The Enduring Appeal of Freaks and Geeks.

There are many TV shows that were cancelled before their time. Some still have a strong cult following, like firefly whose fans still lay in hope that it will come back once again in any form. Others have largely been lost to the mists of time. 

Then, there’s Freaks and Geeks. The 1999 TV show, though short lived is very well loved by its fans. It was where Judd Apatow and Paul Feig first cut their teeth, in fact it was partially based on some of the experiences of Paul Feig during his time in high school. 

From the beginning it is made clear this is not your typical teen drama, following popular kids as they navigate the life of cheerleaders or American football players. This is about the outsiders, the titular freaks and geeks of the world the ones who don’t fit in, and for the most part don’t really care to. The feelings of outsiderness are felt by and identified with almost everyone at one point or another so it’s easy to find at least one character you identify with strongly.

The story follows two siblings, Sam (John Francis Daley)  and Lindsay Weir (Linda Cardillini) as they make their way through the pitfalls of high school, though their storylines tend to stay separate.

Lindsay is an intelligent, well mannered, well performing student and captain of the mathletes. After witnessing the death of her grandmother she begins to question the world around her and she’s not so sure she like what she sees. Lindsay begins hanging out with the ‘freaks’, the kids who mostly hang out, smoke pot and listen to Rush a lot.

james-franxThough the story for the most part is told through the eyes of middle class Lindsay, her co-horts are mostly from a working class background, and are often struggling with issues of poverty and unstable home lives. We first see a glimpse of this in the episode Kim Kelly is my Friend, when Kim (Busy Philipps) invites Lindsay to her house for dinner. Lindsay thinks this is an olive branch for Kim’s hostile behaviour up until now, but it turns out Kim needed someone as an alibi for her late night activities. It is clear that Lindsay was not prepared for the sight of a low income family when she is greeted with a sheet of plastic in place of a wall, fried chicken for dinner, a brother asleep on the couch in the middle of the day and a shouting match over the table.

In another episode we see that the school has given up on Daniel (James Franco), it is also revealed that he has to help in the care of his ailing father as well as trying to be an ordinary eighteen year old kid who wants to escape all the pressures that are put upon him by the adults that are around him. Not many teen dramas of the time would be willing to look at the issues why the ‘burnouts’ became that way, but Freaks and Geeks when there, it wanted to tell the stories of the downtrodden, the given up on and the forgotten about. It was about those society has shunned and would rather not be there.

freaksThis willingness to speak for the often unspoken for combines with it’s subtle and rather gentle humour from the characters. Ken (Seth Rogan) is a great source of humour with his sarcastic quips and total apathy for school and for life, and Nick (Jason Segel) who falls desperately, and a little naively falls in love with Lindsay. This subtle humour allows for other topics such as drugs to be discussed without it being preachy, glamourising or simply ridiculous, which we can see in the episode “Chokin’ and Tokin’” when Lindsay tries weed for the first time after becoming concerned for Nick when his habit starts taking over his life. It’s refreshing to see a portrayal of drugs that does not speak down to it’s audience, it does not sensationalise the level of addiction by showing Nick becoming homeless and destitute, instead it shows us how he just hangs out listening to music and giggles a lot. Though accurate I would not say that it was a positive view of drugs as Lindsay decides she doesn’t want to get high again, but only after trying it for herself and experiencing some of the negative side effects first hand.

mr-rossoAnother great source of humour is the brilliantly played school guidance councillor, Mr Rosso (Dave Gruber). An ageing hippy who likes to dole out life advice based on his own experience, much to the annoyance and disgust of the pupils. He perfectly portrays an adult trying desperately to relate to kids who are at least twenty years his junior, and failing miserably.

 


Sam, Lindsay’s young brother, meanwhile gets things a little easier, his storylines are more the comedy relief, though his is not without his own trials and tribulations. At the bottom of the social pile he is a confirmed geek, with his small frame, clothes picked out by his mother and his Star Wars notebook paper (remember, this is set in 1980, before geeks were cool). Sam has to battle bullies, both literally and figuratively, has to learn to navigate the baffling world of girls, learning to make friends, and trying to make it with the cool kids. sam-and-the-gangHe has to help one of his best friends, Neil (Samm Levine) come to terms with the fact his father is having an affair, and deal with his other best friend almost dying after a bully puts peanuts on the sandwich of Bill (Martin Starr) who has a peanut allergy. All the geeks are lovable in their own way and I just want to hug all of them whenever they’re on screen. You’re with them every step of the way as they learn about the world and becoming teenagers.

Set in 1980, it was ahead of the nostalgia wave that was still only a ripple at the time. Though it might be a little less overt than some of its successors like Stranger Things, which specifically references the films of the time, F&G manages to subtly evoke the time period to before we had the internet and mobile phones, and the only way to play music was on a record player, making us yearn for a simpler time when things weren’t so complicated. Part of the authenticity is the fact all the cast are age appropriate, where many teen films and dramas would use much older actors Freak and Geeks wanted to make it feel more real, and it does, with the young cast giving great performances that feel real. It even helped to launch the careers of some of today’s biggest stars like Seth Rogen, James Franco and Jason Segel.  

Freaks and Geeks only lasted eighteen episodes, but it managed to cover a whole host of different issues affecting teenagers, no matter the era or the social standing, but especially those that have been thrust to the sidelines by those that are deemed more desirable in society. Why has Freaks and Geeks lasted so well for a show that didn’t even make it to the end of its first season, because it’s a voice for the broken, the forgotten, the free thinkers. It manages to capture both the simplicity and the complexity of high school and growing up in a way that no other show has managed to do. It manages all at once to be hilarious and tragic, insightful and kinda dumb.  

 The final episode sees Lindsay blow off the academic summit she had been invited to (something that could have helped her get into an Ivy league school and with future employment) and instead jump in the van with her new hippy friends to follow the Grateful Dead. We’ll never know if she really did spend her summer following the Grateful Dead or if she made it to the summit, but we can all enjoy her adventures of trying to make her way through high school in one piece.

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Stranger Things (2016) Review

I have done my best to give you an idea of what this is about without giving away the plot and the ending, as Stranger Things is best enjoyed spoiler free.

I just want to get this out of the way. Netflix is bringing about a new golden age of television on the internet. As it doesn’t rely on selling advertising space in order to make money, Netflix allows its shows more freedom to express themselves and they can afford to take more chances of smaller projects that might have been missed by short sighted executives who need to make a quota.

One of these projects was Stranger Things. It has become somewhat of a hit amongst Netflix subscribers. With it’s powerful and evocative story line, characters and 80s charm.

dungeonsThe story begins with a group of four boys playing Dungeons and Dragons when it’s home-time for the friends of twelve year old Mike who have come round to play. When he arrives home and there is no one around one of the group, Will appears to be attacked and consequently goes missing. The day afterwards a mysterious girl with a shaven head and telekinetic powers appears, kick starting a slow descent into the mysterious goings on surrounding the town of Hawkins, Indiana.

bikeWith it’s depiction of a great adventure on bikes, the resourcefulness of youth and having to hide a mysterious new friend from both The Authorities and parents, you can see how Stranger Things is clearly heavily influenced by those great 80s adventure films like The Goonies and E.T. All this comes together to give the whole thing an amazing charm and a sense of nostalgia for that period. It takes the adventure genre and manages to mix in a massive dollop of Stephen King mystery and thrill riding. The set pieces, the clothes, the movie posters, the music. Even the camera and direction style are all period accurate, and they all come together to create one of the best 80s series not made in the 80s.

winonaI must doff my hat to all the actors involved. Winona Ryder makes a triumphant return to form as Joyce, the beleaguered mother of missing child, Will. Her apparent descent into madness after the disappearance of her son was done well, and though to the outside world it may appear that she is simply going mad with grief, we as the audience are given snippets throughout to give her a method to her madness. The young children all give great performances, Finn Wolfhard as Mike and Millie Bobby Brown (who really shaved her head for the role) as Eleven, or ‘El’ for short are especially great managing to keep a sense of innocence despite some of the horrors they have witnessed. David Harbour as the police Chief Jim Hopper also deserves a mention for his performance as a man battling his own demons as he helps to search for Will and unravel the mystery surrounding his disappearance. It is important to note that they have used age appropriate actors of the roles of the pre-teen and teenager characters which is always nice to see. There’s something quite jarring about seeing people who are almost hitting thirty playing an 18 year old.  

Each episode is a chapter of a story, and though it never leaves you in the middle of the action, like Lost it does, it does have a cliffhanger at the end so you’re always begging for more. I watched it over two days, and I really regret starting it when I didn’t have a spare eight hours to watch it all at once. It manages to drip feed you the information perfectly throughout giving you answers or part answers to questions you’ve been gathering in your mind from the start. It always manages to give you just the right amount to get just enough to satisfy your hunger for more but never too much that you feel like you know what’s going to happen before it does. I would say that around episode seven (there are eight all together) there are one or two moments I felt it was running out of steam a little, but then it pulled it right back for the finale, which was 55 minutes of suspense and excellent payoff.

the gangAll the way through there is a sense of foreboding and terror that gives it an edge that makes it hard to tear yourself away from the screen, though it always makes sure to take a break from the tense energy every now then to show kids just being kids and having fun. Which can be a nerve settling release when you’ve just spent the last twenty minutes on the edge of your seat shouting at the screen for the characters to be safe. Which is probably my biggest criticism, it was so tense and nerve wracking at times I found myself getting a little exhausted.

All of this terror giving way to relative calm is beautifully tied together by the music, which is quite possibly my favourite thing about Stranger Things. The synth wave based soundtrack has been lovingly constructed by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein. It serves to really draw you in, and perfectly balancing the soft, gentle moments and the more intense scenes perfectly, it really gets under your skin and is another mark of how Stranger Things is able to effortlessly evoke that 80s feeling.

stranger things together

80s movies.  Stephen King. Really good kids adventure movies. Really good mystery thriller films. Great acting. Well played out story. Great Directing. Great Writing. Amazing Soundtrack. If you love at least one of these things then you will enjoy Stranger Things and I wholeheartedly recommend you watch it at the first available opportunity.

★★★★★

 

Highlander: A Love Story

Anyone who has known me longer than five minutes will know that i have a pure and absolute love for Highlander. I’m not one of those nostalgia fiends who merely declares a like for a film in order to score some cool points (I don’t even think Highlander would score any cool points in any era of time to be honest). My love for this film transcends space and time, dimensions even. So transcendent it is that I once bid on Ebay for a replica of Connor MacLeod’s sword when I had too much time and not enough sense. Alas, I lost the bid so we will never know what a 19 year old university student would have done with a fake Scottish broadsword.

 

My Highlander journey started on a dark and chilly evening in 1995. I, a mere youthful scamp of 7 at the time, took an opportunity to sneak downstairs and turn the television on after my parent’s had retired to their bedroom for the night. Flicking through the glorious four channels (remember when we only had 4!) that were on offer, I came across a strange vision. A vision that grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and never let me go.

 

Two men, one old, one young, one clad in trainers and dad jeans, the other in swish glasses and suit, were trying to hoof the shit out of the each other in a soggy underground car park with swords. There was the echo of clanging metal, sparks flying as they clashed their weaponry off various pillars, posts and cars, backflips were performed, and there was I,eyes wide, mouth agape, drinking it all in. For the next 110 minutes I was transfixed by the strange and bizarre spectacle of sword fights, bagpipe based flashbacks, and loud excessive noise, until it ended in a blaze of shattered glass and Christopher Lambert howling like a banshee. I’ll never understand how my parents slept through the entire thing (I had the television on loud enough) but i am so thankful that they did because if they hadn’t then maybe I would have never enjoyed Highlander in the way that i did on that very cold evening in 1995.

Connor_Macleod_Katana_highlander Sword3

It’s not The Godfather Part II, I’ll give you that. It’s not ahead of its field in special effects, the script is nifty but oddly paced, the direction a little too on the wrong side of fast and furious, and the acting is over the top on many of the actors behalf, though enjoyably so, but for giving you that euphoric feeling of joy, Highlander cannot be challenged.

 

As soon as the credits begin, and Brian May strikes that heavy opening chord of Princes of The Universe, you find yourself balling your fist tightly, and then Roger Taylor’s drums kick in and everything is alright with the world. Admittedly, the credits are a ridiculously underwhelming show of red writing over a black screen, but that music, oh that sweet music, gets you so bloody pumped up that it’s hard to stifle an aggressive declaration of ‘YEAH!’ as it rolls out between your clenched teeth.

 

Queen had done soundtracks before, Flash Gordon most notably, but the music they provided for Highlander is without a doubt one of the greatest gifts to humanity itself. Their 1986 release A Kind of Magic is essentially the Highlander soundtrack, unofficially i might add, and shows Queen returning to their heavier roots (Princes of the Universe and Gimme The Prize are almost heavy metal-esque) while also batting out some bona fide hits in One Vision and A Kind of Magic. It’s not an understatement to say that A Kind of Magic is one of my favourite albums, it’s link with Highlander is probably part of that love, and I listen to it on frequent rotation which then makes me want to watch the film which then makes me want to listen to the album which makes me want to watch the film…… repeat ad infinitum.

 

If you can’t get your tiny mind mind past the fact we have a Swiss-French-American playing a Scotsman and a Scotsman playing a Spanish-Egyptian then Highlander is definitely not for you. If you enjoy spotting random British actors in early roles (Terry from Emmerdale and Celia Imrie being two familiar faces that pop up with Scottish accents) or if you want to see what Mr Krabs from Spongebob Squarepants was doing a decade before he decided to make Krabby Patties then you might actually want to give it a whirl. Lambert is perfectly not perfect as MacLeod, his attempt at a Scottish accent being more wonky than one of my old bras, yet I genuinely can’t think of anyone else playing Connor. He plays some of the more comedic scenes (the drunken duel and the underwater sword swishing) with quite a deft touch and as we get further into the flashbacks showing his life pre-New York he manages to bring something more as we start to understand the loneliness and isolation or being an immortal (the bloke is 450 years old .. THINK OF ALL THE DEATH HE HAS SEEN), and we don’t just see Connor as some powerful bloke with a sword, but an actual person struggling with the negatives of the ‘condition’ that he is. Yes, he is an immortal, but look at the human and emotional cost of that.

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Connery plays Connery in hosiery like no one else could. He also gets a fantastically cheesy fantasy film opening monologue which he reads with gleeful gusto like he knows what he is reading is hokum but he’s getting paid a big fat £2 million or so to do it. He and Lambert strike a decent chemistry as his character Ramirez gallops in on his steed and offers to train Connor in order to defeat the nasty piece of work that is the Kurgan. There were only two characters that gave me nightmares as a child, one of them was Ursula from The Little Mermaid and the other was Kurgan. With his pale skin, hollow blue eyes, jet black hair, scars across his neck and face and low, rumbling voice like a cryptkeeper gargling gravel, Kurgan (Clancy Brown or Mr Krabs or every horrible army general on television) is absolute nightmare fuel. He beheads without guilt or fear, skewers one man and lifts him off the ground, he stalks through the night intent on tracking down Connor and separating his head from his shoulders, leaving carnage in his wake. He is wonderfully awful, a foe that you genuinely believe can defeat your hero, and that is a rare thing indeed.

Highlander-Kurgan

Mythology wise, Highlander is the strongest film of the lot. Before they started mucking about with the extra-terrestrial angle in the subsequent and increasingly shitty sequels, the mythology was of a far purer nature. Immortals had been fighting for centuries, whittling the numbers down until there were only a handful left who were then drawn to one particular place (which so happened to be New York City) and this was called The Gathering. When an immortal kills another immortal they absorb their energies and this is called The Quickening. Immortals can only be killed by decapitation. Immortals can sense each other’s presence hence the seemingly random opening sword fight in the underground car park. Some nit-picky questions such as ‘why? are amusingly side stepped. Ramirez dismisses the entire ‘why’ question in three lines ending with ‘Who knows?’ You either embrace this mythology or you can spend your sad time trying to pull it apart. Believe me, it’s far better when you just embrace it.

 

I’ve watched Highlander three times already this year and the returns it produces are not diminishing. It remains, for me, a true high water mark of the swords and sorcery fantasy genre that gets sullied by so much lazy rubbish (by some of its own sequels nonetheless). It’s fun, unashamedly daft in parts but with real heart and soul and i reckon i could get at least another 5 or 6 watches out of it by the time the year is out.

P.S…. if you’ve never seen it, what are you doing with your life….

Turbo Kid

You could be forgiven for not having heard of Turbo Kid. It premièred at the Sundance Film Festival last year, and received a modest release later on in August.

I must admit that I had never heard of Turbo Kid before stumbling across it whilst browsing Netflix for something to watch with a bucket o’ popcorn and a cuddle with the guinea pigs on the sofa.

Although I like to know what I’m getting in for most of the time, occasionally I love just watching something and knowing nothing about what I’m getting myself into. It’s a gamble, you may well end up seeing your new favourite film, or something that will change your outlook on life. Or it can make you rue the day you ever saw the words nine and months. 

Turbo Kid, I am pleased to announce was a very pleasant success.

Set in an alternative, post apocalyptic 1997. The story revolves around one teenager and his bike (he’s only ever referred to as The Kid) trying to salvage as much scrap from The Wasteland that his now his home as possible so he can make the trip to the town and trade it all for a bottle of (very murky) water.

swings

When taking a moment out of his subsistence to revel in being a kid by sitting on a swing and reading a comic he encounters a young lady called Apple, a slightly simple, well meaning and kinda sweet girl, who befriends The Kid immediately. Despite his initial resistance to company, her persistence brings about a companionship between the two .

Together they end up embroiled in a plot by the evil Zeus, the one eyed owner and leader of the town, as well as the aforementioned water) to get water from new sources, adventure ensues.

fist

I loved this film, from the beginning it has an amazing sense of nostalgia. From what I’ve learnt of the internet this is something called New Retro. A brand new genre which is innovative and new, but at the same time referencing (predominantly) the 80s and 90s. I think this image pretty much sums things up

Remember all those great kids adventure films from the 80s? Labyrinth, The Goonies, Flight of the Navigator, Never Ending Story. All of those were great and you can see their influence in Turbo Kid. You can also tell that other post apocalyptic films like Mad Max have been a massive influence on the design with some of the costumes looking like they stepped straight from Mel Gibson’s side.

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As part of the new wave of new retro movies, there is a great sense of nostalgia for the 80s and 90s, yet it manages to be fresh and new enough to not just feel like a pastiche or a satire. At times it feels like it’s walking a tightrope between loving homage to the action and adventure movies of old and a satire (a la Kung Fury). For me, it was this tightrope that really drew me into the film. Sometimes it felt like it was swerving towards parody and other times you could feel the love for those old movies shining through as the directors  re-create their own story in that style. Sometimes it almost feels like three kids (There are three directors; François Simard, Anouk Whissell, and Yoann-Karl Whissell) using a dad’s camcorder in the backyard playing at being film maker makers, though  very good ones with a much bigger budget.

The violence gives it an 18 certificate, and this is well deserved. The violence is bloody, gory and quite graphic at times. There’s blood spurting everywhere, guts get pulled out, limbs get chopped off, and there’s even a guy with a circular saw for a hand.

hand

With all this violence and gore being thrown about with gay abandon it never goes too far with it. They always manage to stop just short of you getting bored of it.

On a side note, I must applaud the directors for going down the route of physical effects rather than CGI, not only does it look great, but it all adds to the nostalgic feeling that really makes this film great. I love real life effects, they make it feel tangible and much more scrungy than if it was CGI.

By the end of the film’s conclusion I found that I had a love for the characters. This was a slow builder with the relationship between the two protagonists building up over the course of the movie, and by the end you just love them.

The last thing I’m going to mention is the soundtrack. Jean-Philippe Bernier and Jean-Nicolas Leupi were in charge of this, and I have to say they did an amazing job. Like the rest of the film It harks back to a simpler times when synthesizers were just a keyboard a few fancy buttons. Yet they also manage to keep it modern and fresh. I’ll be honest here and say that I would listen to the score on my iPod on the way to work.

I would wholeheartedly recommend this movie. If you love violence, if you love nostalgia, if you love synthy music, if you love a good love story, or just like a good post apocalyptic romp with daft costumes and gore you’ll love this. Go see it on Netflix before it gets taken off. Go. Now!

★★★★★

 

Film: Legend

Legend has recently made it’s way onto DVD, so having missed it at the cinema I thought I’d pick it up and give it a go.

I must admit, I’m a bit of a sucker when it comes to movies set in 60s swinging London. I love Austin Powers (Yeah baby!), and The Beatles’ films like Yellow Submarine, and while the film does a marvelous job of immersing you in the time period, Austin Powers this is not.

Legend does really does go to town with the 60s setting. I could feel that special buzz the time period evokes. The excitement of a city emerging from the dour and oppressive 50s shines through. The now retro designs of their surroundings, the flowery wallpaper and the ladies dresses all combine in the perfect way to make you feel a heavy nostalgia for the time period (even if, like me, you were never there).

legend dresser

We meet our protagonists wearing black suits and ties, setting the tone for the film, like the Krays themselves, this is serious business. The brutality of the brothers shines through with scenes including Reggie beating a rival gang with knuckle dusters while Ronnie beats them with a hammer to the head, where betrayers and rivals are killed with barely a moment’s notice. This is not something for the easily offended or the faint hearted.

legenf main pic

The performances are mostly on par, with some great appearances from the likes of David Thewlis as the detective always on the tail of the brothers, trying to catch them in the act and Taron Egerton as one of the lower down lackeys of the gang.  Tom Hardy does a great job of bringing not one but two of the nation’s most notorious gangsters to life. Though they were identical twins, they were very different (even physically as well as in personality) and Hardy is able to provide a distinction between the two, which limits the confusion between which twin is which, even with the similar names.
Ronnie had some serious mental health issues which is addressed early on as we are told by the Narrator (who is also Reggie’s wife) about how he was institutionalised at one point and needed constant medication to stabilise his moods. Ronnie’s homosexuality it dealt with in a mature way and gives us a glimps of his world of wild sex parties (and there’s some great tips on how to blackmail members of parliament too).  However I felt that Hardy could have gone a bit further with his portrayal of Romnie, I never really felt that I got to know him beyond that he got angry, was a terrible businessman and had kinky parties. Something similar could be said for Reggie we never really know what makes him tick, or why he’s interested in becoming London’s biggest gangster, why is it important to him?  Is it to prove a point? Get more money? Just to be a big man? Or just because he likes his brother and that’s what he wants to do? I don’t know, because it’s never really addressed. Reggie’s wife, Frances (Emily Browning) seems a little two dimensional at times as well. The relationship gets far less screen time than it should have done, I really wanted the story to get into what was happening between the two characters .

legend spank

I think this is my main problem with the film.  It tries to tell so many different aspects of the Krays, that you only get a very shallow view of their world.  Like the relationship between Reggie and Frances I don’t feel that legend was able to portray the relationship between Ronnie and Reggie as much as I would have liked. Perhaps it had something to do with Hardy playing both roles, sometimes you just need someone else there to react to and bounce off of. With the absence of a deep, clear story line I always felt like an outsider looking onto their world rather than feeling inside it. When you look back at some of the greatest gangster films like Goodfellas there is a strong main character who takes us through their journey from starting out to gaining notoriety and fame in their chosen profession, there’s a feeling of being there, being part of the action. That’s what makes those films so iconic, so great. You don’t get that with Legend. It’s narrated by Reggie’s wife which puts a certain distance between the audience and the two main characters. By trying to tell so much about what the Krays did it tells us very little about who they were, which for me, is the most interesting part of being a gangster, the human aspect. An aspect I found sadly lacking.

If you’re looking for a romp around 60s swinging London, with added violence and a twisted sense of morality then you’ve probably found something you’ll enjoy for a Saturday night at home with a take away. If you like deep characters and compelling story lines, then perhaps you’d be better sticking with a classic American gangster flick.

★★★☆☆