Top 10 TV Shows of 2017

Please don’t ask about Game of Thrones or, Lord help us, House of Cards (is anyone else bored with beautifully shot scenes of dull people killing each other?). Below are the 10 best shows in what’s been a terrific year, mostly thanks to Margaret Atwood. I’ve yet to be convinced that television is better than film, as many wise people continue to argue. But it’s certainly much better for comedy, so much so that I feel a little embarrassed for Hollywood. Comedies hold their own very well against serious dramas on the small screen(s), I feel, and my list reflects that. The same can’t currently be said for film.

One caveat for my list: I haven’t watched Twin Peaks yet; haven’t had time to even watch the original. As a huge David Lynch fan, I acknowledge that this makes my list even less authoritative than it usually is. Never mind; these were my outstanding experiences of the year:


1) The Handmaid’s Tale

So disturbing that it took months to shake, this appalling vision of a future in which women are harvested for their wombs, based on Margaret Atwood’s sci-fi novel, has of course already been signalled as a Trump-era classic, summing up the pessimistic feelings of liberals the world over. But in the end, I’ll remember it more for the scenes of small moral triumph: the spitting out of a cookie that’s been patronisingly offered by a superior, driving a car into law enforcers, riding on top during sex, most significantly the dropping of a stone (those who’ve seen the show will understand). Equally, after the years have (hopefully) erased some of the damage that Trump has wrecked, I hope that we’ll remember our own small moments of moral triumph. In particular the Women’s Marches and ‘Me Too’ movement, which proved that millions of people refuse to put up with repressive bullshit. So yes, The Handmaid’s Tale will always be a troubled reflection of the times in which it was made. But it’s also an achingly felt, militantly proud manual in how to resist patriarchal fascism.


2) Alias Grace

The great Margaret Atwood again. This adaptation of her book about a real life 19th century murder case doesn’t hit as hard as The Handmaid’s Tale, because it’s not as cinematic, but it remains an engrossing success. Adapted by the great Sarah Polley (director of Take This Waltz and Stories We Tell – two of the best films of the decade), it continues her enduring fascination with how we construct narrative, wittingly and unwittingly, in order to obfuscate truth. The story is an endless riddle, in which a prisoner, Grace, weaves her spell on various men and relates a past in which she may or may not have been a murderer’s accomplice. Did she do anything criminal? If you expect tidy answers, look elsewhere. But if you’re looking for an exceptional performance to captivate you for 6 episodes then look no further than the great Sarah Gadon, whose electrifying eyes pierce the screen and dare you to work out whether her character’s play-acting or not. Grace could be a femme fatale and an abhorrent, deliberate murderer. She could be the victim of masculine abuse, and accidentally complicit in terrible crimes. Or she could just be psychotic. Perhaps, as this series brilliantly suggests, she could be all three. So it doesn’t follow a neat feminist arc – this is real life, or at least an approximation of it, which means it’s at once more disturbing and complicated.


3) The Vietnam War

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s 18 hour documentary, 10 years in the making and with a budget of $30 million, is so comprehensive it makes previous efforts to document the Vietnam war look facile. Many classic fictional films have been made about the conflict. But I would sacrifice Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter for just one episode of this. The series looks set to become a definitive document, like Shoah managed with the Holocaust, through the simple yet essential virtue of interviewing the widest array of people involved: American troops, the NVA, Viet Cong, ARVN, Vietnamese civilians, American protesters, and journalists all get a say. Their voices merge into a complex and frightening portrait of a conflict that was prolonged through a series of catastrophic choices – on many sides. The episode about the Tet Offensive is harrowing beyond belief. It’s as convincing an example of man’s irredeemable nature as The Act of Killing and indeed Shoah before it. Still, the series as a whole manages to conclude, painfully and incompletely, as a work of humanism.


4) Girls

Lena Dunham achieves a rarity for a comedy series, hell for any series: a last season that’s the show’s best. The ensemble cast have never been sharper comedically or more unsettingly antipathetic towards each other – their lack of chemistry was always the point. Adam Driver continues to steal every scene he’s in (the show never was just about Girls). And in its final episode, the show’s ever-frank depiction of the female body helped to set up the most honest depiction of the difficulties of early motherhood that this young male has ever seen. What a finale.


5) Love

As sensitive a look at the title’s emotion as any I’ve come across this year. The longform series works magic for Judd Apatow’s trademark scenes of long, mindless, sexually frank chatter. And the central characters are convincingly damaged goods. They cause pain to themselves and each other without ever (completely) losing a kind viewer’s sympathy. It’s a triumph that never insults the audience’s intelligence… until the last episode, sadly, when some of the plot’s sillier machinations dictate a suspension of disbelief that renders its central lovers shallow at a crucial juncture in their relationship. Otherwise perfect.


6) Master of None

Aziz Ansari’s brainchild takes the ‘will they won’t they’ dynamic of countless sitcoms to new heights in a one hour penultimate episode special. The chemistry between Ansari and his Italian belle, Alessandra Mastronardi, reaches new peaks – she’s engaged, and they recoil from acting on their impulses. I won’t ruin what happens for you: you must see it for yourself. Rest assured, it’s a great reminder that cliched plot elements can be made to feel fresh again through winning performances and a refreshing lack of irony.


7) The Deuce

Just like Francis Ford Coppola, David Simon knows that the story of American capitalism is the story of America, and also the story of America’s deeply ingrained failings. But also like Coppola, he knows that the illegal trades of the country form a less alienating way of telling that story (people can distance themselves from mafiosi thugs), so he’s moved on from the drug slinging and political corruption of The Wire to depict ’70s prostitution and the rise of the porn industry. As a writer, he remains a bit too fascinated by tough men acting tough. But he redeems himself with an interest in tough women acting tough, even, contradictorily, as they’re promoting their own abuse in the sex trade. Strangely (and perhaps perversely), it’s a lot more fun than The Wire, despite its dark subject matter: it has a pulpy flow to it, and lively performances from Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Franco keep spirits high. But it’s not quite as deep.


8) The Crown

You don’t have to be a royalist to enjoy this show any more than you have to sympathise with real-life thugs to enjoy The Sopranos. Because The Crown is another excellent family drama – the best on TV right now, I’m convinced. Elizabeth and Philip’s relationship wouldn’t be any more interesting than millions of others were it not for the fact that, in her majesty’s words, they can never get divorced because of the awkward matter of their peculiar social standing. And it is peculiar; these are flesh-and-blood human beings like the rest of us, yet by birth they are deemed ‘superior’. One of the many things this series highlights so well is just how odd it is that we romanticise and hold to a different level of scrutiny these figures who, beyond their fabulous wealth, ultimately bathe in the same water as the rest of us. Their marital and interpersonal problems are as common as muck – infidelity being the key, as is so often the case. However, the solutions that they’re required to formulate are, by necessity, anything but normal. Such is the fascination of this show, heightened by the intensity of Claire Foy and Matt Smith in the melodramatic lead roles, and the gorgeous period design, which makes the old-fashioned world feel so vibrant and real.


9) Blue Planet II

Oceans cover over 97% of our amazing planet, so really you have no excuse not to spend 7 hours of your life watching this spectacular achievement.


10) The Trip to Spain

More of the same, of course. Which is no bad thing. Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan could pretty much travel anywhere, they could keep talking ad infinitum, and I’d still be hanging onto their every Michael Caine-inflected word.


Reviews Roundup: Bridget Jones’s Baby; Angel Olsen, Against Me!


Bridget Jones’s Baby
Bridget-Jones-baby-poster.jpgWho’d have thought it? This is not only better than Edge of Reason (hardly a challenge), but also the original Diary itself. The reason to watch has always been Renée Zellweger, and she’s on fine form again here: a truly bizarre casting choice originally, she has made the role entirely her own, despite that overtly artificial accent. Bridget was always endearing because of her flaws, not in spite of them, and so Zellweger’s put-on British mannerisms strangely made the character all the more loveable, an obvious failing to place alongside her minor obesity, accident-prone nature, and terribly self-conscious public speaking. Like Mr. Darcy, we love her just the way she is.

A dozen years have passed since the last movie and we begin with Bridget turning 43. She is still single, so we get the requisite scene of her singing along to ‘All By Myself’. But then, in the first sign that this film will be a bit different, she turns it off and chooses to jump around to ‘Jump Around’ instead. Throughout the film there’s a distinct lightening up in tone this time around, a party atmosphere that dispels the middle-class singleton woes which occasionally bogged down the first two instalments.

So Bridget goes to a music festival, dances to ‘Gangnam Style’ at a christening, and has glorious one-night stands following both events. Even after she becomes pregnant, due to the failure of some dodgy eco condoms, the lightness of tone remains – we see very little of the ailments that carrying another human being inside of you might entail. The running time is better taken up with jokes about the two potential daddies, each one trying to outperform the other in paternal and romantic affection.

They are confidently portrayed, with Patrick Dempsey here replacing Hugh Grant (a sad loss) as Colin Firth’s love rival; he is less caddish and a little more dim, a dating guru who relies on algorithms to explain successful relationships but can’t seem to find one himself. He might not seem like an ideal partner for Bridget but, well, he is a billionaire. And has a ‘big puppet’. So can he replace the reliable, yet regrettably married, Mr. Darcy in her affections? Colin Firth has long been the weak link in this saga, too comfortable to fall back on his stereotypical casting as… Mr. Darcy, the reserved yet sensitive aristocrat with a heart of gold. Here, however, he gets more of a chance to shine, having to prove his comedy chops in scenes with a heavily pregnant Bridget to manhandle, and he has a quieter, subtler romantic rivalry that, because the other fellow is a decent chap, can’t come to fisticuffs in quite the same way as it used to do with Grant.

The film’s a hoot really, and I heartily recommend it even to those who haven’t seen the first two – the gags are strong enough and the performances accomplished enough that no prior knowledge of Bridget’s history is required. I love that the character’s grown up and changed over the years, but only a little, because the filmmakers well know perennial infantilism is a part of her charm. I love the digs at hipster culture (and their beards). Love the strength of the supporting cast, especially the ever-wonderful Jim Broadbent and Emma Thompson, both of whom are… well, wonderful. There’s so much to love, placing it safely up there with Deadpool, Love & Friendship, and Ghostbusters in the premier league of the most entertaining comedies of the year.




My Woman – Angel Olsen

angel-olsen-my-woman.jpgThe album format is to Angel Olsen what the diary is to Bridget Jones: a chance to unmitigatedly unspool her relationship and life problems. With bad poetry and minus the comedy. I’ve tried to engage with her melancholic vision on numerous occasions, but unlike Leonard Cohen, with whom she is frequently compared, I can’t detect any warmth, humour or humanity in her writing, which makes her morbid tours of despair hard to care much about. If she doesn’t care about other people, why should we care about her? The music doesn’t help, with Burn Your Fire for No Witness eschewing melody and songcraft in favour of limp acoustic folk constructions. My Woman is certainly an improvement on that front: the first half of the album especially has a little more fire to witness – by which I guess I mean drums and electric guitar. The synth soundscapes on ‘Intern’ conjure up a one-woman Joy Division/New Order atmosphere, a welcome pastiche that raises a smile. ‘Shut Up Kiss Me’ and ‘Give it Up’ actually rock a little. Her vocals are pretty compelling on the sneering ‘Not Gonna Kill You’. But then she settles into default mode and on the album’s second half, in which the blossoming relationship she has begun to describe falls apart, the music recoils into itself in an introverted move that reflects Angel Olsen’s nature. Nothing wrong with being introverted, of course, and occasionally it brings out some nice touches: I like the quiet, countryish slide guitar on ‘Woman’, for instance. But I find that the lack of empathy, the ironic disregard for romanticism, and her repressed vocal performance makes the navel-gazing unbearably claustrophobic at times, a little repetitive and more than a little tedious.

This is a competitive time for indie singer-songwriters, with some brilliant young talents emerging: Courtney Barnett, Kate Tempest, Grimes, Withered Hand, and Car Seat Headrest in particular spring to mind, and in order to compete with them Angel Olsen is going to have to considerably up her game. I insist that I’m not being wilfully perverse in suggesting that Bridget Jones can tell us more about modern romance and self-examination than Angel Olsen. At this moment in time, I sincerely believe it.



Shape Shift with Me – Against Me!

against-me-shape-shift.jpgUnlike either of the above, when Against Me! tackle romance, they can’t help but imbue it with the fiercely political. So a lyric such as ‘Always starts with a gal or a guy at a bar/And ends in a broken heart’, a simple enough sentiment, is immediately followed with ‘To the last cock you suck, to the last cunt you fuck/I’m forever your girl’, throwing in some gender and sexual nuance to challenge lazy pop music stereotypes. Anyone who knows this band should be aware that their lead singer, Laura Jane Grace, came out as a transgender woman in 2012, an act which has informed everything they’ve released since. 2014’s Transgender Dysphoria Blues was heralded as a new direction for punk, rebelling against its macho underpinnings with a testament of her newfound life as a woman, but I found that it was too defeatist in attitude and suffering from emo bullshit lines like ‘Slit your veins wide open’ and ‘Black me out’ as a reaction to the pain caused by her transition. For a truly transgressive statement, try 2007’s New Wave, a flat-out masterpiece that melds the personal and the political with enormous success and contains the first seeds of Laura’s gender doubts: ‘If I could have chosen, I would have been born a woman… I’d grow up to be strong and beautiful like her’.

Well, now she has grown up to become a strong and beautiful woman, and on Shape Shift with Me she displays the first signs of coming to peace with this and her sexuality. The great subject here is not suicide or depression, but the very essence of life: love. Not in any coy or soppy way, but with a sense of possibility that doesn’t preclude short-term flings: ‘Rebecca, kiss me, but let’s not fall in love’ she sings on my favourite cut, one in which she still wants to be hit ‘like a bus’ by the proposed romantic (or is it just sexual?) encounter. Love is an ever-changing emotion of wide-ranging possibilities in Laura’s eyes, and it ultimately involves seeking out multiple partners and inviting them to try and ‘shape shift with me’.

So, like Bridget Jones in the above film, Laura has finally had enough of feeling sorry for herself and is down for some good old-fashioned sex with a side of love. Which I support wholeheartedly, and I find immensely moving considering the dramatic changes that have taken place recently in her life. But although I can see the joy in the words, I can’t hear it in the music, which follows the usual punky pop progressions yet without the same urgency that has helped them to transcend their simplicity in the past. Some of the performances are confused because although the lyrics are largely optimistic, Laura’s vocals can’t help but sound perennially pissed off, undermining and struggling to represent the contentment she seems to have reached in her life. And, worst of all, the downbeat emo tone of previous albums creeps back in at infrequent yet still irritating intervals, most noticeably in ‘Dead Rats’. Nevertheless, it is a step up from the philosophically muddled Transgender Dysphoria Blues, and leaves me with hope that they can recapture the magic of New Wave again some day.


Reviews Roundup: The Get Down; De La Soul, Frank Ocean; God Help the Child


The Get Down

get_down.jpgFor fans of hip-hop, musicals, and Baz Luhrmann, this is a real treat: luckily I’m all three,
so I was down with The Get Down right from the start. The show is set in 1977, two years away from rap’s breakthrough into the mainstream with The Sugarhill Gang’s ‘Rapper’s Delight’, at a time when the genre was being birthed on the streets of the Bronx. Mixing archive footage of the ’hood and his own (and other director’s) extravagantly filmed flights of fancy, Luhrmann tries to have it both ways: to achieve a documentary realism and a magical realism all in one, which is why the overall effect is rather messy. The concept itself is inherently confused – it acknowledges that gang violence and urban poverty were necessary ingredients for the emergence of hip-hop, but the musical moments themselves, when they come, are too studio-bound and clean to thrill in the right way or to reflect this raw reality. Even more confusingly the female protagonist, Mylene, who is trying to make it as a diva, apparently ‘invents’ another genre by splicing gospel and disco (read: religion and sex) together, although quite what this newfound genre and its place in history is The Get Down never quite elucidates – gospel was always a huge element in black music, and the idea that love of God and love of sex could be interrelated was a massive element of Marvin Gaye’s career, for example.

Still, where the show really triumphs is in its knowledge of hip-hop specifically, as it well should seeing as Grandmaster Flash appears as both an onscreen mentor to the male protagonist, Ezekiel, and his crew of wannabe rappers, and an offscreen mentor to Luhrmann and his crew (Flash took the role of Associate Producer). No other film or TV series that I’ve seen on the subject has given quite so much time or respect to the different avenues of hip-hop, which never has been just about rap: breakdance, graffiti, and DJ culture were equally important parts of an all-encompassing anti-establishment movement that would outlast, commercially and artistically, the punk aesthetic that was emerging at around the same time. The hard work and dedication that goes into DJing in particular can’t be denied whilst watching The Get Down, which shows just how tough it can be to succeed even at a street level in such a genre, and should hopefully help to dispel the insidious myth that it is all just about stealing other people’s music and talking over it. There is great artistry involved, immense creativity – and, in this show’s best moments, it captures the sheer adrenaline rush of these creative juices flowing, helping to explain why hip-hop is still a phenomenon inspiring working class kids around the world nearly 40 years later.

Only six episodes in and some interesting characters have emerged, but the central relationship between Ezekiel and Mylene is so far devoid of sexual tension, taking a back seat to the real romance of the show, which is with the music. Various hoodlums and politicians in the supporting cast have yet to distinguish themselves. One of the biggest surprises, though, is Jaden Smith, who gives a winning performance here as graffiti artist Dizzee, hinting at a latent homosexuality sure to be given expression by the burgeoning underground disco scene with which he is destined to become involved. But the truth is that The Get Down is filled with winning performances, which carry the energy of the show even when the writing sags. I look forward to more series, more revelations about the early  years of hip-hop, and much more excitement as we are shown how it explodes into a global phenomenon. You would do well to get down with it too.






And the Anonymous Nobody… – De La Soul

and-the-Anonymous-Nobody-cover.jpgIn the late 80s/early 90s De La Soul established themselves as a viable alternative to the gangsta bullshit peddled by mediocre rappers like Dr. Dre, producing a sequence of classic albums which channelled soul, jazz, and funkadelic samples into a unique vibe they labelled the D.A.I.S.Y. Age. Fuck being hard, they said, we want to be complicated – even if they never tired of dumb skits or danceable beats, which is why Posdnous here describes their music as ‘the right amount of soul with a parallel amount of grit’.

20 years ago I would’ve agreed, but And the Anonymous Nobody… has next to no soul and barely a handful of grit. What has turned them into De La Soulless? The answer might surprise some of the uninitiated to hip-hop: it’s because they’ve rejected sampling in favour of live instrumentation. De La recorded this album in the studio with their friends and assorted musicians, but the jams they produced are timid and largely unfavourable to percussion, which means they meander and lack… well, grit. The group’s great strength was always their unerring ear for killer hooks, even if they were ‘stolen’ from other records, which gelled with their principled positivity and inventive rhymes. Here, though, they can’t deliver the goods because the live musicians just aren’t tight enough – except for on the rare occasions when the band gets down with the funk, ‘Pain’ and ‘Whoodeeni’ being the key examples, they don’t generate any surprise or excitement like the chopped samples used to do. Embarrassing detours into rock-rap are the most painful experiences on this record, with De La channelling the legendary rock star presence of, er, Justin Hawkins. Remember, from The Darkness? But then again even the genuinely great David Byrne can’t work out why he’s there. The overall confusion of direction, and hence the inevitably half-baked raps from De La Soul themselves, makes their boasts of ‘providing comprehensive substance’ and ‘Fuck! I can’t stop dancing!’ almost as ridiculous as anything to have emerged from Kanye’s mouth in the last year. Boasting is only arrogance if it’s false, after all. In which case, this is the first time that De La Soul have displayed any arrogance in their inspired history.




Blonde – Frank Ocean

Buzzkill album of the year, and that’s saying something – Drake’s already released his. No Frank-Ocean-Blond-500x500.jpgjokes, no falsetto, no beats, no hooks: everything that made Ocean a pop sensation has been deleted, and we’re left only with the thing that made him a critical darling: soul-searching moody soundscaping. Which is fine by the critics, of course, many of whom have already proclaimed this a masterpiece. But they’re wrong: Blonde’s determined rejection of Entertainment in favour of Art is a sham with no clue how to back up such a move. If you’re going to plug for soundscaping instead of tunes, really Frank, you’d better make it more engaging than this: the spare instrumentation and lack of drumbeats with hushed, atonal synths and the odd guitar might be deliberate, but that doesn’t make it interesting, especially when self-pity is your primary lyrical concern. Ocean opts for a drugged-out, hazy kind of atmosphere, and he pulls it off, but that mellowness unfortunately brings more attention to the words: with no consummate skill, he lets us know about his nostalgia for lost summer days of childhood innocence (yawn) and the pain of several toxic relationships, plus the marijuana he needs to overcome these memories. After a week of concentrated listening, I began to feel some nostalgia of my own: for the wit and tenderness of his 2011 mixtape debut, Nostalgia, Ultra, which deviously outsmarted samples by Coldplay, Radiohead, and The Eagles (admittedly not such a difficult feat), and for the simple beauty of Channel Orange’s most successful love songs, ‘Thinkin’ ’Bout You’ and ‘Forrest Gump’. It’s a sad state of affairs when the highlight of Blonde turns out to be a guest spot, from Andre 3000 on ‘Solo (Reprise)’, a blitzkrieg attack of such intensity that it begins to stir up feelings of nostalgia all over again, this time for the propulsive brilliance of OutKast. Such a comparison exposes Ocean’s tortured genius act for the shallow shtick that it is, and leaves one with concerns for the immediate future of his career.






God Help the Child – Toni Morrison

It might seem harsh to compare Frank Ocean to Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison, but if god-help-the-child-109661329.jpghe wants to transform himself into a Serious Artist then he really needs to learn from the best. Like Ocean, Morrison’s primary fascination is with the past, about how it affects and haunts the present – so we have a murdered baby returning to its mother’s home in Beloved, or Macon Dead’s flight to the South to rediscover his family roots in Song of Solomon. But unlike Ocean, she elevates the ordinariness of this theme to extraordinary levels through imaginative license (ghosts, mystics, and moments that can only be explained by magic abound in her work) and a recognition of how romanticising the past can have far-reaching, unintentionally disastrous consequences.

Her latest novel, God Help the Child, is a sterling example of this: one of its protagonists, Booker, is struggling to come to terms with the murder of his brother decades ago when he was a child, a brother whom he regards as an ‘angel’. But this image of perfection means that he can’t reconcile himself to the flawed nature of the adults who surround him, those that love him the most. So he ditches his family and girlfriend and chooses to live in isolation, alone but for the memories of his beloved brother. It is only when the girlfriend that he has spurned, Bride, comes to confront him with his selfishness that he starts to realise the absurdity of clinging to such an idealised image of the past – after all, if his brother had had a chance to grow up, he would no longer have been an ‘angel’, for the simple reason that nobody can be; he would have grown up to be shaped by the world into as flawed a human being as everyone else. So Booker begins to unburden himself of that romanticised view of the past, primarily by attempting to rebuild his love affair – whether he manages this I won’t spoil, although it is the attempt that is important, for it demonstrates an intention to live in the present that was not there before.

Morrison is no fool – she knows that acknowledging the past is necessary, and that family and cultural links are important to observe and honour. But she also believes that this should never be done uncritically: by glorifying memories in a one-dimensional way, as Booker does with his ‘angel’ brother, or Frank Ocean does in Blonde. Such is the difference between genius and pretension, and the reason why I would recommend reading this novel over listening to that album any day, even if it’s not as shocking or as powerful as some of her past triumphs.


Reviews Roundup: Orange is the New Black: Season Four; The Neon Demon


Orange is the New Black: Season Four

After a lacklustre third season, OITNB returns with fire in its belly and a renewed sense of medium_orange-is-the-new-black-serienposter-staffel4.jpgpurpose for its fourth season, arguably the best yet. The problem last time around was that there was very little antagonism between the different groups of inmates, which meant that there was very little tension propelling viewers through each of the episodes, and the major storylines were primarily intended for comedic appeal but fell flat (Piper’s used-panty business and Norma’s miracle-working were the key culprits). This time, the writers and producers have clearly listened to the show’s critics, and they use the influx of new inmates and subsequent overcrowding of the prison as a catalyst for greatly intensified action. Moreover, a theme that has always been lurking in the background is thrillingly hauled kicking and screaming to the fore: race relations.

There has always been racial segregation in Litchfield, as Piper was made painfully aware of from the start when she unsuccessfully tried to sit with the black inmates, but in this season outright war breaks out between the different groups: Piper unwittingly starts a gang of neo-Nazis, the Dominicans form a drug cartel, the African-Americans face a tragedy that brings them together in rage, and the prison staff overwhelmingly represent a white male privilege that threatens the peace of the entire institution. These opposing factions confront and antagonise each other across the span of the thirteen episodes, building up to a finale of such explosive proportions that it cannot help but represent our worst fears about the American dream of integration turning sour, or far worse than that – dangerous and violent.

This comes at a time, of course, when there really is a racial war occurring on the streets of that famous melting pot, in which African-American communities are facing off against predominantly white male police officers in the streets of its poorest communities, and Donald Trump is winning political points by stoking the flames of prejudice against the Hispanic population. So OITNB’s confrontation of these issues, its examination of the Black Lives Matter movement and the frightening state of race relations currently existing in America, feels urgent and, for the first time in the show’s history, switched on and keyed in to very contemporary concerns. That it does so with compassion and complexity, refusing to sentimentalise any of the racial groups by depicting them as helpless victims, yet equally refusing to demonise any group by depicting them as caricature villains (even the Nazis experience conflicting feelings of compassion towards the other inmates at times), results in one of the most incisive and insightful deconstructions of race relations since Spike Lee’s 1989 masterpiece Do the Right Thing.

Which isn’t to say that there isn’t a great deal of comedy to enjoy in this series also: primarily, there is the wonderful Blair Brown portraying TV chef Judy King, a new inmate and celebrity who is given the special treatment in Litchfield and is willing to exploit every moment of it – as well as other people – for her own amusement and sexual gratification. Then there is Caputo, the assistant warden still struggling to balance his need to be the ‘good guy’ and his attraction, quite literally in the case of one of his bosses, to success within the bureaucracy of the prison’s corporate management – he is compassionate and yet also pathetically turned on by manipulative women in power, and as such he always brings big laughs and an ever-compromised heart to the show.

It’s a unique and frequently quite brilliant series, full to the brim with terrific characters and a superlative ensemble cast portraying them. Structurally, it is starting to come together more, although still somewhat chaotic in its balancing act of the multiplicity of storylines and subplots; the scripts could sometimes do with tightening up to draw the various strands thematically together in each episode (using The Wire or Mad Men as outstanding examples). Still, you really do care about these inmates, and the last episode, which uses flashbacks to allow a major character to reappear shortly after her death, has a poignancy that is unmatched in any show that I’ve seen this year. Season Four is a great achievement, and one with a strong political purpose that I hope will be renewed in later instalments.




The Neon Demon

neon demon movie poster.jpgNicolas Winding Refn is, in my eyes, an incredibly frustrating young director. He clearly has remarkable talent and, crucially because it is so rare to find, a distinctive visual style and voice. Yet he is so determined to be perverse and provocative, at the expense of any humanity or complexity, that he consistently undermines the beauty of his films with a harsh, unforgiving, and stubbornly one-dimensional tone. Shock is his primary aim – not in a schoolboy, shop-of-horrors type way (he is far from commercially minded), but in an intellectual sense, delighting in offending the bourgeois moralists that he presumes dominate the critical establishment. His films are routinely booed at the Cannes Film Festival, a fact which I’m sure delights him.

I appreciate the morbid humour and anti-establishment motivation behind this drive, and accept that he is in a long tradition of great filmmakers with an insatiable desire to shock the public out of the complacency of their daily lives: Hitchcock, Buñuel, Lynch, Cronenberg, von Trier, Tarantino etc. all fall into this category. But those directors have so much more going on in their works than mere shock value, whereas Refn’s output leaves one cold and with little to ponder once the films have finished. Drive had its admirers, but I was not one of them – it left me with no lasting impression beyond the meticulously staged scenes of violent retribution. Only God Forgives had few admirers, and again I was not one of them – it appeared to me to be Freud-on-steroids, all style and very little substance.

In contrast, I am at least a partial admirer of his latest feature, The Neon Demon, about a virginal young girl who attempts to make a modeling career for herself in L.A., only to cross paths with sinister and sadistic businessmen and women that are happy to abuse her. The standard objections to Refn as a director still apply, including the most grievous of all: he has little time for actors, abandoning Elle Fanning in her struggle to bring the lead role some depth, and permitting Keanu Reeves and Christina Hendricks to walk on and off set again, leaving the barest of impressions. Refn has always preferred to focus his attention, with the intensity of a close-up lens, upon the set, costumes, colour schemes, camera movements, chilly synth soundtrack – the mise en scène as opposed to the human beings.

But there is a decent attempt here to contribute to the conversation on one of cinema’s greatest overarching themes: the fetishistic voyeurism that the presence of a camera both implicitly and explicitly encourages. The first shot of this film is of an apparently dead woman, her throat seemingly slit, sprawled out on a sofa in an unquestionably erotic manner, as a camera flashes, repeatedly capturing the moment (at twenty-four frames per second?). We soon discover that this woman is a prospective model, and that the blood adorning her is only make-up. It’s just a show: she’s alive. Or at least she’s alive to the other characters on the screen – is she any more alive to us? After all, this woman remains an illusion. She is an actor playing a character that doesn’t exist. Crucially, we can see her, but she can’t see us. And doesn’t that remind you of something? A corpse, perhaps?

With a devilish persistence typical of his perversity, Refn explores the relationship between the modelling industry and necrophilia throughout this film. Photographing women turns them into inanimate objects, corpses if you will, unseeing objects upon whom we can project our sexual fantasies. So it is also with cinema (highlighted magnificently in Vertigo). Yet of course, as we watch these models and actors, we may occasionally notice that they do have eyes, that they are real people, that they could have the ability to look right back at us, if only they were not separated from us by a screen – or by death. That perturbs and unsettles us: the thought of inanimate objects or corpses having the ability to come to life is the stuff of nightmares, not dreams. So this film progresses with a frightening inevitability, concluding with grandly realised scenes of true horror. Look out for the final scene, one with truly memorable bite, in which the onscreen dead looks right back at us, in a particularly grotesque fashion, forcing us to question the nature of cinema and voyeurism in the process. Are you enjoying what you’re watching?

Death, destruction, sex, bloodletting: they are all entwined in our movies, and we continue to pay to watch these events displayed before us onscreen. Only the best directors are aware of the frightening implications of this complacency, and that our deepest desires, our voyeuristic obsession with onscreen objects (which explains the popularity of pornography), could be more menacing than we tend to realise. The Neon Demon is not the first film, and it won’t be the last, to confront us with these disturbing issues, but it is a welcome sign that Refn is growing in maturity. If he only allowed himself to explore a little more of human nature beyond what he has learnt from watching films, then he would have the potential to become one of the truly great filmmakers.


Game of Thrones: Season 6: The Politics of Isolation



I have always found something a bit odious about Game of Thrones, but I’ve never quite GoT_season_6_official_poster.jpgbeen able to put my finger upon what it is. Until recently that is, as I settled down to watch the last episode of the current series, in the midst of a period of national turmoil that is without precedent in my lifetime. You see, as the lengthy credits sequence began to roll, I started to think about the parallels between the overall tone of Game of Thrones and the mood of our country, both of which are intensely pessimistic.

We have collectively decided, through the EU referendum, that the way forward to solving all of the great global threats (climate change, the deregulation of banking systems, religious extremism, famine, starvation, and overpopulation, to name a few) is to cut ourselves off from the countries that surround us and simply to go it alone. We have shown a mistrust of international cooperation, and a belief that divisiveness is necessary in order to protect our own interests. All other countries are fighting for their own supremacy, we have decided, so why shouldn’t we? How can we trust them or work together with them, when they will so clearly endanger our own people through their own inherent selfishness?

Game of Thrones absolutely believes in the inherent selfishness of human beings as well, and I believe that is why it has found such popularity across the world in these dark times. The twin failures of neo-liberalism in the West and democracy in the Middle-East can be seen being played out in the series’ most brutal moments. Scenes of union, symbolised by weddings, quickly turn to rape and bloodshed. Justice, in the form of fairly reasoned trials, are often replaced by combat. Religion, personified by the High Sparrow, brings those in power to task for their failures, but in a manner as brutal, power-hungry, prejudicial, and unforgiving as everyone else. Memorably, at the end of the last season, the democratic election of the Commander of the Night’s Watch is followed by a villainous mutiny shortly afterwards.

What I find odious about this relentlessly bleak vision is its one-dimensionality: of course the world contains unimaginable horrors and violence, of course it is full of various factions fighting each other for supremacy at any one time, of course people can be selfish and stupid and care only for their own blood as ferociously as the monstrous Cersei Lannister. We know the world is a cruel, harsh place, and far wiser creations than Game of Thrones have been observing it through the medium of film, poetry, music, art, and literature for hundreds of years. But you only have to turn off your television, walk outside, and talk to people whom you encounter in the street, in all their different races, nationalities, genders, and sexualities, to discover that life is not at all that simple. People can be beautiful, funny, brave, inspiring. They are all flawed, but they have seen and lived through profoundly amazing things. Any cultural creation that does not recognise this, that can only report to us on the cruelty and misery of mankind, is only showing us one side of the coin, and its foundation is a lie (it’s one of the reasons I’ve never been able to stand most heavy metal music). It’s a dangerous lie, because it implies that violence and divisiveness are the natural order in our world. Our current political systems may not have worked, but that does not make it the case that aggression and isolationism are the only answers. Why the defeatism, both in Game of Thrones and in our culture at large?

game-thrones-season-6-premiere-jon-snow-ghost.jpgOf course there are ‘good’ characters in Game of Thrones as well, but these are as one-dimensional as the ‘bad’ ones, therefore rendering them unrelatable, and besides they are shown to be the rare exceptions, constantly beset upon by an overwhelming tide of evil. Jon Snow formed a romance with a wildling beyond the Wall and a friendship with the affable Samwell Tarly, however, in typical Game of Thrones fashion, she was quickly killed off and Samwell left the Wall, leaving Jon alone and at the mercy of his enemies. Daenerys, another fan favourite, had an intense romance in the first series, but this came to a brutal end and left no lasting impression on either her constitution or the audience’s. Tyrion has been hounded away from family, lover, and friends throughout the course of the series, usually turning to alcohol instead of people for his own solace. No alliances, romantic or filial, can last in this harsh world of divisive regimes, because the show supposes that human beings are destined to be perennially isolated from each other. Which is what we have also chosen to believe in this country, with our decision to leave the EU being motivated primarily by a lack of belief in lengthy, mutually beneficial alliances.

There is hope, though, or at least there is in Game of Thrones: the winds of change permeate the course of the sixth series, leading to a curiously optimistic ending. New alliances are formed: swearing oath under Jon Snow in the North, and crossing the seas with Daenerys in the East. Whether these are to last we shall see, but they certainly seem more permanent than has ever previously been the case. Only Cersei sits on the throne in splendid isolation, having detonated not just her enemies but also her own family in a moment of reckless self-destruction. We can only hope that she will not come to be seen as an analogy of the United Kingdom in the near future, as a former beacon of power sitting alone in a darkened room with no allies and a fabricated throne.

I presume that all of the main families will eventually have to put aside their differences and come together to defeat the White Walkers in a future series, just as our world is going to have to collaborate to defeat the existential terrors that threaten us. The ascension of Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones, and the result of the EU referendum in the UK, are both steps in the wrong direction. But I hope the writers of the show, and the shapers of our history, will seek to reverse the tide. Optimism and collaboration is direly needed, not because of any idealised notions of universal humanity, but because we simply don’t have a choice.

Winter is here.