Four Hundred Years: A sonnet

Today marks four hundred years since the death of William Shakespeare. Legendary playwright, accomplished poet, Eskimo Brother of Chris Martin…What better way to honour the immortal bard than with a sonnet?

Four Hundred Years

He drew the crowds from London’s filthy pits

Of bears and dogs and men all stained with blood,

To stand and watch wise fools parade their wits

And fallen kings, betrayed, die in the mud.

His words bewitched our tongues and grew his fame.

Our land and language spread and learned to swagger.

This brave new world still echoed with his name

And proved the pen as mighty as the dagger.

Enduring might may prove more foul than fair.

Still nations bleed, although their wealth abounds.

We seek an exit (pursued by a bear).

Markets are freedom; flesh sold by the pound.

Four hundred years his bones have lain unmoved:

Their home not so much changed, much less improved.

Sophie Sharp, 2016. 

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The Canny Valley

Warning: Contains mild spoilers for Happy Valley Seasons 1 & 2.

Much is made of the lack of diversity on our film screens, from #OscarsSoWhite to the sexist casting notes that would be hilarious if they weren’t so depressing. In Hollywood, women over 35 can play either the Queen or somebody’s mum. Meanwhile, craggy middle-aged dudes seduce stunning rom-com 20-somethings, or limp their way through another action franchise. So it’s heartening to see that, over in TV land, writers and directors are starting to offer female actors more of the complex, meaty roles that their male counterparts have long enjoyed.

Viola Davis, Kerry Washington, Robin Wright; on the US networks, these ladies are bringing us compelling characters who kick serious butt in 6-inch stilettos. But the heroine who really speaks to me is more likely to be found in a woolly hat and a hi-vis jacket. Sarah Lancashire has long been one of British TV’s gems, from her Coronation Street days to her award-winning performance in Last Tango in Halifax. But to my mind, Happy Valley is her finest hour.

Lancashire plays Sergeant Catherine Cawood, a West Yorkshire police officer who won’t let the ghosts of her past stop her from serving her community. When the man who raped her daughter is released from prison and returns to his old stomping grounds, she must face her own demons while unravelling complex cases and holding her family together.

Catherine is a tough cookie with a mind is as sharp as her tongue. Yet we also get to see her flaws, her vulnerability, and the struggle she faces taking the lead both at home and in the workplace. The second season of Happy Valley, which just landed on Netflix, sees Catherine both investigating and suspected of a series of murders. The wonderful Charlie Murphy also makes a triumphant return, her character transformed from helpless victim to rookie police officer with her sights on CID.

TV detectives are so often talented loners, piecing together clues with their massive brains, but incapable of solving the riddle of other human beings. The beauty of Catherine Cawood is that she is a not a detective; she’s a police officer. From the opening scene of the first episode, where she talks down a drug addict determined to set himself on fire, she relies on people skills to solve problems. She cares, she listens, and it makes her brilliant at what she does. The message that order can be maintained not only through force, but through compassion, is a powerful one. Sometimes a simple conversation can be all that it takes. Other times, however, you just have to Taser someone in the crotch.

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Luckily, she’s got that covered.

Strong As Hell: Are you ready for Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Season 2?

Tomorrow is the big day: Season 2 of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt arrives on Netflix! In celebration, I thought I’d share all the ways in which this show has changed my life.

1. Any time the Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson classic ‘Unbreakable’ comes up in conversation – which happens frequently, as you can imagine – I am contractually obligated to shout ‘They alive, dammit! It’s a miracle!’ at the top of my lungs.

2. Pinot Noir is so much more than a delicious bottle of wine.

3. I’ve realized that I can totally pull off the light up trainers my Mum refused to buy me when I was 10. It is never too late to make your dreams happen.

4. I no longer purchase underwear from that travelling bra salesman in the white van. Even if his fitting skills are legendary. #lessonlearned

5. I’ve learned that you actually can endure anything for ten seconds at a time. Even on days where my life seems about as exciting as endlessly turning a crank, but with none of the accompanying mystery.

If none of that made any sense to you, I’m guessing you haven’t emerged from your own bunker into the brightly coloured world of Kimmy Schmidt yet. If you hate laughing, give it a miss. Otherwise, you still have a whole evening to catch up on Season 1. Grab a bag of candy, and dig in.

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Murder, Moustaches and Mansplaining: The Abominable Bride

I LOVE Sherlock. I love everything about it; the cast, the writing, the fab background shots of London. As someone who has read all of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories several times over, I love catching the references and feeling all smug and well-read and superior. So when I heard that there would be a special episode released on New Years Day, I immediately booked a flight home to London to ensure the optimum viewing experience. Oh, and see my family, I guess.

The bulk of Jan 1st was spent vanquishing my hangover in time for the main event, and by 9pm I had a pot of tea made and a tin of biscuits at the ready. The moment had arrived. And for the first few minutes I was…underwhelmed. I’m so familiar with the modern-day incarnations of John and Sherlock, that the 19th century Holmes and Watson seemed odd, jarring, like an old friend had suddenly acquired a foreign accent. Given the ingenuity with which Mark Gatiss and Stephen Moffat brought these well-loved characters into the 21st century, a slip back in time seemed a wasted opportunity. Oh, me of little faith.

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Once I let go of my inflated expectations and just watched the damn thing, I began to see the little clues that all was not as it seemed. And of course it bloody wasn’t. This is Sherlock, after all. In an early scene the mysterious lady in the parlour of 221B Baker Street, concealed beneath the eerie black veil of a Victorian in mourning, turns out to be none other than Mrs. Watson. The episode is full of veils, disguises and duplicity, with the identity of even the familiar characters thrown into question as we veer between centuries.

Much has been made of the heavy-handed feminist-or-is-it? message woven into the plot, which sees a series of murders attributed to an underground cult of hooded suffragettes. The internet was quick to accuse Sherlock of ‘mansplaining’ as he stands before the assembly of feminists and speaks of the ‘invisible army hovering at our elbow, tending to our homes, raising our children, ignored, patronized, disregarded, not allowed so much as a vote. But an army nonetheless, ready to rise up in the best of causes, to put right an injustice as old as humanity itself.’ But let’s take a moment to recall what’s actually happening here. Firstly, Sherlock isn’t explaining feminism to the collected feminists; he’s doing what he does every episode. He’s explaining the situation to John Watson, the 19th century everyman to Holmes’ forward-thinking genius. The ending of the episode hammers the point home; Sherlock Holmes was a man ahead of his time, a thinker not willing to be confined by the narrow social and cultural expectations of the society he lives in. To Sherlock (and indeed, Mycroft), female equality is a given, a logical conclusion to an intellectual argument. To his peers in the 1890’s, this still required explaining. They could not know that in a couple of decades, this army would indeed ‘rise up in the best of causes’, manning the nurses’ stations and munitions factories of the First World War. And that this work, alongside their many other efforts, helped render them visible enough to win the vote.

In some ways I see this as the writers wrestling with the constraints of their source material. As written by Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes is a man in a man’s world – if they stick to the original, there are few primary female characters. Irene Adler is an exception, a mind to rival Holmes’, but she must work within the constraints of her gender, using her sexuality alongside her intellect to achieve her aims. The modern retelling certainly develops female characters further where possible; Mary Watson is far from the footnote of the books, killed off when it became clear she might cut into John’s crime fighting time. An updated setting allows the women in Sherlock’s world far greater freedoms than their 19th century counterparts could have dreamed of. This episode nods to this in Mary’s complaints about being abandoned by her husband, Mrs. Hudson’s observations on her lack of lines, and of course Molly Hooper having to don a fake moustache in order to be a scientist in the 1890’s. Yet despite these constraints, they are active participants – albeit in a slightly creepy/evil way.

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The second point we ought to consider, is that at this point in the episode we are actually inside Sherlock’s mind palace. When he’s explaining the solution to John, he’s really explaining it to himself. That was the purpose of this whole crazy ride in the first place. But why does Sherlock suddenly need to think about women? About a large but overlooked section of society, hiding in plain sight, exercising power though many believe them to have none? We know who all this is for, who is at the heart of this story Sherlock tells himself; Moriarty. Like the Abominable Bride, he is dead but not dead. When Emilia Ricoletti was shot in the head, she ceased to exist; but she lived on through the other members of her group, who were able to assume her identity whenever required. Before Moriarty revealed himself to Sherlock, he too existed only through his followers: what Victorian Holmes would call the ‘criminal classes’, numerous but with no social standing, overlooked by most and thus nearly undetectable. The ability to hide in plain sight is an obsession of Holmes’ in the original books, as well as these episodes; he makes use of his ‘Baker Street Irregulars’ to bring him information, beggars and the homeless who everyone overlooks. When he wants to hide Sherlock disguises himself; as a beggar, as a waiter, as somebody nobody thinks to look at, Think all the way back to ‘A Study in Pink’, and what Sherlock says about the murderous cab driver: ‘Who do we trust, even though we don’t know them? Who passes unnoticed wherever they go? Who hunts in the middle of a crowd?’ Are Moriarty’s followers not another ‘invisible army hovering at our elbow’? The difference is that the hooded ladies in this episode look sinister, they in fact seek the justice denied to them, whereas Sherlock’s enemies look to subvert justice through any means available to them.

Thus Sherlock solves the puzzle he has set himself; how can Moriarty still be committing crimes from beyond the grave? Even without its figurehead, Moriarty’s organization lives on, which goes some way to explaining the events of Series 3. Though seemingly unrelated, the crimes target those closest to Sherlock and John; even the seemingly generic threat to the Houses of Parliament in ‘The Empty Hearse’ links back to Mycroft, who at times ‘is the British Government.’ And in doing so, he also solves his existential struggle, for as this episode states, there can be no Sherlock Holmes without Moriarty. There is a reason that Conan Doyle sent them tumbling over the Reichenbach Falls together: what use is the great detective without the master criminal? The Abominable Bride argues that, though Moriarty is physically dead, as long as there are criminals willing to work for his cause, his spirit lives on. And these criminals are everyday people, people nobody even looks at; they hide in plain sight, blending in to the crowd. Only the keenest of observers, with an understanding of disguise will be able to single them out. There will always be work for Sherlock Holmes…so, roll on Season 4!

Spoiler Alert – Making A Murderer

Full confession: I haven’t actually finished watching Making a Murderer yet. But thanks to the internet (and a healthy pessimism about the universe) I know how it ends. I went home to the UK for a couple of weeks over Christmas, and nestled under the warm blanket of nostalgic films and familiar TV specials. The BBC obliged me with, not only a fantastic three-part Agatha Christie adaptation, but the heart-stopping excitement of Benedict Cumberbatch in a tartan suit a one-off Sherlock episode.* Confident that I had won the gold medal for festive TV viewing, I returned home to Canada to find that the whole continent had spent their turkey-coma days bingeing on Making a Murderer. I had some catching up to do.

The first episode of MaM has enough material for a series by itself. You’re pulled in to the familiar arc of one man’s wrongful conviction, fight for justice, and eventual exoneration. What happens next seems to beggar belief; you find yourself checking the internet to ensure this is not an incredibly well produced docudrama. The amount of material available, from recorded telephone calls to courtroom footage, allows us to watch the case unfold in incredible detail. It’s like Season One of Serial, except…crazier. And with pictures.

Some of my favorite scenes are conversations between Avery’s defense team, Dean Strang and Jerry Buting. Perched on the couch in dad jeans and bare feet, chewing over the details of the case and their upcoming strategy, they are the opposite of the usual glamorous TV lawyers. Get them in front of a jury or a gaggle of reporters, however, and they pull no punches. This combination of down-to-earth relatability and skillful court performances have earned the duo legions of admirers. Strang in particular is on his way to becoming both an internet heartthrob and a fashion icon, after his ‘normcore’ style inspired its own Tumblr.

As with any case that gains this high a profile, the controversy has begun. Critics point to crucial information left out of the documentary, and the breadth of conspiracy required to manufacture all of the evidence against Avery. Some accuse the show of misleading viewers in order to make Avery’s case. But the aim of a documentarian, or indeed a trial lawyer, is not to search for ‘truth’. It is to present a compelling story that resonates with their audience. Any ‘truth’ to be found in a court of law comes from the clash of two competing narratives. The two sides choose which parts of the messy accumulation of information they wish to emphasize – or obscure – to make their case. The only hope for justice is that this process operates according to the rules. That one story is not given a higher billing or wider distribution. That the illustrating facts are honestly collected, fully disclosed and thoroughly interrogated by the opposition.

Watching MaM or listening to Serial, we are reminded of the power law enforcement and the judiciary possess to shape the narrative that reaches a jury’s ears. We see how the system’s checks and balances – such as the presumption of innocence – can fail in the face of corruption. For Steven Avery or Adnan Syed, their story was unfairly overshadowed when it mattered most, and their lives forever altered as a result. By revisiting their cases, we are at last allowed to hear an alternative narrative, and to redress a balance lost during their days in court. Whether the verdict was correct is something only they can truly know. What matters to us as a society is how it was achieved. As ever, Dean Strang says it better than I can:

Human endeavours are muddy, they are imperfect by definition, and a chase for the truth in a criminal trial can be in vain. Justice, it seems to me, is staying true to the set of principles that we have about what we do

 
That’s why he’s a heartthrob, and I’m just a blogger.

*More on this later.

Just watch Kung Fury already!
I’m not going to go into details about Kung Fury. I honestly don’t want to spoil it for you. It’s the kind of thing you dream of stumbling across at 2 AM when you can’t sleep and you’re surfing those random channels you get free with cable package. Afterwards, you’re not sure if everything you just experienced was a dream. You try and describe it to your friends, but it’s impossible to sum it up. Just watch it, you urge them. Trust me. Finally, they relent; after a crazy night on the town*, you all pile on the couch for a viewing. They’re amazed. It’s a night you’ll laugh about for years to come; you’ll quote lines at each other and giggle like idiots, much to the annoyance of everyone around you. Your status as an expert on all things cultural and hilarious is cemented forever.

If you live in a state where recreational marijuana is legal, you might find that a responsible amount complements the experience nicely. If prohibition is still in force where you are, don’t worry; it’s only a matter of time. In the meantime, why not try a nice pinot noir, or pop a straw in a two-litre bottle of cider? Either way, you might also want to have some cheesy puffs handy.

Kung Fury

If you’re still not sold, you might like to know that the makers of Kung Fury funded the entire project through a Kickstarter campaign. So if you get nothing else out of these thirty minutes of entertainment, at least you spent half an hour of your week supporting independent filmmaking. Good for you, buddy.

Kung Fury is streaming on Netflix now. Just watch it. Trust me.

*Or, if you are in your thirties, a particularly raucous wine and cheese night.

Slowly, but surely: It Follows

It’s that time of the year again. Leaves are in crunchy piles at the side of the road. There’s a chill in the air, which makes my nose run every time I leave the house. And we’re gearing up for one of my favourite holidays; All Hallows’ Eve. Halloween to you and me.

I’m a horror movie obsessive; I’ll watch them all, no matter how potentially awful the trailers make them look. 90% will be disappointing on multiple levels: too ambitious on too little budget, too formulaic, too mindlessly gory. To generate that genuine tingle of fear, that vague unease that makes you look over your shoulder when you pause the movie and get up to go to the bathroom…well, it’s tougher than it looks. You can’t just throw a bucket of blood at the set and hope for the best.

There’s a whole sub-genre devoted to the ‘so bad it’s good’ kind of horror, and I’m not one to frown on a B-movie. I laughed my ass off at Sharknado just like everyone else, and I’ve seen Piranha: 3DD twice. Watching Paris Hilton get skewered with a metal pipe in House of Wax* was pretty much the highlight of that decade for me. But still, I get excited when something comes along that promises a few genuine scares. Something that will stick with you for the next few days, rearing up from the depths of your subconscious when you find yourself alone in the dark.

That’s why I think you should watch It Follows this Halloween. If you’re not going out dressed only in your underwear and a pair of cat ears to get wasted and make out with a zombie, then order yourself some delicious takeout and load this up on Netflix. If you did decide to be sociable, then pop this on November 1st while you curl up and nurse your hangover.

It Follows
You’ll find many of the familiar tropes; a bunch of high school kids, white picket fence neighbourhood of New England cul-de-sacs, parents that don’t seem to be home all that much. But there’s something of a Virgin Suicides vibe, right down to the vintage-y fashions and the washed out colour palette. A girl is found horribly mutilated on a grey, windswept beach, and there are echoes of Hannibal**. Though the technology is up to date, it’s hard to place which decade is in the background; this is timeless suburbia, where nothing ever changes.

Our likeable blonde every-girl has a new love interest, but he’s acting strangely. Probably nothing a little car nookie can’t fix, right? So far so Terror at Make Out Point, but things are about to take a sudden and infinitely more interesting turn. I won’t spoil it, but as in every tragedy since man first put stylus to tablet; sex can get you into trouble.

Many horror films start to fall apart once you see the ‘monster’. The suspense skilfully built over the opening scenes crumbles when the source of all your fears is far less frightening than your imaginings. It’s why shaky-camera classics like Blair Witch and Cloverfield work so well: you never get a good look. The threat of It Follows steps right into the open — it’s more solid than most — but it can still never truly be known. It has the unnerving presence of the shapeshifter and the slow, focused movement of the revenant. It takes a leaf from the Japanese tradition of the vengeful demon, and a haunting that can be passed on like a virus.

All this adds up to something that feels fresh and understated, but nonetheless chilling. And the ending is the perfect dramatic question mark, an ode to the classic ‘Happy Ever After…or is it?’ For a horror fan, it’s thrilling to find a film that so thoroughly understands the framework of the genre, but can elevate it to something more challenging. There’s an ethical dilemma at the heart of the movie that creates just as much tension as the looming menace of a curse. If you’re looking for a slightly smarter kind of scare, then this is for you. Just be careful. You might not be able to shake it off.

*Um…spoiler alert? In case that’s not the only thing you know about this movie.

**The TV version, that is. And if you haven’t seen this, and you love all things Gothic, add it to your list.