What I thought about: Spinning Out

From the gashes in Justin’s leg and the crack in Kat’s skull, to the racism, loneliness, and crippling bipolar disorder, Spinning Out cuts deep. This is a rare example of a trailer failing to sell a show properly – I took a punt and loved it.

Kaya Scodelario is excellent in this, by the way.

What’s it about?
Kat Baker (Kaya Scodelario) lives (at first) with her younger sister, Serena (Willow Shields, of Hunger Games fame), and mother Carol. They’re a family of figure skaters – Carol having dropped out of the sport after having Kat a fairly young age. Kat’s about to take a test to be a skating coach, her dreams of making it to the Olympics as a figure skater were dashed since she cracked her head on the ice in a bad fall. She’s been too afraid to land a proper skating jump ever since, so coaching is her last shot.

Or is it? Well, no, that would be rather boring. Kat predictably fails the test, but is spotted by Dasha, a coach for the talented pair skater, Justin Davis. What follows is their incredibly turbulent journey to try to compete together as pair skaters – with Justin promising never to let Kat fall.

What do I like about it?
You get a cool insight into life as a figure skater. The show is full of little details, like the chatty, fiercely competitive mums who swap passive aggressive comments about how their kid is better than the others, and the determination of the skaters who get up at 5AM every day so they can arrive in time for the first session on the ice, every single day. Skating is, as you will come to learn, full of sacrifices.

There’s also a varied spread of characters – Justin is a rich kid who parties (a bit too much), Kat is harbouring a dark secret about her mental health, her best friend is nursing a hip injury but feeling pressured to continue skating, Serena battles loneliness despite being a successful junior skater, and her coach is coming out of a messy divorce. Whilst the plot for some of them is quite spotty, I still got incredibly invested in their lives both on, and off, the rink.

What do I not like about it?
The plot is choppy, especially towards the end, and character behaviour is sometimes off. Time-keeping is also non-existent, with weeks of time having flashed by in an instant without any cues besides a character casually dropping a line like ‘we’ve been doing this for weeks now!’.

But you know what? For better or for worse, for no tangible, objective, reason, Spinning Out is one of my favourite shows of the year. It’s hard to explain why, but it just is.

Worth a watch?
I certainly think so, unless you’re sure you have no interest in a drama set around figure skating.

By the way…

  • The show features numerous body doubles from the Canadian national skating team.
  • Although I’m sad to see it cancelled after one season, I do think it works well as a standalone series.

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What I thought about: Dating Around (Season 2)

With its carefully choreographed camera angles and unique story-telling structure, this American take on First Dates is refreshing, cute, and genuinely brought a smile to my face more often than not.

The smooth panning shots and excellent colour grading make this show an especially cosy watch.

What’s it about?
Five first dates, one follow-up. Each episode of Dating Around follows one central person and the five dates they go on. Each date is shown simultaneously and smoothly using a unique structure. The central person might be shown asking a question to Date Number Two, and in the next shot we see Date Number Three answering it.

Two important differences to First Dates. Firstly, Dating Around puts food and drink on the back burner and lets the daters cover some pretty deep conversational ground. Secondly, the final few moments of each episode don’t involve two people awkwardly announcing whether they’d see each other again (neither of them wanting to go first for fear of being rejected). Instead, the closing moments of each episode sees the central person casually hanging around, awaiting the arrival of their chosen second date. The producers tease us with shots of random passers-by, making us wait with baited breath to see if they chose the person we were rooting for from the earlier dates.

What do I like about it?
Everything about the show – from the colour grading, cinematic camera angles, narrative devices, and the final ‘second date’ reveal, is more cosy and inviting than the harsh CCTV-style we see in First Dates. Don’t get me wrong, I like First Dates too, but Dating Around certainly feels more suited to its American participants, who will excitedly talk about where they came from before they settled in New Orleans, where this season is filmed. I’m not sure us Brits could be that excited talking about our hometown of Skegness or Guildford (no offence to those places).

It’s for this reason that I found myself having a smile on my face more often than not, as I enjoyed seeing the diverse range of dates warming up to each other and forming what, occasionally, looked like some pretty deep connections. Speaking of diversity, there’s plenty of it here – especially in the age and sexuality department. That said, Season 1 had a dedicated episode for seniors, which was missing this time around.

What do I not like about it?
Very little. Episodes are 30 minutes and therefore very bingeable. The show is warm and inviting – perfect for watching with friends, family, or significant others. I just wished we got to see a little more into the post-show lives of the participants. Besides the second-date reveal, we are completely left in the dark.

Worth a watch?
Yes, especially if you like this kind of show. You don’t need to have seen Season 1, but you might as well!

By the way…

  • One of this season’s participants has hinted at a possible ‘where are they now’ episode, saying that Netflix asked him to ‘keep coy’ about his love life for now.
  • One of the dates in Episode 3 is polyamorous and only dates bisexual women. See if you can guess which one it is.

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Quickfire round: F is For Family (Season 4)

Season 4 of this fantastic adult cartoon explores some pretty deep issues, including a whole episode dedicated to black supporting character Rosie, who runs for election as the town’s Alderman, and a season-long theme of terse parental relationships.

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen Frank smile in a scene.

A brief recap on F is For Family: it’s an adult cartoon created by, and starring, US comedian Bill Burr. Set in the 1970s, it follows the lives of a dysfunctional sub-urban family, headed up by Francis ‘Frank’ Murphy, head of baggage handling at Mohican Airways. Having left college full of aspirations, Frank is drafted into the US Army for the Vietnam War, before settling down into a premature daily grind upon the arrival of his first son, Kevin. We know all this thanks to the fantastic opening credits, backed by Redbone’s ‘Come and Get Your Love’.

The show has always been good, not least because its 70s setting both does away with modern distractions and also sheds light on the issues of the times, including blatant racism, sexism in medical care, drug use, abusive parenting, drink driving, and a whole lot more.

This season’s central plot is the appearance of Frank’s estranged father, Bill, whom Frank only remembers as being foul-mouthed and condescending all his life, right up until his mother had enough and kicked him out of the house. Bill gets on well with Frank’s children, and thus begins a tense undercurrent as Frank becomes increasingly angry at the memories of his father’s bullying, which ironically impacts his treatment towards his own children.

We also get an entire episode dedicated to Rosie, the meet-and-greet at Mohican Airways, who is running for election to the town’s local council as their Alderman. Genuinely wanting to improve his poverty-stricken district, Rosie quickly becomes dejected by the bribery and bureaucracy exercised by the mafia-like mayor.

There’s plenty of development in the kids and Sue this season too, but these generally take a backstage to the larger themes of the show.

It’s hard for me to describe why you should watch F is For Family, but I’d certainly implore you to give a few episodes a go, ideally from Season 1.

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What I thought about: Defending Jacob

Unusually dark when you consider Apple’s typically family friendly orientation, this slow-burn thriller is a different take on a murder mystery story. I’m just not convinced it’s a worthwhile one.

That moment when you have to have ‘the talk’ with your teenage son. No, not that one…

What’s it about?
Ben Rifkin, a teenager, is found murdered in the woods on his way to school. Leonard Patz, a registered sex offender living near the woods, is the obvious suspect. But as assistant district attorney Andy Barber struggles to get any hard evidence on him, another suspect crops up: his son, Jacob, who was in the same class as the victim and who also walks through the woods on the way to school. Before he knows it, police are swarming the family home and searching for the murder weapon. Convinced of his son’s innocence, and well and truly off the case, Andy fights to uncover the truth.

What follows is an oddly-paced unravelling of the story. Did Jacob do it? If so, why? How? We don’t find the answers to all of these questions.

What do I like about it?
It’s dark, and it’s not very violent. The slow pace is a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it’s frustrating not watching something with the constant twists and turns we saw in something like The Stranger. On the other hand, smaller actions have more impact.

There’s a scene where Jacob’s mother Laurie goes shopping for groceries at the crack of dawn to avoid being spotted and harassed. She rounds the corner and bumps into the victim’s mother, Joan, who slowly approaches, zombie-like. “Joan…’ Laurie says, only to be cut off by Joan nastily spitting in her face before walking away. Both mothers were there to shop away from the gaze of strangers, either as the mother of a horrifically murdered son, or as the mother of the alleged murderer. If it was all action, I suppose we wouldn’t have thought anything of that scene.

What do I not like about it?
I can’t tell if the acting is terrible or really, really good. Jacob is a weird but plain kid. The way he looks at you is weird, he’s pretty quiet, and his mind is usually somewhere else. It gives off a creepy, sinister vibe. But at the same time, you can’t help but believe him when he says he’s innocent. So, maybe Jaeden Martell did exactly what the directors wanted him to do. Or maybe he’s a bad actor. I honestly can’t tell.

I also don’t like how many twists occur in the final two episodes. I think the pacing in murder mysteries is a tricky thing, and on this occasion they got it wrong, spending far too long setting the scene in the run up to the trial, and not enough on the last few pivotal moments.

Worth a watch?
Watch the trailer first and ask yourself if you have the patience to get through 6 hours of slow-burn before it all kicks off.

By the way…

  • Yes, that is Chris Evans of Captain America fame playing the father, Andy Barber.
  • Jacob’s actor starred in Knives Out as that little shit who’s always on his phone and WHO IS ALSO CALLED JACOB. I did not recognise him in this.

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Quickfire round: Guns Akimbo

Shallow plot? Check. Backstory tropes? Check. Terrible accents? Check. Nasty, gratuitous violence? Hell yeah. This movie ticks all the boxes of a cheap action comedy, and trust me, that’s a good thing.

In case you’re wondering, no, he can’t reload, he literally has guns bolted to his hands

Look, to be honest with you the plot is not worth talking about. All you need to know is an American-accented Daniel Radcliffe (Miles) wakes up one day and he has pistols physically bolted to both of his hands. He can’t even dress himself, so he leaves his house in his dressing gown and Big Foot slippers.

Okay, there’s a bit more to it than that. He’s just been forced into participating in Skism, an underground fight-to-the-death franchise streamed online to millions. It usually pits criminals against each other, but Miles is no criminal. He’s an anti-troll, keyboard warrior picking fights with viewers of the Skism stream via the comments section. When he lands the starring role, so to speak, he’s up against Nix, the undefeated champion.

Nix is played by Samara Weaving, who also starred in the brilliantly violent Ready or Not (I’m sensing a trend here!). As you can probably guess, Nix doesn’t kill Miles immediately, as she easily could. Instead, Miles and Nix embark on a game of cat and mouse, exchanging well-timed comedic phrases each time they meet.

The plot is full of tropes and the violence is ridiculous, but, again, dude literally has guns for hands. The question to ask of movies like these is not, ‘is this a well thought out, engaging story with great acting?’ but rather ‘is there shooty shooty bang bang with good action shots and a pace that doesn’t bore me?’. This film nails that vibe. It’s not a good movie, but it’s a great watch.

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What I thought about: Dare Me

Upon reflection, I’ve re-written this review. Dare Me is a confusing mess of teenage angst and suffering, but its redeeming features help make it bingeable, and I wonder if I’m just missing something about the plot.

Coach Collette and Lieutenant Addy being rather confrontational – I wonder what changed?

What’s it about?
Beth is captain of her school’s cheerleading squad, assisted by best friend and ‘lieutenant’, Addy, who loosely narrates the story. The squad’s new coach, Collette, dethrones Beth immediately (‘there are no captains in my squad’) and begins treating Beth’s half-sister, Tacy, with more than a little favouritism.

Addy wants a scholarship, and cheer squad is her path to it. She cosies up to Collette in the hopes of being guided to success, but it comes at the cost of alienating Beth. And then stuff gets really… weird. Collette seems to revel in the rift she is creating between Beth and Addy. She’s also using Addy to help her cheat on her husband.

What do I like about it?
The cast are very good. Beth, emotionally damaged by her adulterous father leaving her mother for a woman who literally lives across the street, harshly bullies Tacy (who sort of deserves it) and battles more than a few personal demons throughout the series. These emotions are captured brilliantly by actress Marlo Kelly.

Collette, played by Willa Fitzgerald, is a perfectly balanced mix of sweet and sour – she’s cute on secretive dates with her high-school flame, but puts on a ‘tough love’ attitude with the squad. She’s also, as we eventually discover, quite sinister.

The colourists have also done an excellent job, utilising the High Dynamic Range (HDR) format well and making the gritty scenes look, well, gritty.

What do I not like about it?
In one scene, Addy goes inside Collette’s house for the first time and she… strokes the bedsheets (‘1000 ply cotton’, Collette says) and lays down in the bed? Is it supposed to symbolise the ‘success’ that she too can achieve, if she follows in Collette’s footsteps?

There’s a lot about the plot which just seems quite weird and off-putting. You wonder why the characters are doing what they’re doing. But maybe that’s what the show is going for? We’re seeing into the destructive world of a teenage cheerleading squad, maybe that’s just how they are?

Worth a watch?
I was underwhelmed by the confusing nature of the plot and the disappointing ending, but I’ve reconsidered my earlier review in which I described it as ‘ten hours of my life I’m not getting back’.

By the way…

  • The show is based on a book that has a 3/5 rating on Amazon. That should serve as warning…
  • The show was cancelled by USA Network for poor ratings, despite receiving critical acclaim. The book’s author says the first season only got though half of it, so watch this space?

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Quickfire Round: Kakegurui XX (Season 2)

Having run out of content from the original manga series, this second season stretches six high-stakes gambles into 12 episodes, with the least satisfying ending I’ve seen all year. Yes, even worse than Dangerous Lies.

See what I mean about the unique art style?

Kakegurui is an anime (that’s Japanese cartoon, for those unaware) set at a prestigious private school where everything is decided by gambling. The anime piqued my interest with its interesting premise and unique art style. Characters are shown going from their usual display of simplistic kawaii caricatures into highly detailed, overtly ugly close-ups, as they experience a range of emotions when their gamble appears to be paying off – or not.

Backtracking a little bit – transfer student Yumeko Jabami is a pure gambler – she never cheats, unlike most of the school, and she derives actual pleasure from the risks involved in a high-stakes gamble, especially ones truly left to chance. After freeing house-pet Ryota Suzui (a position you get to if you lose so often that you’re unable to pay your debts), she goes on a mission to take down some of the more popular students, and expose the cheats that made them successful.

In this second season, the student council disbands and an election is called. Everyone is both a candidate and the electorate – each student gets one vote, represented by a poker chip. You’re expected to gamble your way to victory. I’ll spare you the rest of the frankly confusing and unsatisfactory plot.

What I liked about this show was how it explored different games – some of them simple card games, others more complicated and involving higher stakes than money alone.

The opening of this season sees Yumeko participate in a sadistic game involving a guillotine. It’s held up by one string – but there are twelve strings in total. Players, three of them, stick a finger into a hole under the guillotine and take turns cutting the strings one by one. It doesn’t matter who cuts the string or in what order – if the guillotine falls, they all lose a finger. It’s a game of chicken.

The game’s inventor, one of the participants, knows there’s actually no risk of a severed finger, as she’s inserted an iron plate that protects everyone from the guillotine. She is used to revelling in the torture experienced by other participants when the odds of the guillotine’s string being cut get smaller and smaller. But Yumeko senses foul play, and asks the neutral overseer (who set up the strings out of sight, to keep it fair) if she ‘removed it, like I requested’. ‘Yes’ she replies, albeit not referring to the iron plate. It doesn’t matter. The inventor is now bricking themselves. Suddenly, it’s game on.

Moments like the one I just described are the best parts of this show. Unfortunately this season was bogged down in a terrible plot and an ending where literally nothing happens. More seasoned anime viewers have told me this is known as an ‘anime original’ ending, because it’s not in the manga series from which this anime is derived from. Let me declare myself not a fan of ‘anime original’ endings, then.

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What I thought about: My Secret Romance

My first foray into Korean television is this ridiculous romantic comedy whose premise is truly absurd and which stretched on for far longer than it had to. I still finished it, though.

The show goes into multi-camera slow-motion whenever something like this happens.

What’s it about?
Three years ago, Yoo-mi, a struggling nutritionist student, caught a bus to her mother’s third wedding at a seaside resort. On the bus, she met Jin-wook, a chaebol heir (that means he’s the son of a wealthy businessman). A spoiled brat, Jin-wook had been sent to the same resort for hard work and discipline. Long, painfully comedic story short, the pair have a one night stand.

Fast forward to the present day, and Yoo-mi has achieved her dream of becoming a qualified nutritionist and begins her first proper placement at a large conglomerate in the city. As she soon finds out, Jin-wook is the CEO of the company, and he never quite forgot about the night he shared with Yoo-mi. What follows is a nonsensical plot – all you need to know is that it is, after all, a romance story.

What do I like about it?
It can be funny. Jin-wook’s personal assistant is hilarious – sharp, professional, but good friend to him when he needs to be, he wears patterned suits to impress his crush (one of the other staff at the canteen). In fact, there’s a theme here – much of the supporting cast were really quite good, such as Yoo-mi’s best friend from school, a popular travel author who owns his own bar (literally, ‘Beer and Book’), exudes an effortlessly cool vibe.

And, credit where it’s due, actor Sung Hoon fulfils his role as an attractive lead character with what has to be the most chiselled jawline I have ever seen.

What do I not like about it?
Two things stick out to me. Firstly, the show’s entire premise is ridiculous – this guy is so emotionally damaged that he never moved on from a one night stand he had three years ago? And she ends up working in his company’s canteen? I suppose this is completely international – is it supposed to be funnier this way? I’m not sure western viewers will find comedy in this.

Secondly, without going into the plot too much, it felt a lot like Jin-wook was massively abusing his position as Yoo-mi’s ultimate boss. It seemed a bit abusive. But it is romantic – Yoo-mi gets a happy ending, it’s all fine. I just cringed a lot whenever Jin-wook would exercise some kind of control over her in a way that made her appear uncomfortable. I suppose this is another cultural difference, perhaps?

Worth a watch?
Not really. This is rather different to western TV and honestly, not even worth it for the plot. But do go ahead if you’re curious – I was.

By the way…

  • Yoo-mi is played by K-Pop idol Song Ji-eun
  • One episode has Jin-wook meet with an overseas investor. I have NO idea what country this guy was supposed to be from. He spoke English in a weird sort of Dutch-American accent.

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What I thought about: Control Z

Is Mexican Netflix as good as Spanish Netflix? If this mystery drama is anything to go by, the answer is a resounding ‘yes’. Featuring an excellent lead actress and supporting cast, I devoured this show in less than 48 hours.

Look at them, phones out, ready to record today’s mishap. Over-use of mobiles is what got them into this mess…

What’s it about?
Sophia is a bit odd. She lost her father many years ago in a fire, and recently returned from a mental institution after an incident of self-harm. But she’s also a thinker, able to spot patterns in behaviour and notice the little details. When a hacker hijacks the school assembly to drop a truly explosive secret about one of her classmates, they all turn to her for help tracking the hacker down. Sophia needs to hurry up, though, as the hacker continues to either reveal more secrets or blackmail students into doing their bidding, including taunting Sophia.

The show was described by a much better writer than me as “Gossip Girl meets Mr. Robot, with just a touch of Sherlock Holmes”, and I couldn’t put it better myself.

What do I like about it?
It has a similar salacious energy that we’ve seen before in Elite. These kids have some pretty messed up secrets, and as they start coming out, there are some truly catastrophic consequences. But the show also takes the time to illustrate how the students – many of them rather stuck-up, self-absorbed, or outright bullies, are quite emotionally fragile underneath, and the incident changes them for the better. I also enjoyed seeing Sophia become more accepted by her classmates who used to whisper about her mental health issues.

What do I not like about it?
With the advent of streaming services, episodes no longer have to fit neatly into an ad-friendly running time. This show runs anywhere from 35 to 41 minutes. It’s strange, then, that it felt like some connecting scenes were missing at times, as if they had been cut. Characters would get close to boiling point in one scene, and then are completely calm in the next. I remember a scene where Raúl is looking for Sophia, literally going up to random students and asking them if they’d seen her. The very next scene shows Sophia walking together with Raúl and Javier. I suppose we are to assume he managed to track her down eventually? That these elements were missing does raise some concerns about the solidity of the show’s plot.

Worth a watch?
Yes, as long as you’re not expecting too much. I enjoyed this show and can’t wait for the confirmed second season, but I can’t give readers the same encouragement as I did for The Stranger, as it’s just not on the same level. The childishness of the school’s students and the aforementioned plot difficulties might annoy the more seasoned mystery fan.

By the way…

  • This is fifth foreign-language show I’ve seen this year, and in fact the third Spanish-language one. The beauty of Netflix’s Originals is their ability to push it out to their entire global subscriber base without international licensing woes. The consumer ultimately benefits – if you’re not watching foreign-language titles on Netflix, you’re seriously missing out.
  • NME gave it 2/5. I think that’s a bit harsh, but then again, I’m a glass-half-full kind of guy.

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