TV: Please Like Me season 2 (2014)

creators: Josh Thomas & Matthew Saville
language: English and a bit of Thai
length: 10 episodes of about 25 minutes each
finished watching on: 1 May 2017
previous seasons: season 1

I can’t remember why I took such a long break from this series – there were a few months when I didn’t watch it at all, before picking it up again sometime this year. But I still get a strong impulse to watch it whenever I cook food, perhaps a habit, but perhaps also influenced by the importance of food in the series (they provide motifs for a lot of episodes and the episodes are named after food).

Basically, the series has found its feet here, but I feel it’s still far too full of cringe humour for my liking at the end of the day. Josh, the main character, is insufferable, to be honest, constantly nagging other characters for attention and validation.

I like how it deals very frankly and directly with mental illness. But it often goes from these moments straight back into something very cringeworthy for comedy’s sake, and perhaps back again, even ending one episode with the surprise suicide of a side character – I said in the review of the last season that I was annoyed that my favourite character had been killed off by the show, and this is the same. I think the tone wasn’t consistent in this area. Balance is important.

But it’s got some high points – Josh and his mum in the wilderness of Tasmania was a really nice episode, and I liked the introduction of Arnold, who as far as I know will end up with Josh in the next season.

Despite its negative points, I still identify with a lot of the characters and recognize the situations. I’ll still be continuing with the next season. Soon, perhaps!

Film #288: T2 Trainspotting (2017)

director: Danny Boyle
language: English and a bit of Bulgarian
length: 117 minutes
watched on: 30 April 2017

This is one of the big ones: one of the films whose release date I’ve been eagerly expecting for months. It was released in the UK back in February, but for once Japan was only about a week behind the release in the US. Perhaps they had to have it subtitled over there!

I was pleased with the overall film, although generally I thought it had elements that didn’t fit, or didn’t gel together as well as the original movie had.

I liked seeing my hometown depicted in such exquisite detail, and the sense of humour appeals to me – it’s very black, and if you don’t laugh at the opening gag, when Renton falls off a fast-moving treadmill, you’re probably not going to laugh at the rest of the movie. And I was in stitches when Kelly MacDonald makes a cameo as a lawyer to ask the Bulgarian girl if she’s vajazzled. Unfortunately (naturally?), it went down like a lead balloon in Japan. I think the guy next to me was sleeping during the film.

I also liked how Franco Begbie was really menacing in this film. He has held a grudge for twenty years against Renton, and upon realizing that he’s back in Scotland, starts to hunt him down. This unfortunately means that all the characters are never together all at once, and the movie feels somewhat episodic as a result, and less focused. And one of the famous publicity shots, of the four characters revisiting the Highlands as they did in the first movie, isn’t actually in the movie.

However, the movie is much more full of Danny Boyle-isms than the last one twenty years ago. Words sometimes appear in the air when characters are talking, or characters draw shapes that appear as sparkling lines. The original Trainspotting didn’t have as much of this stuff. Boyle’s later films like 127 Hours or Slumdog Millionaire have it in droves – it seems to be something he’s developed in the intervening years. There’s also more of the film stopping for a second or two as if to take a photo, which had been present in the original but is overdone here.

For that, and a few other things, like the constantly-appearing train motifs that were more understated in the original, I felt the tone didn’t quite match what I was expecting. That said, I liked the nostalgic aspect of it, even though I’d agree with what some of the characters are saying, that it gets tiresome easily. And as I say, I liked seeing Edinburgh.

I also enjoyed the modernity of a lot of it – for example, there are a lot of glass-walled offices that represent power and money. However, I didn’t much like Ewan McGregor’s updated-for-2017 Luddite “Choose Life” speech, taking potshots at social media and Snapchat. And there was an undercurrent of what could be interpreted as anti-immigrant sentiment – Spud calling himself one of the few natives left in Edinburgh, for example, or Renton clearly put out by the fact that the greeters at the airport are actually from Slovenia. Later they use an EU scheme to try and scam the government out of money.

Despite all those problems, I rate the movie pretty highly. It taps into something deep in my psyche, perhaps. But more than the original, I saw it as a series of scenes that had been haphazardly put together, so it’s not quite up there.

I’d be interested to hear what you think – let me know!

Film #279: Tangerine (2015)

director: Sean Baker
language: English and some Armenian
length: 88 minutes
watched on: 30 March 2017

You may have already heard about this movie for being shot entirely on an iPhone 5. Actually, I hadn’t, I’d only heard its name whispered on the wind a few times before my friend sat us down to watch it on their big projector. Watching movies in style. I should get me one of those…

Anyway, the movie is groundbreaking for that in itself, and it also features a diverse cast of genuine transgender people – something Hollywood has yet to catch up and try themselves.

They are playing hookers, though, not exactly the most positive of portrayals, and they’re very bitchy characters, but the movie rests on their shoulders – it’s very much character-driven and not so much plot-driven. And they carry it well.

It’s set in LA on Christmas Eve, but you could have fooled me – it looks like it’s still summer in California. A lot of the movie features driving around suburban LA, particularly of one taxi driver, and of the guys that pick up the girls on the sidewalk.

The movie was interesting and funny in a black way, and although it’s not my favourite one that I’ve seen recently, I definitely recommend it. There are a few storylines, and it’s unclear at first how they will interact, but it all comes together for the climax. For me the only real problem was (spoilers?) the guy they’re fighting over. I don’t quite see the appeal in him!

But yes, good coherent style and tone. Well worth a watch. Still don’t understand why it’s called Tangerine, though.

Film #231: Young Adult (2011)

youngadultdirector: Jason Reitman
language: English
length: 94 minutes
watched on: 3 October 2016

This was another movie that we went into essentially blind. Charlize Theron, in a far cry from Mad Max, plays a down-on-her-luck ghost-writer in Minnesota. She returns to her small hometown to try and win back her high-school crush, who’s just had a baby with his wife.

First off, I didn’t believe the premise. Theron’s alcoholism and depression are believable and played well, but I didn’t believe that she would be honestly pining over the old flame in such a way – he was pretty bland.

Secondly, I didn’t really believe in her relationship with the other guy, that developed in a predictable and inevitable way over the course of the movie. I also saw it as wish fulfillment on the part of the creators and the actor, since she’s way more attractive than him.

At the same time, it wasn’t a complete waste of time, as there are some blackly comic scenes in there, and Theron’s character does get the kick up the bum that she needs to get back on the horse of her life, and I thought she made a very good performance in general.

The title’s pretty transparent, though. She’s a young adult writer, right, and get this!!! she’s got some growing up to do! I bet the writers were having orgasms over the double meaning there. Stop!

Anyone else seen this? What did you think?

Film #230: Wild Target (2010)

wild_targetdirector: Jonathan Lynn
language: English with bits of French
length: 98 minutes
watched on: 2 October 2016

My dad had this on the computer, but nobody knew what it was, so we were pretty much going in blind when we put this movie on. It turned to be a caper comedy from 2010 about Bill Nighy as a hitman who finds he can’t complete the job on a pretty young Emily Blunt, a happy-go-lucky petty thief. Rupert Grint joins the mix as their third wheel, and Martin Freeman shows up as an overacted bad guy.

I actually quite enjoyed it, because it was pretty light and had a slapstick feel to it (despite also having a black side to it) – but it also felt like it should have been better. Bill Nighy in particular is good at comedy, and he didn’t get so much of a chance to shine in this movie.

On further inspection I found out the movie is based on a well-acclaimed French film, which makes sense, as I’ve always found the French to be better at farce and black comedy than the British, who tend to be better with sarcasm and embarrassment comedy, or with verbal comedy. It also explains why Nighy’s character learns French in his spare time – a nod to the film’s heritage.

The other thing is, Nighy is literally twice Blunt’s age in this film, if not more – his character celebrates his 55th birthday during the film, and I’d guess that Blunt’s character is 27. In fact, Nighy was 60 in 2010, and Emily Blunt was indeed 27. And the fact that he has a crush on her is uncomfortable; the fact that they (spoilers!) end up together and even have a kid is just weird. Hollywood needs to start matching actors by age better – this obviously male fantasy of an older man with a younger woman needs to stop. I was really hoping they’d preclude this, but narratives like this are inevitable.

Also the number of gay jokes is frankly appalling for something written in 2010 – people keep asking Nighy’s character if he’s gay because he hasn’t taken a wife, and so on and so forth. Rupert Grint’s character even shows him his dick to test if he is or not. It’s only six years ago, but those kind of jokes already feel like a bygone era. And yet Sherlock, made the same year, was rife with that shit too. I would expect this more from something written in 2003… this decade I thought we’d gone past that.

As an aside, I didn’t realize Emily Blunt was the same person who played alongside Tom Cruise in Edge of Tomorrow, and she was also in Looper. She looks completely different here, more like a Katy Perry lookalike. I also realized she was in My Summer of Love over a decade ago as one half of a lesbian love affair – although that movie had a pretty fucked up ending I liked it a lot.

As for this movie, it apparently flopped badly, and there’s probably no reason to seek it out, but as I say, despite its obvious flaws and tonal problems, I enjoyed it. My recommendation is ultimately half-hearted, though.

Film #181: The Master Plan (2015)

jonssonliganaka: Jönssonligan: Den perfekta stöten
Director: Alain Darborg
Language: Swedish with a little English, Russian, Finnish
Length: 91 minutes
Watched on: 6 January 2016 (return flight 3/3)

This was my risky wildcard movie on the plane – I think I couldn’t find any more English movies I wanted to watch, and they had a selection of various European countries’ movies. It’s a movie about a group of criminals doing a heist, a bit like Ocean’s Eleven but not as high-budget.

I found out when I looked it up online when I got home that the movie is part of a series, and is intended to be a reboot of that series, which was actually long-running in the 80s or something but pretty much unknown outside of Sweden. Apparently one of the characters changed gender inbetween times, too, so a lot of the comments on IMDB were either “This character is amazing as a woman” or “She sucks”. I thought she was good, personally.

I wouldn’t quite go so far as to say I’d struck gold with this movie, but… let’s say you get an bad wheat-to-chaff ratio when you rummage around the foreign-language section of airplane entertainment systems, and plane movies have been such a mixed bag for me recently, that I was glad that this movie was funny and passed the time well. I think its overall success will be and has been necessarily hampered by being in Swedish and it will not really get an audience outside its home country.

The pacing, especially at the beginning, reminded me a lot of Sarah Manning’s antics in the first two episodes of Orphan Black before all the shit went down, and the movie was well-paced as a result. The characters are easily-caricaturable archetypes, and the movie is stronger as a result: this is not the kind of movie that would take kindly to subtlety.

Compared to the other Swedish movies I’ve watched, it’s a far cry from Ingmar Bergman, and the Millennium trilogy is much darker, so I was glad to see some more diversity in the kinds of movies I see from that country. But since those other kinds of movies make the bulk of Sweden’s exported movies, one shouldn’t expect greatness from this, if one happens to find it available somewhere. It’s entertaining, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to watch the sequel.

TV: Breaking Bad Seasons 1-4 (2008-2011)

Created by: Vince Gilligan
Language: English, Spanish, and a tiny bit of Chinese
Length: 46 (7, 13, 13, 13 resp.) episodes of 47 mins each
Finished watching on: 23 Apr, 11 May, 28 May, 8 Jul resp.

I first heard about this series a while ago, but I got the chance recently when a friend offered me the series from his hard drive. The first thing anyone should know is that it contains the dad from Malcolm in the Middle in a decidedly more dramatic role. For a few episodes this is amusing, as I could only see Hal, but Bryan Cranston is in fact a really good actor (not that we couldn’t tell this from his performance in Malcolm anyway), and in his role as the protagonist of this series, Walter White, he is quite formidable. Plus, his appearance changes quite dramatically during the first season, so it gives a good visual hint that Walter and Hal are two very different people.

The basic premise is fairly easy to sum up: an overqualified chemistry teacher gets cancer, and then decides that since he’s about to shuffle off the mortal coil, he’d better leave something behind for his family, but since he isn’t making anything in either of his two jobs, he promptly starts cooking the finest batch of crystal meth known to man (he’s a really good chemist). He takes a partner in a former flunk-out student of his named Jesse, who likes saying “Bitch” and “Yo” a lot and presumably knows the business… but is also a meth addict. You win some, you lose some, perhaps.

It’s mostly a drama, I’d say, although there are certainly elements of black comedy in there, and the show doesn’t waste any time starting its body count; I think at least one or two characters are dead by the end of the pilot. This will continue to mount for the rest of the show, essentially.

Generally, I really liked it. It has a good sense of realism about it, which I like. When I directly compare it to the last American drama I watched, which was United States of Tara, I see a rather upper-middle class family who don’t really have any major life problems except for those directly posed to them by the drama itself, while here the family aren’t particularly well-off at all and have all sorts of problems that don’t relate directly to the main narrative. Apart from the dad with cancer, there’s a pregnant mum and a son with a minor-but-noteworthy disability (rarely referred to directly, incidentally; the fact that it doesn’t even come close to defining the boy’s character feels quite refreshing), and a house that is massive by UK or Japanese standards, but probably fairly average in suburban America.

To round off the cast of main characters, there is also the mother’s sister and brother-in-law, who works for the Drug Enforcement Agency, and is constantly on Walter’s tail without ever actually sussing him. There’s also a hilariously corrupt lawyer and various drug barons that the pair work for; first the violent Tuco, and later Gus, who looks a bit like a lifelessly scary Obama and is usually acted in an ominously emotionless way.

I don’t want to give too much away, though. The story is excellent, and it twists and turns all over the place throughout the series’ run. In general I can’t find fault with the characters or the acting. As they develop, the story gets darker, which I sort of expect from many dramas – it feels more like a romp in the first series or two, and starts becoming thicker and more eerie during the third, where people really start mistrusting each other. By this point there is also a main antagonist, too; for the first and second season this was often just Walter’s wife Skyler, who didn’t think too much of him disappearing all the time with flimsy excuses.

I guess the main criticism is that it’s fairly dry. I could never watch more than one episode in a day, because even though the drama and the storyline are generally great, sometimes you have episodes where not much happens, or stuff only happens in one part of the episode, with the other half focussing on something that is perhaps important to the storyline, and may even be funny, but is basically mundane. Again, this stands in contrast to the last American drama I watched, which was more like an addictive pageturner. This means that it took me several months to finish, rather than a couple of weeks, although it took longer because I got distracted by various other series too. I don’t know whether this is a good or a bad thing; I guess it’s probably good, because it’s the perfect amount of drama and tedium that makes you want to watch more, but not immediately, and therefore watching it once a week and keeping up with the TV schedule wouldn’t be too much of a problem for me. Less tedium would still be nice, hoewever. Speaking of which, the new series is starting in America on Sunday. I guess I’ll have to find a way to -ahem- acquire it then.

All in all, comes with a full recommendation…

Film #27: The Guard (2011)

Directed by: James Michael McDonagh
Language: English and a little bit of Gaelic
Length: 96 minutes
Watched on: 3 September

I went to see this film pretty much on a whim and wasn’t disappointed. It’s basically a black comedy set in Ireland about a police officer who doesn’t give a shit. It’s inevitable that it’ll be compared to “In Bruges”, with which it shares an actor – also, both are about Irish people and their directors are brothers. But I think “In Bruges” wins somehow, possibly just because it’s even more tragic at the end.

This film captures the boredom of small town life in the arse end of Ireland rather well – and best of all, does it without being a boring film, like so many auteurish pieces before it. The plot is pretty much that Don Cheadle’s character, an FBI agent, is after some drug smugglers on the coast, and Brendan Gleeson is enlisted to help him. And, of course, Gleeson’s character is probably the most uncouth and racist on the entire police force.

Other scenes in the movie are pretty predictable but funny, such as Cheadle trying to get an answer out of village residents who refuse to speak English, and coming back to a Gleeson who proceeds to ask him very matter-of-factly whether it’s true that black folks can’t swim.

It’s quite a slow buildup overall, but with plenty of laughs, and there are a couple of cool action sequences in it, almost surprisingly. Well worth catching if you get the chance, anyway.

Film #23: Lost Highway (1996)

director: David Lynch
language: English
length: 128 minutes
watched on: 24 July

Let this be a lesson to you all: don’t leave it two months to write a review of a film that you were half-asleep while watching anyway. I find it hard enough to follow David Lynch’s films as it is, I have to say, and this was no exception, and I was very tired when I watched it, so I missed bits.

What I remember was good. There was a particularly surreal and comical scene where a gangster jumps out of his car and threatens a guy with a gun for tailgating, or something like that; I liked that. And there was the guy in the picture, whose function in the film I can’t quite remember; I just remember him being creepy as fuck.

Anyway, I’m partly only writing this for completeness, and so that I can get onto meatier topics…

Film #20: Tampopo (1985)

aka: タンポポ
director: Jūzō Itami
language: Japanese
length: 114 minutes
watched on: 7 July

This was a delight of a film. It was advertised as a “Noodle Western”, which I thought was just a lame pun on “Spaghetti Western” implying that it was a Western made by the Japanese, but actually, it was a film about noodles that heavily used the conventions and tropes of the Western genre. In fact, more than just noodles, it was about Japanese food culture in general. It was also delightfully surreal at times. I’m getting hungry just thinking about it.

The main plot of the story involves a woman trying to be successful at running a local ramen bar. She enlists the help of a behatted stranger who shows up in a lorry one day, some kind of lone ranger. The list of supporting characters gradually grows over the course of the movie, and they’re all weird and cool in their own special ways.

Over the course of the movie, the cowboy character has to fight off various obstacles in a typical Western style, culminating in a really quite strange substitute for a shoot-out of two men decking it out underneath a busy highway on an industrial estate, while he forever pushes the woman further on her voyage of discovery.

Or something. While the story is interesting, in some ways, what actually made this film stand out were the numerous vinaigrettes (“vignettes” seemed a bit inappropriate for a film about food, so out come the malapropisms!), which each surround an aspect of food culture in Japan. They pop into the story occasionally to break it up into chunks.

Some of the more memorable ones include a young intern who humiliates his older superiors by knowing loads more about French cuisine in an expensive restaurant (a massive faux pas, I hear), followed shortly by a woman trying desperately to teach her class of young, impressionable débutante type girls that one should eat spaghetti without slurping, only to be foiled by a fat American slurping loudly at the next table – of course, seeing this they don’t believe her and they all start slurping loudly in imitation. Later we see a woman on her deathbed who just manages to summon the strength to cook for her husband and children – presumably, it’s all she does all day – before dropping dead in front of them. Morbid black humour by this point, of course.

Then, in one of the funniest scenes of the movie, we see two massive food fetishists going at it like bunnies – the bit where they pass an eggyolk from one’s mouth to the other’s goes from being almost understandable to downright bizarre after they keep doing it for more than a minute…

That’s not to say that the vinaigrettes were the only good thing about the film. I already mentioned the characters of the main storyline – one memorable introduction halfway through the film, for instance, was an old man who stubbornly refuses to follow the instructions of his minder when eating – she only wanted to prevent him from choking, and, of course, he chokes. And there are some great scenes where the two main characters are snooping around trying to steal ramen preparation techniques and recipes from their main competitors; evocative of the Western genre but keeping that air of slight ridiculousness.

I thought it was a great movie, essentially. It’s certainly funny, and it explores the various themes surrounding food – its consumption, its preparation and the social mores concerning it – well, without getting too boring. Definitely worth a watch.

Most importantly for me, perhaps, was the fact that watching this rekindled my interest in specifically Japanese food and film culture – a month or two later and I’ve done an interview and been offered a job in Japan to start next year, having realised that somewhere else, such as Korea or China, would be a bad idea when I know so comparatively little about it, and that I’ll regret it if I don’t end up going to Japan. It’s also just the other little things, like listening to the Japanese soundtrack to the movie and realising that I can actually understand isolated bits and pieces of the language (although annoyingly, it’s mostly the grammatical markers, and even then, only a few of them). Compare this to Korean or Chinese, of which I understand zero, and I think I’m making a wise choice in sticking with Japan…

Man, I’m hungry now.