2015 in review

2015 was a great year for pop culture — even aside from the multi-platform global pop culture-consuming behemoth that was Star Wars, this year was inspiringly full of rich, exciting and immersive books, TV shows, music and movies. And awesome droids.

So let’s get to it.

MOVIES:

Star Wars Episode VII The Force Awakens. Could the movie of the year have been anything else? Spoiler: no. It was beautiful, full of wonderful old and new characters, and so many emotions. And no, Rey wasn’t a Mary Sue — she was a complex, capable woman whose entire life had prepared her to be ready when the call to action came (if you don’t believe me, read Greg Rucka’s excellent Before The Awakening, which gives you backstories for Finn, Rey and Poe. Rey’s is particularly engrossing — she really is one of the great characters of the Star Wars universe. (Here’s my full spoiler-free Star Wars review)

Kingsman: The Secret Service. This was fresh, inventive, stylish, witty, engaging, with rich characters and a propulsive story, and a genuinely and gloriously bonkers sense of fun and glee. It also showed us how devastatingly great a Matthew Vaughn-directed Bond movie would be… but if he had made one of those (he came close to making Casino Royale), we wouldn’t have this. And we needed this. Colin Firth kicked ass entirely convincingly, and newcomer Taron Egerton delivered a swaggering, young Han Solo-like breakout performance. Genius all round.

The Martian. Yes. Yes yes yes! Ridley Scott scienced the shit out of this, giving us one of the great space movies of all time, taking Drew Goddard’s sharply funny script and giving it the bad-ass disco soundtrack we never knew it needed. Expertly shot, brilliantly acted by Matt Damon (the majority of whose scenes were alone and direct to camera), and the best Lord of the Rings reference you’ll ever see.

Inside Out. This was Pixar to the power of infinity. This was heart-achingly emotional, which you’d expect since it’s a movie about emotions, from the company who brought you the most emotionally devastating opening to a movie EVER (Up). What you might not expect was how heartfelt, humorous and bitter-sweet it all was, plus how the mesmerizing story managed to be utterly profound as well as relentless entertaining. Warning: contains achingly funny moments, and some that are utterly gut-wrenching. You will cry.

Straight Outta Compton. Director  F. Gary Gray delivered a breathlessly gritty and fiercely kinetic look at the birth, rise and fall of Compton’s NWA, from their loose beginnings to the evolution of their personal empires (Dre’s Beats, Cube’s movie career). The heart of the movie was Jason Mitchell’s cherubic, charismatic and ultimately heartbreaking performance as Eric “Easy E” Wright; his story is the true center of the movie, with the others woven tightly around it. It gives you the thrill and danger of the music, the harsh realities that made it necessary, and the often uncontrollable dynamics within the band. A great script kept tight control over the sprawl of events, and excellent performances from the actors playing the band (including Ice Cube’s son playing Cube) made this utterly gripping.

Honorable mentions:

Avengers Age Of Ultron / Ant-Man. Marvel’s two movies this year both came with some serious baggage. Ultron had to follow up the massive success juggernaut that was Avengers, but do it even bigger this time, while Ant-Man had a hugely troubled production with the removal of Edgar Wright weeks before filming was due to start. Both films were mandated by the studio to fit the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe: oddly, Ant-Man fared better with this, given extra resonance and benefiting from being bolted into the MCU, while Ultron seemed to suffer from one extra layer too many in a movie that was jam-packed with too much greatness — it’s a long movie that actually would have been better with an even longer four hour extended cut. There’s just so much Joss Whedon genius-level awesomeness to love and not enough time to truly love it. Ant-Man, on the other hand, was short, sweet, quick on its feet, and full of Edgar Wright DNA (no one handles exposition like him. No one!). Both movies were fun; Ant-Man was just a little more so. But Ultron was still a wonderful Whedon-fest, and a towering achievement of screenwriting and direction.

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation. The best of the MI bunch. Written and directed by Chris McQuarrie, this was tight, entertaining, and it barreled along through plot points and set pieces without ever releasing its grip on us. A huge amount of fun, with crowd-pleasing performances, hair-raising stunts, and the type of twisty-turny plotting you’d expect from the man behind The Usual Suspects.

BOOKS:

Book of the year: Illuminae, by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff. This was one of those books that make you realize all the many beautiful possibilities of what books can be. Composed of emails, security logs, and many other things that I won’t spoil, this was an utterly engrossing sci-fi story, rich with complex characters you immediately care about, viscerally thrilling space stuff, and fiendish plotting. Totally unputdownable. Full review here.

Close competition: Patrick Ness’s The Rest Of Us Just Live Here, and Robert Galbraith’s Career Of Evil (Galbraith is actually J.K. Rowling). Two perfect five star novels here. Ness delivered his usual blend of thrills and compassion, while Rowling gave us her most exciting Cormoran Strike novel yet, with an absolute kicker of a throw-the-book-across-the-room ending. *shakes fist at J.K. Rowling!!*

Honorable mentions:

Lost Stars, by Claudia Gray; The Weapon Of A Jedi, by Jason Fry; Smuggler’s Run, by Greg Rucka; Moving Target, by Cecil Castellucci and Jason Fry; Before The Awakening, by Greg Rucka. AKA, the Star Wars novels. Lost Stars (reviewed here) was stellar, Jedi, Run and Target were beautifully written standalone adventures featuring Han, Luke and Leia during the Original Trilogy, and Before The Awakening focused on key Finn, Rey and Poe backstories. Fascinating, entertaining stuff.

MUSIC:

Two artists dominated: Adele with her insanely anticipated beautiful powerhouse of an album, 25, and Carly Rae Jepsen with her EMOTION album, which was light years ahead of her previous effort. While Adele did exactly what you’d expect her to (albeit brilliantly, beautifully and flawlessly, of course — with I Miss You and The River Lea as particular standouts ), it was Jepsen who delivered the year’s biggest surprise: an extraordinary, gorgeously 80s, mesmerizingly hook-y set that didn’t have one filler — full of massive choruses drenched with bittersweet melancholy and honesty, all delivered with gloriously soaring vocals. Why this wasn’t on more year-end best-of lists is a mystery. It’s brilliant.

TV:

Special mention for Downton Abbey‘s magnificent final season and majestic final ever episode, which was this year’s Christmas special (for those who have seen it… it airs in the US in January). The perfect send-off, full of warmth, wit, and, yes, feels.

Supergirl. This show is bright, beautiful, full of verve, grit and hope — all about finding your truest self and being it. Melissa Benoist embodies all of that in a vulnerable, complex, utterly engaging performance. She brings Supergirl to life in a way that makes perfect sense.

Jessica Jones. Epically gritty, dark and messed up, but sweetened with some killer sarcastic putdowns, a damaged and soulful performance from Krysten Ritter, and a horrifyingly charming villain in David Tennant’s brilliantly played Kilgrave. Thrilling TV throughout, perfectly paced, full of heart and rage and loss and becoming the person you’re meant to be.

Supernatural. 11 seasons in, it’s still slaying. Here’s my breakdown of why this show STILL kicks ass.

Honorable mentions:

The Walking Dead. This half of the current season delivered three monster, high octane, real-time  episodes that were likely the greatest consecutive episodes in the show’s run… then pulled out of that very suddenly and slowed things way down for the standalone Morgan flashback episode, before reconnecting with the current storyline again. Although Here Is Not Here contained great writing, beautiful character work, and killer acting, it really did stop the momentum in its tracks at a particularly tense moment, and consequently the show took a while to pick up speed again. But by the mid-season finale, it was BACK. It’s the best it’s ever been, and that’s saying something.

Quantico. One of the greatest new network shows in a long time, this is gripping, unstoppable, incredibly tense, and twist and turns and twists and turns, and then does that some more. The cast gives deeply accessible and charismatic performances, and the story just does not quit. Very, very addictive, very tightly written (the show has two ongoing strands, past and present, which interweave and comment on each other and keep the story flowing), and very addictive.

But, if I had to pick the ultimate “things of the year”….

  • Star Wars
  • Illuminae
  • Jessica Jones
  • Carly Rae Jepsen’s EMOTION

And, if I could only pick one thing overall… It’s pretty clear… this little guy won 2015!

BB-8

The breakout star of Star Wars (with fierce competition from the fresh and energetically  great performances of Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and Adam Driver), BB-8 owned 2015. The little droid was the heart and soul of Episode VII, and we loved him. Let’s be honest, we would all happily sit there and watch a  two hour movie that was JUST BB-8 AND NOTHING ELSE. Search your feelings… you know it to be true.

So, hope you enjoyed 2015… Have an awesome 2016!!!

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ARROW: The Huntress Returns

Since its pilot first aired last year, Arrow has transcended its case of the week set-up, morphing radically in the manner of a previously regular citizen becoming a fully fledged superhero (see what I did there?). The pilot was a sure-footed, highly confident piece of TV drama, loosing its arrow and hitting with breathless precision the massively hard-to-hit target that is the perfect combination of dark, gritty, pulpy, pleasurably comic book-y, hyper-stylized, charismatic, compelling, funny, kinetic, and thrilling. And it’s only gotten better.

The Hood, the Huntress and the cop; tragic denouement not pictured

The Hood, the Huntress and the cop; tragic denouement not pictured

All the elements were there from the start: the hint of mythology (what really happened on that island?), the thrills and the action, the CW glossy / pleasing to the eye / highly entertaining veneer, the uniquely sharp and intelligent visual style. In the early episodes the show leaned on a case of the week structure (Oliver Queen’s father’s notebook of names) more than anything else, which did raise some concerns of repetition and longevity. It was obvious the show contained much more than that, was meant to be much more than that.

Fortunately, exec producers Marc Guggenheim, Greg Berlanti and Andrew Kreisberg did a tremendous job of elevating the show rapidly beyond the original format into something harder, faster, more resonant, more powerful, more gripping; into a show that could easily last multiple seasons. They opened up the mythology, burned through story more quickly and thrillingly, and, crucially, started bringing more characters into the bat cave, as it were (hey, it’s a DC-based analogy, so it’s OK). First in was John Diggle (David Ramsey), creating a great buddy comedy pairing, which has proven to be an enduring relationship that sparks much gripping, compelling conflict between him and Stephen Amell’s Oliver. Several episodes later, the producers made the genius move of bringing in Felicity Smoak, played by Emily Bett Rickards. Her absolute ease with a snarky one-liner proved a perfect match for the show’s aesthetic; the episode that brought her into the Hood’s world (The Odyssey) was one of the best of the season. Rickards doubled down on her promotion and showed just why she needs as much screen time as the writers can give her, with an excellent performance in the subsequent episode, Dodger.

Felicity Smoak in mortal danger. Spoiler: she makes it.

Felicity Smoak in mortal danger. Spoiler: she makes it.

The overarching conspiracy (the Undertaking, brilliantly led by John “Captain Jack” Barrowman, AKA the Dark Archer) is gathering momentum, future Hood sidekick Speedy, currently known as Roy and played by Colton Haynes, has been successfully introduced in a manner that can only be described as,well, speedy, and Oliver has a now well-established nemesis in the Huntress, played with astonishing verve and electricity by Jessica De Gouw.

Which brings us to the most recent episode, The Huntress Returns.

It was a fantastic example of everything that’s great about the show: deep, resonant relationships that leap off the screen and grab you, making you feel them; mind-bogglingly original and intense action sequences that race past you; and a gloriously geeky joy in the dark angles of its comic book origins. It had zingy one-liners to spare, clashing relationships with ultimately high stakes, secrets, heartbreak, and a pulse-quickening chemistry between its core cast.

The always excellent Willa Holland, the sharply wonderful Katie Cassidy, and the ever-essential Colin Donnell. And a shitload of lens flares (Jimmy Muro would be proud!)

The always excellent Willa Holland, the sharply wonderful Katie Cassidy, and the ever-essential Colin Donnell. And a shitload of lens flares (Jimmy Muro would be proud!)

Guy Bee did a phenomenal job directing it. He’s one of the greatest directors working in TV today, having directed some of the best episodes ever of SouthLAnd, Supernatural, Revolution, The Secret Circle, The Nine Lives Of Chloe King, Kyle XY, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and many, many others. He has an unerring eye for this kind of gritty, thrilling “YA” genre TV (which is one reason why I think he’d be perfect to direct an adaptation of Altered). His true skill lies in blending a soulful, character-based approach with an extraordinarily intelligent visual eye for the depth of a shot. The visual architecture in his shots is remarkable, while always serving the characters in a scene.

Look at the incredible architecture in the composition of this shot; a lesser director would be close on the two characters; Mr. Bee shoots it Nolan-style, with the surroundings as character

Look at the incredible architecture in the composition of this shot; a lesser director would be close on the two characters; Mr. Bee shoots it Nolan-style, with the surroundings as character, bringing Starling City to life

And he shoots the shit out of Arrow‘s fast-paced, adrenalized action sequences, bringing an extra level of style. With that combination of visual structure and futuristic style in urban situations, he’s like the Michael Mann of TV, in the most original way.

Oliver's club, Verdant. Man's got style.

Oliver’s club, Verdant. Man’s got style.

He’s one of the show’s key creative forces, so he was well placed to bring us the tragic return of Oliver’s intense, possibly unhinged, nemesis, who may also be the love (or at least lust) of his life. It was a dangerous episode, with more than a hint of SouthLAnd‘s constant state of “unknown trouble” lurking in every scene; you knew bad shit was going to go down, you just didn’t know when or how.

Jessica De Gouw was magnificent as the Huntress, clearly relishing every second of her time on screen, fully occupying the wounded heart (and consequent vengeful fury) of her character.

Jessica De Gouw: in this life or the next, she will have her veangance

Jessica De Gouw as the Huntress: in this life or the next, she will have her vengeance

She held her own throughout, bringing a furious energy to her scenes with Amell; they are truly a heartbreaking couple, in their own way. Her revenge was brutal; and the scenes between Amell and Janina Gavankar (playing Queen’s current girlfriend/a cop who is hunting down the Hood) were beautifully played out by the pair of them.

Arrow is a show that, like Person Of Interest, is an outstanding genre show that has easily overhauled its case of the week structure and steadily infused it with gripping and compelling mythology. Both these shows have far outstripped their beginnings, while also retaining the ability to manipulate and return to more focused episodes when necessary. Arrow‘s momentum is increasing exponentially; its levels of excitement are following suit.

It’s basically brilliant, hypnotically good appointment television, powered by a hard-working and ridiculously talented cast and crew.

Just watch it. Or the Hood will put you on his list.

ARROW: Deadly Precision

Yeah, I know, my title sounds like a Steven Seagal movie. But trust me. If you’re not watching The CW’s new show Arrow, you should be.

The Hooded Vigilante

The Hooded Vigilante

Adapted from DC’s Green Arrow source material, Arrow takes those classic pulpy comic elements and brilliantly locks them into blisteringly precise action, gritty atmosphere, edgy storylines, and CW-style relationship drama. This is a high velocity show that relishes its comic book origins even as it transcends them.

Also, it has John Barrowman.

Exec producers Greg Berlanti, Marc Guggenheim and Andrew Kreisberg have crafted a gloriously entertaining, moves-like-a-bullet (or should that be arrow?) narrative that revels in its darkly wrought drama, and isn’t afraid to have an incredibly stylized blast.

As the show’s star, Stephen Amell, often tweets… thwick.

Better than Katniss

Better than Katniss

The set-up is this: billionaire playboy Oliver Queen is lost at sea when the yacht he’s on with his girlfriend’s sister, and his father, disappears during a storm. Five years later, out of nowhere, he reappears and returns to his home in Starling City.

But he’s not the same.

The show deftly blends flashbacks to the devastating accident, the aftermath, and the mysterious island on which Oliver was stranded for those five years. These scenes are interpersed with his present day reality: spreading fear and justice as Starling City’s bow-and-arrow-wielding hooded vigilante. He’s cleaning up the streets, following the plan set out for him by his father, who gave him a notebook full of names: those who deserved justice. The show has morphed satisfyingly quickly from attack-of-the-week into deeper, more challenging and dimensional territory, as conspiracies unfurl, and complex relationships become more apparent.

Laurel Lance (Katie Cassidy) and Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell)

Laurel Lance (Katie Cassidy) and Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell)

Berlanti, Guggenheim and Kreisberg, like a team of superhero lawyers, have a killer eye for hiring directors, including the always legendary Guy Norman Bee (also known for directing Supernatural, SouthLAnd and Revolution). The action is blistering and razor-sharp; the shooting, lighting and editing is hyper-stylized, hyper-real, full of comic book angles, stark shadows, and blinding light.

But it’s all rooted in the characters.

Oliver Queen, the dilletante turned superhero, played with Tom Cruise-like movie star presence by Amell. Laurel Lance, an idealistic lawyer and Queen’s ex, the girl he betrayed by sleeping with her sister, leading to the sister’s horrible death, is perfectly played with soulful, sly sensuality and sharp-edged grief by Katie Cassidy. Queen’s sidekick John Diggle is given gravitas and no-nonsense attitude by David Ramsey. Queen’s sister Thea is played to perfection by Willa Holland, who nails the complex emotions that drive that character. Colin Donnell does a great job as Queen’s beleaguered best friend Tommy. And the mysterious Huntress, AKA Helena Bertinelli, who is played with tormented, broken-hearted angst by the superb Jessica De Gouw.

Oliver and Helena, AKA, The Huntress

Oliver and Helena, AKA, The Huntress

These actors are all brilliant; luckily, the scripts are equally  fantastic, thanks to the powerhouse writers room. The scripts are punchy, sharp, shot through with snark, easily balancing the past and the present, emotions and thrills, complexity and the simple pleasure of watching the vigilante deliver expertly choreographed smackdowns.

The Hooded Man

The Hooded Man

In short, this show is tremendously entertaining. Off the charts. A high octane blend off pop culture awesomeness.

Watch it.

SouthLAnd: “God’s Work” – Emotional Survival For Law Enforcement

If I made this review as brutally to the point as this episode was, I’d simply say this:

Cheo Coker wrote a beautiful, kick-ass script and Guy Norman Bee directed the f**k out of it, while Ben McKenzie turned in a devastatingly primal & raw performance.

But there’s so much more to say.

I’ll start with the obvious: this was one of SouthLAnd‘s strongest episodes. It was stripped back to the bleached bones of the L.A. landscape, and the most primal elements of the characters’ souls. It was beautiful in its simplicity, its refusal to waste time or words. As Cooper said in his final scene, “that simple?” To which his sponsor Lamar replied: “Yeah. All the hard things are.”

That stark sense of truth began with Coker’s script, which was one of his best. If his other script this season, Underwater, was a crazy block party, full of overflowing life and violence and jokes and energy, God’s Work was the head-pounding contemplation the next day.

It pumped out killer lines like bullets from an endlessly reloading shotgun, one after another after another (most of which came to Shawn Hatosy, who swung for the fences and knocked every single one easily out of the park with absolute style). It had Coker’s unique and fiery old-school soulfulness. And it thumped like a booming hip hop beat when it had to.

But it submerged all that in a deep, quiet calm, the serenity to accept the things we cannot change… a zen purity of purpose. We glided across the waters of this one, all the way to the perfect storm at the end, when the Kraken woke. This was like some classic Greek shit. Everyone contained the seeds of their own destruction and salvation, and the only question was what choice each character would make, which path they would take.

This was all great drama is supposed to be, and what so little drama actually is. It’s what SouthLAnd does better than any other show: forcing characters to confront their deepest flaws or fears, sending mack trucks juggernauting into their moral schemes and belief systems. It’s a show that will utterly demolish everything its characters believe in, because it’s about how we react when everything is on the line. Stakes are sky high. Officer Ben Sherman was on the receiving end of this treatment last season when the truth about his mother’s assault was revealed. And Sherman had to face the darkness again in God’s Work, and somehow keep his soul.

This was the finest work of Ben McKenzie’s career to date, which is saying something, because he’s a damn great actor. SouthLAnd is about raising the bar with every episode, every act, every beat. McKenzie was there all the way, showing us a man whose soul is being ravaged by his own inner darkness, the rage that he’s always keeping buried. It was a haunting and raw performance, as Sherman couldn’t stop, maybe didn’t even try to stop, himself from descending into hell.

Coker’s script took him there, along with the astonishing direction of Guy Norman Bee, a former steadicam operator on ER who has since gone on to direct Veronica Mars, The Secret Circle, The Nine Lives Of Chloe King, and, most regularly, Supernatural.

He brought an incredibly detailed and quietly unobtrusive eye to this episode. It was stark and architectural in its complex yet dynamic visual style. This was Michael Mann-level directing. Bee’s eye for the complexity of lines in the composition of the shot made every frame fascinating and kinetic, but in the most subliminal of ways, subsumed into the flow of the story (just like in the script). The descending concentric circles of the parking lot when Lydia looked down at “the splat.” The angles of the stairwell playing against the lines of Sherman and Bryant holding their guns going up the stairs in the squatter house. The frames and windows of the offices where Tang had her interview. It was all beautifully done, creating a stark, rotating landscape for the tense drama to play out against.

Bee was backed up by lighting maestro Dana Gonzales, who brought a haunting glow to the rough, over-saturated streets of L.A. The opening scene, as Cooper and Lamar talk, was simply gorgeous, as early morning light hung in a hazy gauze over the skyscrapers, and a thousand little lens flares rippled up from the lake. From there it got darker and starker, all the way to the primally lit scene at the end, when Bryant lays it all down for Sherman. It was eerie, spine tingling: the two men sat in deep shadow and the coldest, barest lines of light just lit their edges. Shawn Hatosy gave a stunning, Brando-esque reading of those great, classic lines: “you’re my partner…. I’ll back you up, punch for punch…”

It was f**king poetry on every level, like everything in this episode, from the largest moment to the smallest. As Cooper contemplated his own intense set of options in his briefer scenes, Michael Cudlitz brought the gravitas like a true master, finding the highest level of impact through the smallest of gestures and motions, making us feel the soul-shaking implications of his future choices. In his short scene, Tommy Howell brought a sinewy soulfulness to “Uncle Dewey”‘s meaningful and moving scene with Tang. And let’s take a moment to praise Jamie McShane, who always brings grit and steel to the role of watch commander Sgt. Hill, even in the space of a line or two. His ability to bring such presence to brief moments in some ways sums up the show: it’s all in the power of the details.

No review would be complete without a callout to the day players, including The Wire‘s Lawrence Gilliard Jr playing Lamar with a poetic, fresh rhythm; Oz Zehavi doing fine work in his first U.S. TV role as Eric Hanson; and Kelly Wolf as Cheryl Hanson, wringing huge emotions from the briefest of moments. They — and all the others — were great, bringing soul and heartbreak to the surface in perfectly fragmented, naturalistic ways.

SouthLAnd‘s toughest challenge is often to explode the traditional narrative, fragment it until the shards are still touching and connected, but just barely. It went above and beyond in this regard with God’s Work. Every scene flowed deep into all the others, but never in a contrived way. It was a masterclass in script DNA.

It’s getting harder to review this show, to be honest, because it keeps getting better, and it rarely misses a step. Remember how it seemed like it exploded out of the gate with the pilot episode, Unknown Trouble? Well, it did, and it was fantastic… but it’s undeniable, and kind of mind-blowing: it’s operating on a much higher level now.

It keeps finding extra gears, and it’s pretty clear at this point: it’s just going to keep finding more. Season Five seems all but assured when the show is rolling so hard. As Cudlitz likes to say, with this show, you have to expect the unexpected. But there’s one thing we can always expect, and we always get: greatness.