A Very Merry Musgraves To Y’All!

Kacey Musgraves a la "A Very Kacey Christmas" (2016)I don’t generally listen to a lot of Country music, but while conducting my annual search for Christmassy tunes to blast out while wrapping presents and writing cards, I discovered a sparky young “cowgirl” stoner* named Kacey Musgraves. Although the songs she plays aren’t especially punky or “alternative”, her lyrics have caused some controversy with their casual endorsement of pot-smoking and homosexuality, and condemnation of churchy hypocrisy… though this hasn’t prevented her from scoring nominations for numerous Country/Americana awards, and even winning a couple, including three CMAs (New Artist of the Year (2013), Song of the Year – “Follow Your Arrow” (2014), and International Achievement (2016)), as well as two Grammys (Best Country Song – “Merry Go ‘Round”, and Best Country Album – “Same Trailer, Different Park” (2014)). Besides her gorgeous singing voice (with its home-grown Texan twang), I also admire her laid-back attitude, welcoming warmth, and witty way with words… all of which makes her seem like a fun kinda gal to hang out with, so I’m very envious of the lucky fans who snapped up meet-and-greet tickets for her current “A Very Kacey Christmas Tour”, in support of the eponymous album.

"A Very Kacey Christmas" (2016) by Kacey MusgravesBesides seasonal classics like “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, and “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?”, she also covers a couple more off-beat tracks like “Mele Kalikimaka” and “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas”, alongside some very catchy original compositions like “Ribbons and Bows”, and “A Willie Nice Christmas” (featuring Willie Nelson!)… accompanied by the requisite sleigh-bells, accordions, and pedal steel guitars. I’ve only heard it twice through so far, and am pretty rubbish at writing about music at the best of times, but I thought this album was an adorable bundle of festive fun, and a fine addition to the canon. According to an interview with Rolling Stone, Musgraves set out to “create a whimsical throwback holiday record, one that evokes feelings of nostalgia and simpler times.” Mission accomplished!

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* Er, I use that term affectionately… no offence intended.

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Délicieux!

Although Jennifer Saunders didn’t actually mention the sitcom Let Them Eat Cake (1999) in her memoir Bonkers, reading it did inspire me to finally get around to buying this series on DVD, as part of my ongoing arm-chair exploration of the 18th Century.

cakey-dfjs01This short-lived series sees Saunders playing ‘Colombine de Vache’, a conniving Comtesse residing in the Palace of Versailles circa 1782, where she finds herself enjoying and/or enduring various farcical misadventures, along with her bawdy maid ‘Lisette’ (Dawn French), and snooty stylist ‘Bouffant’ (Adrian Scarborough). Alison Steadman co-stars as Columbine’s detested nemesis ‘Madame de Plonge’, accompanied by Lucy Punch as her naive daughter ‘Eveline’, while Elizabeth Berrington has a recurring role as the Austrian-accented ‘Marie Antoinette’ (aided by Julian Rhind-Tutt as her tetchy translator). The supporting cast also included Maggie Steed as an acclaimed portrait painter (ep #1.3)… Susie Lindeman as a random Marquise fretting over her reputation (ep #1.4)… Kathy Burke as Colombine’s estranged sister ‘Cecile’ (ep #1.4)… plus Linda Spurrier and Margaret Whiting as two excitable ‘Aristocratic Women’ (Eps #1.2/4/6). Bless ’em.

Fun fact: This was one of Punch’s first professional gigs after leaving college, and working with French & Saunders was a formative experience for the young actress, according to an interview she gave to The L.A. Times in 2011: “They had a total lack of vanity and embarrassment in the name of comedy, and I think I learned that from them… I’m not ashamed to look like a total idiot.” So, apparently we have Cake to thank for all of her gloriously unhinged comedy performances since then! Hurrah!

Lucy Punch as 'Eveline de Plonge' in "Let Them Eat Cake"Of course, the shadow of Blackadder looms large over this series (particularly Blackadder the Third, which is set in roughly the same period), and it’s impossible not to compare the two… I think Cake is probably a little more juvenile than its forebear, with characters self-consciously mangling the French language and making winking references to “these times” to underline the fact that they’re just modern English comedians mucking about in costume… it’s also rather more racy and grotesque (the second episode, appropriately titled “Murder”, is particularly bloody), but seemed to have a much higher budget, if the gorgeous faux-exterior set used for the “poor part of town” is any indication (I do love the sight of a Tudor-style half-timbered building on screen!). Cake might not be quite as painstakingly crafted and quotable as Blackadder was, but I still found it extremely funny, and would gladly recommend it to anyone who enjoys a slightly silly/dirty laugh… it’s just a shame that it seems to have fallen through the cracks, and been forgotten by both the BBC, and one of its headline stars!

P.S. The “song” that plays over the closing credits kinda sounds like the Mediaeval Baebes having a breakdown… but I mean that as a compliment!

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Sink Or Swim

[Contains sinister full-face-snorkel-masks and SPOILERS!!!]

Frances Bishop a la "The Apprentice" (UK) 2016I don’t generally watch a lot of “reality” TV, but I do have a long-standing addiction to The Apprentice (UK)… partly for the schadenfreude of seeing cocky Suits get their comeuppance, and partly for the “What would I do in their place?” aspect of the more creative challenges. I usually end up picking a “favourite” or two from among the contestants… though they’re usually the ones that I like most as people, rather than the ones I think have the best chance of going the distance and winning Lord Sugar’s investment. This year I quickly latched on to children’s-clothing-boutique-owner Frances Bishop, who proved to be a sweet and funny lady, entirely devoid of the grandstanding arrogance that often afflicts candidates on this show. Sadly, she also seemed to be cursed, suffering through six consecutive losses, and never quite managing to secure a big enough sale or an impressive enough coup to ensure her safety in future “board room” showdowns… so, when Sugar press-ganged her into the Project Manager role for this week’s boat-show-based sales task*, there was a very real danger that she might be taking a lonely taxi-ride home at the end of the episode…

Frances Bishop in "The Apprentice" (UK) (ep #12.7)Although she made a couple mistakes along the way, Frances remained confident and focussed throughout the day, and led her team well, despite the “strong personalities” she was lumbered with managing and motivating. Of course, the show is edited to ramp-up the suspense and keep viewers guessing, so there was no way to know how well anyone had actually done until the final sales figures were revealed… and sometimes there’s such a slim margin between the two team’s accumulative totals, that I have to wait for their reactions to figure out who actually won… but that certainly wasn’t the case this time around, as Frances blew her competition out of the water (pun!), with a staggering £40,480.68 against the other team’s measly £188.90! This resounding result was such a shock/relief that Frances started tearing up at the table, and I must admit that I got a little damp around the eyes myself… so, serious snaps to Frances for leading her team to such a decisive victory, and also for being a member of the sub-team that secured the big-money sales. At last she’s proven that she’s highly adept, as well as adorable!

Fun fact: Despite the nautical nature of this week’s task, and the water-based “treat” the winning team enjoyed, an interview with The Nottingham Post reveals that Frances can’t actually swim! To quote: “The BBC said if you can’t swim you can’t do it but I wrote a declaration saying that if anything goes wrong I take that risk upon myself…” Which certainly throws a whole new light on that footage of her screaming/blaspheming her head off while clinging to the back of a speeding jet-ski… eep!

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* Which, by a wacky co-inky-dink, happened to take place in my own rain-soaked corner of the country.

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Alimony & Acrimony

Sarah Jessica Parker as 'Frances Dufresne' in "Divorce" (S1)Although I respect what Sharon Horgan has achieved as an award-winning comedy writer/actress, I find her style of humour too acidic for my tastes, and have never been able to watch any of her shows beyond the first episode… until now! Revisiting Hocus Pocus for Halloween* stoked up my crush on Sarah Jessica Parker again, and inspired me to check out her shiny-new TV series, Divorce, which was created and co-written by Horgan. The rather mixed reviews had initially made me quite wary of the show, but I ended up enjoying the pilot so much that I immediately wanted to binge down on the remaining three episodes that I’d foolishly let slip by. Generally-speaking, I don’t enjoy comedies about horrible people being horrible to each other, and (as a soppy romantic) I’m not a big fan of bitter-couple-bickering either… but SJP is such a magnetic actress that I just couldn’t look away, and I found enough genuine sweetness, sympathetic performances, and solid jokes here to take the curse off all the curdled malice and stupidity that the main characters (often) exhibit, as they negotiate the eponymous division of their assets/family/lives. At the risk of sounding superficial (too late!), I also think the gorgeous snowy locations and classy cinematography help to sell it… along with fun supporting turns by Molly Shannon, Talia Balsam, and Jemaine Clement (who seems to be carving out a distinct post-Conchords career for himself as a loveable lothario, in stark contrast to his more innocent on-screen namesake!).

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* And, yes, it’s just as good the second-time around… though it’s a shame that Disney hasn’t released an updated/anniversary version yet… just a bare-bones, feature-less disc that starts playing as soon as the tray closes. Tch!

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“Yeah… Let’s Go Get Killed!”

[Contains faux-defensive wounds and SPOILERS!!!]

Neve Campbell as 'Sidney Prescott' in "Scream"For the past week, I’ve been working my way through Wes Craven’s Scream quadrilogy… and while all four satirical slasher flicks received rather mixed reviews from the professional critics, I still believe that the first entry holds up as a stone-cold “comedy horror” classic, and that the second and fourth entries also have a lot to recommend them, in both the laugh and scare departments. The third entry, on the other hand, is a painfully silly, implausible, and un-funny dud… the obvious dip in quality and intelligence no doubt attributable to the fact that it was scripted by a sub-standard substitute (Ehren Kruger), rather than series creator Kevin Williamson. Apparently Kruger also did a couple rewrites on the script for the fourth movie, so I’m just gonna blindly blame him for all the dumb jokes I didn’t like in that one, and credit Williamson with all the smart/scary stuff!

Courteney Cox as 'Gale Weathers' in "Scream 2"Plot-wise, the flicks are all fairly formulaic… but the interesting thing about them, compared to a lot of horror movies, is that they minimise the random “stranger danger” aspect, in favour of murderers who already know their victims and have fairly specific (though often superficial and/or narcissistic) motives for offing them… which adds a fun “whodunnit” element to proceedings, while also reflecting the sad reality that roughly half of all real-life murder victims are killed by a family member, romantic partner, neighbour, or work colleague. That said, as a fan of police procedurals, I was slightly disappointed to revisit this series and see how little actual detective work is done by the authorities, even when a killer leaves their trademark mask (and all of the presumed DNA evidence that comes with it) behind them at a hot crime scene, despite one of the main characters being a deputy/sheriff (‘Dewey Riley’, played by David Arquette), and several other well-meaning cops popping up along the way! I guess that’s the downside of the “everyone is a suspect” paranoia they’re trying to generate here…?

On the plus side, this series does have a very strong recurring female cast, with Neve Campbell as grimly determined “final girl” ‘Sidney Prescott’, and Courteney Cox as bitchy-but-effective investigative reporter ‘Gale Weathers’… though I can’t say I’ve ever really warmed to either character as a heroine, despite faultless performances in their respective roles. They’re smart, tough, gorgeous, and courageous survivors… and they both know the value of a spree-ending head-shot, which I totally respect… but despite all those positive selling points, they’re frequently overshadowed by their scene-stealing, scenery-chewing antagonists, and comic-relief sidekicks (imho). Speaking of which/whom, this series is absolutely stuffed with all-star supporting turns…

Portia de Rossi as 'Sorority Sister Murphy' and Rebecca Gayheart as 'Sorority Sister Lois' in "Scream 2"The original Scream (1996) features Drew Barrymore as the franchise’s first ever on-screen victim ‘Casey Becker’, and Rose McGowan as Sid’s busty bestie ‘Tatum Riley’, along with a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo by Linda Blair as an ‘Obnoxious Reporter’. Scream 2 (1997) features Jada Pinkett Smith as ‘Maureen’, the doomed lead of a genuinely disturbing opening sequence set in a packed cinema (where all of the witnesses assume her messy murder is part of the show!), Heather Graham as an actress playing the silver-screen version of “Casey”, Laurie Metcalf as niggling news-reporter (and secret killer) “Debbie Salt”, Sarah Michelle Gellar as doomed house-sitter ‘Cici’, plus Marisol Nichols, Rebecca Gayheart, and (a pre-Ally McBeal) Portia de Rossi as surviving sorority sisters. Scream 3 (2000) features Kelly Rutherford as ‘Christine Hamilton’, the short-lived girlfriend of talkshow host (and formerly-incarcerated scapegoat) ‘Cotton Weary’ (Liev Schreiber), Heather Matarazzo as ‘Martha Meeks’, the younger sister of deceased  movie-geek ‘Randy’ (Jamie Kennedy), Carrie Fisher as belligerent studio archivist ‘Bianca’, plus Jenny McCarthy, Emily Mortimer, and Parker Posey as hackneyed Hollywood stereotypes. Meh.

Emma Roberts as 'Jill Roberts' in "Scream 4"Finally, Scream 4 (2011) features Alison Brie as Sid’s cynical book publicist ‘Rebecca Walters’,  Hayden Panettiere as horror-lovin’ hottie ‘Kirby Reed’, Emma Roberts as the seemingly-innocent-but-secretly-evil ‘Jill Roberts’, Marielle Jaffe as their unfortunate friend ‘Olivia Morris’, Marley Shelton as home-baking hussy ‘Deputy Judy Hicks’, and Mary McDonnell as Jill’s oblivious mother ‘Kate’… plus Lucy Hale, Shenae Grimes-Beech, Anna Paquin, Kristen Bell, Aimee Teegarden, Jenny Randall, and Britt Robertson as knife-fodder teens/twenty-somethings in the execrable film-within-a-film-within-a-film opening sequence. Feh! Seriously, all that self-referential dicking around at the beginning almost had me reaching for the “stop” button… but I’m glad I grit my teeth and stuck with it, because seeing Roberts go full-tilt psycho in the finale was well worth the rental fee all by itself!

P.S. I tried watching the TV series spin-off (reboot?) too, but couldn’t even get through the first episode… it just made me pine for Scream Queens, which is a much funner successor to these movies, even if it takes the genre-spoofing in a ridiculously over-the-top direction…

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Always Be Killing Hitler

Natasa Ristic as ‘Ilsa’ in “Danger 5” (S1)While researching my previous posts about NTSF:SD:SUV:: and Eagleheart, the internet suggested that I might also enjoy an Australian action comedy series called Danger 5 (2012)… and, as it turns out, the internet was absolutely right… though I’m going to have trouble describing the show here in a way that does it justice, because the premise is so off-the-wall: Basically, it’s kinda like a live-action Team America set during World War II, but painstakingly styled to resemble a “Swinging Sixties”-style spy caper, with deliberately shoddy dubbing, cheesy miniature model shots, cheap costumes, offensive “ethnic” make-up, and a little Nazi/nun/sexploitation thrown in for good/bad measure… while the enemies encountered over the course of the series include rampaging stop-motion dinosaurs*, talking puppety dogs, giant rubber-suited robots, and bullet-proofed warrior-women! There weren’t many straight-up jokes in any of the episodes, just oodles of straight-faced absurdity and crazy incongruity… so it’s often more chuckle-worthy than laugh-out-loud funny… but a real trip to watch, all the same.

For some reason they valiantly chose to have most of the foreign characters speak to each other in their native languages, while one of the heroines (who I’ll have a lot more to say about in a second) speaks to her English/American team-mates in untranslated Russian… which must be quite off-putting for those lazy types who hate having to read subtitles while watching TV. In fact several episodes feature a large number of German-language-only scenes… which may explain why Deutschland is the only country outside of Oz where the DVDs have been released, despite the potentially controversial, Swastika-strewn irreverance.

Natasa Ristic as ‘Ilsa’ in “Danger 5” (S1)The “Danger 5” squad comprises three men and two women, hailing from various Allied nations… but regular readers may not be too surprised to learn that my favourite-by-far was ‘Ilsa’, the vodka-swilling, chain-smoking, Soviet bad-girl played by Natasa Ristic. She maintains a sort of scoffing, insouciant swagger throughout her adventures, and is rarely seen without a strong drink in her hand… but she’s also a skilled hand-to-hand fighter, deadly with a machine gun, and sexy-as-hell. Hotcha! On the downside, she can also be a tad temperamental, and isn’t above leaving her sister-in-arms ‘Claire’ (Amanda Simons) chained-up in a dungeon, simply because their captors paid the good-girl blonde more ogling attention, and she’s feeling jealous! Tch! Besides her general bad-assery, Ilsa has numerous standout moments over the course of the first season, such as: charming a cell full of aggressive ape-men into taking a nap instead of attacking the squad… casually giving Goebbels an implied off-screen blow-job to distract/delay him during a sabotage mission… blasting alcohol-fuelled flame-breath at a gladiatorial lizard-man… removing her underwear during a staring contest between two male team-mates, then intermittently flashing them, just for giggles… and casually revealing that she used to be married to Rommel, after easily wrapping “The Desert Fox” around her finger by being all flirty and adorable with him. Bless.

Natasa Ristic as ‘Ilsa’ in “Danger 5” (S1)Although all of the characters’ voices were dubbed, often by other actors, and occasionally in a different language to the one that was spoken on set, I get the sense from other fans’ comments that Ristic actually speaks Russian, and recorded all of her own dialogue for the dub… though there isn’t any official confirmation/proof of that, as far as I’m aware. On the other hand, she was nominated for a “Most Outstanding New Talent” Logie Award in 2013, which suggests she was doing more than just mindlessly flapping her mouth under another actress’s voice… right…? Incidentally, I recently started reading a collection of Modesty Blaise comic-strips (The Hell-Makers, in case you’re curious), and couldn’t help seeing a remarkable resemblance between Ristic and the iconic anti-heroine… though I’m not sure if that was intentional, or simply a side-effect of the retro styling…? Meanwhile, there weren’t any recognisable supporting actresses with speaking roles here, but I reckon Susanna Dekker deserves a shout-out for appearing in numerous episodes as a wide variety of totally unrelated characters (even if she wasn’t necessarily responsible for voicing them).

Note: If you’re watching the first season on Netflix (or similar streaming services), then I’d suggest scrolling down to episode #1.7 (aka “The Diamond Girls”), and watching that one first, because it’s actually the pilot episode (which was originally released as a series of YouTube webisodes), and explains how the squad came together.

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* Although the rest of the FX were pretty rinky-dink by design, I thought the stop-motion dinosaurs were beautifully animated. Kudos!

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Affirmatively Funny

Jennifer Saunders circa 2013I recently finished reading Jennifer Saunders‘ slightly scatty (but very enjoyable) showbiz memoir Bonkers: My Life in Laughs (2013), and I was intrigued to discover that she and Dawn French were the beneficiaries of “positive discrimination”, back in the day. To cut a long story short, the two first met at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London, where they formed an amateur double-act to perform at school talent shows and the like… they were generally quite well-received, but it had always been French’s intention/ambition to become a teacher, which is precisely what she did once she graduated, leaving a directionless Saunders to idle away in squalid indolence (she claims she was too lazy to even claim unemployment benefits, and mostly lived off of handouts from her working house-mates). So lawd-only-knows what would have become of her if she hadn’t spotted a classified ad in The Stage (an entertainment industry newspaper) specifically requesting female comedy acts for a new club named “The Comic Strip”, prompting her to phone up her old chum, and ask if she fancied reuniting for a couple of after-hours gigs.

Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders circa 1979The club’s founder, Peter Richardson, already had a solid stable of male performers, including Rik Mayall, Adrian Edmondson, Alexei Sayle, and Nigel Planer, but (to quote from the text): “Pete knew, or I suspect had been told, that he needed some females on the bill. Women. Hence the ad…” According to Saunders, the audition process wasn’t particularly rigorous: “We arrived, did our sketch and were hired. I have to admit, there didn’t seem to be a great deal of competition. The other acts auditioning were fire eaters and jugglers. There weren’t many female acts around; most comedy clubs were bear pits. I think we got the gig by virtue of the fact that we were the first living, breathing people with bosoms to walk through the door.” (p. 51). So, without positive discrimination there’d be no Comic Strip Presents, Girls On Top, French & Saunders, Absolutely Fabulous, or Jam & Jerusalem… or any of the other female comedy actors and comediennes that F&S have inspired/aided during their multi-award-winning careers. Therefore “affirmative action” is awesome, QED.

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