Netflix’s Fullmetal Alchemist

This post contains spoilers for Fullmetal Alchemist, the Fullmetal Alchemist anime and won’t make any sense if you haven’t seen at least one of them. 

Perhaps a natural consequence of being a Japanese student at university, I have recently found myself drawn slowly back into the murky waters of anime. A big contributor to this has been Netflix, which reintroduced me to anime with Devilman Crybaby (more on that in an upcoming review). Their next big-ditch effort to get me watching anime again is with the live action adaptation of Fullmetal Alchemist; one of my favourite TV shows, animated or otherwise. (People will be quick to point out that this film isn’t really a Netflix film, but hey look it’s distributed by them here and it fits with my opening spiel so shh).

For those not in the know, I highly suggest not reading this post, and instead retreating to a cave for a couple of weeks to binge through the 2003 and 2009 adaptations of Hiromu Arakawa’s manga (and then coming back to this please). But if you really don’t have the time, then here’s a brief rundown of what Fullmetal Alchemist is all about. The story takes place in the fictional European country of Amestris post-Industrial Revolution. The country is ruled by a large military, which employs various ‘state alchemists’; essentially scientists who use alchemy (which in this universe is basically a kind of magic) for military purposes. The main plotline of Fullmetal Alchemist follows one such state alchemist in his effort to find the ‘Philosopher’s Stone’, which grants the user the power to perform alchemy without following the ‘Law of Equivalent Exchange’, which dictates that in order to create something, something of equal value must be sacrificed. Said alchemist, Edward Elric, needs the stone in order to get his arm and leg and his brother’s body back, having lost them attempting to resurrect their mother.

Despite how badly I explained that, you’ll have to trust me that the story of Fullmetal Alchemist is incredibly well told, and its world beautifully well realised. It perfects, to my mind at least, everything you need from a fantasy epic; an interesting and thought out setting; a complex but not pedantic plot; stakes that raise in a natural and addictive way, and most importantly, engaging and well-written characters. One day I’d love to write about the series and its many good adaptations. But, of course, that’s not what you’re here for. Instead, let’s talk about this adaptation.

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To put it simply, the new live action Fullmetal Alchemist adaptation is bad. Really, really bad. It works neither for fans of the series, nor for newcomers.

I think we can cover most of the film’s issues with an examination of one plotline, and it’s one of the most famous from the original story; the meeting between Edward Elric and Shou Tucker, the Sewing Life Alchemist. For many fans, this is the moment that sticks out most in all of Fullmetal Alchemist, and it’s for a good reason. This is the pivotal moment in which the series undergoes a pretty harsh tonal shift. There are undercurrents of tragedy throughout the series’ start, with the loss of the Elric’s mother and the loss of Rose’s husband. But the dramatic murder of Nina and Alexander is sure to stick in anyone’s mind. It brings the Elric brother’s to their lowest point, starts to expose the flaws in the military, and introduces the potential horrors of alchemy. So, of course, I was interested to see how the live action adaptation would handle it.

First impressions are pretty good; specifically in the casting. Shou Tucker in this version is pretty unassuming, much more so than the slightly creepy Tucker of the original. I’m sure his dramatic shift will come as more of a surprise than the original Tucker’s might have done. Nina and Alexander are also pretty adorable, just to stick the knife in as much as possible. In general, the casting in the film is on point, although, of course, with the caveat that the actors are Japanese.

Hollywood adaptations are often given a bad rap for their lack of diversity, and while I understand that, Fullmetal Alchemist dodges that criticism because the main cast are all European. I’d be fine with the Japanese version retconning the story to take place in a Japanese setting, or even keep the European style and have all the characters be Japanese, but instead the live-action version compromises. Blond characters, including Edward Elric, seem to either be wearing a wig or have their hair bleached, which looks awful. Doing this instead of hiring blond actors or simply not bothering makes it look like the characters are simply cosplaying, a problem that also extends to the costumes. Of this slavish devotion to the anime’s look, the Homunculi suffer the worst. Gluttony looks comical, while Envy’s outfit is just absurd. I know I’ll get a lot of flak for this, but I much prefer adaptations that change the look of the original to suit live action. Give me a US Death Note over a Japanese Fullmetal Alchemist any day.

Returning to Tucker, the meeting between him and Ed starts with the two of them talking about Tucker’s backstory while Winry and Al play with Nina and Alexander. Ed then tells Tucker about his backstory, which has just been shown to us around 2 scenes ago.

So here we come to the film’s second problem; exposition. Fullmetal Alchemist is about 27 manga volumes long, and each of its adaptations run for around 60 episodes. It’s clear that the film won’t get through that much content in 2 and a half hours, and at many points it thankfully doesn’t even try. This means, however, that there’s bound to be a lot of exposition, but the amount of scenes of characters just talking at each other is frustrating. When Ed talks to Tucker about his backstory it’s especially bad seeing as we’ve seen it play out minutes beforehand, but even if the information is new to the viewer, it’s often presented in the most boring way possible.

The anime also had exposition dumps, but the dialogue was often filled with personality, and the animation took full use of its potential, with wildly expressive characters. In this adaptation, if the characters aren’t expositing in a bland meeting room, then they’re expositing on the battlefield, between attacks. In anime, the suspension of disbelief allows you to get away with a lot more – in live action it’s much stricter. When Lust pauses during the fight with Mustang and Ed to explain her own weak point to them, I was baffled at just how poorly the writers were conveying this information.

When Ed has finished telling Tucker what we already knew, Tucker offers to help examine Al’s body, a touch I enjoyed, because it gives Tucker more to do than just own a library. Tucker then tells Ed about Dr. Marcoh, but he confusingly does this offscreen, despite the film already proving that it loves to shove exposition dumps at us.

When Ed returns from seeing Dr. Marcoh, we finally get to the scene when the truth about Tucker is revealed and it’s a let-down to say the least.

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Firstly, the scene takes place in pretty much broad daylight. I know that thunder and lightning during a dramatic scene is a bit rote, but pathetic fallacy is used for a reason; it ups the drama considerably, and allows some more interesting lighting. The scene in the anime looked threatening and dynamic – here it looks flat and cheap. This flat lighting is present throughout the film and really makes the whole thing look incredibly cheap and bland.

Evidence of the film’s budget is inconsistent – often the CGI looks amazing. Al’s armoured body is especially good, with some real weight behind it. Other times it looks less than convincing, and the Nina/Alexander chimera also suffers some because of it. In the anime, the flat, empty eyes of the dog were haunting because they were so simplified, but they just look a bit strange when made 3D. Other creations, such as the immortal army just end up looking incredibly strange, although maybe the fact that I can’t figure out if I find them incredibly creepy or completely ridiculous means they’re a success.

Eventually Ed figures out the truth behind Tucker’s mad experiment and starts to beat him up (again, lacking the dramatic lighting of the original). And I think it’s here where I can highlight my final problem with the film; the acting.

I want to preface this by saying I’m not entirely sure that it’s the actors who are completely at fault here, because there are some scenes with real promise in them. Instead, I’d say it was the script, and not even necessarily the original script. Instead, it’s a confusing devotion to the manga’s script and tone. In anime, you can get away with going extremely over-the-top, especially for comedy, but that doesn’t work as well in live action. When the actors imitate the anime’s line delivery it just doesn’t work, not just because of their many pregnant pauses in between lines, but because their facial expression just can’t match the energy required of them. Even in drawing Arakawa realised that the tonal shift of the way characters spoke sometimes was a bit jarring, and for comedic zany moments would simplify the art style to ease the reader into the new tone. Of course, you can’t do that in live-action, but the zany lines were kept in and it all just feels a bit odd.

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It’s not just comedy where this happens; melodrama creates it as well. In the anime, when Tucker starts revealing his true self to Ed, the lines he says are quite cliched, quite melodramatic (“Me and you; we’re the same!” is the sort of thing Dr. Evil says to Austin Powers, not what real people say to each other), but the animation makes it work. The Tucker of this version gives a subtler performance, but he’s asked to spout the same lines, and so they’re exposed to not really working in live action.

I think that’s the point, isn’t it? Fullmetal Alchemist would never work in live action, at least not when so accurately recreated on-screen. I’m fine with this, because the story exists in its perfect form already, but I think every anime adaptation needs to learn from this. Yes, changing the story dramatically will be controversial. No one (except me) responded well to the Netflix Death Note film, but the answer isn’t to go back to making 1:1 recreations. Stories need to be adapted to their medium, and what works in animation won’t work in live-action. I’m not just talking about the size of the plot, or the specific moments of flashy animation – I’m talking everything from character design to tone.

So. If Hollywood ever decides to make a Fullmetal Alchemist adaptation, or when Japan inevitably puts whatever was popular a few years ago to film – I want the directors to ask what they can bring to the story beyond just the bare minimum.

Stray Observations

  • Trisha Elric’s death scene is unintentionally hilarious, and a really bad start to the film, given that she just kinda… falls over.
  • The film is able to retcon Winry’s hair colour, but not Ed’s or Riza’s?
  • General Halcrow is given an expanded role in the film, but the Fuhrer isn’t in it. Halcrow’s role is that of a face for military corruption, but I really don’t see why they couldn’t have used the Fuhrer. I’m guessing this was to do with leaving him for a sequel, but it just makes Halcrow’s role very weird and underdeveloped. (Also, if he is supposed to be a symbol of widespread corruption, then why does he claim that no one gives him orders? Doesn’t that mean that everything that happened in Lab 5 was just down to him? Did Bradley even know in this canon????)
  • Also Tucker comes back for no reason at the end of the film. Basically he just says some exposition then is killed.
  • Speaking of ‘no reason’ – there’s no reason the Homunculi keep Ed alive. They keep saying he’ll be a good sacrifice, but this is never bought up. Instead, all he does is hinder their plan, so them keeping him alive is baffling.
  • The soundtrack is really awful – not just bland, but at times jarring.

Top 7 Films of 2017

2017 continues to prove itself excellent as we move into the realm of cinema; I’ve seen about 50 films this year, so not everything, but not a shabby amount either, and there’s a lot to recommend. You might notice that this list is in alphabetical order; that’s because I was, in fact, having such a difficult time deciding on the order of films that I just gave up entirely. Like last year it’s worth reminding you that because I live in the UK there’s quite a few films that have released overseas, but not over here; Lady Bird and The Shape of Water and The Third Murder are three that spring to mind as potential omissions from this list. This also means that films released in 2016 in America, but in 2017 over here are applicable for my list, seeing as they were left off last time. So, without further aideu,

Honourable Mentions

As I said, this year has been excellent for films, and this meant that even picking the honourable mentions involved a whole lot of tough decision making. I think some films that came out early in the year and that I have yet to rewatch suffered the cost. Manchester By the Sea and Moonlight were both fantastic dramas, and Moonlight especially deserves to be lauded for its importance and the beautiful way it told its story. The three more recent films I would like to also mention are Blade Runner 2049; The Florida Project and The Disaster Artist, the former two of which narrowly missed out a place on this list.

Baby Driver

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The last film made by director Edgar Wright before this was 2013’s The World’s End, probably the weakest of the ‘Cornetto Trilogy’. But before that he directed Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and Scott Pilgrim vs the World, three of my favourite films. So to see him back on form is a treat. Baby Driver is exactly the film the premise describes; a car chase/heist movie literally set to music. The best scenes in the film exemplify this vision. The initial set piece of a car chase set to Bellbottoms is the perfect opening statement, while a gun fight where each shot fires to the beat of Tequila is sublime. There are flaws here; the central romance is undercooked and the final act runs a little long. But I think the most telling thing about Baby Driver is that I went to see it in the cinema 4 times, twice as much as any other film on this list.

Colossal

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There were, amazingly, two subversive Kaiju films that released in the UK in 2017, but while I have every respect and love for the Iannucci-style comedy of Shin GodzillaColossal is the clear choice as the better film. To just describe the plot of Colossal would be doing it a disservice, because written down it becomes silly. But yes, this is a film in which Anne Hathaway ends up controlling a giant monster in Korea whenever she goes to a certain park at a certain time.

It’s an extremely strange plot, but that the film manages to make it work so well would already be a marvel. That the film also tackles subjects such as alcoholism and abusive relationships through the lens of this plot is even more remarkable. However, Colossal is not just a gimmick – it’s a truly great film, and one I urge you to seek out, because judging by the box office results; you haven’t yet.

Get Out

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At a certain moment during the climactic scene of Get Out, the audience at the cinema I was at burst into applause and cheers. It was a moment of huge relief, to be sure, but in no other movie I’ve seen in the cinema, horror or otherwise, has that sort of spontaneous reaction been elicited from the audience. That speaks to the power of Get Out; a satirical horror-comedy in the vein of The Stepford Wives; a black guy visits his white girlfriend’s parent’s house and finds that not all is as it seems.

Where Get Out finds such great success is in its target. Not content to go after the standard “hillbilly” racist, Get Out reaches for a subtler target; something much more prevalent in modern liberal society, and thus much scarier for it. This is a film for 2017, but to restrict its influence would be unfair, because even without the backdrop of the current political climate, this film is smart, funny and extremely creepy.

La La Land

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Damien Chazelle’s first film; Whiplash, shot up my ranking of favourite films quicker than almost anything I’ve seen before. La La Land, while continuing the jazz theme, seemed like such a departure from the thriller genre that defined Whiplash, that I was skeptical I’d love it quite as much. I was a fool to be skeptical, though, because La La Land is something extremely special.

The musical numbers are all instant winners and shining examples of filmmaking at its most visually impressive. The plot is something that initially seems like a simple love story; a vehicle for these musical interludes, but quickly reveals its depth, leading to an utterly heartbreaking epilogue that I can’t even think about without tearing up. A stunning achievement.

mother!

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mother! is a film that courts controversy, but I think it’s too easy to get lost in the discourse surrounding the film and forget that what’s being discussed is a truly amazing piece of horror filmmaking. Basing its story on an allegory that becomes pretty obvious around 20 minutes into the film (but which I still won’t spoil here), mother! uses this base storyline in order to explore more complex themes such as human destruction of the environment; the creative mind and abusive relationships.

So much can be read into the strange and surreal visuals and characters of mother!, that some may regard this as a weakness; that the film is too vague to say anything of any note, but I regard it as a strength; the film is made to be discussed, and hopefully will be for quite a while longer. Even scraping back those layers of subtextual storytelling, the basic filmmaking skill on display is to be marvelled at. Everything, from the camera’s close claustrophobic focus on Jennifer Lawrence to the emphasis placed on certain sound effects, racket up the tension and make for a horrifying; unforgettable and truly unique cinematic experience.

The Death of Stalin

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The Death of Stalin is much funnier than a film about the struggle for control over Russia after Stalin’s demise has any right to be. It is, however, a clear perfect fit for the writing talents of Armando Iannucci, who specialises in the political farce. Free from the suffocating terror of Stalin, the film documents the struggle for power over those who worked directly underneath him. The Death of Stalin could have easily worked as simply a clever political farcical comedy like The Thick of It, and certainly it includes a lot of that.

However, what elevates it is the ability to infuse the comic with the tragic; to reduce the leaders of the Soviet Union to clowns while also reminding us of the tragic consequences of their power. In the opening scene, a radio producer has to struggle to find a replacement conductor for a re-performance of a piano concerto, specially requested by Stalin himself. The farce elements of the producer trying to find a conductor for his impromptu performance is offset by the way the conductor is found; armed guards storming buildings and carrying people off in the night. It’s this delicate balance of comedy and horror that The Death of Stalin plays off to great success.

The Handmaiden

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The Handmaiden is an extremely clever erotic thriller, as you might expect from director Park Chan-Wook; based on a novel set in Victorian England, the action is transposed to Korea under Japanese colonial rule. There, the film follows three individuals; a wealthy Japanese heiress; her Korean handmaiden and a faux Japanese count. The interplay between these three characters fuels The Handmaiden, with each of their different goals and schemes leading to a multitude of complex twists that shift the focus between characters, as well as the audience’s sympathies.

If that weren’t enough, the film takes the time to comment on class, porn and sexuality, as each of those things becomes an integral part of how the characters play off one another. The Handmaiden also provides a showcase for one of the best pieces of cinematic architecture I’ve ever seen; a half Victorian half Japanese mansion that holds various tricks and secrets among its sliding doors and imposing bookcases.

So that’s 2017 all wrapped up. Here’s to an even better 2018 for pop culture (and hopefully for global affairs as well (although that might be too much to ask))

 

Top 16 of 2016

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This time of the year is when everyone and their mum comes up with their best things of the year, but you should listen to me because… um, I write it down I guess? In all seriousness, this year has been pretty good for entertainment, even if it hasn’t been so good for the rest of the world. This post will focus on the stuff that takes your mind off of it all though; Films, Video Games and TV. So without further adieu…

Best Films of the Year

Before I get into this; no, obviously I haven’t seen every good film this year. In fact, some films I’ve heard are great haven’t even come to the UK yet (see; La La Land). Also, the order is pretty arbitrary.

6) Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

Spinal Tap will never be topped as musical mockumentary, but this film comes pretty damn close. Much like the David Brent movie, the songs are one of the best things about this film, but even outside the Lonely Island’s usual musical comedy genius is a nifty little film that starts as a modern pop-star parody and ends in a glorious and over the top musical number starring the power of friendship and Michael Bolton. The film’s genius comes in hiding perhaps a rather standard plot in a guise of flashy songs and surreal humour, much as how it’s star Conner4Real masks a simple personality behind the veil of his superstardom. Perhaps the funniest gag in the film though is when Nas says of the song Karate Guy; ‘that song changed my life’, in the most deadpan tone he can manage when talking about a song who’s lyrics contain ‘We’re rolling with our friends, All over town, But we’re all in the car, We’re not rolling on the ground’. Brilliant.

5) Train to Busan

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I don’t watch many zombie films, but that doesn’t mean I don’t know a good one when I see it. Train to Busan takes a simple premise (zombies, but on a train) and extends it to its natural conclusion. The zombies move around in a thrillingly creepy way, their bodies twisting in a way that makes them seem like they were filmed in stop motion. The train itself is a fantastic setting, and it makes sense that the film is reluctant to move far away from it; it condenses the action into tight corridors and spaces, and makes the horde of zombies piling over each other an ever more terrifying sight as there’s only one way to run. The traditional zombie movie clichés may all be present, but the setting helps make them feel fresh, as does the acting and cinematography. These things come together in a surprisingly effective little package that breathes a little bit more life into the genre. (I could have made a zombie joke there, but that would be dead stupid)

4) Hell or High Water

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I don’t have much to say about this one to be really honest. A really solid film that harkens back to old Westerns while revolving around a modern day series of heists. Great performances from the main cast, and fantastic direction. Not necessarily the easiest film to watch, but well worth seeking out.

3) When Marnie was There

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No, this might not end up being Ghibli’s final film, but if it was it wouldn’t be a tragedy. In fact, When Marnie was There ends up a touching mini masterpiece that shies away from grand narratives and focuses on a small town and a relationship between two people, one of whom’s existence is called into question by the viewer and the protagonist herself. Really, however, the crux of the film rests on the protagonist. Throughout the film we question her sanity and reliability but she remains a fascinating lens to which to see the beautifully animated world through. As a Ghibli swan song, this may be a whimper rather than a bang, but in this case, that isn’t a negative.

2) 10 Cloverfield Lane

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You really shouldn’t know anything about this film before going in, but suffice to say while my expectations going in were low, this film blew me away. Sharing a similar dynamic to last year’s Ex Machina (three people alone in a remote location), 10 Cloverfield Lane feels more like an indie experiment than a sequel to a blockbuster monster movie, but it’s all the better for it. Claustrophobic direction courtesy of Dan Trachtenberg, combined with the masterful performance of John Goodman are what makes this film click as a tense psychological thriller. The ending has proved controversial but I rather liked it, and if you don’t, just forget it happened and enjoy the rest of one of the best films of the year.

1) Hunt for the Wilderpeople

I said the ratings for this were arbitrary, but for this entry they aren’t. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is my film of the year, hands down. The art of directing comedy seems to be lost on most mainstream comedy films, but a few directors still have the knack. One of these directors is Taika Waititi, and this is on full display here, even more so than in his last film What We Do In The Shadows. While that film had a premise that perhaps didn’t quite deserve the run time, Hunt for the Wilderpeople has both the heart and comedy to sustain a full film length. The humour is the gentle kind that Flight of the Conchords (another New Zealand comedy) mined brilliantly, and Hunt for the Wilderpeople has some lines that are up to par with that show’s comic genius (“You’re more like Sarah Connor. And in the first film, before she could do chin-ups.”). Julian Dennison, who plays Ricky, is a talented child actor of the kind any director would be lucky to find, and his chemistry with the gruff Sam Neill is pitch perfect. A real treat, and my unrivalled best film of the year.

Best Video Games of the Year

Another arbitrarily ranked list. Don’t expect any AAA titles on here, I didn’t play many of those this year. Instead, treat this as a list of quirky games you may have missed otherwise (but only if you own a 3DS)

N/A) The Last Guardian

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I can’t give this a ranking yet, because I haven’t finished it and I plan to write a full and comprehensive review when I have. However, The Last Guardian has completely won me over. It’s a broken game in parts, with a messy camera and an unstable frame rate. However, I simply found myself not caring. The coup this game pulled off was to get me to care about Trico, the giant dog/bird monster who guides you through the game’s mysterious world, and it did this successfully through every means available; cutscene, gameplay, animations and scripted sequences. This one’s shaping up to be a true classic.

4) Pocket Card Jockey

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Mobile games are a difficult thing to do well. They tend to be shallow little experiences, fun for a few minutes before becoming mind numbingly tedious. Pocket Card Jockey avoids this by taking the classic card game of solitaire, the ultimate boredom killer, and attaching it to fast fun horse racing with enough skill that winning feels like an achievement and enough luck that anyone can pick it up and play. Plus the game has a whole host of other little side options that make it feel well worth the price tag.

3) Rhythm Paradise Megamix

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Strange surreal mini-games played to the beat off catchy J-pop tunes. This one contains all the mini games from past Rhythm Paradise games as well as a host of catchy new ones. It’s fun, it’s addictive, but its ultimately bogged down on an initial play-through by a needlessly inserted story. Luckily forcing your way through that opens up a treasure trove of mini treats. Enjoy!

2) Kirby: Planet Robobot

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Occasionally, you have to celebrate a game for having not much more than really good level design. Kirby: Planet Robobot has that in abundance and I would have never even played it had it not been for a sale at a game shop I stumbled into. I’m not the biggest fan of the game’s steampunk aesthetic, but it solidifies it into a cohesive experience and links to the game’s new core mechanic. Unlike other gimmick Kirby power-ups, the Robobot armour isn’t used to solve obvious puzzles, but as a new way to traverse the level, sometimes even cutting off valuable collectables in exchange for a quicker path through. It has it’s own copy abilities, and it’s fun to control through the tightly designed corridor levels traditional to the Kirby series. Even the story is a step up from usual, a weird little muse on the ethics of colonialism. Well worth a play.

1) Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney: Spirit of Justice

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You can read my spoilerific review here, but for those yet to play it: the best addition to a fantastic series since Trials and Tribulations back in 2004.

Best New TV shows of the Year

Comedy dominates this list because it’s what I’m a specialist in, but I’ve heard there were lots of good drama shows as well. I’m just not the guy for that. Also, this is just new stuff, so no second series here (sorry Crazy Ex Girlfriend, It’s Always Sunny, Brooklyn Nine Nine and many more).

4) The Good Place

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Mike Schur is one of the most reliable names in comedy, so I had little doubt that The Good Place would be, well, good. What I didn’t expect was that this comedy would be so great even in its first season. Sure, there’s room for improvement but even as the series went on the quality of episodes kept increasing. Set in the afterlife, Kirsten Bell plays a woman who has been sent there mistakenly, while Ted Danson plays the afterlife’s oddball ‘architect’. Like Schur’s other comedies, the show rests on a balance between main and supporting cast both pulling their weight, and luckily they do. What’s different about The Good Place is that it feels less like a traditional sitcom – it’s much more structured and planned, each episode ending in a cliff hanger. For that reason, I’m excited for each new episode not just for the comedy, but also to see where the plot goes next.

3) Lady Dynamite

I already wrote about this one, and here’s what I said; With shows like Master of None; Love; Grace and Frankie; Bojack Horseman, as well as non-Netflix shows in a similar vein, this genre has become the new big thing. As a comedy fan and a Netflix user, I’m glad to see this uptick in odd comedies supported by a major streaming service. However, not all of these really hit the spot in what I’m looking for. Master of None probably came the closest (perhaps because of my innate Aziz Ansari bias), but I don’t know if it would have deserved a spot on this list. Then along came Lady Dynamite, created by Mitch Hurwitz of Arrested Development fame (another show you should really check out), and Maria Bamford, of strange stand-up semi-fame. Lady Dynamite edges out those other shows because its actually really funny, as well as building a convincing character portrait thorough a clever structural device of three timelines that chart Bamford’s fall into mental illness to her recovery. Lady Dynamite is extremely surreal, with buildings having names on them (Maria’s house has ‘Maria’s House’ written on it), and talking pugs, but this fits with Bamford’s often manic personality and surrealist humour. The show mainly focuses on Maria’s attempts to work her way into Hollywood fame, first by trying to capitalize on her eccentricities, then, after her breakdown, by trying to avoid this. In a way, the show itself provides an epilogue to the events that take place inside the show; in making Lady Dynamite, Bamford has manged to make the perfect show the fictionalized version of her dreams of creating. Thanks, Netflix.

2) Search Party

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This one was a real surprise to me; I had no real idea about it until it aired, but I binged the entire show in two nights. This is an almost perfect package of a show, a fascinating psychological study of Dory (played brilliantly by Alia Shawkat), a woman struggling to find purpose in her dull life until she gets swept up in a missing persons case involving an old acquaintance from University. Some see this show as a critique of so-called millennials, others shun that interpretation. In my opinion this show acts more as a reflection on contemporary characters; it’s too loving towards some of its key players and too engaged in their culture to be a simple critique, but too damning of their efforts to be a celebration of it. Whatever it is, I’m sure everyone can agree that this is smart, funny television that can exist even without social context as it’s own thing.

1) The People vs OJ Simpson

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Like many viewers of The People vs OJ Simpson, I was not alive to witness the original trial. However, the cultural memory has lingered in the imagination long enough for lines like ‘if the gloves don’t fit, you must acquit’ to exist apart from the original tragedy. FX’s show The People vs OJ Simpson brings back the trial to TV screens and is every bit as gripping as what I’ve heard of the original. The cast playing the roles are all superb, even David Schwimmer surprises as Rob Kardashian (more like Ross Kardashian), but Sarah Paulson is the undeniable best performance of the show as Marcia Clark. The show looks at the case from multiple angles, each as intriguing as the last, and slowly guides you into understanding how the shock verdict came to be. This one stands at the top of many a ‘year’s best’ list and for good reason. I wish I could write for longer about this one but I feel I’ve already gone on long enough. This is one of the best TV shows not only of this year, but that I’ve ever seen, and it deserves to be remembered as a faithful and telling depiction of tragedy and the role of law in public life.

So that was my top 16 of 2016. Obviously I’ve not seen everything, and if you disagree with any of my suggestions, or want to recommend me something to review, please say in the comments. Additionally, if you want to hear my full thoughts on any of these, drop a comment and I’ll try and write a longer review. Thanks, and here’s to a better 2017!

Quick Review: Life on the Road

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When I walked out of seeing David Brent: Life on the Road the other day I thought to myself (as I’m sure many of you did); did the world really need a David Brent movie? The answer, of course, is no; David Brent got a near perfect ending in the Christmas special of The Office all the way back in 2003. But perhaps more important than the answer was the question (deep af); if Life on the Road had been good, then I wouldn’t have been asking whether it was needed.

Life on the Road isn’t awful; in fact, it’s better than most of what Ricky Gervais has been making since he split with Stephen Merchant after the Warwick Davis mockumentary Life’s too Short. But it still exhibits most of what makes New Ricky (as I like to call him) a disappointment as a solo writer. To fully understand this, you need to look at 2002 David Brent. Brent is known as the sad sack of a boss, someone who is detestable and would be easy to laugh at were it not for that hint of inner sadness Gervais’ brilliant performance imbues him with. Whereas Michael Scott in the US version of The Office is an idiot who makes you question the Wernham Hogg hiring system, David Brent is clearly capable of his job, only faltering when he has to demonstrate a strength he doesn’t have, which brings out the worst in him. It’s a really lovely piece of writing from Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais; a subtle character study that I haven’t done justice to here. Even in his most extreme and memorable moments (the dance, Freelove Freeway), which Gervais clearly draws upon in Life on the Road, there’s a subtlety that wouldn’t be found in the US equivalent. The excruciating dance scene only takes place as a sad act of desperation to regain his title as ‘chilled-out entertainer…fact’, and the guitar rendition of Freelove Freeway is one of the few times we see Brent actually intentionally entertain his workforce. (By the way, if you haven’t yet seen the UK version of The Office, you owe it to yourself as a comedy fan.)

I hate to say it then, but Gervais completely misses the point of his own character in Life on the Road. That isn’t to say Life on the Road isn’t funny, it is; I laughed a fair number of times at some of the more outrageous jokes, and the songs are Flight of the Conchords or Crazy Ex-Girlfriend level i.e. comedy songs that are funny and well-made in their own right (my personal favourite being the titular ‘Life on the Road’). But Gervais strips out all of the subtlety from Brent. Sure, when David Brent proudly exclaims ‘racial’ after singing the line ‘The spaceman he answered “You no longer mind, I’ve opened your eyes, you’re now colour-blind”‘, it raises one of the biggest laughs of the scene. But to then make half the songs in the film just Brent spouting obviously racist or offensive lines is just misunderstanding the character.

 

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Work it, Ricky

 

The excruciatingly ‘cringy’ elements of Brent have also been turned up to eleven. Again, his constant racially charged remarks to his accompanying rapper Dom Johnson (played by real life rap comedian Doc Brown) are inconsistent with the original Brent, who, while not exactly PC, was never so blunt before. Worst of all to my earbuds is the laugh, which Gervais employs as if it were an instant laugh button. Unfortunately, it’s more like an instant trip to the otolaryngologist (yes, I had to look that up), it’s so annoying and grating. Maybe more successfully cringy/depressing is watching Brent drain his own money on his tour, which the film revolves around. Like seeing a Dragon’s Den entrepreneur who’s spent their life’s savings on a ‘foreign driving glove’ (look it up), this is some of the most painful cinema I’ve seen since the Saw films. That is until Gervais once again takes it over the edge in a scene where Brent has to pay for his bandmates to have a drink with him. That’s just too much (although maybe not – this Brent is 20 times more annoying than the original, so…)

The conclusion you might be coming to might be; would the film work better if Brent wasn’t the name of the character, and the answer is sadly, yes. By calling him David Brent, you suddenly have to live up to the legacy of one of the greatest comedic creations on all of television, which Gervais by himself clearly can’t handle. But the film wouldn’t be perfect. Even without raised expectations created by branding, the over-the-top nature of Brent in this film just isn’t all that funny. Another aspect of the film that would still be there without Brent is the hacky sentimentality New Gervais ™ tries to force into all of his projects. It works especially poorly here; when Brent is so exaggerated as to be repellent rather than just sad, we stop believing that anyone would regard him as a friend. So when the ending rolls around and all the characters suddenly go ‘I like that David, he’s a good chap really’, it feels unearned because David hasn’t really changed during the course of the film. And don’t get me started on his new girlfriend.

While Life on the Road wasn’t so bad as to retroactively cast a bad light over The Office, it was a real disappointment. The Office will continue to stand as one of the best TV shows ever made and Life on the Road will be a footnote in its history.

Quick Review: Ghostbusters (2016)

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Cue Ray Parker Jr.

Mild spoilers ahead

I just want to first preface this by saying that I hate everything surrounding this movie. I hate the internet cry-babies who don’t want women in their Ghostbusters, I hate the people who prejudged the films on trailers which, by the way, are unrepresentative and I therefore also hate (most of the jokes in the trailer aren’t even in the film, or severely taken out of context). The marketing for this film had been awful, the backlash and subsequent anti-backlash has been awful, and it’s a shame because underneath it all is a pretty decent summer blockbuster.

The original 1984 Ghostbusters is my favourite film (judge away), so while I was initially opposed to a remake, I was still excited to see a new team back on the big screen. For the most part, it works, primarily down to a fantastic cast of new Ghostbusters, enough jokes and moments that land and a sense of downright fun that gives it a unique flavour apart from the funny, but never overly joyous 1984 version. The cast is the main selling point here; Kate McKinnon is the obvious stand-out, a character the likes of which the GB ‘universe’ had never seen, but Leslie Jones’ Patty gets her fair share of funny lines and Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig provide the film’s emotional core. While Wiig and McCarthy get a pretty predictable arc, and McKinnon gets a defined role as the team’s kick-ass engineer, Jones feels a bit like the odd one out, her biggest skill being her knowledge of New York history, but apart from a few odd tidbits, she never gets a satisfactory conclusion to her character’s skill set; a fight scene near the end of the film that inexplicably takes place in old New York seems like it should have some connection to her character, but never does (perhaps this was cut from the finished film). Apart from that, however, the team manages to capture the chemistry of the original team, while not being comprised of character re-hashes. The best new addition, however, is probably Chris Hemsworth’s Kevin, who is so over the top stupid nearly every word out of his mouth is comic gold. The brilliance that is the cast being able to click cannot be overstated; I was grinning almost every time they were just hanging around together, and that’s a harder feat to pull off than one might think.

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Ugh, burned marshmallow ghost

The problems with the film only really start to emerge in the third act. Here, the film seems to misunderstand what Ghostbusters is really about, and that is only to its detriment. I am talking, of course, about the drawn out fight scene between the Ghostbusters and the historical ghosts controlled by Rowan, the film’s antagonist. The original Ghostbusters was never an action film, and that’s because it wasn’t about action heroes, but about scientists. Unlike the new team, their proton beams only trapped ghosts, unlike the variety of weapons that, clearly designed for sale as toys, now seem to somehow kill/disable the ghosts. Ghostbusters was never really about that, and while a new spin on the franchise is fine, the fact that the action scene is so boring speaks clearly to the fact that this wasn’t the right direction to take it. In fact, the third act seems to mostly abandon comedy completely. Aside from a few jokes, it takes itself much too seriously (a dance number in the credits should really have been in the main film); the point of the giant Stay Puft was that it was funny; even if Bill Murray hadn’t said ‘he’s a sailor, he’s in New York; we get this guy laid, we won’t have any trouble’, the pure visual comedy of the giant grinning marshmallow man stomping around New York is still funny. An evil version of the Ghostbusters logo is clever, but not funny.

The new Ghostbusters isn’t great. Bits has been noticeably cut (like, why was Kirsten Wiig separated from the other Ghostbusters?), some jokes don’t land, the villain is not funny both dead and alive, and the third act is kind of a mess. But the new Ghostbusters have enough chemistry and the film has enough of a sense of fun that everything kind of works. And hey, it’s still better than Ghostbusters 2.