts to that but Tanner takes to it like a duck returned to its natural water habitat, robbing with the kind of gusto and chutzpah that Bonnie and Clyde would find it endearing.

But Hell or High Water is not necessarily about venerating the two brothers as modern Robin Hoods nor demonising the Rangers; rather it uses this race against time to secure a slice of the American Dream, and its inherent social commentary on the near-impossibility of obtaining it by other legal means, to explore the power of bonds between brothers and a father’s love for his sons.

This theme of the motivating power of unconditional, self-sacrificial love powers the narrative, imbuing it with an emotional resonance so impacting that you come to understand why two men would risk so much on such a dangerous endeavour.

 

 

Beyond that though, Hell or High Water is a cry for justice in a landscape where morality and the promise of the Wild West has decayed and given way to profligate profiteering by banks and other financial institutions and where any opportunity for advancement has disappeared over the prairie plains with the latest dust storm.

While it is a good old-fashioned cops and robber chase film in one sense, with a climax that both builds to an expected climax while also eschewing it, a narrative sleight of hand that grants it a uniqueness in the genre, its primary goal is the exploration of whether its even possible to grab a hold of the brass ring anymore, and if the worthy ends even begin to justify the clearly-illegal means.

The film is so finely-balanced and so authentically clear in its voice that its well nigh impossible not to side with the brothers even when some parts of their grand plan don’t quite go to plan and there is some collateral damage.

But Hell or High Water is far more sophisticated than a simple moral equation of goodies vs. baddies – taking in all the wider issues already discussed and the inevitability of anything changing anytime soon, if ever, it is a wry, emotionally-evocative commentary on the passing of a lost world and whether there is any chance of ever getting it back.

Bolstered by universally fine performances, most particularly by Bridges, Pine and Foster, the film is both a social polemic laced with wry, dark humour and a tale of two brothers, one ranch and the disappearance of the American Dream which in 2016 is more figment of the imagination than achievable reality.

 

 

 

I need coffee and donuts please – Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life has a full trailer!

(image via IMP Awards (c) Netflix)
(image via IMP Awards (c) Netflix)

 

SNAPSHOT
Three generations of Gilmore women grapple with change and the complicated bonds of family during one year in Stars Hollow. (official synopsis via Netflix)

Rejoice and be glad fellow Stars Hollow-ians!

For Lorelai (Lauren Graham), Rory (Alexis Bledel), Luke (Scott Patterson), Sookie (Melissa McCarthy), Emily (Kelly Bishop), Lane (Keiko Agena) and pretty much everyone else is back including the delightfully weird Kirk (Sean Gunn) – at Friday night dinner no less! What’s with that? – and alive and large and throwing around glorious pop culture references like confetti.

In the first full trailer for Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, which premieres on Netflix 25 November with 4 x 90 minute episodes each covering one season of the year, we are treated to Sookie doing accidentally pornographic things with a tube of foodstuff to her great embarrassment, Lorelai and Rory engaged in animated conversations in and around Stars Hollow, Friday night dinners with Emily sadly sans Richard (Edward Hermann) – who does however have an enormous portrait that takes up an entire wall – appearances by Jess (Milo Ventimiglia), Dean (Jared Padalecki), Taylor (Michael Winters), Michel (Yanic Truesdale) and pretty much everyone your Girlmore Girls-loving heart desires.

What is so arresting about the trailer – if you want a blow-by-blow run down of the trailer head to Vulture, and to Mashable for ten top trailer moments including, of course a kiss from the greatest ship ever, thank you Lorelai and Luke – is the way it beautifully captures everything we love about Gilmore Girls while quite perfectly moving everything forward.

Roll on 25 November – 26 November in Australia – and don’t forget to bring a running pig with you when you come over to watch OK?

 

First impressions: Class (S1, E1 “For Tonight We Might Die” and E2 “The Coach With the Dragon Tattoo”)

Alien dangers lurks once again and only the students of Coal Hill Academy (and Doctor Who) can stand against it (image courtesy BBC)
Alien dangers lurks once again and only the students of Coal Hill Academy (and Doctor Who) can stand against it (image courtesy BBC)

 

High school is either the best of times or the worst of times, to roughly paraphrase Dickens, but the one thing on which can likely agree is that, coupled with the wholesale changes brought on by being a teenager, it comes with its unique set of challenges.

Overbearing parents, peer pressure, demanding teachers, where-to-next life decisions, hormonal changes, sexual awakening – it’s a potential witches brew of life demands, which can either be intoxicatingly wonderful or excoriatingly exhausting and depressing.

Either way, you have a lot of your life so why on the Doctor’s well-protected Earth would you also want aliens regularly stepping through a time/space portal in your school to cause all kinds of havoc and death?

The answer is you really wouldn’t but the students of Coal Hill Academy, a fictional learning institution that has been a key part of Doctor Who since the first episode in 1963, don’t really a choice in the matter with aliens of all stripes, sizes and temperaments coming through ready or not.

Class, created and written by Patrick Ness (A Monster Calls), is the story of these students, all of whom step up to the challenge of being the Doctor when the Doctor isn’t there – although the Eleventh Doctor played by Peter Capaldi does make an appearance in the premiere episode – with varying degrees of enthusiasm and success but understanding all too well that through fate or grand design, they are the ones tasked with keeping the Earth safe from yet more interplanetary creepy-crawly nasties.

Targeted at the Young Adult crowd, the first thing you notice is that that show does not pull any punches. Not a single freaking one.

From the get-go, the sheer brutality of the universe and life itself is on full display with a significant body count accompanying the in-over-their-heads students attempts to answer their unasked-for new calling.

This reality of life stuff comes in the form of the death of a number of the teachers – memo to self: if you decide to go into teaching, do not work at a school with exceptionally long corridors, the better for bloodthirsty aliens to creep up on you unannounced – and other characters who in their remarkably short time on screen come across with fully three-dimensional attributes, a testament to Ness’s usual care for crafting major and minor characters who actually matter to you.

 

 

Of course the main characters we all care deeply about, and impressively quickly too, are the four students at the heart of every story, the “Chosen Ones” if you like who have to grapple with little-to-no-warning and only the most cursory of lessons from the Doctor with what the hilariously-named “Bunghole of Time” spits out.

Charlie (Greg Austin) is easily the most mysterious of the three, a buttoned-man, boy-next-door gay geek who appears to have little to no affinity of earth anything but is astonishingly well adept at seeing off threats, with the aid, often reluctantly dispensed by one of the Academy’s teachers, and his housemate, Miss Quill (Katherine Kelly). His oddly-disconnected persona is explained fairly quickly in the pilot episode – he is the sole surviving member of his race, who along with his slave and one-time assassin (her punishment was to be joined to him in perpetuity, a role she amusingly abhors), escaped their home planet ahead of a wave of sinister shadow aliens who slaughtered every other last inhabitant.

Next up is April (Sophie Hopkins), a sensitive, violin-playing, high-achieving social outcast whose sole goal, at least initially is ensuring that her school transcript is sterling enough to get her into the university of her choice. Caring for her wheelchair-bound single mum, and organising events like school proms that  everyone wants to go but doesn’t want to be responsible for, she ends up inextricably bound in a profoundly physical sense to her new calling.

Ram (Fady Elsayed) is a jock, the star player on the Academy’s football (soccer) team, a man used to adulation and acclaim but beneath it all much more sensitive than anyone besides his supportive dad and girlfriend is aware; he is however good friends with the final member of the troop Tanya (Vivian Oparah), who is only 14 – the others are in sixth form and older – and exceptionally bright, hence her presence in the classes of the other three students. (Her overbearingly protective mother means that she, alone of the four, must constantly sneak out at night unseen, something she remarks on ceaselessly.)

Together they have to navigate all the challenges of teenagerdom while simultaneously fighting to keep themselves, the school and Earth intact to fight another day.

One particularly pleasing part of the storytelling, especially in the light of the very recent controversy over the murder porn of The Walking Dead‘s season 7 opener, is that it please all the violence that occurs in an emotional context.

There are very real consequences to many of the deaths and there is no attempt made, at least between the first and second episodes to pretend that the traumatic events of the pilot had anything other than a massively disturbing effect on all four students, particularly Ram.

This is no scot-free endeavour, all swashbuckling action and adventure with no fallout; people die, dreams are crushed, lives severely disrupted and while there are quips and collegial repartee aplenty, there are also tears and the realisation that life doesn’t give without taking some too.

It’s this sensitivity to the realities of life, especially teenage life, that make Class such rewarding viewing; yes you get to save the planet in-between maths and English classes but it’s no romp in the park.

It is however, immensely intelligent, emotionally-astute, and carefully-crafted viewing that delivers up out-of-this-world shenanigans with the cold, hard realities of life, as instructive a life lesson as any you’re ever likely to see.

 

 

The short and the short of it: The exploratory delights of Planet Unknown

Life where are you? (image via Vimeo (c) Shawn Wang)
Life where are you? (image via Vimeo (c) Shawn Wang)

 

Humanity has long been fascinated, and with good reason if current climate change trends are any indication (and they certainly appear to be), about what might happen when we have finally sucked the last tantalising vestiges of lifeforce from our beautiful blue planet.

While saving the planet before it gets to that point would be the preferred option, the regrettable reality is that political inaction and vested interests may doom Earth and with it humanity’s hope for survival, and so the only way to go is up and out into space.

It’s powered all kinds of TV shows and movies including Earth 2Lost in Space and Interstellar with the latter film providing the inspiration, along with a slew of other titles, for Shawn Wang‘s emotionally-evocative Planet Unknown, about the search for a new planet capable of sustaining life.

“The idea started back in 2014 when Interstellar was released. I was deeply impressed by the movie and was inspired by the two robots TARS and CASE. The idea of intellectual robots exploring space developed from there. Other inspirations include Pixar movies like WALL-E and Toy Story, as well as CHAPPiE, NASA documentaries about Mars Rover Curiosity, and short films by individuals like Alex Roman’s The Third & The Seventh, Richard Mans’ Abiogenesis, Erik Wernquist’s Wanderers, Alf Lovvold’s Dawn of the Stuff, and so many more.”

The two space rovers, Rover Razor and Rover Junkman, are a delight, their palpable concern for each other and for their mission providing enough hope and inspiration that you feel by the end of this remarkably moving and optimistic action-filled short film that if the worst comes to pass that humanity, with the help of their robotic friends, might be OK after all.

(source: Laughing Squid)