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The End of the F***ing World

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Alienated teenager James (Alex Lawther) thinks he might be a psychopath. He enjoys killing animals and once stuck his hand in a deep fryer just to feel something. Alienated teenager Alyssa (Jessica Barden) thinks she might be in love with James. She knows she hates her rich family and wants to reconnect with her absent birth father. She convinces James to steal his father’s car and come with her on a road trip to find errant dad. She thinks it’s romantic. He thinks she might be his first human victim. Kids, hey?

Adapted from the graphic novel by Charles S. Forsman, The End of the F***ing World takes the lovers-on-the-run model beloved of American cinema since the year dot and filters through an understated, wry, British sensibility. It is quite violent – two minutes in we have James dispatching a cat with a knife – but also thoughtful and self-deprecating, setting up our two protagonists as initially unlikable and self-deluded, but gradually evincing empathy as their tragic back stories are revealed over the course of the series, and they come to realise that their morbid self-obsession and instinctive acts of rebellion have real world consequences.

Still, why is it a series? The show is surprisingly slow paced, and it’s not hard to imagine a version of the series edited down to feature length that would retain its mood, themes, and black comedy. It feels like its current form is a concession to the binge-watch streaming model, but there’s not really enough story to justify it. Still, it’s an enjoyable enough slice of sardonic misanthropy.

 
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Romper Stomper

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Most of the skinheads are gone when we revisit the world of Romper Stomper, Geoffrey Wright’s incendiary and controversial 1992 film. Still the ethos remains, albeit under different colours. Instead of the swastika, the Southern Cross. Instead of bashing Vietnamese immigrants, it’s preaching hate while protesting a halal food festival. Instead of the hard, uncompromising gut punch of the original, it’s meandering and kind of pointless.

Yes, Romper Stomper Redux was always going to be controversial. Hell, it was meant to be, and a quick tour of the comment thread of any article on the new Stan series proves that, in that regard, it has been hugely successful. But controversy and quality are not synonyms. Is it any good? Well, no, not particularly.

Whereas RS ’92 kept the focus squarely on the crew of bovver boys run by the charismatic Hando (Russell Crowe, Sir Not Appearing in This Series), RS ’18 spreads a wider net, trying to encompass the complexities and factions of the current state of extremist politics. So we get Patriot Blue, a pastiche of a number of far right outfits but mainly drawn from the True Blue Crew and the Soldiers of Odin, run by mouthy, paunchy, would-be voice of the silent majority, Blake Farron (Lachy Hulme). New blood is introduced when Blake is rescued from a kicking by young ex-soldier Kane (Toby Wallace), a charismatic nationalist who is soon de facto 2IC of the Patriot Blue crew.

That’s the blue corner. In the red corner, Antifasc, Romper Stomper‘s answer to Antifa, a loose and largely ineffectual cell of uni students led by Petra (Lily Sullivan) and Danny (Tysan Towney), who are beginning to move beyond soup kitchens and waving placards to more direct and violent tactics.

Around these two blocs orbit a number of characters, including opportunistic right wing talk show host Jago Zoric (David Wenham); moderate Muslim law student Laila (Nicole Chamoun), thrust into the spotlight after the Patriots and Antifasc clash at a halal food festival; ageing skinhead Magoo (John Brumpton), still holding onto the toxic ideology of his youth; independent Senator Anabasis (Simon Palomares, and that’s a hell of a pun for students of the classics) and more. More than the show can easily track, in fact, and therein lies at least part of the problem: in trying to cover so many elements, so many moving narrative parts, some are given short shrift.

When in doubt, the series defaults to spending time with the racists, who are easily the most complex and intriguing characters presented. This is not necessarily a problem of sympathy, but one of focus; for all that original creator Wright and his co-writers, James Napier Robertson, Omar Musa, and Malcolm Knox, may be trying to present “both sides of the argument”, there’s one side that is always the more engaging – and they’re unarguably the bad guys. Plenty of research has gone into the presentation of Patriot Blue; considerably less has been done for their opposite number, who come across as a fairly undifferentiated rabble of university-radicalised malcontents. One character even unironically trots out the old “property is theft” cliche, just to underline their political ideology. It’s pretty laughable stuff, especially if you’re at all familiar with the fringe left, who are neither so joyless nor so unified (The Left’s problem is that they’re too busy fighting their age-old enemies, the Left, to really push in the same direction. Romper Stomper‘s estimate of about half a dozen people able to agree on any one thing is about right).

Still, the show does at least refute the notion that they’re all as bad as each other; as presented, Antifasc may not be as charismatic as the right wing rabble-rousers, but at least they’re not stockpiling machine guns and grenades in a back bush hideout, which Patriot Blue most certainly are. To its credit, Romper Stomper draws a direct line from the openly Nazi skinheads of the past to the crypto-fascist “patriots” of today, although that’s undone a little by having the organisation’s most violent plans put into action by a ghost from the past, rather than coming from Hulme’s bush poetry-spouting demagogue.

Indeed, the series has no small amount of trouble reconciling the past with its current concerns, and elements of the previous film are often worked in awkwardly. In addition to old Magoo (Brumpton, an absolute treasure of a performer, delivers a great, pathos-filled turn here) we also get the return of Gabe (Jacqueline McKenzie, killing it), former skinhead arm candy turned successful businesswoman. When we reconnect with her she’s dealing with caring for her dying father, who sexually abused her when she was younger, and also worried about her son – none other than Kane, who is immersing himself in the racist world she has fought to free herself from.

Kane’s paternity is a key plot point, which is an interesting direction to take in a text dealing with poisonous ideologies that put so much emphasis on blood and race, and while the final revelation of the nascent blackshirt’s father is a clever irony, it’s a little lost in the noise. All politics aside, Romper Stomper‘s key problems is a lack of thematic unity, with an over-reliance on shock tactics rather than solid plotting coming a close second. The series may want to show us the current state of race politics play, but it doesn’t have anything to actually say about it; there’s no thesis, no lesson to be learned, either by the audience of the characters. Great actors – and there are some fantastic performances here, have no doubt – are stuck with roles that have no arc. As for the shock tactics? Look, at one point a major character basically dies from slipping on a banana peel – that’s something that should never have gotten off the writing room whiteboard.

Romper Stomper was always supposed to be ugly and confrontational – that’s its brand, after all – but it only manages the former. To be confrontational, it would actually have to interrogate the ideas and worldviews that it presents. At this task, the series fails. But it also fails on a basic narrative level; after three episodes of set up, we’re left with three episodes of barreling towards a foregone and clumsily handled climax that offers no respite, no answers, and, most damningly, no point of view.

What galls is what a wasted opportunity this is. After four and a half hours, Romper Stomper leaves us with nothing; no insight, no voice, no lessons, no discernible point. You could argue that simple representation is enough, but what is being represented? If we want to know the awful state of racial discourse, we just need to look at our news feeds. Good drama offers something more than that – and Romper Stomper is not good drama.

 
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Doctor Who: “Twice Upon a Time”

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Two Doctors – the First (David Bradley) and 12th (Peter Capaldi) – meet in the Antarctic. Both are near the end of their lives. Both refuse to regenerate, and would rather die than change into another person. When they encounter a British Captain from the First World War (Mark Gatiss), thrown decades out of time and chased across the snow by a glass alien, they are thrust into one final adventure before each man dies.

After three seasons, Peter Capaldi hangs up his coat as the 12th star of Doctor Who. Departing along with him is writer and executive producer Steven Moffat, who moves on from the series after eight years and 84 episodes. It is the end of an era, and with new showrunner Chris Chibnall and 13th Doctor Jodie Whittaker waiting in the wings “Twice Upon a Time” presents Capaldi and Moffat with the chance to go out on an absolute high.

Sadly, the episode feels more whimper than bang. It has a storyline that is oddly busy yet frustratingly simple. The ingredients all seem to be perfectly suitable, but they have been baked together in weirdly sub-standard ways. While it has glimmers of greatness, and certainly its final minutes pull everything together for an emotive farewell, overall it fails to impress or convince. Things happen, but they do not sufficiently build to a satisfying conclusion. The episode simply seems to run until it stops. To its credit the episode does pull things together during its lengthy epilogue, but at that points it’s more about softening the blow of a bad episode than in being anything exceptionally good.

One major hurdle that Moffat fails to clear is how precisely to incorporate the two Doctors alongside one another. While David Bradley (Game of Thrones, Broadchurch) gamely replaces William Hartnell in the role – and wisely does not attempt to directly recreate it – Moffat’s script forces an unnecessary contrast between the two Doctors by making the original an insufferable sexist. It is not a characterisation that rings true, and winds up running a fair amount of character assassination on an iconic television character. Contemporary audiences may not notice so much; dedicated fans will be up in arms.

There was an opportunity here for the 12th Doctor, tired of life, to be reinvigorated by the possibilities of his future by seeing those same possibilities on his younger self. Instead the episode works in the opposite fashion: the original Doctor is convinced to regenerate by seeing his future, and the 12th simply changes his mind and allows himself to change. It feels more than a little muddled throughout.

Both Peter Capaldi and David Bradley do excellent work here, as does Pearl Mackie in a return appearance as companion Bill Potts. Sadly Mark Gatiss’ anonymous “Captain” is more of a list of stereotypes and tics than an actual performance, and weakens most of the scenes he is in. An ever more damaging element is the surfeit of comedy gags and sexual references. They have been a growing bane of Moffat-produced Doctor Who, and with one episode left he goes all out with the smutty jokes and almost derails the entire enterprise.

Peter Capaldi has been a fine Doctor, but his entire tenure has been hampered with irregular script weaknesses. Despite some great episodes in recent years – “World Enough and Time”, “Listen”, and “Heaven Sent”, to name a few – looking back from the end his time on the series feels somewhat like a missed opportunity. Thankfully there’s every chance Jodie Whittaker’s first series in 2018 will be a breath of fresh air.

 
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Bright

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What if one of the po-po in End of Watch was an orc? That’s the basic conceit of Bright, which blends director David Ayer’s usual Los Angeles cops ‘n’ crims concerns with the sort of high fantasy elements usually found in Middle Zealand: elves, fairies, magic wands and what have you.

Written by Max Landis, Bright follows uniformed officers Daryl Ward (Will Smith) and Nick Jakoby (Joel Edgerton), an orc, as they patrol the mean barrios of LA in a world where magic works (but is heavily regulated) and various fantasy races have carved out a place in the great melting pot. Elves are rich and presumably immortal, living in a Beverley Hills-alike enclave, while the tusked and scaly orcs are an underclass due to backing the Dark Lord in some epochal battle two millennia ago. In the modern day, orcs are viewed as thugs or worse, and Jakoby, the first orc police officer, is the subject of much attention and derision, both from the humans he works with and the orcs who view him as a traitor to his own kind (the racial politics are as subtle as a Mjolnir to the face).

Things go pear-shaped when they come into possession of both a magic wand – described as “a nuclear weapon that grants wishes” and Tikka (Lucy Fry), the runaway elf sorceress who wields it. The unlikely trio soon find themselves on the run from a whole panoply of opponents who want the wand for themselves, from corrupt cops to vicious gang bangers, with none so fearsome than Noomi Rapace’s evil elf cult leader and her host of machine-gun-toting, acrobatic elf ninja assassins. Can they survive the night?

If that phrase “machine-gun-toting, acrobatic elf ninja assassins” fires a neuron or two, you’re gonna have a good time with Bright. Ayer’s LA mean streets aesthetic aside, the influences on the film are fairly obvious: Terry Windling’s Bordertown shared world books, the Shadowrun roleplaying franchise, the feature film Alien Nation and its subsequent TV series, and more. Landis’s script takes the common tropes here and wraps them up in a standard action run ‘n’ gun plot, not doing anything too original with the ideas but handling them competently nonetheless. For Ayer’s part, he reaches for the most familiar tools in his box, giving us a tone that isn’t too far off that of Harsh Times or Street Kings – you know, apart from all the pointed ears and the odd dragon fly-by.

The action is great – a shoot out in a petrol station is the high point here – but the real fun is in the background details. The broad history of this parallel universe is handwaved, leaving the production design and narrative window dressing to do the heavy lifting when it comes to scene-setting: we get orcish graffiti and music, a nuisance fairy buzzing around a bird feeder, a Federal Department dedicated to investigating magical crimes, and more. There’s a snappy, glib “just go with it” vibe to the proceedings – if you question it too hard, it might very well fall apart, but at a glance it’s all a good time.

It helps that the cast never winks at the audience, treating the proceedings with, if not the somberness of a heavy drama, then at least the macho seriousness of a good action thriller (Bright is, it must be said, surprisingly and pleasingly violent and foul-mouthed). Men in Black veteran Smith is an old hand at this sort of thing, and the ethereal-looking Fry looks as at home here as she would at a medieval fair, but the standout is the unrecognisable Edgerton as Jakoby. Completely masked by latex prosthetics and tinted contacts, Edgerton really disappears into the role, offering up the most well-rounded and interesting character in the film, a misfit not aggressive enough for the orcs and too awkward for the human world, who is struggling to find his own place to stand. It’s a really great turn.

That it’s in the service of a somewhat disposable – but still very enjoyable – actioner is almost besides the point. For all the ballyhooing Netflix has done about the blockbuster budget ($90m+) and the big names attached, Bright feels very much like an opening salvo – a very pricey, very enjoyable feature length pilot. Hopefully a return to this world is on the cards sooner rather than later.

 
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Black Mirror Season 4

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2017 has, by any objective metric, been an unholy garbage fire trundling down a mountain of excrement. It’s been a time in which we’ve seen the true faces of our heroes, watched a cadre of mad despots busy themselves ruining the planet and been witness to many attempts by nature to rid itself of our malevolent taint.

Plus season eight of The Walking Dead has been a bit shit so, you know, bad times all around.

Just in case your being isn’t yet fully suffused by existential dread, Black Mirror season four is here to stab your optimism right in the kidneys. Although this latest outing of Charlie Brooker’s notably bleak peek into the future of technology has been experimenting with a new flavour: hope.

Yes, although season four has its share of nightmarish tomorrows, it also delivers some moments of light in the darkness, and is all the more effective for doing so. Obviously picking “the best” episodes is subjective, but in terms of overall quality standouts include: “Hang the DJ” – about a society where companionship is dictated by an app, “Crocodile” – a tense tale of retribution superbly directed by John Hillcoat (The Proposition, The Road), and “Metalhead” – a black and white vision of a terrifying utopia directed by David Slade (Hannibal, American Gods) and unlike anything Black Mirror has ever produced before.

On the slightly-less-successful-but-still-decent side we have “Arkangel” – directed by Jodie Foster (yes, that Jodie Foster) in an effective, but rather predictable look at parental intervention and “USS Callister” – a movie-length look at geek culture that is fun, but not quite as clever as it thinks it is.

The only real dud in the bunch is “Black Museum”, an anthology episode that drags and is way too similar to 2014’s “White Christmas” which was itself a bit naff.

Ultimately Black Mirror season four is another solid outing, and while nothing quite hits the giddy highs of last season’s “San Junipero”, the overall quality is more consistent this time around. It’s not always an easy watch, but Black Mirror remains one of the smartest slices of speculative fiction around. All six episodes will be on Netflix from December 29, so why not see out the year curled in a fetal ball, dreading the future, and occasionally experiencing fleeting moments of (very) cautious optimism.

 
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Wolf Creek Season 2

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Few horror franchises have capitalised on the inherent creepiness of the Australian outback like Wolf Creek. With the possible exception of Razorback (1984) and Wake in Fright (1971), the Aussie outback tends to be the sight of cinematic spiritual awakenings or the backdrop for epic movie road trips. Greg McLean’s robust horror franchise has managed to straddle multiple mediums, including two movies, various books and now a second televisual outing with Wolf Creek season 2. The question you may be asking is ‘how?’ How does such a seemingly simple premise lead to so many stories? The answer is Mick Taylor (John Jarratt). Mick is such a quintessentially Aussie antagonist, an uncomfortable reflection of the sunburnt country’s darker impulses – ready to strike at a moment’s notice for reasons known only to him. He’s also extremely easy to adapt to different genres.

Case in point: Wolf Creek season one featured a one-on-one grudge match between Mick and Eve (Lucy Fry), the latter of whom was on a one woman hunt to avenge her slaughtered family. Season two of Wolf Creek flips the script yet again and this time we’re travelling into the outback with a group of international tourists, keen on exploring the Aussie outback with Davo (Ben Oxenbould). A chance meeting of Mick and Davo sparks the killing urge in our favourite tourist hunter and Mick decides he’s going to take these soft city folk on an outback adventure they’ll never forget, and most of them won’t survive.

It’s a classic horror premise, and interestingly one Greg McLean has been toying with since before the first Wolf Creek movie (check out our interview). Over six episodes Mick puts the tourists through various hideous trials, whittling them down one by one until the inevitable, and grisly, climax.

Wolf Creek season two feels like a more pure horror experience than the slightly more experimental previous season. The scares are solid, the tension palpable and the kills effective, if occasionally slightly ropey. The cast acquit themselves well, and while no one is quite as standout as Lucy Fry from season one; Tess Haubrich, Laura Wheelwright and Matt Day all provide compelling personalities under duress.

Best of all director Greg McLean is on hand to deliver some of his best work to date, providing a cinematic-quality genre experience you can enjoy while sitting on the couch in your undies.

 
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Godless

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It’s been almost a decade since the seminal Western text of this century, David Milch’s Deadwood, concluded its all too short lifespan on HBO. Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) scrubbed the dark blood stain out of the wooden floors in his office and left the audience with a sentiment that encompassed the pathos of the series. “What do you want me to do, tell you something pretty?” That final line was the final ugly dagger that extinguished Milch’s masterful observation about the mechanics of modern civilisation. This week enduring fans had cause to celebrate; Milch and Co. are mere months away from production rolling on a standalone Deadwood film.

But it’s a distinct pleasure to report that streaming on Netflix right now is a series that finally satiates your desire to be taken back to the west and deep into the muck of human impulses.

Godless, unlike Deadwood, isn’t concerned with nursing a singular unincorporated town into the burgeoning Union. Writer/director Scott Frank takes us into New Mexico and the desolate and disconnected frontier makes monsters out of the hypocritical and greedy patriarchy.

Frank is a long-time screenwriter of films such as Minority Report and Logan and novelist (Shaker, a crime mystery, was released in 2016). Godless is Frank’s cinematic novel, that wears the techniques of his former collaborators on its sleeve. The world feels saturated like Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report, approaches action like a soldier tearing up a beach in Saving Private Ryan and contains a chorus of world weary and battle-scarred characters like James Mangold’s Logan.

Frank explained in a recent interview with NPR that “any self-respecting screenwriter at some point has to give [writing a western] a crack. And I wanted to do something different that I hadn’t seen before. And that’s tricky because there have been so many westerns…”

When his long-term researcher Mimi Munson drew his attention to “several towns in New Mexico where all of the men died in an accident in a single afternoon stranding the women in these places. And sometimes the women would leave and move on. And sometimes they would stick around and try and make a go of it. And I thought, wow. What a great starting point.”

Godless, a limited series by design, finds a way to use the pockets of the underrepresented crawl westward across the American continent to reflect the unchecked turmoil. Godless sets its scene in the 1880s in a newly formed union. Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels) seeks out his former ‘favourite’ turned defector Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell). The town of La Belle, a town struck by a mining accident that resulted in the sudden death of nearly all of the town’s men, is the fragile flower in this totally hostile environment that has remained unplucked. This hint of beauty and vulnerability is a time bomb that you know must go off.

In the opening moments of the series, through a blinding haze of dust, Marshal John Cook (Sam Waterston) and a posse of men come upon the town of Creede. The town is hauntingly quiet, bodies litter the streets and sprayed across the flats like the remains of a game corpse is the tangled metal skeleton of a derailed train. Cutting through the dust is a melancholy ditty, a lone female survivor hovers over the corpse of her lover. Strung from the highest railway pole is a young lad, swaying in the breeze like rotting fruit on a poisoned tree. The senseless carnage of outlaw Frank Griffin’s (Jeff Daniels) party of thieves is enough to bring Marshal Cook to his knees.

Daniels’ Griffin is a man with twisted psychopathic piety. He’s a bundle of strange mysticism, predicting that he’s seen his death and casually reassures those he interacts with that he’s seen what’s to come and that any ‘threats’ need not be heeded. He’s, at times, calculating and conducting his personal mercenary force that swarms the landscape. Small towns and their underrepresented populace provide little resistance to their domination. However, the cracks have begun to emerge in the impervious myth that he’s conjured for himself.  In the first episode we see Griffin undergo emergency amputation surgery that takes away his arm. In a gesture of pure denial, he carries his detached limb with him long after the surgery. The sum of the parts for Griffin must represent the whole.

It’s highly likely that you’ll love the show because of how it manipulates Western archetypes to make every character an agonisingly conflicted being. Throughout the series the viewer will wrestle with finding Griffin deplorable, disgusting and yet, finding a strange kinship with the neglected orphans of heinous acts. While we view Roy’s entry into Griffin’s band of lost boys we can imagine that this is a regular recruitment drive tied intrinsically to his beliefs and fashions a portal to his soul. His scriptures and life advice ring true in the context of this world. (Most episodes contain flashbacks where Griffin is providing guidance and advice about life, morality and being a ‘good’ citizen of the world.) While you’re viewing, it’s hard not to draw parallels to the same hypocritical notions of members of an inherently corrupt and morally bankrupt institution like the Catholic Church while still being able to move you with the beauty of scriptures and visions of belief. Daniels’ manner as Griffin is often one of softness; he considers himself a teacher. The drought of real representatives of God paves way for this false prophet.

Driving Griffin’s ferocity and malice is the slight of his formidable ward, turned hardened killer Roy Goode (O’Connell). Roy rides away from the fracas with his former crew, gut shot toward a likely death when he comes upon the ranch of one Alice Fletcher (Michelle Dockery). This is Dockery about as far away from Downton Abbey as possible. She’s a stoic lioness, more than willing to shoot first and ask questions later. In the first exchange with Roy, riding up to her ranch on the outskirts of La Belle in the dead of night, he’s bewildered and unable to respond. She does not hesitate and fires a warning shot that grazes his neck and throws him out of his saddle and onto the ground. Alice is the widower of a Native American man, eking out a modest existence with her son Truckee (Samuel Marty) and mother in law played by Dances with Wolves’ Tantoo Cardinal. They begin nurturing Roy back to health and as he regains strength he begins to reveal who he is in the actions that he’s able to undertake. One reflective shot, taking the head off a rattle snake about to take a swipe at a toddler hits the seismograph and people begin to feel that he’s not who he claims to be.

O’Connell plays a haunted Roy, running away from the killer he’s become in the presence of Griffin; the greater the likelihood of Griffin’s descent on La Belle, the more that the ‘old’ Roy begins to emerge. Roy decides that instead of potentially endangering Alice and family with his presence, he’ll hand himself over to La Belle Sherriff Scoot McNairy’s Bill McNue.

McNue, a widower and father of two, is slowly being crippled by an encroaching blindness. In this vulnerable town, their lone law man (the Sherriff’s Deputy Whitey is still a gangly teen) seems more like a bumbling hazard than a town saviour.  McNairy is a terrific and diverse character actor. He’s got such a command of his posture and gait, and conveys inner turmoil with his dark eyes.

La Belle is the heart of the show. It’s here that we set the scene for some of the most fascinating explorations in the genre. In an instant, a mining accident decimates the male population, stranding an almost exclusively female community to find their own way. The stand outs are Merritt Wever’s Mary Agnes – sister to Sherriff McNue (McNairy) – and Tess Frazer’s Callie Dunne; they are Godless’ answer to Deadwood’s Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert) and Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens). Mary Agnes and Callie feel like the only characters in the town that are relieved in the wake of the accident. For Mary Agnes it’s about being able to assert, to step out of the dainty frontier homemaker garb and to assume a role in the town’s future that her gender had denied. Wever’s performance alongside Callie is like an island of tenderness in this harsh world. Her self-consciousness informs the way that she occupies space in an interaction, but she’s extremely forthright. While external mining interests hold the women over a barrel for the opportunity to kick-start works in the mine, it is Mary Agnes that attempts to reassert their authority. For Callie, her thriving business as a town whore dried up instantly in the wake of the accident. She then became free to reclaim her body for pleasure instead of commerce. There’s electricity between Mary Agnes and Callie that’s hiding in plain sight amongst their intuitive harem.

Thomas Brodie-Sangster’s Whitey Winn is the cocky teenager hoping to assume the position of defender to the town. Whitey takes interest in a young African American girl living in an adjoining community, Louise Hobbs (Jessica Sula). Her community is segregated, by choice, assembled by a formidable and infamous civil war unit. In the post war period they’ve made the decision to remain separate from La Belle and white society proper, in order to live their lives in peace.

Frank wants us to experience the poise of the West. Cinematographer Steven Meizler, a journeyman camera operator working on a swathe of films (Saving Private Ryan, Munich, Che) defines the aesthetic of Godless by placing the audience in the zone to experience the action. On Alice’s ranch we get inside the wooden ring to break horses and the over the shoulder style that defined Ryan and was adopted wholesale in the video game genre. It’s a great experiential posture and director/writer Frank allows each scenario to breathe. The scope of the show allows you to experience the graft of the day to day.  Frank and Meizler also show the devastation of the gun. Metal minces human targets and each wound lingers for a suitable recovery time.

At the conclusion of Godless there’s a deep satisfaction. It’s an epic and singular Western film that was granted the permission to run as long as a TV show and like all great Westerns, reflects contemporary times. Frank is aware that Godless and its characters are not wholly unfamiliar to the audience, but is innately cognisant of the enduring tragedy and relevance of the American frontier. Slimy pulp journalists exaggerate to save their skin. Corporate interests increasingly capitalise on the disenfranchised and easily exploitable. Absent patriarchal structures provide little comfort in death. The ghosts of displaced Native American Nations pushed to the fringe of the emerging society echo in the characters consciousness.

 
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Mudbound

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Adapted from Hillary Jordan’s novel of the same name by director Dee Rees (Pariah), Mudbound tells the tale of two families in post-WWII rural Mississippi, divided by race but tied together by the hard, hostile land that the title alludes to.

There’s Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke), who has brought his refined, city-bred wife, Laura (Carey Mulligan) into this hardscrabble world where he plans to work the land like his father, racist patriarch “Pappy” (Jonathan Banks). And there’s the black tenant farmers who live on the McAllans’ land, the god-fearing Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan), his wife Florence (Mary J. Blige), and their passel of children. The power dynamics are clearly defined along racial lines: this is the Jim Crow south, after all, and black men use the back door and don’t raise their eyes to their alleged betters.

The situation changes when to veterans return from their World War II service: Hap’s son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), who served in the tank corps, and Henry’s brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), who flew bomber missions over Europe. Both are struggling with PTSD and their place in the world, and their wartime experiences bond them in friendship. Such a relationship, however, cannot be countenanced by the locals, and violence is inevitable.

Mudbound is handsomely shot, well acted and possessed of a rare and mournful lyricism, but it feels off by degrees. It’s issues are common to literary adaptations: a hesitancy when it comes to understanding what to keep and what to cut, where to focus the cinematic narrative. The friendship between Jamie and Ronsel is the obvious crux here, but director Rees and her co-writer, Virgil Williams, do their best to encompass as many voices and viewpoints from the source novel as they can, and in doing so muddy the waters somewhat, if you’ll pardon the expression.

What that gives us is an arresting portrait of a place, people, and time, but a weaker story than one might hope for, which leaves us with a very good movie instead of a great one. Still, there’s much to admire and enjoy here: uniformly strong performances (Blige is a quiet miracle, and let’s acknowledge that Hedlund is doing much better as a character actor than a leading man), a pinpoint sense of specificity and detail, a restrained, downbeat visual style that gives the characters room to live and the incidents we witness their full emotional weight. Still, while Mudbound is a very worthy film, that odd and nagging lack of coherence stops it from being the masterpiece it so very nearly is.

 

 
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Star Trek: Discovery S1E9: Into the Forest I Go

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The peaceful inhabitants of the planet Pahva have sent a signal to both the Federation and the Klingon Empire to come to their world and negotiate peace. Captain Lorca (Jason Isaacs) knows that the Klingons are on their way and will decimate the Pahvans when they arrive. Against Starfleet orders he commands the USS Discovery to stay and face the Klingons head-on.

With this ninth episode Star Trek: Discovery concludes its initial run, referred to by CBS as “Chapter One”. Another six episodes will be released in early 2018 to properly conclude the first season, but for now it is mid-point climax time for Lorca, Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) and the rest of the Discovery crew. It has been a maddening and frustrating ride, with numerous outstanding elements in the series constantly over-shadowed by inconsistent characterisation, poor plotting, and an attitude to Star Trek continuity that is most politely described as ‘dismissive’.

That in mind, it is a genuine relief to find the plot of “Into the Forest I Go” to be straight-forward, dramatic and pretty much the most Star Trek-like narrative so far. The Discovery is under orders to retreat, leaving the Pahvans defenceless, but Lorca disobeys orders and stays behind to fight. The bulk of the episode, in which an attempt is made to detect a cloaked Klingon starship using a combination of ship-to-ship espionage and the Discovery’s spore drive, is a wonderfully suspenseful exercise in action, character development, and the finest Star Trek technobabble. It also all leads into a great end-of-chapter cliff-hanger that suggests more than one of the current fan theories circling the Internet might be true.

The episode takes time for its characters as well. The most impactful scenes involve Lieutenant Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif), who was held captive by the Klingons and tortured for seven months by L’Rell (Mary Chieffo). Their relationship was in part sexual, and the profoundly traumatised Tyler confides in Burnham about his experience. This is, to be honest, the sort of thing I was expecting from a 21st century Star Trek series: genuinely progressive subject matter that earlier versions were too conservative to address. Could the episode have handled Tyler’s sexual assault and PTSD more sensitively? Very probably, but in the context of an action-packed mid-season finale it seemed impressive as it was.

Of course, there are still the silly bits. The sensors Burnham and Tyler must place in secret around the Klingon ‘ship of the dead’ are comically large with bright lights and a loud voice recording. The episode begins with Discovery remaining to protect Pahva, because if they leave the Klingons will destroy the whole planet, and ends with the Discovery flying away with multiple Klingon ships on approach – and Pahva presumably abandoned to destruction anyway. Star Trek continuity obsessives like me will be left wondering why Spock and McCoy had to retro-fit a photon torpedo to detect a cloaked Klingon ship when the Discovery solved that problem 40 years earlier. To be honest it’s all minor; this episode is genuinely great where it counts.

The potential in Discovery has been there from the start, but these first nine episodes have offered one hell of a rough ride. “Into the Forest I Go” brings the promise of a much-improved series as it goes on. If the production team can stick to the core of what makes its characters work, and shave off the elements that have been dragging the series back – poor plots, inconsistent characterisation, and a quite frankly insulting attitude to the franchise as a whole – it could become something quite special.

 
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The Punisher

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Hell, where do we be begin?

The hotly anticipated Punisher TV series represents the nadir of Marvel’s Netflix streaming projects, narrowly nudging out the widely derided Iron Fist by dint of squandering a perfect set up and a shedload of goodwill left over from the character’s Marvel Cinematic Universe continuity debut in season 2 of Daredevil. That’s pretty impressive; Jon Bernthal’s turn as the ex-Marine vigilante Frank Castle is the fourth live action iteration of the character since Dolph Lundgren took on the name (And little else) way back in 1989, and is pretty much universally considered the best by a considerable margin. This time, fans told each other, they got The Punisher right. Now, on the other side of 13 turgid, meandering episodes, it seems it’s time to go back to the drawing board once more.

When we left our man Frank back in Daredevil, his origin was done and dusted; his family was dead, and he’d acquired for himself an arsenal of terrifying weapons and a rather striking white on black skull motif, leaving him in prime position to begin his never-ending war on crime. The follow up series wastes no time in undoing that. After a brief, bloody and quite enjoyable montage that sees him cleaning up the last few mooks responsible for his family’s deaths, Frank calls it quits, picks up a construction job under an assumed name, and does his level best to put his violent past behind him.

That’s strike one right there: the idea of The Punisher, of all people, trying to go on the straight and narrow contradicts the very essence of the character. Luckily, we have a mechanism to pull him back into action: former NSA analyst David “Micro” Lieberman (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), who has uncovered evidence of military malfeasance linked to Frank’s time as a marine in Afghanistan, and needs his help to take down the bad guys. We still have to put up with a lot of wheel-spinning and wool gathering, though – especially frustrating when you have a character such as this stuck on the “Refusing the Call” chapter of Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces.

Indeed, The Punisher suffers from the now-familiar Marvel/Netflix issue of having to spread too little story over too many hours; there’s actually about a feature film’s worth of narrative here, maybe two at a pinch. It’s possible to actually skip from the first episode to episode 10 and not miss anything of value or, indeed, any plot points you won’t be able to infer for yourself. Much of the series is just Frank and Micro arguing in Micro’s warehouse base of operations – especially galling considering the promise of plenty of action is baked into the basic concept.

Instead we get side-plot after side-plot that drags us slowly toward the inevitable climax, and precious little mayhem until things ramp up in the final stretch. After all, why have our skull-shirted avenger mowing down armies of deserving criminals when we could be watching Micro fret over his family, who think he’s dead since he faked his own death to protect them from reprisals? Or Frank, acting as Micro’s catspaw, fixing their sink, at the same time getting a taste of the family life that was torn from him? It’s not as poignant as it sounds.

Also in the mix are a couple of Homeland Security agents (Amber-Rose Nevah and Michael Nathanson) who are also on the case; a disabled veteran (Jason R. Moore) who runs a support group for returned soldiers; returning supporting character Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll) from Daredevil; and Billy Russo, Frank’s old comrade-in-arms, now working as a private military contractor and, of course, The Villain. Rather than build a narrative that operates organically and builds satisfyingly, show runner Steve Lightfoot has simply packed the show with enough separate story strands and characters that he can just cut between them whenever a scene begins to run out of steam.

Which happens a lot – it’s impossible to overstate how leaden and badly structured The Punisher is. There are endless dialogue scenes that go nowhere, flashbacks to backstory we already know or can parse for ourselves, pointless verbal confrontations and posturing… the list goes on.

It’s also dumb. That’s not necessarily a cardinal sin when it comes to an action series, but you want to make sure things are moving too quickly for the audience to notice how sloppy things are in the moment. The Punisher does not do that. It’s at its worst when it’s trying to be smart – there’s a bit of business in the back half addressing the ever-topical gun control issue that just comes across as glib and contrived, especially in a series specifically built around and celebrating the “good guy with a gun” myth beloved of the NRA. It’s actually, on reflection, rather offensive, an act of blatant ass-covering so that the producers can point to it and say that they addressed the issue.

If that doesn’t bother you, perhaps Frank’s laughably mawkish hallucinations of his wife will. Or Paul Schulze’s scenery-chewing turn as a corrupt CIA agent. Or the fact that, when you elide away all the unnecessary window dressing, the actual plot is basically Lethal Weapon, to the point that Frank sitting down for Christmas dinner with Micro’s family as the credits roll seems like an all-too-possible denouement.

There are a few positive elements in play. The cast do everything they can to elevate the substandard material they’ve got to work with, and Jon Bernthal remains a flat-out great Punisher, all barely restrained rage and possessed of a physical stoicism that borders on the masochistic. It is absolutely frustrating to see this guy, who for a brief moment was well on track to being the definitive on-screen Punisher, undone by such bad writing, and such a misguided understanding of the character. The scenes where Bernthal gets to cut loose against his enemies, carving his way though them with methodical fury, remain the highlight of the series, but boy do you have to wade through a lot of dross to get to them.

And, in the end, it’s just not worth it. The Punisher is an absolute mess. It’s thematically naive, narratively inert, condescending to its audience,  and lacks almost any understanding of its central character’s appeal. Only the low bar set by previous on screen Punisher incarnations prevents it from being unarguably the worst live action version of the character.

And he hardly ever wears the damn skull, either. Honestly, who thought that was a good idea?