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1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
One Foot out of the Grave, 8 March 2017

Back in the days NBC's "Golden Girls" pioneered in discovering a fresh comedic potential according to the premise: Pensioners are also entitled to some post-prime fun before a career-move that involves pushing up the daisies. Especially when they're operating from Miami, Florida, of course. Now picture this as good old Sophia would say: How about we give the whole retiree idea more edge, relocate the girls to Scotland (complete with heavy accent), change their gender and language to something way stronger and offensive (yet in its own way endearing), and replace the picturesque Miami-scenario with fictional "shitehole" Craiglang "somewhere near Glasgow" with prospects being hee-haw as a Scot would say. You'll see: The fun refuses to concede defeat. Quite to the contrary. Welcome to "Still Game"!

Spun off from Ford Kiernan's and Greg Hemphil's sketch show "Chewin' the Fat", "Still Game" features strong 70+ characters ranging from the comedic widower duo Jack and Victor (Kiernan/Hemphil) over curmudgeon Winston, blabbermouth Isa and tight-arsed Tam to Indian-born shop owner Navid, who sports a rare talent for one-liners of the side-splitting kind. Now pleasures may be limited for old duffers, but life goes on and as such revolves around the local waterhole "The Clansman", the bookies, and the grocer's, with Isa's rumor mill working incessantly. Romance is a mere footnote. In that sense "Still Game" is not that far off the mark as real old geezers go. But in Craiglang there's a bright side to the shadow of old age: Death for example is a constant companion, accepted and dealt with in creative fashion (two words: hypothermia sweepstakes), and in the meantime as far as shaping the rest of one's life is concerned: disaster, small or large, is always around the corner. "Still Game", while out-and-out hilarious, occasionally dark-humored and sometimes over-the-top in a memorable way, also has its powerful dramatic moments. Character developments feel palpable and add another layer to the show and depth one wouldn't want to miss. The nine year long pause between season 6 and 7 is hardly noticeable. Following popular demand, "Still Game" is back again, as stand-up comedy and sitcom. So brush up on your Scottish, or turn on the subtitles. You don't want to miss this.

Deep, deep down, under someone's skin..., 9 October 2016

There's a mystery buried somewhere: Somewhere between an embittered, hospitalized writer, suffering from a debilitating skin disease, and the overconfident detective of the pulp novel he once wrote. There's mystery surrounding a betrayed father, a suicide, a son having to cope with the contradictions in his young existence, trying to break free. There's also a dame and a body, there always is in a noir scenario. And there are all those memories, fantasies and nightmares of a tortured soul. Unable to move from his bed, our writer becomes the focal point of the story, who sees, hears and struggles with things between reality, fiction and hallucinations, slowly connecting the dots along with us: Down at the docks a foghorn blares, though it sounds like a whistling train... Make sure to bring your imagination to help him solve the puzzle! Dennis Potter's masterpiece "The Singing Detective" is as good as it gets when it comes to creating intelligent television. Not only does he manage to successfully combine film noir, musical, comedy and drama, he also injects existential depth into it that makes one feel deeply for a cynic on the way to his redemption. Suspenseful and entertaining, the multi-layered spectacle draws the viewer in, a viewer, who might feel lost from the very beginning, but will see sympathy grow, despite or maybe because being thrown around between the hospital reality, a constantly changing book plot, flashbacks and escapist adventures of the mind. Potter's wizardry lies in gradually expanding the context, allowing themes to transcend their confines, bleed into threads of seeming parallel worlds, and resonate more and more with each episode. Actors play multiple parts, scenes are repeated in variations - and we are reminded to look for more than just a plot. Thus "The Singing Detective" continues to grow on the inclined watcher with every repeated viewing, for one because of Potter's ingenious screenplay, but also thanks to Jon Amiel's flawless direction and especially Michael Gambon's towering performance. "The Singing Detective" is nothing short of a landmark, controversial for all the wrong reasons at the time of its release, but well deserving to be rediscovered as the pinnacle of Potter's outstanding career.

Side note: There's are of course also mysteries buried somewhere between Dennis Potter and Philip E. Marlow (who seems to have misplaced an "e"), between a writer who suffered from psoriatic arthropathy like a certain character he created and his Chandleresque creation. There's mystery surrounding the outright denial that "The Singing Detective" is autobiographical and the dozens of biographical coincidences. Just one more layer to add to a legacy looking for a hobby detective. Feel free to sing along...

"Frasier" (1993)
2 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
Best written and performed American sitcom to date, 30 June 2016

While "Frasier" is in fact merely a spin-off of the shrink character established in the long-running "Cheers", he's quite different in his own show. Which is a good thing: Years after leaving his favorite bar in Boston, Frasier works as a radio psychiatrist in Seattle; he's older, also more mature, oh, and at the same time his naivety concerning matters of the common man is easier exposed. Plus, he'd still eat a worm if someone were to give it only a French name. Frasier might be short-tempered, single-minded and self-absorbed at times, but he has his heart in the right place. As far as women are concerned he's charming, but all in all mostly hopeless, which on the other hand is part of the fun for the viewer as it makes him even more lovable and easier to connect with when keeps messing things up - despite the best of intentions. Then again he's snooty as ever, and has found a brother he never admitted to have in "Cheers". And finally there's dad with a hip problem who has permanently pitched a tent (or rather a tasteless chair) in Frasier's postmodern apartment. Aside from considerable taste differences to the culturally spoiled brats dad also brings his terrier Eddie with him, primarily good for winning staring contests with irritating shrinks.

One thing soon becomes perfectly clear when watching the series: Kelsey Grammar (Frasier) and David Hyde Pierce (his brother Niles, psychiatrist too by profession) unmistakably form one of the rare comedic dream teams one finds hard to get tired of even after 11 years. Thanks to the brilliant writing staff especially the early seasons sparkle with witty comebacks, acid remarks, hilarious situations only snobs may chance upon finding themselves in. Furthermore the show sports a level of intelligence and cultural references that are entirely absent from many American shows, particularly sitcoms, served with frantic pace and spot-on delivery. While "Frasier" has a certain highbrow angle that lends the series its uniqueness, it can nevertheless be enjoyed on multiple levels: aside from sophisticated remarks of the side-splitting kind there's also slapstick and farce in the mix, and even the weaker episodes blow comparable situation comedies still out of the water. The sophistication that permeates the show clearly has something to do with the fact that "Frasier" turns out as a highly re-watchable offering, yes, even an addictive one, for there's always something new one can pick up in re-runs. That, and the fact that the characters are drawn so incredibly well makes the show an absolute winner. From physical therapist Daphne, Nile's desperate infatuation, over Frasier's producer and sleep-around Roz to station manager Kenny right down to the easily irritable Bulldog and the 11 seasons long unseen Maris, Nile's wife and doom - the writers gave all of these people recognizable personalities, even the invisible ones. Just like Frasier's radio sessions in fact give sound psychological advice. Instead of a quick laugh and fast food for the soul, you get the fun plus food for thought to go. And maybe an urge to grab some coffee. In that respect we close the circle, lift our cup and say: Cheers!

0 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Finding beauty in the plight we call life, 14 March 2016

Kaneto Shindô's heart-rending minimalist gem "The Naked Island" (1960) indeed strips movie-making to its very naked basics: imposing black and white pictures, sparsely used sounds and a musical theme to die for turn a film with a simplistic story into a major cinematic event. Dialog there is none. Which is more than an experiment, rather it's an artistic statement. Indeed, as the film shows: Conversations are not required in order to tell a tale that focuses on the burdens of life weighing on its characters, a life that is monotonous, repetitive, bland, but which is lived with dignity and perseverance. And if you are willing to let yourself be guided by images alone, you'll soon forget any ambitions of plot and will find yourself captured by the daily routines of people struggling to grow crops on a tiny rugged island where water is as precious as the sun merciless. There's drama as well, but only as a natural extension of the circumstances.

The cinematography is unobtrusive, doesn't draw attention to itself, yet at the same time every single image is so carefully framed, that it could stand on its own like a painting. Shindô however paints in moving pictures, and the impact is thus even stronger. As an audience we are simply observing the contradictory sublime beauty of the triteness through a gorgeous black and white filter, and while what we see feels like a documentary in content, it is wrapped in visual poetry rarely seen in such condensed intensity. The documentary feel and the poetic approach might be comparable to Flaherty's famous "Man of Aran" (1934). Both pictures focus on people living on an island and fighting the forces of nature, however, while "Aran" is an action spectacle dealing with a torrential confrontation culminating in musical crescendos on the sound track, Shindô's "Naked Island" is anything but a thrilling ride. Because of that it feels even more realistic and less staged, maybe the perfect counterpoint to the Flaherty picture. Still, both have their own merit on different sides of the spectrum.

In "The Naked Island" the melancholic, restrained music sets the pace, reflecting the inescapable daily chores, the circle of life for crops and men, and we are inevitably drawn into the film's meditative life-affirming mood against the harsh backdrop that permeates all. The depiction of these few lives we follow might seem like a slow, tedious journey against all odds that has little value for viewers, especially when we see the same things again and again. But at some point the arduous task of carrying water buckets up a mountain slope feels more like a dance and it's as if the sparkling of the rocking water only affirms how treasured and precious, how life-giving it is. - In short: If you want to leave your own perhaps hectic and stressful existence behind for an hour and a half, here's something that is likely to touch you in a very profound way: an isle of tranquility and contemplation to return to in the pandemonium of modern everyday life.

Minimalist masterpiece that digs deep, 17 August 2015

There's a somewhat magical, perversely paradoxical thing that might take hold of a watcher of Kaurismäki films: Which is that one might find oneself so intrinsically entangled in the lives of characters, their trials and tribulations, that it doesn't seem that important anymore whether the story on screen ends with, say, a happily ever after or a joint suicide. Sounds strange? Seems consequential, though...

That's because a film about tragedies that feel real manages to transcend its medium and hit home. It's because the simplicity and directness of the material without embellishments or over-dramatization touches something in us, brings us down to our own existential level. Rather than impose feelings on the characters we can't help but empathize with them, genuinely. And once we are at this point, we're likely to have learned our lesson, dig up some profound truths, long before the credits roll. This is true of a couple of equally absorbing social dramas from Kaurismäki comparable to "Drifting Clouds", ranging from "Shadows in Paradise" over "Ariel" to "The Match Factory Girl". As for "Drifting Clouds": Despite the downward spiral Kaurismäki's ordinary people find themselves trapped in, survival seems to be dependent on primarily one thing: to rely on one another, to give support, faults aside, to pick oneself up, to fight against the odds, to succeed or succumb - together.

That's what Kaurismäki losers do: struggle with determination. They are working class people, who have very small dreams. Like getting themselves a simple TV set (it has colors!), and pay for it later. But when reality hits hard, again and again, their dreams have to focus on other things, and so these dreams become bigger and more and more improbable to realize. Kaurismäki just observes. The acting is understated, the characters humble, words are scarce. Even music and sound are diegetic only (except for one key moment), all we hear is happening on screen, is not suggested from the outside. Humour of course is not to be missed, and dead-pan at that, the directing is precise, economical. Very Finnish, tailored to Finnish lives, and yet it feels universal, because through this lens we become witnesses of something larger.

You might look at clouds as they drift away - castles in the sky, pipe dreams they say. Trying to reach them could be a vain exercise, even tainted by doom. Make sure to fight your fight, though, for you will discover that you are not alone. You will learn to understand others, and others will understand you. If you go under, there's at least a shared journey to remember. Or your fate, masking as coincidence.

Tarnation (2003)
0 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Tarnished by damnation: a self-portrait, 15 April 2015

Already the purported budget of a mere $218,32 makes clear that Jonathan Caouette's "Tarnation" is the film that is destined not to please the regular film watcher - and as a consequence it has split audience reactions right in the middle. A good thing to know from the outset, as you should be prepared for something different. After all we're dealing with a biographical documentary here that was made in a highly experimental form consisting of a collage of snapshots, Super-8 films, answering machine messages and video diaries covering a life over thirty years. The footage is at times amateurish some say, however its use is ingenious say others. Well, what's for sure is that you get the director himself in the center of attention: he's gay, he's burdened, he suffers from mental disorder of depersonalization and derealization, yet he's extremely creative as the film shows - and there's Caouette's mentally ill mother of course, primary cause of his troubles and object of his unconditional affection. "Tarnation" is all about this difficult relationship, which has shaped the life of a child, a youth, an adult. It's also about love under harsh conditions and the abysses that lurk in schizophrenia. And its all accompanied by a brilliant soundtrack that made the lion's share of the extra $400,000 that secured the completion of the film and a theatrical release. Along with one of the most brilliant editing jobs possible to accomplish with free software, the added music and sound effects contribute tremendously to the unique coming of age experience that is "Tarnation".

What is evident right from the first frame is that this is no run-of-the-mill documentary, but a visceral piece of life, with all its inadequacies, challenges and hardships, processed in video format in order to understand it and extract its essence, to appreciate what life is living for despite its shortcomings. It is a document by Caouette made for himself as an act of self-therapy, shared with viewers who are willing to connect on an emotional level. Caouette shows unbridled pleasures of raw life as well as its brutal horrors through the lens of home videos and psychedelic images inspired by them, generating something new, memorable and lasting. A therapeutic exercise in self indulgence as some claim? Maybe. Inspirational, moving, personal, gritty, real, shocking nevertheless - in spite of its MTV-like cutting style. In short: a wild ride packed with emotions on all levels that gives us at least a glimpse on what it is like to be tarnished by damnation.

Getting to know Alan Partridge, 21 June 2014

British actor Steve Coogan's versatility ranges from his talents as impressionist, playing multiple roles (and this includes a female character!) in his stand-up comedy over voice acting, writing and producing and even starring in very serious feature roles like the Oscar nominated "Philomena" (2013) - and whatever he does, he does it with fervor and consequence. In this spirit his alter ego wannabe "star" Alan Partridge was born, a fictional TV personality at first known for radio programmes and an infamous regional chat show, which would be "Knowing Me, Knowing You". An unlikeable character developed that Coogan slips into regularly in his stand-ups as well, later he based a TV series on him and brought him to the big screen. But it all started in earnest with these few chat show episodes. So what's so special about Alan? Well, Alan Partridge is the type of character who's so full of himself that his shameless displays of narcissism combined with his social awkwardness make his interviews prone to go further downhill without even having started at a notable high point. Partridge is one of the first who understood how to make cringeworthy comedy work for the audience, he's embarrassing, politically incorrect, condescending, pompous and whoever shares time with him on screen, he or she is not the issue - it's basically all about him. Throughout the show numerous fake guest stars help us to familiarize us with the phenomenon that is Partridge, but even then he sneaks in guest "stars" that are "famous" for being his namesake, and quite regularly minor and major catastrophes hit the show which eventually goes out with a bang - literally! The appearances of Alan Partridge over time in different formats vary considerably in quality, but all of them contribute to the manifestation of Coogan as a comedic genius in his alter ego. Not even a misfired bullet can kill off Partridge's career, just like Coogan himself can dodge media bullets with elegance as his superb "Everybody's a bit of a c*nt sometimes" performance shows in his 2009 stand-up, which is as snarky and to the point as Alan Partridge's tongue has an aptitude to screw up royally and with precision. Check that one out to get the picture. And on that bombshell recommendation we'll leave you to discover Alan Partridge and the man behind it. Once you get into it there's only one word to describe what you've been missing so far: A-Haaaaa!

"Firefly" (2002)
0 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
"Stagecoach" in space, 19 June 2014

Whenever there's a show conceived that is hailed as a masterpiece by an enthusiastic fan base but fails as far as the ratings are concerned, it gets canceled. Such happened to Josh Whedon's "Firefly", the sci-fi series often dubbed "Western in space", which indeed went west just after 14 episodes. Yet concerted fan reaction resulting in strong DVD sales finally brought the characters back for one more time to the big screen, so that with the "Serenity" movie at least a couple of loose threads could be resolved. Even though the concluding action packed picture perhaps wasn't the perfect end point to a series that thrived on episode based character development, at least the short-lived saga now has a beginning and an end, and that's reason enough to be thankful for anyone who likes his sci-fi with a twist.

In Whedon's own words "Firefly" tries to bring the drama of the pioneering days depicted in John Ford's classic "Stagecoach" to space, capturing a gritty tale of renegades who had fought on the losing side of a war and now hire themselves out to do all kinds of jobs in a universe with an uncertain future. Said universe is still very much like Earth in the 21st century, only that mankind has extended its reach into space and spread its problems, inadequacies and animosities in the process. "Firefly's" reality is undoubtedly dystopic, dirty rather than pristine as is the common cliché and the three dimensional characters of the Serenity reflect the insecurities of the times with their internal struggles making their place in the world believable. Also the show is beautifully crafted and shot mainly with hand-held cameras adding to its realistic look and feel, especially in on-board scenes with tight spaces. And while there's technology and enough special effects that enhance the experience, these aspects don't dominate, but let the characters live. It's really all about these very different people and their relationships on the ship around which Whedon's creative mind has built a universe that fits them like a glove and coincidentally is also sci-fi. Most of all it's suspenseful, entertaining, thrilling, with dark secrets making up the main story lines, there are even philosophical themes touched upon - and a strong dose of snarky humor. An oddity perhaps, but it shines brilliantly.

1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Inspiration for life through the dead and buried, 1 June 2014

Following the success of his multiple award winning picture "American Beauty" (1999) writer/producer Alan Ball got the opportunity to delve even deeper into the American soul - in series format, allowing much broader stories to be told, and with no strings attached. As it was HBO who ordered the series there were no taboos off-limit, and by request of the network's entertainment president Carolyn Strauss the scripts were welcomed to be a "little more *beep*ed up" than the usual Hollywood fare... Alright then, so there you have it: the edgy full package of controversial themes permeating (American) society on a plate, ranging from sex maniacs over psychotic parents-children relationships with incestuous touches, to abortions and gays as main characters. Hypocrisy abounds and of course there's violence, drugs, foul language, shock and awe, peppered with spectacular horrible deaths.

Admittedly, all that might sound a bit off-putting for a serious drama series if that's all there is to it. However, "Six Feet Under" proves to be much more than a collection of weirdos in grotesque situations. Actually, it's a family show, or rather about a family, and that is key. In its center is not a clichéd dysfunctional sitcom inspired "pseudo-unit", rather "Six Feet Under" deals with the turbulent, fragile lives of real people confronted with real problems and the choices they have to make in life, and it's not always pleasant. The show is a coming of age drama on multiple levels that happens in the ever present face of death, as the Fishers are owners of a funeral parlor. With the territory come tragedy, hardship and emotions in troves, and it all adds to home made problems. What's special about the show is that thanks to great writers like Ball black comedy and surrealism are mixed in, so that you get your fill of amusement in the unfolding drama, and of course the given somber undertones. Always thought-provoking and often on a tightrope walk, but rarely over the top, "Six Feet Under" also shines with an outstanding multiracial ensemble cast (Peter Krause, Rachel Griffiths, Michael C. Hall, Mathew St. Patrick, Freddy Rodríguez, Frances Conroy etc.) that allows the characters to live and breathe. You cannot pay the show more tribute than admitting that once the curtain goes down at the final episode it feels like a serious loss to have to say good-bye to the struggles of the characters, their idiosyncrasies, their hopes and dreams. The series has extremely strong moments that succeed in confronting you with everything life entails, your own mortality included, actually especially that. The show's recipe: The more you think about the inevitability of death, the stronger your lust for life, and in each funeral there's a reminder thereof.

2 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
One for the lads, 19 April 2014

When the first series of "Auf Wiedersehen, Pet" aired in Britain Lady Thatcher reigned the United Kingdom with her iron fist and work was scarcer than ever. As the Dire Straits would later put it in "Why Aye Man", the soundtrack of series 3: Many had no way of staying afloat, so they had to leave on the ferry boat - economic refugees, on the run to Germany... And here we have the story of the construction workers from Newcastle. With that premise the scenario is set for one of the greatest lads centered series that ever hit the television screen. Their journey over the years leads the guys also to Spain, Arizona or Cuba to name just a few locations, but these are just changing backdrops. The camaraderie is the same throughout all the lads' escapades, and that's what it's all about. The character mix is crafted beautifully by the writers and then played exactly by the right men for the jobs. The selection of the magnificent seven ranges from the man of action and thus unofficial leader Dennis (Tim Healy) over Neville, heavily dominated by his marriage vows (Kevin Whatley), womanizer Wayne as his counterpart (Gary Holton), loudmouth and oddball Oz (Jimmy Nail) to the bashful, boring and bumbling Barry (Timothy Spall), the gentle giant Bomber (Pat Roach) and finally to Moxey (Christopher Fairbank), who has his own troubles with the law.

"Auf Wiedersehen, Pet" deals with the working class, portraying the day to day life from laying bricks to drinking in the evening, but it's TV for everyone interested in good drama peppered with working class humor. And the brickies know how to build their stuff on reality. An alternative to artificially constructed, highly polished studio productions, "Pet" features guys that feel like lads, complete with heavy accents, and while it all is very eighties, the first two series definitely hold up and are as engaging as when they aired. Too bad that with the death of a key cast member things went downhill from there in the subsequent episodes made more than 15 years later. While series three still is good, the rest of the episodes cannot compete in any way with the original series. Nevertheless, if you're fed up with crime shows and high budget TV from the US rehashing the most common denominator recipe again and again, then take a nostalgic look back, and join the lads' visit to Germany - 'cause that's livin' alright!

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