I Hate It Here: A Review Of Transmetropolitan

Transmet16_004 uneditI Hate It Here

That’s the title of the column that gonzo journalist Spider Jerusalem writes in Warren Ellis’ comic book series Transmetropolitan. In it he chronicles his continuing crusade against a corrupt and unjust world. A world in an America of the future, a future different from and yet still similar to our own. Transmetropolitan ran from 1997 until 2002, and while much of it can be and was probably intended to be read as a commentary on contemporary society and politics, it remains a powerful and insightful work twenty years later. It portrays a society in which most people keep their head down and try to make a living, a world where people consume media at every moment and yet ignore the real problems in the world. A place where the poor and disabled are segregated away from view, where those whose lifestyles differ from the norm face discrimination and hatred, where politicians lie and toy with the lives of real people, and where the press is silenced by those who fear it. Transmetropolitan portrays an American that is has always existed and seems all the more real now.

It may seem that in describing the world of Transmetropolitan I’ve created a rather bleak image in your mind, and at times it is bleak. At others though, the story of Spider Jerusalem and his continued journalistic exploits can be inspiring, funny, emotional and uplifting. It begins with Spider being called back from a drug and alcohol filled mountain side cabin by the need to fulfill his contractual obligation to publish two books. Returning to The City, a mega-city located in an unspecified part of the United States, he begins working for his old editor Mitchell Royce as a columnist at “The Word”, The City’s largest newspaper. From here Spider along with his assistants Yelena Rossini and Channon Yarrow, begins writing about the inhabitants of The City and the myriad of lives they live.

Transmet19_004

At first Transmetropolitan features a variety of one-off stories, in one Spider visits a community of people called Transients who use alien DNA to modify themselves into a new species and documents the brutal police response to their protests against discrimination. In another Spider watches the thousands of television channels available to the people of The City, with programs as varied as “Anthrax Cat”, “Sex Puppets” and ads for sneakers that let you walk on water called “Air Jesus”. In the backdrop of these anthology style stories is the continued narrative of the upcoming presidential election. As the series continues it follows this thread with Spider and his assistants working to expose the corruption and crimes of the two presidential candidates.

It’s here that the series goes from being merely very good to being incredible. The incumbent president, almost exclusively referred to as “The Beast”, and his challenger “The Smiler” are embodiment’s of all that is wrong with modern politics. One is a law and order politician who seeks to use the problems of society to divide people and create fear, and the other is an amoral power-hungry man who wants to be president solely to hurt those who have wronged him. As the series continues past the election and towards its conclusion it offers a powerful portrait of the society and people who are shaped by their corrupt and dishonest leaders. It looks at the power structures that hold down those who would dare try to change The City.

Transmet13_031In many ways Transmetropolitan’s closest cousin thematically is The Wire, both revolve around a city and those that live it. Much like The Wire, Transmetropolitan explores both those who want to make a difference, to push back against a corrupt and broken system in order to help those hurt by it and those who benefit from and enable that same system. It’s this idea that is echoed in the title of Spider’s column, “I Hate It Here”, a distaste for the world as it is and yet despite all the cynicism of the series, the implicit belief that it can be better. The conclusion Spider and Transmetropolitan reach is one and the same, that it is truth and exposing the misdeeds of those in power that will help us to create a better world, even if only marginally. This culminates in the climax of the series, a triumph of reporting, journalism, truth, bravery and public will on par with any in fiction.

Transmet27_011

Outside of its expertly written story, Transmetropolitan is spectacular, its dialogue is memorable and leaps off the page. The art work is gripping and truly sucks one into story. It is at times dense with memorable images and other times stark and simple. The action portrayed within its pages feels visceral and gritty. The art beautifully compliments the themes of the series, showing The City as a foreign and frightening place to a woman awoken from cryogenic preservation, emphasizing the poverty and forgotten nature of ghetto, and above all bringing us into the mind of Spider Jerusalem.

Writer Warren Ellis and artist Darick Robertson explore fascinating ideas and themes about a world close enough to ours to be recognizable but far enough away to seem alien. Among these are the aforementioned Transient movements, an explosion of new religious movements including one in which people upload their consciousness to a cloud of nanocomputers, and places know as cultural reservations in which people from traditional cultures including Mayan and Tokugawa Japan live. The series touches on important subjects such as LGBT issues, corruption, the influence of the media, censorship, and ethics in ways that are both subtle and mature while never ceasing to tell a compelling story.

Transmet08_010

Above all of these ideas the one I find myself thinking about most when my mind turns to Transmetropolitan is that of the “New Scum”, an idea that Spider coins in “I Hate It Here”. The idea that there is a group of people left behind by the system, ignored by politicians and told what to believe. That there is a large portion of society who the game is rigged against, the silent people, who won’t be remembered by history except as statistics. The idea that these people, most people, are important, valuable, and should have their stories told. The refugees, the students, people who work long hours just to get by, people who are being left behind, the nameless and faceless in the crowd and who just want to be represented and heard. Maybe this has always been a constant idea, a constant group of people, maybe each generation has its own “New Scum”, and yet in today’s political climate where groups and movements that reflect the idea of the “New Scum” have come to the forefront it feels oddly prescient. Transmetropolitan is not only one of my favorite comics but also one that I consider among the best but even it can’t give us a blueprint to follow to solve the grievances we as the “New Scum” have. No instead it offers us only advice, that we the “New Scum” have to decide for ourselves what kind of society we want instead of allowing others to decide for us and to continue to exploit us.

In the end Transmetropolitan leaves us only with the words of Spider Jerusalem:

“These are the new streets of this city, where the New Scum try to live. You and me. And here in these streets are the things that we want: sex and birth, votes and traits, money and guilt, television and teddy bears. But all we’ve actually got is each other. You decide what that means.”

Rating: 10/10

Transmetropolitan

Sixty Issues

Written by Warren Ellis

Art by Darick Robertson

TV Review: Game of Thrones Season 7 Episode 2: Stormborn

game-thrones-7x02-stormborn

Okay, lets talk about this weeks Game of Thrones episode Stormborn. I think last weeks review/recap was a bit too full of plot details and a bit light on my actual thoughts about the episode so I’m going to try to give more of my thoughts on the episode from here on out. Overall, I was pretty disappointed, Stormborn felt to me like it had a some good moments but there were definitely some I didn’t like especially the ending. I’ll sum up the episode pretty quickly and then move into my thoughts.

Stormborn begins with Daenerys and her crew beginning to formulate their plan to take control of Westeros without destroying it all and leaving Daenerys to be “Queen of the ashes”. Cersei attempts to rally some of the lords from the rebelling kingdoms, including Randyll Tarly, to her side by playing on their xenophobia of the Unsullied and Dothraki, and Maester Qyburn reveals that they are developing a weapon to combat dragons. Sam at the Citadel attempts to heal Jorah from his greyscale despite the Archmaesters objections. Arya, after meeting back up with Hotpie, learns that Jon is alive and the Starks control Winterfell. While traveling she comes across Nymeria and a pack of wolves that reveal themselves to her and then disappear.

In Winterfell Jon decides to accept an invitation to meet with Daenerys at Dragonstone in order to attempt to secure the dragon glass beneath the castle. When he leaves, over the objections of the lords of the north, he leaves Sansa in charge of the north. Back at Dragonstone Daenaerys and Tyrion reveal their plan to Elleria, Yara, and Olenna, a strike on Kings Landing by the Westerosi forces and an Unsullied attack on Casterly Rock at the same time. Grey Worm and Missandei reveal their feelings to each other before they are separated. Yara and Elleria are attacked by Euron on their way back to pick up the Martells army, and Yara’s fleet is destroyed while Theon flees and is left floating in the ocean on debris.

euron1.1500866247  Okay, so a lot happened in this hour and it did move the plot set up in the previous episode along. First the good stuff, the opening scene with Daenerys et al is great. After only having a few silent minutes of Varys and Tyrion in the previous episode we get a scene devoted to them, I love when Game of Thrones touches on political intrigue and Peter Dinklage as Tyrion is just such a joy to watch. Furthermore Varys explaining his shifting loyalty by saying his loyalty is to the people was such a great monologue and a great moment between Daenerys and him. I also really enjoyed the scene with Missandei and Grey Worm, which is perhaps the most touching sex scene this show has ever produced and really a nice breath of humanity in between what was a really exposition heavy episode.

As opposed to last week I enjoyed Sams storyline, Broadbent as the Archmaester is a joy as he plays the character in such an academic way, and the beginning of the surgery to remove Jorah’s scales was genuinely hard to watch. I loved the match cut from that scene to the man eating the meat pie, and like Arya in that scene as she come to resemble the Hound more and more including gulping down a flagon of ale. Finally I really enjoyed Euron once again as he shows up to destroy Yara’s fleet. Euron is just such an over the top character and he is a joy to watch on-screen, it’s so much fun to watch him just be crazy. It also helps that he rid of us of at least most of the Sand Snakes.

Cersei-Qyburn-StormbornOf course bringing up the Sand Snakes means we have to talk about what didn’t work. While the Winterfell scenes are crucial to the plot and well acted, they’re kind flat and predictable overall just sorta okay. But my true ire is reserved for the scene where Qyburn reveals what his weapon is to kill dragons. This is built up with Qyburn saying if they can be injured they can be killed, something we are all aware of having seen said injury to a dragon previously in the series. With a swell of ominous music he reveals his weapon and it isn’t some sort of magic or anything, it’s just a ballista, that’s it. It’s not even a particularly large ballista and with the level of military technology present in Westeros it boggles the mind that this is a new invention. It bothers me that we will invariably see this weapon take down a dragon at some point because to be honest the entire moment felt a bit silly.

There is also the sea battle that finishes the episode. I’ve never been a huge fan of Theon and Yara’s story and them getting attacked and destroyed by Euron was pretty predictable. It could be seen from a nautical mile away, especially after the previous episode where Euron promises to return to Cersei with a gift. It should have been treated as a big moment and yet to me felt very small.The direction was awkward and seemed to minimize the battle taking what was a big naval battle and shoving it into a small corner of one ship. It just really didn’t work for me tonally and outside of Euron the scene was utterly forgettable.

That describes a lot of the episode to me, forgettable. Some good moments in the episode and a lot of setup for storylines that feel like they’re going somewhere cool. However, there are only five episodes left in this season and so far the show has yet to reach the breakneck pace it should have to reach the ending.

Rating: 7.5/10

Game of Thrones Season 7 Episode 2: Stormborn

Directed by Mark Mylod

Written by Bryan Cogman

 

Film Review: Dunkirk

screen-shot-2017-03-29-at-7-06-42-pm

Dunkirk is a disaster movie disguised as a war movie. The goal of the characters we follow is only to survive and help others survive the terror that lurks just out of sight but that is slowly closing in. The Germans are only referred to by name once or twice, and are only seen once at the end of the film. They are a force of nature, more like the weather in The Day After Tomorrow rather than the Wehrmacht of Saving Private Ryan. Christopher Nolan’s newest film cares more about looking at fear and survival than it does heroism and battle. In doing so Nolan has created something truly special, and perhaps the best film of his career.

Dunkirk is a story told from three different perspectives covering three different periods of time, each following a different group of characters as they participate in the evacuation of the British Army from the beaches of Dunkirk. The first part, The Mole, lasts a week and follows a group of soldiers looking to get off the beach. The second, The Sea, lasts a day and follows a small civilian boat and its crew as they assist in the evacuation, and the third part entitled The Air follows a British spitfire squadron as they patrol over Dunkirk and lasts an hour. Dunkirk takes a non-linear approach, cutting between these perspectives until they come together at the climax.

dunkirk-movie-11

Nolan’s characters are archetypes, most don’t have names and those that do are never given full names. They are almost mythological figures, representing a very British view of national identity, stoic and ready to do their duty. There are long stretches where no one speaks, instead Nolan allows the sound to do a lot of the heavy lifting, with the sound design pushed to the front. Gunshots are loud, the rush of the sea and the howl of the wind feel oppressive and threatening, and the sirens on the German dive-bombers add an extra element of fear to every bombing. The score by Hans Zimmer, is ethereal and by incorporating a ticking watch serves to highlight the race against time inherent to the film.

The film also looks amazing, with the claustrophobic tightness of a packed ship hull or an aircraft’s cockpit contrasted with the vastness of the English Channel or the wide open beach. Nolan reverses our expectations with these tight closed spaces becoming a symbol of safety and home while the wide open spaces of the sea and land are threatening, home to the danger that they seek to escape. Each actor conveys their fear and determination in different ways, with particular praise for Mark Rylance and Cillian Murphy who portray a boat captain and a shell-shocked soldier respectively. Unfortunately these are the only two actors who are given anything of substance to do, with some characters, such as Kenneth Branagh’s Commander Bolton especially feeling superfluous at times. If there are failures in the film it is that by making these characters so broad it is hard to care about them, although this is often countered by the strong acting.

dunkirk-movie-2

My only other small bone to pick is with the ending, which may seem a bit clichéd, and yet still worked for me. This is because unlike with many of Nolan’s other films, this film is deeply moving and emotional without ever seeming manipulative. Every moment of emotion, all the fear, and triumph feel truly earned in this movie, something that is hard to say about his other films. Dunkirk pulls together all of Nolan’s talents to create a film that, like the best in its genre, reveals human nature in the face of disaster. Dunkirk is something truly special, and deserves to be seen.

Rating: 9/10

Dunkirk (2017)

Directed by Christopher Nolan

Starring:  Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D’Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance and Tom Hardy.

Rated: PG-13

Film Review: Band of Outsiders

band-of-outsiders-godard

Band of Outsiders is cool. From the minute it opens to a rapidly edited montage of the main characters faces you can feel it, this is effortlessly cool cinema. Band of Outsiders is about boredom, it’s about looking for purpose, it’s about love, it’s about crime, it’s about good-looking people in good looking clothes and in the hands of a skilled filmmaker that is almost always cool. But in the hands of legendary French director Jean-Luc Godard, Band of Outsiders isn’t just cool, it’s smart, it’s sad, and in its best moments it’s youth captured on-screen.

Godard’s 1964 film is the tale of two young men, Franz (Sami Frey) and Arthur (Claude Brasseur), who fall in love with Odile (Anna Karina) and enlist her into a robbery of the owners of the suburban villa she lives in. As Franz and Arthur drive through the streets of Paris an omniscient narrator (Godard) fill us in on the background of the film. The narrator is an almost literary figure, with the narration at times explaining characters actions and thoughts but also poetically describing the setting of certain scenes. Arthur and Franz arrive at an English class where they meet Odile, talk to her about the money in her home and convince her to hang out with them later that day. After Odile goes home and examines the money she meets up with Franz and Arthur, and they go to a cafe.

bande-a-part-110

That’s it, that’s about half of the film. Like Godard’s debut film Breathless this is another film without much plot, but a lot of story. The first half of the film features several long takes in which so much is revealed by the actions, movements, and dialogue of the characters that it’s easy to get lost in the film. The prime example of this is a scene where the three main characters sit at a table in a cafe, as characters leave and come back to the table we see Franz and Arthur compete for Odile’s affection shown visually by attempting to sit net to her. This scene culminates in Arthur calling for a minute of silence, in which all sound is suddenly cut. Band of Outsiders doesn’t often demonstrate the rule breaking for which Godard is famous for but when it does, like in the aforementioned scene and in various moments where characters break the fourth wall, it serves to make the movie even better.

Band of Outsiders most interesting scene is also its most famous. While at the cafe, the three main characters perform a dance. The scene mixes narration, sound editing, action, framing, and acting in a whirlwind single take that creates something more than the sum of its parts. Seen as a part of the whole film, it serves as an encapsulation of the film itself, cool and fun on the surface but a little sad and lonely underneath. For as much as the film is cool, fun, and playful on the surface this belies a real sadness underneath. Franz and Arthur are often cruel to Odile, calling her stupid, mocking her, and in the climatic heist hitting her. Odile is often reluctant to go along with the men’s plans but does so anyway after being pressured into doing them. All three characters seem aimless, bored, and desperately lonely. Odile and Franz have a conversation in which Franz talks about how people never form a whole despite their best efforts. This undercurrent of sadness and loneliness lends the film depth and the characters become much more well-rounded because of it. Godard captures the way so much of people’s youth, or at least my youth, was spent doing things just because we were bored, trying to have fun and be cool. There is a sadness and loneliness in boredom, and a happiness in the action boredom leads to, and in Band of Outsiders Godard puts this on-screen.

BAND0171520

Through out the film Godard continues to demonstrate why he is one of cinemas legendary figures. Part of Frances new wave Godard is a master with the camera using it to create vivid shots, often panning to reveal things that were just out of sight. The long takes allow characters to flow in and out of scenes and when combined with the fascinating dialogue pull the viewer deeply in to the film. There are several scenes where Godard allows the action to unfold in a wide shot, with the actors almost in the background, making the viewer feel as though they are watching this all from afar, as if they are spying on these characters. Every shot in this film feels effortlessly blocked and framed.

The few complaints I have about this film concern its ending. The last half-hour or so of the film concerns the actual robbery of the house. Perhaps it is because of the narrative slowness of the rest of the film but the robbery can feel a bit rushed and out of nowhere. Furthermore, the climax of the film, while obviously an homage to the pulp novels and B movies referenced through out the rest of the movie, feels like a bit of a cop-out. But even here there are still some fantastic sequences, including one where the camera stays motionless in one room while people move in and out with the action of the heist occurring off-screen. The other main complain I have is that at times Odile can seem underdeveloped, and sometimes I’m not sure if I totally buy her feelings towards Franz and Arthur.

1200

For the most part though, Arthur, Franz, and Odile feel very real. The interactions between Arthur and Franz instantly seem like those between long time friends. Odile does feel like a lost, bored, young woman even if her separate romances with Franz and Arthur can feel a bit rushed. In a movie in which character interactions matter so much more than how the characters move within a story it matters that they seem real, and Band of Outsiders pulls this off 99% of the time. Jean-Luc Godard is one of the best directors of all time, and Band of Outsiders shows why by creating one of the most vivid and engrossing vision of youth on-screen. Band of Outsiders is a film every one should see.

Rating: 9.5/10

Band of Outsiders (1964)

Bande à part (original title)

Directed by Jean-Luc Godard

Starring: Sami Frey, Claude Brasseur, and Anna Karina.

Not Rated

TV Review: Game of Thrones Season 7 Episode 1: Dragonstone

game-thrones-7x01-dragonstone

“Shall we begin?”

Daenerys Targaryen utters these words at the end of the Season 7 opener of Game of Thrones, Dragonstone, marking the start of what is the shows final act. Dragonstone acts as stage setting episode, and after over a year away it’s pretty welcome. The episode begins with what at first appears to be a flashback to a feast held by Walder Frey at The Twins. But, quickly the mood of the scene shifts and it is revealed to be Arya Stark using faceless man magic to impersonate Walder and poison the Freys. In one fell swoop she eliminates their whole house, just another part of the culling of characters and plot lines Game of Thrones has been undertaking as it nears its climax. As Arya leaves she tells one of the survivors to let people know “Winter came for House Frey”. It’s an exciting way to start an episode and a season, and hearing the theme music right after was a great way to get sucked back into the world of Game of Thrones.

From there the story slows down a lot, a necessity when we have to catch up with TV’s largest ensemble. We check in with Jon Snow and Sansa Stark as they hold court in the newly reconquered Winterfell. The seeds of disagreement between the two begin as they differ on how to handle the lands controlled by houses that had betrayed them and fought against them. In the Jon decides to make them swear fealty and allow them to retain their land, over the protests of Sansa who wants to give their land to people who had been loyal to the Starks. After Sansa and Jon talk about how they face trouble from both the north in the form of the army of the dead, and from the south from Cersei. Sansa and Jon reveal their differing views on ruling, with Jon having seen the example of Lord Commander Mormont and trying to model his leadership after him.  On the other hand we have Sansa who has had her worldview shaped by living in Kings Landing and seeing Varys, Cersei, and Littlefinger work their plans. I’m excited to see these two philosophies play out through out the rest of the season.

image

In Kings Landing Cersei begins to formulate her plan to take back the rebelling kingdoms now that she is queen. It’s a couple of very strong scenes, especially one where Jaime attempts to have a conversation with her about the suicide of Tommen and what her end game is. Cersei appears to be unraveling, declaring Tommen’s suicide to be a “betrayal” and telling Jaime she is attempting to create a long-lasting Lannister dynasty. That Jaime and her are the only Lannisters left, as Jaime reminds her, doesn’t really seem to cross her mind. In her quest to defeat her rivals she invites Euron Greyjoy to Kings Landing where he proposes marriage to her, she refuses but he promises to go and bring back a great treasure to prove his loyalty and importance. Euron is a lot of fun to watch in this scene, dressed like a pirate and completely bonkers. It’s nice when Game of Thrones leans into its occasional pseudo-soap opera atmosphere, and Euron as a megalomaniac over the top bad guy is perfect for what appears to be our last human antagonist of the show.

In the newly shown Oldtown we are treated to a montage of Sam going about his tasks in the Citadel as he learns to become a maester, this thing goes on way too long. The first time soup is match cut to a used bed pan it’s a little funny but by the third time its gotten a little tedious. In fact the entirety of Sams storyline seemed like a big journey to get to the knowledge that there is dragon glass under Dragonstone. Plus, it kinda wastes Jim Broadbent who shows up for one scene to deliver a great monologue about how the maesters are the institutional memory of Westeros and how they’ll still be here after everything. Hopefully he’ll continue to show up but this is the one part of the episode that really didn’t do much for me.

The-Hound

We then come to the Hound, in what is probably the best scene of the episode. The Hound along with the rest of the Brotherhood without Banners arrives at the cottage of the family he had previously robbed in a previous season. There he finds the corpse of the daughter and her father, bloodied and with a knife, Beric Dondarrion deduces that the father murder-suicided them rather than freeze or starve to death in the winter. As Thoros builds a fire in the hearth he asks the Hound to look into the fire where the Hound has a vision of the army of the dead marching on the wall. That night the Hound buries the dead while the snow falls in one of the striking visual moments of the episode. Rory McCann continues to be one of the best actors on the show, imbuing his character with little moments of humanity and continuing to build a complex and deep character.

In the other standout scene we humanize the Lannister soldiers as Arya comes across a group of them cooking dinner. Here we get the oft-mentioned Ed Sheeran cameo that to be perfectly honest wasn’t much of a big deal. After singing a song and getting a few lines he moves to the background. Instead it is the other soldiers who tell Arya how they miss home, want to see their wives and children, it may be a bit clichéd, but it’s an important reminder that even though we mostly follow nobles and people of privilege the fighting is done by regular people. It’s quiet moment that doesn’t end in a speech or violence but is content to just be that, quiet. It’s a moment in an episode that has to cram in a lot of information where the show just takes a breather.

Finally the show finishes on a wordless sequence that features Daenerys arriving to and entering Dragonstone. All told visually, and with stunning visuals at that, the sequence is stunning. At the end Daenerys walks past the carved map of Westeros in Dragonstone, mirroring the painted map that Cersei and Jaime Lannister look at in their scenes. At the end of a strong, albeit not perfect, season premiere Daenerys turns to Tyrion and says her only lines of the episode, kicking off what promises to be a great season of TV.

“Shall we begin?”

Rating: 8.5/10

Game of Thrones Season 7 Episode 1: Dragonstone

Directed by  Jeremy Podeswa

Written by  David Benioff and D. B. Weiss

Film Review: Sunshine on Leith

Sunshine-on-Leith-2314297Sunshine on Leith is a jukebox musical, a term that strikes fear into my heart. For me a jukebox musical is often synonymous with a thin story, weak characters, and pacing that rushes from song to song disregarding plot in order to fit as many songs as possible into the show. In film form a jukebox musical can be even worse, by removing the live aspect of the stage, it lacks the concert atmosphere that can be fun in the moment. It is a challenge to create a jukebox musical that offers a plot worth following and interesting characters. Sunshine on Leith manages to do this, mostly, for about half of a movie.

Sunshine on Leith is a jukebox musical based on the songs of Scottish folk rock duo The Proclaimers. It tells the story of Ally (Kevin Guthrie) and Davy (George MacKay) two recently discharged soldier who arrive back home in Edinburgh. There Ally returns to his girlfriend, Davy’s sister Liz (Freya Mavor), while Davy falls for Yvonne (Antonia Thomas) a friend and colleague of Liz. The film also follows Liz and Davy’s parents, Rab (Peter Mullan) and Jean (Jane Horrocks) as all three of these couples deal with their future. This portion of the film, where we meet these people, follow them, and see them try to understand where they’re going ans what they are, is great. The film moves deliberately from excellent musical number to excellent musical number, with standout moments being a drunken night out with Ally, Davy, Liz, and Yvonne set to “Over and Done With” and a truly touching rendition of “Make my Hear Fly”. This culminates in the standout musical moment of the film when Ally reveals to Davy that he intends to ask Liz to marry him leading to a rendition of “Let’s Get Married” that leads to an entire pub simulating a wedding ceremony.

8563-1

But while the first part of the film spends its time letting us get to know these characters and letting us breathe in the atmosphere the filmmakers have created, the rest of the film succumbs to the same jukebox musical pitfalls. After a Jean’s contrived discovery of the fact that Rab had a brief affair at the start of their marriage that led to a daughter, the fact of which Rab has only recently learned of, all three relationships begin to fall apart. From here the film rushes through to the end, forgetting characters exist for twenty to thirty at a time, having characters get back together, break up, and get back together again all in the course of what feels like fifteen minutes. The film here chooses to tell not show, with characters coming to conclusions when we are never even shown them contemplating anything. The story becomes a very frustrating, clichéd mess, which is unfortunate because the film began so promisingly.

Through out the musical sequences remain high points, all of the main cast are good singers who know how to convey emotion in song. The last two numbers are great, a bittersweet rendition by the whole cast of “Letter from America”, and the final number “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” which begins slow but builds in energy until it practically bursts off the screen at the end. The actors do their best with the material given them but it is the charm and fun of these musical numbers that allow the film to mostly overcome its narrative failures. These musical sequences also provide director Dexter Fletcher with his only interesting visual moments, a silhouetted image of Yvonne and Davy during “Then I Met You” being one of them, with the rest of the film being competently albeit unimaginatively done.

Peter-Mullan-in-his-element

In the end, Sunshine on Leith is a film that begins strong but ultimately ends up as mostly forgettable musical. Sunshine on Leith doesn’t attempt to be more than a fun jukebox musical and at that it mostly succeeds. Beyond a few moments when it touches on the difficulty soldiers face returning from war, it never tries to reach beyond its grasp, it knows what it wants to be. It’s fun, it brought a smile to my face, and it was a joy to see these musical moments on-screen and it’s a decent way to spend an afternoon. It’s a warmly lit, well-acted, well-sung, musical and nothing more. For Sunshine on Leith that’s enough to make it a decent watch.

Rating: 6.5/10

Sunshine on Leith

Directed by Dexter Fletcher

Staring: Kevin Guthrie, George MacKay, Freya Mavor, Antonia Thomas, Peter Mullan, and Jane Horrocks.

Rated: PG

Music Review: Haim – Something To Tell You

Haim_Album-Cover-Something-To-Tell-You-2017-billboard-EMBEDSomething To Tell You is the second album from Los Angeles sister rock trio Haim, and it’s just sort of fine. Granted after four years it was always going to be hard to live up to their first album 2013’s Days Are Gone. In that album Haim channeled their many musical influences, ranging from Fleetwood Mac and Wilson Phillips to Timbaland, into creating a pop-rock album that was varied and musically interesting and boded well for their future efforts. On Something To Tell You the band has evolved some but at times seems stuck in a bit of creative rut.

The album starts with the catchy and slick “Want You Back”, a fun drum and guitar driven song that mixes in some synth pop and Passion Pit style electronic flourishes to create one of the better songs on the album. Unfortunately , this Fleetwood Mac with modern pop influenced production style carries through the first half of the album. Each song adds something a bit different, “Ready For You” has a bit of a tropical house influence in the first half, and the title track has a cool pulsing guitar on it, but in the end all the songs up through “Kept Me Crying” tend to blend together.

la-et-ms-haim-something-to-tell-you-review-20170705

 

Luckily on the second half of the album Haim bring in a ringer, Rostam Batmaglij, who is a fantastic producer and who seems to push Haim out of their comfort zone into a bit more of an interesting sound. “Kept Me Crying” has a noticeable guitar solo that isn’t hidden away behind layers of sound as on previous tracks, and “Walking Away” at times sounds like 90’s boy band song combined with modern minimalist beats. Finally the two closing songs are some of the best with “Right Now” combining simple but evocative lyrics with excellent production to create one of the years best pop-rock songs and “Night So Long” a dark moody ballad that is some of Haim’s best work.

Something To Tell You has some really interesting musical ideas for the band to explore but the problem is they only find them on about half the album. The first half of this album is, outside of “Want You Back”, forgettable at best and at worst it sounds like a collection of Fleetwood Mac outtakes with modern production. When Haim drop the slick and overdone homogeny of the first half, they manage to create some really interesting and memorable music. Even then however, the lyrics are mostly forgettable and I still wish their music would do more to showcase what good musicians they are. The standout tracks of “Want You Back”,”Found It In Silence”, “Walking Away”, “Right Now”, and “Night So Long” demonstrate what an interesting and enjoyable band Haim can be. It’s just a shame it’s buried under stuff that all sounds the same.

Rating 7.5/10

Something To Tell You (Polydor, 2017)

Haim

Film Review: Spider-Man: Homecoming

spider-man-homecoming-video-peters-suit-tech

Spider-Man: Homecoming shouldn’t have worked. It has six(!) credited screenwriters, it has to tie into a greater established universe, it’s the child of two different major studios, and it’s the third time we’ve had a new Spider-Man franchise in fifteen years. This movie could have been a complete disaster but it’s not. In fact it’s the best Spider-Man movie since Sam Rami’s Spider-Man 2 and it’s one of the most fun you’ll have at the theater this summer.

Anchored by a star making performance by Tom Holland as Spider-Man/Peter Parker, probably the best performance in the lead role of any of the Spider-Man movies, Homecoming bursts on to the screen by eschewing the bombast of other Marvel films and choosing to tell a smaller more grounded story. The villain in the film, a pitch perfect Michael Keaton as the Vulture, isn’t trying to destroy the world or conquer the universe, he’s basically just an arms dealer. However, this smaller story enables us to spend more time with Peter and learn more about him. Fresh off of his stint fighting with Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) in Captain America: Civil War Peter is feeling neglected by Stark as he continues to attempt to juggle being a small-time neighborhood crime stopper and a high school student in Queens.

spider-man-homecoming-trailer-04

While this idea has been previously explored in Spider-Man movies, it’s never received as in-depth a look as it does here. Director Jon Watts pulls of the difficult feat of making Peter feel like a real teenager, in a real high school, with real teenager classmates. For long stretches the film feels more like a John Hughes movie, a coming of age tale, with Peter and his best friend Ned (a hilarious Jacob Batalon) navigating crushes, detention, cliques, and teachers. This is perhaps one of the funniest Marvel movies but it rarely feels forced, the humor from each character comes differently and each quip feels organic. It helps that the film brings in ringers for some comedy including Martin Starr and Hannibal Buress as teachers, and a woefully underutilized Donald Glover as a street level criminal.

At the end of the day this is a coming of age story in the vein of many an 80’s teen film with Peter as the teen protagonist who needs to learn a life lesson and Stark as the father figure mentor, a role usually reserved for Peter’s comic book father figure Uncle Ben. In a world where it seems like every superhero movie is an origin story for someone, it’s refreshing to have Spider-Man movie where Uncle Ben is mentioned once, to have movie trust it’s audience to understand why Peter acts the way he does due to what occurs on-screen and not because we are told that “with great power comes great responsibility”. It helps that the script coupled with Holland’s expert portrayal manage to create a compelling and complex character that develops and grows through out the film.

spider-man-homecoming-trailer-11

The few problems I have with the film come down to two things, story and direction. First off the direction by Jon Watts struggles to showcases the film’s action scenes, often making them less visually interesting than they should be.  Secondly as with most Marvel movies this film feels a bit too filled with ideas, and it’s need to touch on a variety of different point hurts it overall. It also leads to some characters getting used less than they deserve, the aforementioned Donald Glover as Aaron Davis and especially Marisa Tomei as Aunt May. Aging her down, the film imagines Aunt May as more of a single mother, an idea that sadly goes mostly unused. The romance between Peter and cool girl Liz (Laura Harrier) also could have used more time together, especially with the pivotal role it plays in the back half of the film.

What the story lacks at times in character ideas it more than makes up for with world building. We get small glimpses at the much larger Marvel world that make it seem so much richer. Vulture gets started on his life of crime due to a new government department that collects and disposes of waste and debris caused by superhero activity, we see small PSAs in Peter’s school starring Captain America, and in universe events are mentioned with one teacher referring to Cap as a “war criminal”. This real world feel also extends to Peter’s Queens, a place the film treats like a real place complete with bodegas, grumpy neighbors, trains, and people who argue about where to get the best sandwich. While the characters in the Marvel universe are great, the same can’t be said for the worlds the create, often feeling just like backdrops instead of real places. In contrast this Queens feels lived in, feels real, and unlike many a Marvel movie doesn’t feel like the background setting to an inevitable big fight.

spider-man-homecoming-trailer-header

In the end that’s what sets this movie apart from the rest of the Marvel canon. It feels smaller, more lived in, and in doing so provides a breath of fresh air. It’s funny without feeling forced. Holland in the main role creates a someone who feels equally believable as both Spider-Man and Peter Parker, and refreshingly just loves being a hero. The villain is compelling while also being genuinely threatening. The film manages its light-hearted tone while being able to deal with serious moments and never becoming a pure comedy. There are some problems but in the end the film gives you so much to enjoy that it becomes hard to care about the problems it has. In Spider-Man: Homecoming something truly unique in the Marvel universe has been created, characters and a world worth following and exploring.

Rating: 8.5/10

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

Directed by Jon Watts

Starring: Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Jon Favreau, Zendaya, Donald Glover, Tyne Daly, Marisa Tomei, and Robert Downey Jr.

Rated PG-13

 

TV Review: GLOW Season 1

netflix-glow-989200-1280x0

At one point during the penultimate episode of the first season of GLOW, Netflix’s new show from creators Carly Mensch and Liz Flahive, a character states about wrestling that they’ve “come close to getting what all the fuss is about”. That’s how I felt throughout the shows strong freshman effort. I don’t watch wrestling, I don’t know much about wrestling, and I don’t think I’ll ever be a wrestling fan. It’s not because I dislike wrestling, it’s just not something that holds much interest for me. But when the wrestling truly begins in earnest in GLOW it is genuinely captivating and exciting. Mensch and Flahive, along with executive producer Jenji Kohan create wrestling scenes that manage to be funny while also informing character and advancing the plot. It’s just a shame that it takes so long to get to them.

GLOW the TV show is loosely based on real-life Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, a women’s professional wrestling league begun in 1986 and lasting in some form or another until the present day. It begins with struggling actress Ruth Wilder (Allison Brie) receiving an invitation to audition in 1985 for an all women wrestling show. Directed by Sam Sylvia (Marc Maron), a sleazy former exploitation film director and produced by Sebastian “Bash” Howard (Chris Lowell), a trust fund kid paying for the league with his parents money, the fictional GLOW gathers together a bunch of misfits and follows them as they struggle to launch their wrestling league.

If a group of misfits try to do something unique and struggle to overcome outside barriers while also learning to accept the others in the group sounds like a bit of a sports film cliche, that’s because it is. However, GLOW uses this setup as a springboard to showcase a variety of captivating and compelling supporting characters. Characters such as Sheila “the She-Wolf” (Gayle Rankin) who always appears dressed as well, a she-wolf, or Carmen “Machu Picchu” Wade (Britney Young) who simply wants to follow in her wrestling family’s foot steps feel like they have real reasons to want to wrestle, to fit in somewhere. Maron hilariously steals every scene he’s in, and Lowell adds depth to a someone that could have been a stock rich kid character. It’s a real joy to watch these actors play off of each other and this interaction provides many of the shows plentiful laughs. When GLOW wants to be funny, it can be really funny.

GLOW_108_01152R

It is when GLOW wants to be more dramatic that it can grind to a halt. Chief among these is the shows most annoying subplot, the fallout between Ruth and her best friend Debbie Eagan (Betty Gilpin) after Ruth has a brief affair with Debbie’s husband Mark (Rich Sommer). Debbie, a former soap drama actress, eventually joins GLOW as it’s lead wrestler and main draw while also attempting to reconnect with her estranged husband. While Gilpin’s performance as Debbie is great, managing to be both funny and heartfelt, the scenes devoted to her attempting to save her marriage feel like something that has been done a million times before.

That is the one main problem with GLOW, that the dramatic beats of the story aren’t anything new. The league will need money, certain people will have a falling out, friendships will need to be mended, and at the last minute someone will bail them out and they will succeed against the odds, learning something about themselves through wrestling. It’s something that’s been done before. These characters are so good it does them a disservice to put them into cliched dramatic moments. It also takes time away from one of the shows real strengths, watching these characters behind the scenes of creating a wrestling show. We don’t see much them learning to wrestle until episode 5, and there isn’t a training montage until episode 7 which is also when the first real wrestling event occurs. The scenes of them learning to wrestle and wrestling in front of a crowd are such a joy that you wonder why it took them so long to get there.

That isn’t to say to that every dramatic moment the show has is bad. A late season abortion story line manages to be both funny and grounded, it feels in character and never become preachy. Another solid dramatic moment is when a character reveals that she is Sam’s daughter, a move which reveals new things about both of them and creates a new interesting character dynamic that can be interestingly explored in a future season. Even the more dramatic interactions between Ruth and Debbie can be good, with both Gilpin and Brie showcasing real dramatic skills that make you feel and empathize with both of them.

glow-101-00580r-1491497139691_1280w

But where GLOW really shines is when it devotes its talented actors and strong characters to wrestling and comedy. While never treating the act of wrestling itself as a joke it creates situations within the ring that manage to be very funny with one notable moment being a match involving KKK members and a welfare queen. This is also one of the moments that touches upon the ability of wrestling to perpetuate negative stereotypes by showcasing them, an interesting thread that is hopefully expanded upon in further seasons. GLOW also leans into it’s 1980’s setting, never becoming a parody of the 80’s, but mining it for some really funny jokes such as a house party a drug toting robot butler.

When GLOW is firing on all cylinders it is a genuinely great show that can bring a smile to your face and make you laugh while also making you wish you could spend more time with its characters. When it’s off it can feel like a prequel to a much better show that appears right around the corner, where it isn’t bogged down by cliched dramatic beats. Luckily for us, GLOW is firing on all cylinders far, far more often than not. GLOW season 1 may be uneven at times but it creates compelling characters, memorable scenes, big laughs, and ensures that you’ll want to get back in the ring for season 2.

Rating: 8/10

GLOW Season 1 (Netflix, 2017)

Starring:  Alison Brie, Betty Gilpin, Sydelle Noel, Britney Young and Marc Maron.

Rated TV-MA

Film Review: Excalibur

Excalibur 1

Excalibur is the type of movie where all the men wear suits of armor or robes and all the women wear nuns habits or shear dresses. Excalibur is the type of movie where every battle scene takes place in either mud or at night. Excalibur is the type of movie where things just sort of happen. Excalibur is a movie where almost every shot is bathed in green light. Excalibur is the only good King Arthur movie. Excalibur, based on the 15th century retelling of the Arthur legend “Le Morte d’Arthur” by Thomas Mallory, is directed, produced, and co-written by John Boorman. In it Boorman, director of famed films such as Deliverance and Point Blank, tells an epic story covering the fall of Uther Pendragon and the life of his son King Arthur.

The film begins with the wizard Merlin (Nicol Wiliamson) bestowing the eponymous sword to King Uther Pendragon (Gabriel Byrne) after the latter secures an truce with the Duke of Cornwall. The truce is soon broken after due to Pendragon’s coveting of the Duke’s wife. Pendragon convinces Merlin to cast a spell allowing him to enter the castle while the Duke is away and while magically transformed to resemble the Duke beds the Duke’s wife. After the Duke is killed and Pendragon conquers his lands the Duke’s wife gives birth to a son who is claimed by Merlin as compensation for his aid of Pendragon. Later Pendragon is killed searching for Merlin and his son but before dying manages to thrust Excalibur into a stone where it will remain until the true king pulls it out. All of this happens in the first half hour of the film.

After this we are introduced to a teenage Arthur, played through his entire life span by Nigel Terry, who while at a tournament squiring for a knight pulls Excalibur from the stone and is hailed by some to be the new king. From here we follow the traditional Arthurian legends, albeit streamlined for film, pretty closely as Arthur establishes himself as the true king, recruits his knights and creates the famous round table. We see as Arthur deals with the affair between his wife Guinevere (Cherie Lunghi) and Lancelot (Nicholas Clay), the threat to the kingdom by Morgana Le Fay (Helen Mirren) and Prince Mordred (Robert Addie), and the search by his knights for the Holy Grail. As you can see Boorman has recruited a team of heavy hitters to make this film, and that’s not even counting Patrick Stewart, Ciará Hinds, and Liam Neeson as some of Arthur’s knights.

944959cbef541805c51e35a832339e49

All of this is a lot of story to cram into a two and a half hour film, and doing so leaves precious little time for characterization. While Terry does a solid job of expressing the change in Arthur from his unsure teenage years through his confident middle-age and finally to the world weary tired old-age, the other actors are given little to work with character wise. Events seem to simply occur because the story says it should, events that change the dynamic between characters such as the affair between Guinevere and Lancelot receive no foreshadowing or explanation. Ultimately, Boorman seems more interested in story rather than character and the film at times seems more like it is following a collection of moments than characters. The amount of story that Boorman wants to put into this film makes things happen quickly and never allows the story to breathe or for emotional moments to get the gravity they deserve. Perhaps it would have been better had Boorman focused on one area of the Arthurian legend instead of attempting to cover the whole thing.

For all it’s failings there is a lot that is done well. The movie looks incredible, the sets feel huge and create a moody atmosphere while the stunning costumes create memorable images on screen, most notably Prince Mordred’s all gold armor. Boorman does a beautiful job of manipulating light to demonstrate the tone of the scene and to amplify the way characters are feeling. The deliberately mythological tone of the film gives a dreamlike feel and the world it exists in feels fully fleshed out. The all-star cast do an incredible job in their roles even if occasionally they are given clunky dialogue. The shadows and fog present in battle scenes serve to create striking imagery and ground the often fantastical film by creating an ugly and dirty contrast to the idyllic images of the Camelot. Boorman clearly has a love for the source material and creates a film that does the epic nature of the Arthurian legend justice.

large_excalibur_blu-ray_10

Excalibur isn’t a perfect film, far from it, but it does show the power that a good retelling of the Arthurian legend has. In the hands of a strong director such as Boorman the story has the ability to become truly epic in scale and tone. Yes there are problems, heavy handed symbolism, a bloated story, and poor characterization but the beauty of the film push those problems to the back of your mind. Every few years we get a new King Arthur movie and they would do well to learn a few things from the successes and failures of Excalibur.  In Excalibur Boorman has created a flawed film that demonstrates why King Arthur still captures the imagination even after all this time.

Rating: 7/10

Excalibur (1981)

Directed by John Boorman

Starring:  Nigel Terry, Helen Mirren, Nicholas Clay, Cherie Lunghi, Paul Geoffrey, Nicol Williamson, and Gabriel Byrne.

Rated R