Sunday, 27 December 2015

BESTS OF 2015 – FILMS + TV SHOWS

'Tis the season for list-making so without further ado, films and TV shows which I rated this year. (In top tens, but no particular order beyond that...)


FILMS
'Birdman'
'Selma'
'Chappie'
'Inside Out'
'Dance of Reality' (The return of Jodorowsky, yay!)
'Macbeth'
'The Lobster'
'The Martian'

Three films I firmly intended to see yet failed were 'Ex Machina', 'It Follows' and 'Bridge of Spies'.

...which means I only blogged about two of my favourite films! Then again, that's better than I did for TV shows...

TV SHOWS
'Gotham'
'Wolf Hall'
'The Walking Dead' (season 5)
'This is England '90'
'Witnesses'
'Fargo' (season 2)
'Homeland' (season 5)
'London Spy'
'The Last Kingdom'
'The Bridge' (season 3)

The TV shows of 2015 which somehow passed me by despite best intentions were 'Humans' and '1864'.

(Reader, please note we are a terrestrial establishment here at Lucid Frenzy towers, and know not of your 'Jessica Jones' or 'Game of Thrones'. Nor, before anyone asks, did we deliberately write a list just to keep 'Doctor Who' off it.)

Some random witterings follow...


I may be the only member of the viewing public to compare 'London Spy' to 'Alien'. As I've said before “an effective component of the Company's ruthless inhumanity is the way they lie unseen, existing only as offstage orders”. (All lost in the sequels, alas.) And here we see a similar thing, only with officialdom. Danny (played by Ben Wishaw) is occasionally able to identify the strings being pulled, but never trace them back to those tugging them. It's like we live our lives as the audience of a stage illusionist, perpetually falling victim to misdirection and applauding the wrong things.

(SPOILERS in this para) At first the worry was it was so atmospheric with so little concrete happening, that it was painting itself into a moodily lit corner. As it turned out, it played the thing about right. (Even if the very last scene tried to wrest some feelgood out of a fire that should really have burnt everything down.) What seemed the style eventually became the theme. Alex's invention was akin to creating light in a world of shadows, so of course the shadow-dwellers must amass to save their habitat. Plus the gay element wound up the 'Daily Mail'. Really, what was there not to like?


As said, I haven't made any attempt to list things in a rank order. But 'Fargo' I'm fairly sure I'd place on the bottom rung. Though jumping back to the Seventies, it duplicates roles from the previous series. So Lou Solvenson (Patrick Wilson) can take the 'good cop' badge from his daughter Molly, while Mike Milligan (Bokeem Woodbine) displaces Lorne Malvo as the urbane antagonist. But the triangulation breaks down with Ed and Peggy Blumquist (Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst), who fluctuate between being Hickcockian innocents swept up in the storm and reprising Lester's petty scheming. (The early-offed used typewriter salesman seems introduced partly as a Lester equivalent, as if to undermine his similarities to Ed and Peggy.)

And so it moves further away from the original Cohen brothers film, where the provincial hicks may have been kooky (with their “oh ya” accents and all) but ultimately prove themselves smarter and stronger than the more worldly criminals. Here, rather than being spread around the town, human decency is confined to the cop characters and their family circle. And by moving away from the Cohens they move towards Tarantino – snappy dialogue, non-linear storytelling puzzles (sometimes as an end in their own right), foregrounded cinematic devices (such as split-screening) and above all an assumed audience reaction of hip irreverence. Perhaps everything will end up Tarantinoeque in the end, including Shakespeare adaptations and the forthcoming remake of 'Camberwick Green'.


(More SPOILERS here) Apart from Lou, the character who really shines is the Indian hatched man Hanzee (Zahn McClarnon), largely because he's so taciturn and direct when everyone else is verbosely circumlocutory. (Imagine if Gary Cooper had been on the redskins' side.) But it does mean that, when he tires of everyone and tries to bump them all off, you kind of know how he feels.

Yet for all that its a better example of the style than anything Tarantino himself has come up with lately. It's often genuinely inventive, and the characters are striking if cartoony. Above all, despite its greater length, it doesn't have the same loghorric meander. And, being set in such a bywater, it avoids the 'theme park Seventies' which now seems so ubiquitous. Don't expect endless sideburns and hessian wallpaper here.


'The Last Kingdom' did at times seem undecided whether it wanted to be a tale of derring-do akin to 'The Musketeers', following the adventures a he-man hero who gets his shirt off a lot, or something as morally muddied as the Dark Ages probably were. And sometimes it was able to make a creatively ambiguous virtue out of its indecision, with Uhtred (Alexander Dreyman) performing some great deed them offsetting us by hacking down a thieving servant.

While having a neither-Saxon-nor-Dane protagonist was effective, if they wanted things as dark as the age they needed to play the supporting cast up more. More moments like the clash-of-values scene where Saxon first parleys with Dane. Perhaps the introduction of Alfred (David Dawson) needed to wait until Uhtred meets him, but from there more could have been done with him. The way he can go from pure-hearted ascetic to monarch capable of cold ruthlessness, while its clear that in his mind both come from his Christian faith, is fascinating and has something of the ring of truth.

But above all its Guthrum (Thomas W Gabrielsson) who needed more development. Perhaps the adventure aspect demands one crazy warrior Dane for Uthred to fight. (When he defeats one before the finale, another conveniently appears.) But Gurthrum is needed as the head to the swiping hand, the Dane with a brain amid berserkers. We're shown how they don't win their battles through greater savagery but more superior tactics, and how the Saxons have to emulate them to defeat them. But still, scenes between them can feel like a meeting of the Secret Society of Super Villains. (Denmark probably won't be taking this series as a swap for 'The Bridge'.)

And a consequence is that characters don't really develop in any way. As the plot rattles on they repeatedly spark off against one another, and even change sides, without ever changing inside. It's hinted Guthrum's last-minute conversion to Christianity is politically motivated, which in history it almost certainly was, but this receives almost no narrative attention – it happens in the background as Uhtred rides boldly off. Similarly, Uhtred's frequently telegraphed headstrong nature goes nowhere in plot terms.

And the attitude to religion in this sort of thing is fast becoming a cliché. Christians are endlessly having their blind faith in an interventionist God dashed, their devoted praying hands lopped off by the brute reality of Danish broadswords. Yet paganism, particularity in the form of seer Iseult, is indulged to the point of being presented as a working system. Surely if we're all too growed up now for one set of superstitions the same should be true for another.


The appealing thing about 'The Bridge' is that of Nordic import TV in general - it has the courage to work as a novel. Rather than set everything up in the first episode, then provide eight hours of running round before hurriedly wrapping everything up for the finale, it takes its own time to evolve. Key characters won't appear until several episodes in. 'The Killing' even ended. (Unlike that American remake...)

Of course its the box-set/catch-up technology which has enabled this. (You couldn't miss an episode of 'The Bridge', any more than you could skip a couple of chapters in a novel.) But that technology exists everywhere. Perhaps what really delivers is combining it with the old-style remit of public service TV. (Tak to Sveriges Television of Sweden and Danmarks Radio!) Inevitably enough, Nordic Noir frequently questions the social democratic model of Scandinavia, much like the BBC of old would bite the hand that fed it more readily than commercial media.

The surprising thing to hear was that Saga's new parter Henrik (Thure Lindhart) was only written in when Kim Bodnia (who had played Martin) declined the offer to re-appear. Because the whole thing ends up hanging on him. Like Hathaway in 'Lewis', even as you can see how he's written to fill a hole he becomes a character in his own right. Cleverly coded on first appearance to come across as a creep (like many, I first assumed he was a perp) he gets Saga in a way even Martin couldn't. The point where he tells her “this is what you want, right? To talk about the investigation not all the problems in your life”... well, I must have had something in my eye.


'Witnesses', conversely, proved you don't have to be Nordic to be noir. You can even be French, provided you set things on the north coast in order to capture the statutory washed out look. In an eerie case of synchronicity, there was even the same staged crime scene of the model nuclear family.

Five seasons in and 'Homeland' is not just doing that faux moral ambiguity thing it does, its become the byword for it. I used to try to think of a snappy name to employ, but “the Homeland syndrome” works well enough. Yet even as it gives the name to one rule it breaks another. It's now jumped more sharks than there can be in the Pacific. (Quinn falling in with a bunch of jihadis while in a city the size of Berlin. What are the odds, eh?) Yet alongside the absurd contrivances it can still serve up riveting plot twists. And as a child of the Cold War, to me its almost nostalgist to see the Russians back as the bad guys and Berlin as some kind of front line.

'Walking Dead' rather than setting itself in one locale like earlier seasons, smartly divided itself between the poles of Terminus and Alexandria. And having been through Terminus changes their reaction to Alexandria completely. The phrase “you're the butcher or you're the cattle” resounds through what follows.

'This Is England' - apart from showing how spookily distant 1990 now is, while none of us want things to run past their shelf-life, there's scope for one more season there, surely. And I enjoyed 'Wolf Hall' so much I even thought I should read the books. (I didn't, admittedly. But I thought about it.)

Perhaps what's most striking overall about this list is the absence of comedy. 'Fargo' could be called a black comedy, while 'This is England' has humorous elements, but that's about all. Was there simply little to laugh about in 2015? Excepting of course that video of Donald Trump and the eagle...

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