Friday, January 29, 2016

Period Drama Month: Wolf Hall, The Last Kingdom, Mr Selfridge

Wolf Hall (2015 Miniseries - 6 episodes)

Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn are the Marvel superheroes of world history, in that, they get a reboot every couple of years and are utterly done to death. I get that 6 wives, beheadings and a break with the Vatican are a big deal, but the topic has gotten very boring. It needed the masterful touch of Hilary Mantel to rejuvenate it. Mantel's brilliant book of the same title tells the story of that tumultuous time in England through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, a merchant who rose through the ranks to become one of the most powerful men in England... and then promptly lost his head, obviously. If you've read/watched A Man for All Seasons, then you might recognise Cromwell as the greasy evil man who manufactures evidence against the noble Sir Thomas More. Mantel does not shy away from Cromwell's ruthlessness but gives him so much nuance.

The miniseries does a fabulous job of bringing Mantel's book to life; it is a thoughtful and well-scripted drama with plenty of court intrigue and illicit sex-having to satisfy the historical fiction aficionado. Mark Rylance as Cromwell and Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn were especially good. My only complaint is that, it drags at certain points and some of the bearded people can get indistinguishable.

The Last Kingdom (2015 Season 1 - 8 episodes)

Now here's a more interesting time from British history: when the country was little more than a bunch of little swamps and mud fortresses and the Viking galleys struck fear in everyone's hearts! Set during the reign of King Alfred the Great, this show is firmly in Outlander/ Game of Thrones category, minus dragons and time travel.

Uhtred Ragnarson, played by Alexander Dreymon is a Saxon boy taken by the Danes and brought up as a warrior. He's a fantastic protagonist, especially in the looks department. Mostly in the looks department actually. He is tall and broad-shouldered, with a twinkle in his eye and moves with great assuredness. 

There's plenty to criticise about the show: the dialogue is middling and character development is patchy. For example, they make a big deal about how King Alfred is the Tyrion Lannister of England and has spies everywhere, but his handling of everything from episodes 4-7 was terrible and utterly out of character! Brida who plays Uhtred's love interest starts off as a complex character-- wise among the Danes, totally clueless among the Saxons and her chemistry with Uhtred was great. Around episode 5 they don't know what to do with her so they make her weird and utterly waste her.  What.

But I loved it. The plot is well paced and it is dramatic, sexy and funny. Also, did I mention that Uhtred is very very handsome.

Mr Selfridge (2013-14 Seasons 1 and 2 - 20 episodes)

Mr Selfridge isn't a proper period drama with courts and kings and swords; it is more in the Mad Men genre. It's the story of the eponymous Harry Selfridge, a bombastic American who showed Londoners a thing or two about business by opening one of the most successful department stores in the early 1900s.  

The most intriguing thing about the show is that the title character is the plot device while the most interesting characters are transforming themselves and have beautiful, emotional moments of character development around him. He isn't even the moral centre of the show. That's not to say that he isn't portrayed as a force of nature but it's just that he's the most boring part of the show. The best episode was when he was in a coma and everybody else comes together to do wonderful things. 

It is the soap opera-iest of all the shows mentioned in this post. There are also the pretty clothes and the "Ms Towler's dazzling window display that is unveiled at the climax" sort of moments but it is perfectly acceptable if you need a period drama fix (the first two seasons are on Netflix).

Friday, January 8, 2016

This Pop-Cultural Week: A new Tarantino, a new Kaufman, and some classic Greek comedy


This first week of the new year allowed me to catch up on some promising titles I'd been hoarding since December, leading to a much higher movie-per-week average than usual. These included the latest from three of the most talented individuals in Hollywood and one spectacular debut feature.

The Hateful Eight

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"The 8th film by Quentin Tarantino" we are helpfully told at the outset. What does one an audacious director do when the promise of unpredictability itself becomes a given as far as he is concerned? For QT, it means taking up the challenge, lock, stock and sixteen smoking barrels, giving us his most theatrical production yet. I mean this quite literally - this is a movie bound largely to two sets, a stagecoach and a bar. The confined setting simply allows Tarantino to spin out even more whip-smart dialogue as eight dastardly villains prepare to face off across one snowy evening. If the increasingly taut sequences don't approach the terrifying power of Inglorious Basterds' opening interrogation, there is still more bloody and invigorating entertainment to be had here than pretty much anything Hollywood put out last year. 

Rating: 4/5


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Charlie Kaufman's latest is also surprisingly stage-bound and linear - though, as this increasingly complex stop-motion animated feature makes clear, there is no way it could have worked outside of its particular medium. Our protagonist, a consumer-relations guru spending a night at a hotel, has a peculiar problem. Everyone's voice sounds the same to him. His wife, son, the hotel attendant, all bleed into an unsettling monotone that typifies the man's increasing alienation. Until that is, he hears a woman's voice down the hallway that finally sounds distinct, and launches in single minded pursuit of her. Is this true love? Is it a manic delusion? Coming from the creator of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, you know the likely answer is option c): both, and so much more.  The movie didn't work for me on the level of his other achievements - the animation style, while so essential to the story, distanced me from the characters and there are definite pacing issues even though  it clocks in at a slim 90 minutes. Still, this is Kaufman continuing to be ambitiously original and that, in and of itself is something worth celebrating. 

Rating: 3/5

Crimson Peak

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Guillermo Del Toro, along with Baz Luhrman, is pretty much the Sanjay Leela Bhansali of Hollywood. I mean this in the best way possible, keeping in mind Del Toro's love of dramatic excess and sumptuous detailing of time and place. The trend continues in this movie, but the excess here can come off as a bit ... excessive. This is framed as a horror story ("Ghosts are real" is the first line of the movie), which position it occupies alongside its clear identification as a Victorian romance. The problem is that neither element is developed adequately. The scares just don't exist, and the romance elements are strangely half-baked, not helped by a lack of chemistry between the otherwise very capable Mia Wasikowska and Tom Hiddleston. Without spoiling much, there is plot purpose to explain the lack of scares, but it doesn't quite cut it. Also not helping is the cacophonous score - again, explained away, but if everything is backgrounded by a scoring crescendo then no moment really lands. And yet, I couldn't look away from this movie, because what Del Toro does with the art direction is nothing short of remarkable. Allerdale Hall where much of the movie is set is more of a character than its human leads, its arches knotted with insidious intent, its floors leaching blood, its walls whispering. Even the early sequences set in less forbidding territory are rendered in beautiful detail. As for Mia Wasikowska's stunning gowns - never has running for your life looked so elegant, with every anguished pace matched by a magnificent billow of fabric.

Rating: 2.5/5 


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Two trans-female sex workers light up the streets of Los Angeles in this raucously funny and deeply moving story. There's a gimmick at play - this movie is shot entirely on iPhone video with augmentation - but it doesn't distract from the old school filmmaking skills at display here. Sean S. Baker does some excellent work by allowing the screwball chaos to heighten frenetically, and then defusing moments with unexpected grace notes. He's aided by two incredible performances from transgender actresses Kiki Rodrigues and Mya Taylor, who never allow the proceedings to devolve into lazy stereotype.

Rating: 4/5

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This looks to be frontrunner for the Oscar this year, and as with most frontrunners, is a solid, unexceptional movie. A journalism procedural, 

detailing the Boston Globe's investigation of child sexual abuse in the early 2000s, it's a clear eyed and refreshingly unsentimental take on a horrifying issue. There are no easy targets either: as the team discovers, it might take a single man to carry out the abuse, but it takes a larger system to silence and cover it up. The ultimate chain of complicity runs deeper than one might expect. Good performances, restrained direction, certainly not the best movie of the year, but when was the last time the Oscars were about that?

Rating: 3/5


Lysistrata - Aristophanes

I finally got around to reading Aristophanes' Lysistrata. My only experience with him before this has been through Plato's ventriloquism in the Symposium. There, the character of Aristophanes gives us an unforgettable articulation of the origin of love (strikingly evoked by this song from Hedwig and the Angry Inch). In this play though, Aristophanes is concerned more about sex. Sex as pleasure,  sex as a medium of social exchange, sex as power, and ultimately, sex as revolution. The premise is delicious: the women of Athens, led by the titular Lysistrata, decide to deny their husbands sex until they lay down their weapons and end an existing war that ravages the city. The version I read was a modern translation by Douglas Parker, which allows for delights like the following  articulation of Lysistrata's vow:

"I will withhold all rights of access or entrance/ From every husband, lover or casual acquaintance/ Who moves in my direction in erection..."

You get the hint. Those erections stand particularly, er, tall in the blisteringly funny denouncement where the men gather in sexual frustration and their inability to cloak it, brought to their knees by the women. I was surprised at the play's giddily feminist delights, given the overwhelming silence or outright derision that women face in the other contemporaneous Greek texts that I've come across. Here, though, spindling is a metaphor for governance and budgeting the household is prefatory to budgeting the economy. No metaphors for what I thought of the play - this is pure pleasure.

Rating: In as much as one can rate a classic on anything resembling objectivity - 4.5/5

Thursday, January 7, 2016

RWB's Back With a List of Great Shows to Catch on Netflix

2016: the year RWB returns with a bang and Netflix comes to India! Rejoice, everyone except paid VPN services! I've got a list of fabulous shows on Netflix that will almost definitely kill your desire to leave the house this year.

Netflix Original Shows:
Netflix Original hit the ground running with some of the best television on TV. For all those who HAVEN'T just kept their US/UK Netflix accounts and haven't already watched all of Netflix's original programming on "other" sites, here's a few to get you started!

1. Master of None: This is by far the best comedy show of 2015 (I feel like the word "sitcom" no longer applies to most shows). Aziz Ansari plays an Indian-American actor in New York navigating through the vagaries of relationships, career and his family's immigrant history. You might think you know what to expect if you've watched Ansari's standup, and yes, there are a few scenes from his old material that make it in here but they are meatier and fit well into the narrative of the show. Think Woody Allen's older movies set in the 21st century.

2. Jessica Jones and Daredevil: These two are kind of companion shows so I'm putting them together. Marvel's lesser known superheroes get the obligatory gritty treatment, but completely OWN it.  Jessica Jones is a superhero version of Veronica Mars, complete with the noir PI office and painful past. Matt Murdoch is an idealist lawyer by day and beats up bad guys at night. There is a bit of self-consciousness about the kitschy superhero costumes, but both of them make it work. And better yet, we meet two of the best Big Bads on television: Kilgrave and the Kingpin. Kilgrave especially is played to perfection by David Tennant. Watch Daredevil first to ease you into the murky world of Hell's Kitchen and then feel very pleased with yourself when you spot all the easter eggs in Jessica Jones.

3. Orange is the New Black: This was probably the breakout hit from the Netflix stable and you'll see why when you watch it. Piper Chapman is a prissy, rich, white woman who ends up in prison for a past indiscretion. From her perspective we meet a fantastic group of women with richly drawn histories and motives. By season 3, Piper-the-outsider's role is reduced and OITNB truly becomes an ensemble show. It's ostensibly a comedy show but I've cried more than a few times.

4. Better Call Saul: My favourite Netflix show! A spinoff from the masterful Breaking Bad, Bob Odenkirk plays Saul Goodman, a conman trying to go straight with a law degree and a hole-in-the-wall office space. It's funny, it's sad, it's dark and everything else you want from a television show.

Non-Original Shows on Netflix
While most Netflix originals are fantastic, here are a few non-Netflix shows to watch while waiting for the new seasons from your favourite shows. These are shows I'd probably not have watched if they weren't on Netflix:

1. Call the Midwife: I'm a big fan of the period drama and this one is particularly excellent. Set in post World War II London, just after the introduction of the National Health Services, a naive young midwife, Jenny Lee sets up shop at a hospital in the dreadfully poor East End. She's confronted by crushing poverty and squalor and joy in unexpected places. And also makes a powerful case for universal healthcare and reproductive rights!  Supported by a fabulous cast that include Miranda Hart and Jenny Agutter, expect to sob and laugh and learn loads of uncomfortable stuff about childbirth.

2. North and South: This one's an oldie but a goodie. If you liked the Colin Firth-starring Pride and Prejudice, expect to love this miniseries. Set in grimy, industrial era-y Manchester, a beautiful woman adn a very handsome rich man (Richard Armitage of Thorin Oakenshield fame!) fall in love (sort of) but discover that they're on opposite sides of the labour rights movements (but only kind of). I'm not doing a very good job of selling it, but it's REALLY good.

3. Broadchurch: Yeah so, there is going to be a lot of British television on this list. David Tennant plays a sad broken detective in a quiet little holiday town on the Jurassic Coast. The town is ripped apart by the murder of an 11 year old boy and suddenly, everyone's a suspect and everybody saw their neighbour sneaking off somewhere at 1 am. Broadchurch is more than just a whodunnit-- it's about loss and loneliness and how hard it can be to do the right thing.

4. Brooklyn Nine-Nine: This one is a really funny if slightly typical sitcom. Set at the 99th precinct, it features a motley group of cops and is surprisingly good! A lot of the humour is apt (including a great unselfconscious Die Hard parody) and avoids many sitcom pitfalls. It is the perfect show for post-work-dont-want-to-leave-the-couch-procrastination.

5. Orphan Black: This is one of those shows that you've probably heard of but somehow haven't gotten around to watching. Well, now you've got Netflix! Tatiana Maslany plays Sarah Manning, a hardbitten woman who discovers that she has 10 or more clones (all played by Maslany of course). Manning and the clones must uncover their dark past while escaping from shadowy corporate thugs who don't want them spilling any beans. A gripping show (with a somewhat silly season 2 "reveal" but still watchable) but really, it's all about Maslany. She manages to imbue every clone with a singular personality, so much so that you entirely forget that they're all played by one person.

6. Life on Mars: This is a clever little show with a gimmick that ends up playing very well! DCI Sam Tyler is an intelligent and thorough police officer who wakes up in the '70s after a road accident. Now he's got to find murderers with the help of an incredibly inefficient and corrupt set of colleagues, all without any forensics. You'd think that they would run out of stuff to mock about the '70s after the first two episodes, but the show becomes a lot more than a parody, as Sam struggles to tell if he's travelled back in time or is just dreaming it all up.

7. A Young Doctor's Notebook: This miniseries should only be watched on a gloomy evening, with a moscow mule or fifteen at hand. An adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov's short story collection, Jon Hamm and Daniel Radcliffe play the old and young versions of a country doctor sent off to practise medicine in a small village hospital somewhere in the middle of nowhere in Russia. The older doctor reflects on his past, as though he can try and stop himself from treading in steps that will inevitably lead to his downfall. Depressing, obviously