FILM: Spree (2020, Eugene Kotlyarenko)

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Comedy/horror Spree is distributed in UK cinemas by Vertigo Releasing, following its premiere at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Kurt Kunkle (Joe Keery), a driver for Spree (an Uber-like taxi company) has spent years obsessively trying to become a social media star and influencer, yet his viewership of his content has rarely hit double figures. Deciding to do something different that he believes is sure to get a huge following, Kurt puts cameras all around his car and starts to live-stream his day of work with one huge change from usual…he murders his passengers in the live-stream.

PROS

  • Director Eugene Kotlyarenko creates a fast-paced film, directed with real energy and utilises the film’s minuscule budget very well.
  • Joe Keery’s central performance is very off-kilter and full of raw energy, while Sasheer Zamata’s passionate turn makes her the supporting cast stand-out.

CONS

  • Stylistically this film is all over the place. It is part Nerve, part Searching, part Death Proof, part mockumentary, all without any balance or any real effort at all to emulate those styles thoroughly or successfully.
  • A sloppily edited film due to the sheer number of cameras and phone screens that the narrative is seen through, including in the second half multiple phone screens at once, which is highly distracting as Eugene Kotlyarenko gives us too many things to try to take in at once.
  • The film’s premise alone has potential to be a satire of social media culture, yet it fails to fulfil that due to the predictable and somewhat repetitive narrative that adds nothing new, original or even clever to the ongoing efforts in the film industry to engage with, comment on or satirise social media culture. It is also very half-hearted in its attempts to comment on internet culture generally and present-day American politics.
  • A generally under-utilised supporting cast, the ones who most notably fall into that bracket being Kyle Mooney, Mischa Barton and David Arquette.

VERDICT: 3/10

LITERATURE: The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925)

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American tragedy novel The Great Gatsby was originally published by Charles Scribner’s Sons. Set in the prosperous Long Island of 1922, mysterious multi-millionaire Jay Gatsby spends the summer throwing large parties which seemingly everyone in New York turns up to. When Nick Carraway, Gatsby’s next-door neighbour, starts to get to know Gatsby he is stunned to learn that Gatsby had been lovers with Nick’s cousin, Daisy, a few years earlier, and that Gatsby has been throwing the parties in the hopes that she will turn up and they will reunite. At his request, Nick helps Daisy and Gatsby reunite and their romance begins to rekindle, but the consequences are sure to prove devastating due to the sheer number of people who will be impacted.

PROS

  • F. Scott Fitzgerald had a terrific writing style that is descriptive without being verbose, and made excellent use of similes and nuanced symbolism, which makes for a prose which is highly engaging to read which you find yourself taking the time to absorb, particularly to ensure that you do not miss any small details.
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald ultimately made these grand, in many ways larger-than-life characters relatable as he used them to implement the theme of nostalgia. Daisy and Gatsby feel nostalgic for their past romance, while Daisy’s husband (Tom Buchanan) clearly has a tad of nostalgia for his younger years. Furthermore, with the narrative being told in first-person by Nick several years later, the prose in its entirety has a nostalgic feel, tinged with regret.
  • It was an excellent creative decision by F. Scott Fitzgerald to use Nick as the first-person narrator as it makes for highly engaging reading, not just for the aforementioned reason, but also because we see everything to do with Gatsby from his perspective, through which the mysteries and puzzles surrounding the incredibly fascinating titular character are solved. Furthermore, due to Daisy and Tom being in Nick’s extended family means that they get backstory which they otherwise would not have, and we can clearly understand why Nick can find them difficult.
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald took a wholly unique approach to the American Dream – a highly popular theme in American literature. While he penned characters who have come from vastly different backgrounds in order to achieve extraordinary wealth or dream jobs, it is made abundantly clear throughout the novel that wealth, jobs and material possessions do not provide them with true happiness or fulfilment, and that ultimately wealth can easily corrupt people.
  • The idea that money and power can corrupt is made most abundantly clear through Tom, who acts like he is untouchable and hates not getting his own way to the point of hypocrisy (most notably seen in his guiltless engagement in adultery, yet his fury at the prospect that Daisy may cheat on him), but he remains a wholly believable character. Furthermore, he and (to a lesser extent) Gatsby are used alongside some nuanced and clever symbolism to explore how man tries to play God, and the desire to do so becomes greater with wealth.
  • Due to F. Scott Fitzgerald fleshing out the characters and their backstories so well, when certain selfish and cruel characters do not get the happy ending which they had wanted to, the reader feels a degree of conflict – gladness that their appalling behaviour has had consequences, yet pity as certain smaller moments in their backstories put them in that position in the first place.

NITPICKS

  • In latter chapters, Nick summarises most of what Gatsby tells him about himself, which is a wasted opportunity as having exactly what Gatsby said, complete with expression, would have added even more to his character.
  • A couple of blatant hints early on as to what Gatsby’s fate will be.

VERDICT: 10/10

LITERATURE: Elevation (Stephen King, 2018)

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American fantasy-drama novella Elevation was originally published by Scribner. Set in the town of Castle Rock, Maine, the novella sees Scott Carey discover that he has a mystery illness which is causing him to lose weight daily, despite not getting physically thinner or changing his diet. With this being a phenomenon that is inexplicable according to science and medicine, Scott is left with no idea what will happen when his weight hits zero, so he decides to do one last significant act – help lesbian couple Deirdre and Missy, with whom he had got off on the wrong foot, be accepted by the small town community who have ostracised them since Day One.

PROS

  • Stephen King does a great job, as ever, of creating a small town America setting, with everything from the sense of community, everyone knowing each other, the spread of gossip, the institutionalised prejudices, and the difficulty for newcomers to find their place there.
  • In the opening chapter it becomes clear that this novella is not a retread of Thinner, and a lot of genuine tension comes from the fact that there is no cause for Scott’s condition, while the description of its effects become increasingly imaginative and interesting to read.
  • Scott is relatable as most people want to right their past wrongs, while Deirdre especially is a compelling character as she is multilayered and is used to convey how easily you can get along with those who are different to you, which Stephen King conveys through a couple of clever political jabs.

CONS

  • The predominant issue is that this feels like two books’ worth of concepts crammed into one novella. An entire book could be focused on Missy and Deirdre trying to find their place in small-town America, and another about Scott facing this terrifying mystery illness. The two plots are merged, yes, but in a manner which at times feels contrived and ham-fisted.
  • Due to the tight constraints of a 132-page novella, the narrative feels altogether rushed, and ultimately a bit like wasted potential – when you consider the premise and the events it could easily have been fleshed out into a 400-page novel.
  • Stephen King uses expletives a fair few times in the prose which, quite frankly, just feels unprofessional and a tad immature, especially given that he is a (rather excellent!) veteran author.

VERDICT: 5/10

LITERATURE: A Storm of Swords: Steel and Snow (George R.R. Martin, 2000)

NOTEin the UK, Ireland, Australia and Israel, A Storm of Swords – the third instalment of the American epic-fantasy A Song of Ice and Fire series – was split into two books, and Steel and Snow is the first part. Apparently us Brits cannot cope with 1100 page long books…what a load of nonsense.

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A Storm of Swords: Steel and Snow was published in the UK by Voyager Books. The Seven Kingdoms of Westeros remain locked into the War of the Five Kings but, after so much battle, the respective forces of Houses Stark, Lannister and Baratheon have each suffered heavy losses. Overseas, however, Daenerys Targaryen uses her power as the mother of dragons to grow her forces as she continues to plot to take the Iron Throne. Meanwhile, the Seven Kingdoms face another threat as the wildlings (led by Mance Rayder) approach the Wall, intent on invasion.

PROS

  • George R.R. Martin boasts great imagination with his writing, cleverly using characters and locations to expand Westeros and bring further detail to its cultures, geography, history, noble families, and the political relations (which develop nicely and build upon events of previous novels) found therein. Like the narrative, he pens this with a good writing style – detailed yet not verbose, which can be read fairly quickly.
  • It is always daring to shift focus between several parallel narratives, but George R.R. Martin pulls it off very well, never leaving too great a gap between moments of focus on one, and even depicts some events from multiple perspectives, meaning that we easily remember what has already gone before.
  • The narrative is told with ten different viewpoint characters, yet everything is told in third-person. This is done well, as George R.R. Martin describes things as the viewpoint character perceives them, meaning that we have a good understanding of their viewpoint while being like spectator ourselves. Furthermore, by seeing perspectives from all sides of a political divide, we get to understand all perspectives very well, making it harder to take sides.
  • Excellent characterisation, with very good development and backstory to the  viewpoint characters (some have been changed forever by events of the previous novels, others are changed forever by the events in this one), and the events of their characters arcs increase anticipation for what could and would happen to them in the next instalment of the franchise.
  • While the writing style is fairly quick to read, the content is far from light and fluffy, with battles that are rich in gritty and vivid detail, and descriptions of external injuries and internal pain which will make you wince, all far more so than in previous instalments, especially as some of these descriptions are of the physical scars and/or psychological turmoil of the events of the last novel.

CONS

  • On numerous occasions, George R.R. Martin uses expletives rather than the words for which said expletives are slang terms, which is unnecessary and comes across as a tad immature.
  • Quite a few times George R.R. Martin wrongly uses the present tense instead of the past. If that was what he had meant then that is simply poor grammar. If they were typos then, like the other blatant typos which cause grammatical errors, one can give him the benefit of the doubt as anybody can make typos. Either way though, the editors should have picked up on it.

VERDICT: 9/10

TELEVISION: Fantastic Voyage (1968-1969)

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American science-fiction cartoon series Fantastic Voyage originally aired for 17 episodes on ABC, and was inspired by the 1966 film of the same title. Combined Miniature Defense Force (or C.M.D.F. for short) has four field members – Commander Jonathan Kidd (Ted Knight), biologist Erica Lane (Jane Webb), scientist and pilot Busby Birdwell (Marvin Miller), and “master of mysterious powers” Guru (also Miller). C.M.D.F. is a secret government organisation that shrinks down the four field members and their ship The Voyager to microscopic size so that they can solve mysteries and stop crimes undetected in ways which could not be done otherwise. But, they only have twelve hours before they grow back to their normal sizes.

PROS

  • In its animation (which plays very cleverly with scale and perspective) this series is ultimately of its time – colourful and psychedelic in design, with charming visual nods to low-budget science-fiction films.
  • Despite ultimately being formulaic, some episodes have clever twists, and the series is consistently suspenseful as each episode plays to man’s greatest fear of the unknown, while things like insects are far larger than normal once the field members have shrunk down.
  • The dynamic between the team is well realised, with each member having their own role and purpose, and distinct characteristics which leads to an interesting rapport with their teammates.

CONS

  • Ultimately due to its formulaic nature the series does become quite predictable after a few episodes, while sexism is often found throughout its run.
  • Over the course of the series, despite all of their adventures and missions, there is no character development, nor any change to the team’s dynamic.

VERDICT: 7/10

FILM: The Angry Birds Movie 2 (2019, Thurop Van Orman)

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The Angry Birds Movie 2 is a feature length computer-animation from Sony Pictures Animation. When Zeta (Leslie Jones) and her forces at Eagle Island start targeting Bird Island and Pig Island with the intention to destroy them, the Birds and the Pigs call a truce on their ongoing prank war in order to work together to stop her and save their homes.

PROS

  • Nice designs to the various islands, brought to life by a rich colour palette and a good level of detail in the animation, which is also found in the texture and expression with which the Birds are animated.
  • A fast-paced narrative with lots of energy, some good slapstick a few of moments of amusingly absurd and surreal humour, and a message on the importance of learning to work with others.
  • While none of the voice cast are especially memorable, they all voice their characters with real energy, enthusiasm and expression.

CONS

  • A subplot of three hatchlings trying to get three eggs home is contrived and little more than a half-hearted rip-off of the Ice Age franchise’s Scrat subplots.
  • Over-reliance on cheap and stupid toilet humour, the type of which I never even found amusing at 5-years-old and is almost insulting to the target audience.
  • Some of the Eagles have overly goofy designs, while the Pigs are animated to a lesser standard and look like they should be in a different film.

VERDICT: 5/10

FILM: An American Pickle (2020, Brandon Trost)

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Based on Simon Rich’s short story Sell Out, comedy-drama An American Pickle is distributed in the USA by streaming service HBO Max, and in UK cinemas by Warner Bros. Not long after emigrating to New York in 1919, a chance workplace accident causes Herschel Greenbaum (Seth Rogen) to be preserved in a vat of pickle brine. Awakening a century later, he meets his only surviving descendant – great-grandson Ben (also Rogen). After his initial struggles to adapt to the modern world get himself and Ben into trouble with the authorities, Herschel becomes determined to prove that he can make himself a success, so begins his own pickle business. The business really takes off, but in the social media age it is only a matter of time before Herschel’s outdated views and opinionated streak have serious repercussions.

PROS

  • The narrative is a fun and quirky take on a familiar basic premise, which amusingly satirises modern-day social media usage, cancel culture and mob mentality in an unashamedly to-the-point manner.
  • The entire film hinges on Seth Rogen’s dual-performance, and he does a great job, making Herschel and Ben two very distinctive characters with their own layers and nuances, and develops a terrific on-screen chemistry with himself.
  • Good period production and costume designs in the 1919 scenes, which are shot in a traditional 4:3, as opposed to the 16:9 that the rest of the film is shot in (a very good visual juxtaposition of the two eras).

CONS

  • The gags (though mostly hit) do miss the mark from time-to-time, while the narrative as a whole feels quite rushed, particularly in the 1919-set prologue and the highly abrupt ending.
  • Most of the fair-sized supporting cast get no real chance to shine due to the film’s short runtime and (understandably) considerable focus on Seth Rogen’s performances.
  • Despite the good design, the 1919-set scenes, as well as some latter scenes set in modern-day rural Europe have very blatant green screen.

VERDICT: 6/10

TELEVISION: Prison Break (2005-2009, 2017)

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American drama series Prison Break originally ran for 81 episodes airing from 2005-2009 on Fox, before returning for a 9-episode-long Revival in 2017. When Lincoln Burrows (Dominic Purcell) is put on Death Row at Fox River Penitentiary for a murder that he did not commit, his younger brother Michael Scofield (Wentworth Miller) gets himself incarcerated there too. Why? Because he has studied the prison’s blueprints and even had them tattooed on himself, in order to break Michael out. As the two brothers, along with several fellow inmates whom they befriend, work against the clock to ensure their freedom, they are soon to learn that those who framed Lincoln work for The Company, a covert organisation whose power and corruption extends all the way to The White House, and they will do anything to ensure that Lincoln is executed.

PROS

  • Season 1 was an intense, dramatic piece of television, which worked as well as it did because everything was ultimately plausible, while the spectacularly shot and edited scenes focusing on the escape plan was edge of your seat stuff.
  • Seasons 1-2 introduced a plethora of multilayered, nuanced characters whom we immediately invested in, while some of the one-note characters got added layers and complexity in latter seasons.
  • All the longest-serving cast members, particularly those who joined in Season 1, made the most of their moments to shine, proving to be talented at either drama, comedy or both time and again, making for engaging viewing.
  • The sheer level of detail on Michael’s tattoos makes for an incredible design, and hats off to the make-up department for applying it with such precision to Wentworth Miller.

CONS

  • Prison Break proved to be a one-hit wonder with its terrific first season. Season 2 was good but unfocused; Season 3 was a half-hearted and convoluted retread of Season 1 (which definitely suffered due to the 2007/8 Writers’ Strike); Season 4 was incredibly convoluted; Season 5 was highly contrived in its reviving of the series. Plus it all became far less plausible with each season, both in the bigger picture (some truly ridiculous retcons being the most obvious examples!) and the smaller details.
  • It is especially frustrating that an initially terrific series ultimately got to the point of being bad when one considers that, had the final two episodes been written differently, the series could have ended in a good place with Season 2.
  • As the series progressed, the number of newly-introduced characters to be complex and multilayered became fewer and farther between, with the majority in Seasons 3 and 5 especially being incredibly one-note.
  • New additions to the cast in Seasons 3-5 got far less in terms of moments to shine than the cast of Seasons 1-2 got, made even worse by the fact that characters and performances alike got increasingly hammy, which was wholly undeniable by Season 5.
  • On a technical level the series became increasingly sloppy, with a lot more use of shaky-cam in latter seasons, which made a lot of scenes unnecessarily tedious to watch, and much less attention-to-detail in terms of continuity editing, with some moments being nothing short of farcical as a result.

VERDICT: 4/10

TELEVISION: House of Mouse (2001-2003)

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American cartoon series House of Mouse ran for 52 episodes, and (as you can probably guess from the title) is a Disney series. The titular House of Mouse is a dinner theatre club in ToonTown, run by Mickey (Wayne Allwine), Donald (Tony Anselmo) and Goofy (Bill Farmer), which provide a variety of entertainment and play older cartoon shorts to the characters of Disney’s animated properties. Things rarely go smoothly in the running of the club, however, not least because Pete (Jim Cummings) is constantly trying to get them shut down.

PROS

  • Having such a plethora of Disney characters in one place is every Disney fan’s dream, and the characters are regularly utilised for blink-and-you-miss-it visual gags and quirky one-off verbal gags. Furthermore, there is clever utilisation of the Penguin Waiters from Mary Poppins as the waiting staff and enchanted brooms from Fantasia as the janitors.
  • Not only does this series fulfil every Disney fan’s wish to see characters from multiple properties in one place, but by playing so many older shorts it provides young viewers with a charming and interesting insight into the company’s history and back-catalogue.
  • A handsomely designed cartoon series, but ultimately what makes it most engaging is the sheer energy and enthusiasm of the voice cast, particularly Wayne Allwine, Tony Anselmo and Bill Farmer as the iconic trio of Mickey, Donald and Goofy.

CONS

  • A considerable amount of each episode’s runtime is taken up by old Disney shorts. While that is not a bad thing, as mentioned before, it does mean there is (by comparison) a noticeable lack of original content in this series, which is a shame when you consider the amount of potential that the premise has.
  • A very formulaic series which does gradually get more and more repetitive over its run. Ultimately the main issue is that it does not make that much use (bar the aforementioned brief, one-off gags) of the characters from pre-existing Disney properties, despite having plenty of potential and opportunities to do so.

VERDICT: 6/10

TELEVISION: Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends (1984-1986, 1991-1998)

NOTE: while the series continues to this day as Thomas & Friends, the series during its original runs of the 1980s and 1990s was very different to that which has been ongoing since the 2002 revival, partly because of the different title, but mainly because the earlier series drew far more from Reverend W. Awdry’s original children’s books. Plus, I may be slightly biased to those of the 1980s and 1990s due to them being a big part of my childhood television viewing.

British children’s television series Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends is based on the Reverend W. Awdry’s children’s book series, was created with a mixture of model railway figures and stop-motion animation and originally aired on the ITV network for 130 episodes. Set on the fictional Island of Sodor, the titular Thomas the Tank Engine is just one of a number of sentient trains working on The Fat Controller’s railway. While the engines work hard, they also like to have fun and (often through no fault of their own) mishaps and adventures ensue. However, they will always do their utmost to prove that they are really useful engines.

PROS

  • Beautifully detailed models bring the Island of Sodor and, most importantly, its railway and engines to life. Throughout the series there is a consistent scale to the models, particularly when conveying the size difference between humans and trains, while the train’s faces are very expressively created.
  • What makes these engines the ideal characters for a children’s show is that they are complex and multilayered. All of them have distinct personalities, do good deeds and are kind to others, yet they all make mistakes, are unkind to others at times, and often fail to see the bigger picture until it is too late.
  • The series is never condescending to children or treats them like they are idiots, rather it touches upon important topics such as mental health and the value of friendship, while also conveying life lessons such as the importance hard work, staying calm under pressure and helping others in a manner that is accessible and engaging to children.
  • On a technical level this series is near flawless, not just because of the consistency of the models and figures, but also because of the terrific cinematography that captures the beautiful designs and has very good depth of focus in close-up shots, the slick editing, and the exhilarating musical score that accompanies faster-paced moments.
  • Excellent choices in narrators – Ringo Starr in the 1980s and Michael Angelis in the 1990s – who both tell the episodes’ stories with nuance, expressive and class, never once sounding condescending to children, as many lesser narrators would have.

CONS

  • Despite it being made clear on many occasions that the engines are utterly dependent on their drivers and firemen, they often get in trouble for mishaps and often act independently. The inconsistencies and continuity errors here were things that I first picked up on when I was 4-years-old.
  • Several newly-introduced characters of the 1990s’ episodes receive little to no focus or development after their introductory episodes, which became especially prevalent when the series started deviating more and more from the source material.

VERDICT: 8/10