BOOK REVIEW: JAMES PHELAN – THE HUNTED

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Jed Walker is a man on a mission. The ex-CIA agent first appeared in James Phelan’s suspense thriller, The Spy. This fiction story chronicled his first encounter with the shadowy, terrorist group, The Zodiac. The forthright, American operative was out to prove himself and clear his name but also to ultimately make the world a safer place. The Hunted picks up where The Spy left off.

 

The year is now 2015, some four years after Army Seals from Team 6 killed Osama Bin Laden. Now they are being eliminated one by one and all signs seem to point to Zodiac. Walker sets out to find and protect one of the remaining Seals named, Charles Murphy. Walker has a hard job ahead of him as he also has to find out who is at the bottom of all this and to prevent anything more sinister from happening.

 

It’s easy to see how author, James Phelan is a best-seller. He keeps the energy high in this suspense-filled novel (making it not unlike a Matthew Reilly creation).The use of military terminology throughout makes the proceedings feel very authentic. The reader will easily become enveloped by the intelligent plot and will be eager to find out just what happens next.

 

Phelan’s writing is the perfect storm of swift pacing and gritty prose about some tough and hardened men dealing with dangerous situations. The Hunted builds to a big and satisfying climax. It will also have you questioning people’s loyalties, their appetites for revenge and their overall motives and personality traits. In short, it’s a fascinating, psychological thriller that is gripping, rough and resolute.

 

This review originally appeared on The Reading Room and was received for free from the publishers as an advance copy. To view the original review please visit the following website: https://www.thereadingroom.com/book/hunted/9127629/

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DVD REVIEW: THE CULTURE HIGH

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The Culture High takes one side of a polarising, public debate. It argues that marijuana should be legalised. This crowd-funded documentary is from the makers of The Union: The Business Behind Getting High and takes up where the latter one left off by giving a detailed but rather weighted perspective.

Director Brett Harvey shocks us in the opening scenes of this film by showing a family being raided by a local police unit. The drug crime ultimately leads to a $300 fine and the family’s dog is shot in the process. This scene is one of many in this film which shows how local police in America are often failing- as they are being militarised in a “war” on drugs and are often turning their focus on the small-time drug user rather than the big cheeses who smuggle and sell the stuff.

The story goes back 77 years where marijuana was first prohibited in all U.S. states. It also attempts to quash some myths about the drug’s perceived harms. At times the talking head interviewees include former law enforcement officials and other professionals and specialists like a law professor, economist, behaviour researcher, addiction specialist, neuropharmacologist and neuropsychiatrist. They often argue that alcohol and prescription drugs are more damaging on society than cannabis.

This documentary seeks to dispel some of the misinformation about drugs and occasionally the narrator (Adam Scorgie) presents some facts. It also tries to highlight some of the hysteria surrounding the issue by showing short sound bites of anti-drug campaigners on TV in other interviews or advertisements. None of these people are actually interviewed for this documentary, however, meaning the argument is very much biased towards the “for” decriminalisation category.

Other interviewees in The Culture High include rappers Snoop Dogg and Wiz Khalifa as well as comedian, Joe Rogan and entrepreneur, Sir Richard Branson. In addition to these celebrities are some personal stories including one about Jason David and his son, Jayden. The latter suffered bad, daily seizures and the former was at his wits’ end both financially and emotionally. The young boy eventually tried medical cannabis and this yielded more positive effects than the cocktail of heavy prescription medication he had previously taken (and the medical marijuana helped the boy to eventually be weaned off the majority of the prescription meds).

The Culture High is an interesting story but at times it feels a little heavy-handed in trying to drive the pro-marijuana point home. It paints a very dark picture of America – where an apathetic public readily accept strange cocktails of prescription medication while turning a blind eye to the effects of alcohol and the proceeds of the seized assets of those convicted on drug charges (this money often helps boost the budgets of local law enforcement). The energy in this documentary is fast-paced meaning it will sustain your attention and get you thinking about this debate. It’s a dialogue that needs to be opened up but at the same time, The Culture High does not have all the answers.

 

Originally published on 27 January 2015 at the following website: http://iris.theaureview.com/2015/01/27/dvd-review-the-culture-high-usa-2014/

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LIVE REVIEW: LACE CURTAIN @ THE SPIEGELTENT FOR SYDNEY FESTIVAL (25.01.2015)

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Lace Curtain seem to revel in challenging your perceptions. The Sydney Festival show was performed on Sunday evening at the famous Spiegeltent in Hyde Park. But the sound and vibe was closer to a sweaty nightclub at around midnight.

The sound is the brainchild of musician/sonic wizard, David West who is also known for his work in Rat Columns and Tudor House and as a fleeting member of post-punk band, Total Control. For this show he performed solo and built exquisite sonic tapestries using a guitar, two mics, looping pedals and samplers. This meant there were moments where he resembled Liam Finn’s earlier solo shows and at other points he was closer to the electro works of Seekae and Fishing.

West was a rather unassuming performer but he was also fun to watch. He’d sing an obtuse or open-ended lyric, which allowed the listener to then get lost in the swirling beats, distorted rhythms and other chinks and clicks. The music was detailed and rich and not unlike the sonic equivalent of a Yoko Ono quote. Namely: “Draw yourself a maze and get lost in it”.

The crowd seemed enthused if not a little bemused by the spectacle that was Lace Curtain. The notes were bent in all sorts of directions and there was lots of interesting stuff happening between the bars of this music. In short, it was a challenging visual piece that was staunch and a tad confronting.

 

Originally published on 26 January 2015 at the following website: http://www.theaureview.com/reviews/sydney/lace-curtain-the-spiegeltent-25-01-15

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FILM REVIEW: THE WEDDING RINGER

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The Wedding Ringer is a kind of terrible fun. The film has a direct-to-DVD feel that isn’t as enjoyable as The Wedding Singer but it’s also not as torturous as seeing your enemy get married. Ultimately, it’s a high-octane series of silly shenanigans that help redeem some of the film’s flatter moments.

The movie is directed by Jeremy Garelick, who doubles as the script writer along with Jay Lavender. It is a comedy that is supposed to have heart but it really only has Hart, Kevin Hart that is. He stars as Jimmy Callahan or Bic Mitcham AKA a best man-for-hire. He’s a quick talking hustler who will pretend to be a man’s best friend and keep up the pretence during a guy’s nuptials (for a fee). It requires a suspension of disbelief as to why a man would go through with such a convoluted scam rather than just come clean to the woman he loves and simply confess that he doesn’t have anyone close enough for the role.

The “poor slob” in this story is Doug Harris (Josh Gad), a charming and wealthy lawyer who is getting hitched to a bridezilla (Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting). He is doing this because he cannot believe a gorgeous girl like this one would want to marry him. The themes are not overly original as some aspects seemed to be borrowed from I Love You, Man and Hitch. The problem with The Wedding Ringer is that the jokes are slapstick, clichéd and often miss the mark. It also doesn’t help that these are often milked for far too long (for example: see when granny catches fire, which isn’t even funny!)

Harris requires a “golden tux” treatment. This isn’t just a best-man for hire but seven groomsmen to go with his attractive yet vacuous bride’s friends. Unfortunately, Harris had spent his formative years moving around and studying and his parents are both dead. He has no one so Callahan assembles a group of guys and attempts to make these oddballs look authentic. This includes taking photos of the troupe scuba diving (at an aquarium) and running marathons (by showing up at the finish line of one).

The overall feel is obnoxious and crass and at times not unlike a second-rate Hangover. But despite this both Gad and Hart make the most of the awful material. They also share a noticeable on-screen chemistry. It’s one of the nicer things in this film.

The Wedding Ringer is not original and is chock full of stereotypes. The hijinks and shtick of these bad boys occasionally will leave a sour taste in your mouth. But this fast-paced and in cohesive comedy also proves to be one raucous distraction for the end of the holidays. It’s not a golden marriage but its few redeeming features will prevent you from demanding a full trial separation.

 

Originally published on 22 January 2015 at the following website: http://iris.theaureview.com/2015/01/22/film-review-the-wedding-ringer-usa-2015/

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INTERVIEW: THE LONE BELLOW’S KANENE PIPKIN

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The Lone Bellow are a trio from Brooklyn, New York who produce country and alt-rock music. They’re also a band that boasts no less than a former star footballer, a French culinary chef and a former member of a barbershop quartet in their ranks. This sounds like the set-up to an odd joke but we promise it isn’t.

The group previously released their eponymous debut record of country songs. It was recorded in their favourite music venue, the Rockwood Music Hall, with money raised through Kickstarter. In the intervening years they have managed to land guest spots on Jimmy Kimmel and other great touring slots.

Their follow-up record, Then Came The Morning was recorded with producer, Aaron Dessner of The National who also brought in his brother and band mate, Bryce to assist with the wind and string arrangements. Across 13 tracks the band chronicle their personal struggles and other aspects of their collective experiences through a range of musical styles including folk, country, gospel and rock.

Music Feeds sat down with singer and mandolin player, Kanene Pipkin to learn more about Southern gothic imagery, baking and more about this group of self-confessed, “strange people”.

 

Music Feeds: Then Came The Morning has been described as a mix of harmonies, folk sincerity, gospel fervor and even heavy metal thunder. Tell us about the writing process for the record. What music, art, books, etc. influenced this record?

Kanene Pipkin: We had been on the road almost non-stop from the release of our first record until we started recording Then Came The Morning. Touring life can be both exhausting and exhilarating, the highs and lows are so extreme. We’ve all been through some pretty difficult seasons since we started doing this full time, and we have learned a lot about each other; how to take care of one another while we’re away from our families, how to forgive each other, how to sing better together, really just how to be a better band.

I believe this record, the way it sounds and the songs we wrote and chose to include, has been most heavily influenced by our hard-earned trust in each other. We were able to take risks in writing new songs, dust off and finish older material, and really take our time to make it the best record we are capable of making in this stage of our band. As the songs began to take shape, we thought a lot about the sounds we wanted to capture, and listened to a lot of Vegas-era Elvis, Neil Young, Sam Cooke and Van Morrison for inspiration.

MF: On your website it says that Zach Williams first started writing a journal and then writing songs after his wife was recovering from a horse accident. What was the inspiration behind the lyrics on the album?

KP: This album draws more from our collective experiences, family lore, marriage, and personal struggles. There are also a few story songs thrown in for good measure.

MF: What was it like working with producer Aaron Dessner of The National? How did Aaron’s brother and band mate Bryce Dessner contribute to the record?

KP: Working with Aaron was a serious dream come true, and it was honestly just really fun. Aaron is one of the kindest people you will ever meet, and he knows how to get the best out of you. He is full of incredible sports analogies that he will whip out if you start to slack or get tired of trying something over and over, and it did the trick for us every time.

Bryce did all of the wind and string arrangements, and completely exceeded every expectation and hope we had. They’re both so incredibly gifted and meticulous, and put a lot of thought into every sound, every instrument, every part and player on the record.

MF: How did recording this album differ from your self-titled debut?

KP: Time is the biggest factor. For our first record, we hadn’t even been together for a year, and we just recorded our set list at the time, which was the first 12 or so songs we learned together as a band. We raised the money for it on Kickstarter, and we all had to beg for enough time off from our jobs to record it.

We did all the basic tracks in two and a half days by turning our favorite venue in the city, Rockwood Music Hall, into a studio. We then went to Nashville a few months later to overdub vocals and a few more instrumental tracks.

With this record, we didn’t have other jobs to worry about, but had the opportunity to focus all our energies on this one project. We had about forty songs to choose from, and had been a band for much longer and had played infinitely more shows together.

We were also in a real studio, Dreamland, near Woodstock, New York. The studio served as an actual instrument in the recording process; we put microphones all over the sanctuary and did all the vocals live, together in the room.

We also stayed together in a friend’s cabin near the studio in upstate New York, and would take the hour long drive down the mountain together each morning. The whole experience was all encompassing and rejuvenating. Aaron also lives near us in Brooklyn, and we were able to be at home and finish up instrumental overdubs and tweaks in his backyard studio.

MF: On your group’s Instagram there is a photo by Mackenzie Rollins which you say forms part of a larger photo essay for this record. Where did the inspiration come from for these photos? Do you have a favourite photo from the photo essay and why?

KP: The record deals a lot with what we see as Southern Gothic subject matter, so we wanted to capture some images from small towns near where we grew up, and tell the stories of people who don’t normally get their stories told.

My personal favorite is the one we chose for the cover, of the beautiful older woman sitting in a little diner in Georgia, drinking her morning coffee. It’s such a gorgeous photograph, and it fits the tone of this record perfectly. Because for me, the title of the record is meant to convey a sense of hope, a possibility for renewal, but it can risk sounding a little too grandiose.

I’ve found most of the time, hope doesn’t come instantaneously in epic wonderful phenomena, but it comes in small, mundane choices, like choosing to get up, get out, have a cup of coffee and face the day.

MF: Do you guys have any plans to tour Australia for this record?

KP: We would absolutely love to. It needs to happen.

MF: What was it like performing on Jimmy Kimmel Live? Are there any funny or interesting stories from the green room?

KP: The first time we played Kimmel we were all nervously sitting around our dressing room, waiting to rehearse, when Gary Busey walks in, with cake all over his face, and starts talking to Zach about what kind of underwear he prefers. Then he asked me to wink at the camera for him. It was an existential experience.

MF: I believe that one of your special talents is that you’re a French culinary chef. Does any member of the band have a “signature dish” they like to prepare whilst on the road?

KP: Ha! Yes, I moved to NYC from Beijing in order to become a pastry chef, then move back to Beijing and open a shop and teach, but then the band happened. I still bake any chance I get, and if I had a kitchen on the road, there would be no end to the delicious treat making!

When we get home, the first thing I usually make is some kind of pie or a big batch of chocolate chip cookies, just crisp on the edges and gooey in the middle, with some really class chocolate and Maldon on top.

MF: I believe that guitarist Brian Elmquist is a former star football player and member of a barbershop quartet. Has he ever considered incorporating barbershop music into The Lone Bellow’s sound? What do you think is the strangest musical genre you could incorporate into your music?

KP: Yes, Brian is a living, breathing paradox. He does think of some pretty wonderful and complicated harmonies, so maybe barbershop has already leaked into our music without us realising. I don’t think any genre of music is too strange for us to dabble in at least once, we’re kind of strange people.

 

Originally published on 20 January 2015 at the following website: http://musicfeeds.com.au/news/australian-premiere-stream-the-lone-bellows-new-album-then-came-the-morning/

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DVD REVIEW: GIRLS SEASON 3

girls

 

Girls isn’t a glamorous show and in many ways that’s what makes it feel so brutally honest and real. In the third season the characters are the most fully developed and realised versions of themselves to date. It’s also one that is full of the kinds of stories and things that will challenge, enthral, frustrate and entertain viewers, and do so in the most visceral way possible.

The fourth series of the show recently debuted overseas but this ramshackle third series has only just been released on DVD. Once again it is predominantly written and directed by the series creator and star, the uber-talented, Lena Dunham. And like the previous two seasons, it once again follows those four idiosyncratic, young women through various episodes that feel very much inspired by or rooted in real life.

In this season Marnie Michaels (Allison Williams) is heartbroken and reeling from her break-up with long-time boyfriend, Charlie Dattolo (Christopher Abbott). She will wind up forming a few different romantic attachments over the course of these 12 episodes and find herself in a very similar place to the season premiere by the end of it all. Shoshanna Shapiro (Zosia Mamet) cuts loose after her break-up with Ray Polansky (Alex Karpovsky). She will revel in her freedom but her master plan will also unravel spectacularly.

The interesting, Jessa Johansson (Jemima Kirke) has a harder edge this season, especially when she enters rehab. She will go to some very dark places as she tackles substance abuse and forms some unlikely friendships. Hannah Horvath (Dunham) meanwhile, attempts to live with her OCD while struggling with her relationship and the notion of success and what that actually means.

The season sees the gals and the attractive male characters like Ray, Hannah’s boyfriend- Adam Sackler (Adam Driver) and Elijah Krantz (Andrew Rannells) all along for the bumpy ride, which also includes an introduction to Adam’s unhinged sister (Gaby Hoffmann). The story lines include a road trip, a beach party, a reunion, a Broadway debut and an untimely death. These all come to a head in the season finale where a world of possibilities are left open for the next series to take up and explore.

The third season includes guest appearances from the likes of Rita Wilson, John Cameron Mitchell, Richard E. Grant, Patti LuPone, June Squibb and Louise Lasser. The DVD set includes six audio commentaries with the cast and crew as well as shorter “Inside the Episode” segments like the previous series. In the latter, Dunham is interviewed and gives brief descriptions of the ideas and writing process for a particular episode and this combined with scenes lifted from that show.

Girls is a TV show where viewers will find the characters utterly relatable or too vapid for their taste. As it stands, this articulate and clever series remains as deep and sharp as ever. There are many thought-provoking and provocative moments that make things feel fresh and entertaining. It also means that even the most bizarre and narcissistic scenes come with a huge side order of reality and insightful lessons that we can all draw things from.

 

Originally published on 16 January 2015 at the following website: http://iris.theaureview.com/2015/01/16/dvd-review-girls-the-complete-third-season-usa-2014/

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BOOK REVIEW: REBECCA STARFORD – BAD BEHAVIOUR

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Bad Behaviour is Rebecca Starford’s debut book and memoir. Starford is well-known as the co-founder of the Kill Your Darlings journal. She is also a publisher at Affirm Press, a current contributor to The Age and The Australian newspapers and the former deputy editor of the Australian Book Review.

 

This book is a series of chapters from Starford’s life and it is primarily set in Geelong Grammar School’s Timbertop campus in 1998. In Bad Behaviour, Starford is brutally honest as she chronicles the time she spent in boarding school in regional Victoria. It was here that she lived with 14 other teenage girls in a largely unsupervised and occasionally rather dramatic environment.

 

For Starford, life at Silver Creek started off happily enough after she found herself in a friendship group with the most popular girls in the house. But this circle of friends was also headed by some aggressive bullies who were hell-bent on misbehaving and ignoring the teachers. At first Starford joined in with these disobedient acts because she longed to feel included. But things took a turn for the worse when these queen bees turned around and then started bullying and picking on Rebecca.

 

This story is told via the use of two main threads, one sees Starford remembering various incidents from her time at Silver Creek. The other is rooted in the present day and examines how this formative year at school affected and shaped her subsequent relationships. It is fascinating to see how a school, which had such utopian aims (for example, to instil confidence and build resilience and independence in its charges) in some cases had the opposite effect, especially on the most socially vulnerable girls who constantly struggled to find their place in the clique.

 

Rebecca Starford’s writing is very honest and readable but there are moments where the reader is left wanting to know a little bit more detail about the characters involved. This is particularly important in the more current scenes where Rebecca forms new love interests and friends but these are not as fully fleshed out as characters as the ones from when she was a teen. In spite of some minor flaws, Bad Behaviour is a good and relatable book that should inspire readers to take stock and consider how their teenage years shaped their adult lives.

 

This review originally appeared on The Reading Room and was received for free from the publishers as an advance copy. To view the original review please visit the following website: https://www.thereadingroom.com/book/bad-behaviour/9195398

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BLU-RAY REVIEW: THE PIANO

the-piano

 

The Piano was one big success story in 1993. It was the winner of three Academy Awards (Best Screenplay, Actress and Supporting Actress) and the prestigious Palme d’Or at Cannes, as well as being the darling of critics and fans alike. This beautiful and haunting film has recently been digitally remastered and released on Blu-ray and it remains one sumptuous, visual pleasure.

This was the third feature film by director, Jane Campion (Bright Star) who also doubled as the film’s screenwriter. The story is set in New Zealand in 1850 when a rebellious Scottish woman named Ada McGrath – who had been mute since the age of six – is forced to move from her homeland with her illegitimate daughter (a young and convincing, Anna Paquin of True Blood fame). Ada is placed into an arranged marriage with a wealthy landowner named Alisdair Stewart (Sam Neill).

Ada may not speak in a literal sense but she is able to communicate in other ways. She uses sign language to talk to her daughter plus she writes notes and uses lots of non-verbal cues. Ada is also given a “voice” through her accomplished piano playing. Actress, Holly Hunter stars here and drives this film as the stubborn Ada. She also plays all of the piano pieces herself and was able to provide input into the sign language components as well.

When Ada and her daughter arrive in New Zealand, Alisdair forces them to abandon a crate housing the pair’s beloved piano. Instead it is sold to George Baines (Harvey Keitel), a brute and tattooed expatriate who has embraced the customs of the local, Maori tribe. George makes out that he wants to learn to play the instrument but instead uses the piano as a way to get Ada to engage in various erotic and sexual favours. Along the line these moments blossom into a romance between the two and when Alisdair discovers the indiscretions of his new wife, he seeks revenge.

The Piano is a dark, moody and atmospheric film that is well-suited to the Blu-ray medium. While no bonus features are included, this gothic, rich and poetic tale that shares a few things in common with a Bronte sister saga is almost faultless. The film is ultimately as intricate as a lace bodice, as mysterious as a stranger and as intense as a conflict-laden thriller. It gets at the heart of our most raw and primal emotions and despite a subtle telling it continues to resonate loud and true, even though it is decades since its release.

 

Originally published on 6 January 2015 at the following website: http://iris.theaureview.com/2015/01/06/blu-ray-review-the-piano-new-zealand-1993-2014-re-release/

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DVD REVIEW: FAMILY GUY SEASON 14

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Family Guy is one of those shows where you either love it or loathe it. And for some people Season 14 may also cause the same kind of reactions. It’s because this season sees characters like Stewie (Seth MacFarlane) becoming less like the evil and murderous child genius he was at the beginning of the show and more like a flamboyant gayby. But it is also the season that Cleveland returns and episodes like Life of Brian and Christmas Guy will be remembered as absolute classics.

The Season 14 set is a three disc DVD combining 21 uncensored episodes that were filmed in widescreen HD. The animation looks as good as ever and it works best in the cutaway sequences, especially when they drop in footage from other mediums or shows. There are moments like the death of Brian and the introduction of the replacement dog, Vinny (Tony Sirico) which makes the series feel fresh and it succeeds at keeping viewers on their toes.

But that doesn’t mean that all of these episodes are killer. Fresh Heir sees Chris spending time with his grandfather, Carter Pewterschmidt. Chris is eventually named the sole heir to Carter’s estate and Peter Griffin responds to this in the most ridiculous and unfunny way possible. He separates from his wife Lois and proposes to his son who accepts. Similarly, the Baby Got Black episode had many moments where it went too far at making jibes against African-Americans.

One thing this series has succeeded at is tightening up the visual gags and cutaways. So while there are sequences which include the odd vignette, these don’t drag on for quite as long as previously. But this is with the notable exception of one gross scene in Peter Problems where our favourite TV father uses a forklift on a beached whale and continually hurts and mutilates the innocent creature until it eventually dies a tortured death.

This set also contains bonus features like audio commentaries and deleted scenes on selected episodes. There’s a short featurette about the death of Brian, the public’s outcry on social media (which included a 100,000 strong petition on Change.org to bring the character back) and his return. An episode animatic for Christmas Guy is also included as well as a funny mashup of all the Consuela cameos from previous seasons. This series also included some great guest stars like: Adam Levine (Maroon 5), Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad), Conan O’Brien, Lea Thompson, Liam Neeson, Peter Dinklage and the late Lauren Bacall.

In Season 14, Family Guy is as crass and cheeky as ever. But this television show also proved that it can also walk the line between comedy and drama and have moments where it is serious and even poignant. The series may not be at its pinnacle anymore but there are still some hidden gems to be found in the ridiculous antics of the Griffin family and their friends.

 

Originally published on 5 January 2015 at the following website: http://iris.theaureview.com/2015/01/05/tv-dvd-review-family-guy-the-complete-season-14-usa-2014/

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