Quickfire round: Alex Rider

Fourteen years on from Stormbreaker, the film adaptation of the first Alex Rider book that I absolutely loved watching (when I was 10), comes this TV adaptation of the second book, Point Blanc. Nostalgia, hit me!

Alex looking less than impressed after essentially being forced into being a teenage spy.

The first thing to note about this show is that, although it’s adapting the second book in the series, it’s been heavily modified to restart the story from before Alex became a spy. The death of Alex’s uncle and his recruitment into the special branch of MI6 is completely re-told and folded into the plot of the second book, which sort of makes sense. Newcomers get some crucial backstory, and fans of the books don’t have to sit through a second adaptation of Stormbreaker.

The plot of the Alex Rider series was always a bit over the top. He’s a teenage spy, somehow able to out-wit and out-fight quite a number of supposedly experienced bad guys. So, you know, just suspend your disbelief while you watch. In Point Blanc, Alex attends an academy of the same name, which claims to operate a highly successful rehabilitation school for troubled teenage children of wealthy and influential parents. In reality it’s a tool for worldwide domination dreamt up by Dr Hugo Greif, a neo-Nazi and head of the school.

Dr Grief is aided in his operations by SCORPIA, the terrorist organisation that isn’t actually revealed until the fifth book. Working for SCORPIA, top tier assassin Yassen Gregorovich performs a few contract kills on some parents of former pupils at Point Blanc who became suspicious after their children returned from the academy. Yassen is a key figure in the series and fans of the books will enjoy having him bump into Alex at the academy, telling him they may meet again.

Enough plot – was it any good? Yeah, it was. It was heavily adapted though. It takes place in the present (everyone has the latest iPhone), Alex has half the gadgets from the book, and (although this is a very good thing) the academy is half girls, whereas in the book they were all boys. But the action scenes were good and I was genuinely hooked even though I already sort of knew what was going to happen. It is very appropriately rated 12 – you’re not going to see some grisly death scenes and excessive swearing in this show.

Otto Farrant was fantastic in the leading role, and I really hope we get to see him reprise his role for a second (and third, and fourth…) season. The Alex Rider series, which is still being written, was probably my all time favourite fiction as a kid.

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Quickfire round: The Politician (Season 2)

Nailing the comedy-drama tone, the second season of this millennial-friendly election campaign story was a great, albeit totally forgettable, watch.

Payton is great politician, but is he a good person?

Payton Hobart is an ambitious (and, following the events of the first season, no longer wealthy) student, whose goal in life is to become President of the United States. He started his political career in high school, running for student body president, which was a great season all in itself and you should totally watch it.

The last episode of season one flashes forwards a few years to Payton’s life at NYU (having ben unable to get into Harvard on his own merits). The campaign manager from his previous election, McAfee Westbrook, applies to intern at the offices of Dede Standish, New York State Senator. She quickly discovers there’s not much work to do – Dede is running unopposed.

Naturally, Season 2 is all about Payton reviving his political aspirations to run against Standish in the upcoming election. In a way, everything is elevated here: it’s no longer school politics, it’s state politics. It’s not kids, it’s adults.

Payton, being the incredibly young candidate that he is, latches on to the environment as his key policy driver. Although this resonates with the state’s young voters, Astrid Sloan, Payton’s former rival turned campaign member, points out that all that matters is the turnout. State elections have a poor turnout – only a few hundred votes are needed to swing it, and young people are notoriously bad at turning up to vote.

The campaign quickly heats up and we see all sorts of absurd revelations and schemes. This is the heart of the show, the back-stabbing, double-crossing characters always keep you guessing about their ulterior motives. There’s much more to the show, though, as it’s really quite weird. Threesomes are a big thing, for some reason. I’m told this is the influence of the show’s creators who also produced Glee and American Horror Story. We also see a side plot involving Payton’s mother running to be Governor of California, which would probably be funnier if she wasn’t played by Gwyneth Paltrow, peddler of questionable pseudoscientific wares.

This was an enjoyable watch and I finished it in a weekend. But I think it’s telling that I had to look up the show on Wikipedia to remind myself exactly what happened in it. As good as it is, it’s not going to leave a mark. It’s great entertainment, but nothing else.

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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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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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Quickfire round: The Half of It

What is love? One of the best lines in this quirky LGBT romance movie answers that question, shall we say, boldly. It’s just a shame that it fails to tie everything together nicely by the end of its runtime.

I have no idea why Netflix marketing thought this was the best shot to use for media publications.

Ellie Chu is a high-school genius who writes paid essays for her classmates – it’s much needed money, given the work-shy state of her father. Knowing how good Ellie is for words, underperforming (and far too nice) jock, Paul Munsky, asks her to write a love letter to his crush. But, friendless and bullied, Ellie has never known what love is, so she ironically plagiarises an old movie for inspiration.

The girl in question, Aster Flores, perfectly fits the somewhat cliched mould of beautiful and popular, yet complex and misunderstood, that we often see in indie romance films like this one. Upon receiving Ellie’s letter, which was far too intellectual to have realistically come from Paul, she begins to rethink her relationship with her rich and popular boyfriend. Maybe there is some out there that gets her?

So far, so cute, so typical. But there’s a bit of a twist – Ellie is crushing on Aster just as hard as Paul is. Ellie isn’t faking it when she writes to Aster; her writing, that resonates so strongly with Aster, comes from the heart.

So, look, it’s an adorable and often funny movie. It’s beautifully shot, well paced (objectively slow, but fittingly so), and touches on the sensitive subject of unreciprocated lesbian romance. It’s no surprise that the movie won Best Narrative Feature at the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival. However, I do have a couple of issues with it.

Firstly, Ellie comes across as remarkably confident and assertive considering she has no real friends and is often bullied, which seems a little… odd? Secondly, the movie doesn’t really come to any kind of satisfying conclusion. The best it can muster up is a sweet link to an earlier scene in the movie, producing a warm fuzzy feeling but not one of satisfaction. I suppose it’s intentional – as wild as the concept of Ellie’s pseudonymous back and forth with Aster is, the film brings it right back to reality at the end, leaving me a little dejected.

Altogether, though, this is a nice movie to watch if you like what you see in the trailer (and much better than Dangerous Lies on the scale of Netflix films).

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