Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, Rob Morgan, Jonah Hill, Mark Rylance, Tyler Perry, Timothée Chalamet, Ron Perlman, Ariana Grande etc.
Cinematography: Linus Sandgren
*** MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS ***
Adam McKay has had an interesting filmmaking career. He was a head writer on Saturday Night Live for two seasons before moving into cinema comedy by writing and directing gag-heavy comedies such as Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy(2004) plus the sequel, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006), Step Brothers (2008), and The Other Guys (2010). While one could see these films as silly and knockabout Will Ferrell clown vehicles, certain films contained explorations of social issues relating to sexism in the workplace and big corporation fraud. Nevertheless, it was still surprising when McKay shifted toward more dramatic work full of barbed satire and social commentary. While both The Big Short (2015) and Vice (2018) certainly had humour, they also impressively dissected the mortgage crash and the political rise of Dick Cheney, respectively.
His latest film is the Netflix produced Don’t Look Up (2021). It is a disaster movie in genre, that also mixes in comedy, political satire and drama. The story concerns Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence), an astronomy Ph.D. candidate, discovers a previously unknown comet. Kate’s professor Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) work together and find that it is an extinction event which will destroy all life on Earth. Only having presented their findings to NASA and the White House do they find themselves dealing with indifference, administrative incompetence and corporate neglect lead by insane financial greed. As news of the impending doom hits society, the population become split between believers and naysayers leading to division and chaos.
Don’t Look Up (2021) is arguably less serious in tone compared to Adam McKay’s previous two films, but the message is ultimately more damning of the U.S. Presidency and humanity as a whole. Because the gigantic comet heading for Earth is very much a metaphor for climate change. Here Meryl Streep’s President is dizzyingly dismissive of the science and only begins to act when it is politically and financially beneficial. Her Chief of Staff son, a brilliant Jonah Hill, is a sycophantic numbskull more interested in Lawrence’s raging scientist, rather than saving the world. Indeed, Dibiasky and Mindy get side-tracked by glamour, celebrity and the toxicity of social media. DiCaprio’s arc is amusing as he goes from nervous mouse to confident commentator in the middle act, only to experience a costly personal comeuppance.
Rich in fast-paced gags at the expense of pop, media, political, corporate and dumb human personalities, Don’t Look Up (2021), is a highly entertaining disaster movie with a terrific ensemble cast. I felt Leonardo DiCaprio, one of my favourite actors, was a tad miscast as the science everyman, but he still gives a great performance. Lawrence provides the most grounded and empathetic character playing it straight amidst the all-round insanity. The White House “vending” machine running gag is the best in a film full of funny lines. Mark Rylance is craftily good as the social media megalomaniac manipulating the catastrophic narrative to his own means, but as aforementioned Jonah Hill steals the comedy show. Lastly, Adam McKay probably over-reaches with the poignant family-driven ending. However, I did feel a true sense of loss for the characters and our planet as a whole. The Earth may be full of idiots who don’t want to look up, but thankfully there are storytellers trying to turn their minds in an amusing, silly and intelligent fashion.
Executive Producers: David E. Kelley, Jean-Marc Vallee, Reese Wetherspoon, Bruna Papandrea, Nicole Kidman, Liane Moriarty etc.
Based on: Big Little Lies by Lianne Moriarty
Teleplays written by: David E. Kelley
Directed by Andrea Arnold
Main Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Zoe Kravitz, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, Laura Dern, Meryl Streep, Alexander Skarsgård, Adam Scott, James Tupper, Jeffrey Nordling, Kathryn Newton etc.
Cinematography: Yves Belanger, Jim Frohna
Original Network: HBO
**CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR SEASON ONE**
I hate Social Media and Twitter especially, sometimes. I also hate myself for getting dragged into the bullshit it sometimes brings. I’m referring specifically to the distorted prejudice the mind can take on when reading a few negative posts about a programme, film or personality. Such reports can obviously be accurate. However, they can mislead and stain your expectations of a show or film or actor or artist. In this case the second season production of HBO’s, Big Little Lies, came under fire from a few people on my Twitter feed. They said it was an awful and an ultimately disappointing series. Were they right? I mean, how bad could it be?
Then there was the Indiewirearticle which highlighted an issue during production. They asserted in a well written piece of click-bait that director Andrea Arnold was unceremoniously disregarded in the editing process and first season director, Jean-Marc Vallee, brought in to oversee re-shoots and final cut. If you believe the Indiewire article, this was the act of a heinous media corporation cutting down a beloved artist and robbing her of her vision. Arnold’s auteur status remains untainted for me. She is a fine director who carried out her contract and did not have final cut anyway. This belonged to HBO and they had say on who they hired during the production.
Thus, in a short period of time, a couple of tweets and one article had seriously affected my expectations of the second season of Big Little Lies. I was expecting a mess of a show. One which did not make sense and was robbed of all artistic and dramatic impetus by the HBO hierarchy. However, I can safely say I was wrong and, while not as good as the brilliant first season, it was still a really intriguing eight episodes worth of entertainment.
After the exceptional first season which found a stellar cast including: Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern, Adam Scott, Zoe Kravitz, Alexander Skarsgård and Shailene Woodley on top acting form, the second season follows on with the aftermath of prior events. The first season expertly inter-weaved stories concerning an unknown “murder” victim; school bullying; warring parents; extra-marital affairs; and abusive relationships, expertly played out over seven compelling episodes. With the “murder” victim revealed in the final episode, we now get an exploration of suspicion, guilt, conspiracy and a test of loyalty and friendship.
Without wishing to give too much away the newest and strongest addition to the series is Meryl Streep. She plays the mother ***SPOILER ALERT*** of the dead guy from the first season, Perry Wright (Alexander Skarsgård). His death occurred when he was pushed “accidentally” down some stairs at a party. But, the friend’s, including his wife, Celeste (Nicole Kidman), collude to say he fell instead. With the police still suspicious the main investigator is actually Streep as the dogged Mary Louise. She is passive-aggressive and subtle in her enquiries as to how her son died. It’s a delight watching her deviously pull apart each of the lead suspects. It is also an absolute masterclass in acting as Streep’s crafty characterisation makes this series a must-watch. Her scenes with Nicole Kidman’s crumbling personality are especially compelling.
Allied to the investigation into Perry’s death, the show gives some interesting narrative strands to Laura Dern’s energetic power-mum, Renata. Her world is about to disintegrate around her in the face of her husband’s financial wrong-doings. Equally powerful is Bonnie’s (Zoe Kravitz) attempt to heal the rift between herself and her mother. Bonnie suffers the most guilt as ***SPOILER ALERT*** she was the one who pushed Perry down the stairs. As she battles with the emotional repercussions of her actions, she experiences a painful re-emergence of historical parental abuse. Perhaps, not as intriguing are Madeline (Reese Wetherspoon) and Jane’s (Shailene Woodley) narrative strands. Nonetheless, they do support the series’ themes of family, trust and love that add depth and subtext.
To finish, I learnt once again that social media and Twitter surfing can have a negative impact on one’s critical expectation of a programme or film. You have to basically make your own mind up and not be swayed by the pitchforks and torch-bearers baying for blood online. Big Little Lies (2019), Season 2, therefore, while not reaching the dramatic heights of the first season is an excellent follow-up. It explores the privileged lives of the rich Monterey set instilling a sense of humanity and frailty to their lives. The more improvisational direction of Andrea Arnold works well with the fragmented impressionism of the editing style to bring this out. Mainly though, it’s the impressive cast and script which glued me to the screen while experiencing this very watchable drama.
THE FRACTURED BUT TROLL! SOUTH PARK – SEASON 20 REVIEW
The latest season of South Park ended mid-December time and so I’m a bit tardy with the review. This is mainly because I decided to watch all ten episodes back-to-back over the Christmas holidays, and in some ways, this was a mistake. I say this because I think sometimes as viewers we have to take some criticism too. In hindsight I definitely should NOT have binge-watched this season as it was so complex and plot-heavy with many themes and interlinking plot strands. In fact, similarly to the more satisfactory Season 19, this season transcended the usual mix of puerile and satirical comedy it’s known for, to become something much more.
**SCREW YOU GUYS – THERE ARE SPOILERS!”
Over ten episodes South Park once again became a huge mirror that reflected many of the events occurring in the USA and the world in general. The biggest event was of course, the Presidential elections which saw Mr Garrison and Caitlyn Jenner representing the Trump/Republican side and Hilary Clinton, of course, representing the Democrats. Amusingly they were referred to as Douche and Turd Sandwich respectively; calling back the classic episode where Stan is banished for refusing to vote.
Garrison soon realises he’s made a terrible mistake in running as he has NO policies and tries to extricate himself from the race. Thus, much of the comedy deriving from this narrative strand was brilliant and made me laugh throughout the season; especially during the episode Oh Jeez when Garrison won and went into full Trump mode. By the end of the season he’s shown to be a complete buffoon open to manipulation by Mr Slave and Kyle Broflovski when it comes down to the bombing of Denmark. But, hey, that’s a whole different story!
A TROLL IN THE PARK
The second major narrative line in this season was Gerald Broflovski (Kyle’s Dad) being revealed as an uber-Troll online called Skankhunt42. He begins by trolling his son’s school before moving onto cultural icons and then the whole of Denmark itself. Gerald, who usually represents the liberal side of the show, is seen becoming a vicious sneak who enjoys bullying for the humour. However, being the intellectual hypocrite he distances himself from the nerdy-no-life-outcasts he ultimately gets lumped in with.
Gerald’s actions eventually spiral totally out of control by the end and, while South Park itself has been a massive critic of celebrities and government figures in the past, it is quite justified in lampooning the cowardice of online trolls. These sad individuals hide under the bridges of social media feeding their tethered egos and weak personalities for the benefit of either humour, revenge or to obtain some idea of power.
In the episode The Damned, Gerald is literally pissed on by his wife in order to extricate himself from being rumbled as an online troll. That online bullies are shown to be mainly shut-in losers as opposed to Jocks, demonstrate that bullying can be done by anyone and needs to be pissed on from a great height. Lastly, the monstrous rise of Garrison to power also highlights the fact that hair-brained Trump has become the biggest troll in the world.
The theme of hyperbolic social media behaviour was supported by the further strand of South Park Elementary School students committing “suicide” by leaving Twitter. A character named Heidi is even mourned by her class during the episode Skankhunt even though she is actually in the class! Also, believing Cartman to be the troll ‘Skankhunt’ the kids gang up and ‘kill’ his electronic devices, burying them in an Evil-Dead-Cabin-in-the-Woods-horror-film-homage. The internet and social media is therefore cast as an extension of the playground; with kids and adults giving their social media live’s more importance than real life and move away from actual intimacy and human contact.
Consequently, Cartman himself goes the other way and falls in love with Heidi and their relationship is quite touching over course of the season. It’s especially funny as it plays with the audience’s expectations and the other kids think it’s all part of some Cartman uber-plan. Indeed, Cartman’s arc in this season is interesting as it seems they tried to make him more sympathetic. At first his feminist leanings are part of some scheme to undermine the girls’ sit-down protests during the opening Member-Berries episode. But eventually it turns out he does find Amy Schumer’s “vagina” comedy actually funny. Alas, the storyline kind of runs out of steam by the episode 9, Not Funny.
Gender politics and the boy-versus-girls dynamic further complicate the narrative when Butters leads a protest against the girls. Butters and the boys who have all been revenge-dumped by the girls because of ‘Skankhunt42’s vicious actions decide to protest too. So, they get their dicks out during the U.S. national anthem; which in itself satirized last year’s “sit-down” protests that occurred during U.S. college sporting events. I myself was not as educated about these particular occurrences but as usual Parker and Stone went to ridiculous lengths to demonstrate that however noble the cause, once everyone jumps on the bandwagon the protests become diluted and lose their power. Moreover, such stands against authority can also be wiped by a simple rewrite of history or rebooting for the future.
‘MEMBER WHEN. . .
Rebooting the present or future was yet another thematic present within this packed season. The “Member-berries” introduced in the first episode are a super-food which while innocent at the start become evil-humanized-nostalgia-fruit hell-bent on ensuring humanity lives in the past and doesn’t move on with any new ideas. Indeed, in the final episode The End of Serialization the “Member-berries” even end up in the White House. While not always convinced by these turn of events I can see the satirical point being made that living in the past remembering: Star Wars, Chewbacca, Tie-Fighters, Luke Skywalker, Indiana Jones, Flash Gordon, Superman, Reagan, the 80s, sugar from your neighbour, feeling safe, Stormtroopers etc. can be culturally dangerous and lead to the excavation of archaic politics hence the rise of Trump and the perceived right-wing Brexit vote.
Yet, nostalgia can also be a positive thing too and paradoxically I do at times hanker after the simpler, yet brilliantly effective South Park episodes which were perhaps more focussed and arguably funnier. But one cannot fault the programme makers for aiming higher than the usual shit you get on television. Plus, the “Member-berries” plot line did rightly put the boot into the ridiculous eulogizing of J.J. Abrams and The Force Awakens which definitely wasn’t as good as people made out. So, in that respect, the show made a very valid cultural point. But while going back can be a negative force it can also help us learn from our mistakes, however, given President-Trump’s about to enter the White House it seems humans just love making the same mistakes over and over again.
CONCLUSION. . . FRACTURED BUT NEARLY WHOLE!
While Season 19 became arguably the most coherent, incisive, funny and complex narrative out of all Trey Parker’s and Matt Stone’s previous work, Season 20 had a lot to live up to. However although the riotous narrative strands represented a major strength I don’t feel, overall, this season had as many gags or classic episodes. I would say that it worked best as an accomplished serialized conceptual satire with a few piss and dick jokes as opposed to the fast-paced-gag-filled-stand-alone-episode format of the earlier seasons. Still, while it may not have had many stand-out classic episodes, Season 20 was still a blast of wonderful filthy satire and due to the complex density of the storylines will no doubt improve with further viewings.
As I have attested on this blog many times, South Park is the greatest comedy of all time and shows no sign of losing its comedic and satirical power. The bar was raised SO high by Season 19 that perhaps ambition to beat that was always going to be tough. Still, I still respect Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s multi-skilled “authoritah” in using the inhabitants of South Park to rip into the world, media, politics, culture and religion with hilarious effect.
My favouritest ever episodes up to Season 17 can be found here: