The Girl in the Spider’s Web (2018)

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2019 #90
Fede Alvarez | 115 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA, Germany & Sweden / English | 15 / R

The Girl in the Spider's Web

I love a bit of context to frame a review, but crikey, I can’t be arsed to recap the turbulent history of this particular franchise. Heck, it doesn’t even have a proper name! Officially it was the Millennium Trilogy, but that didn’t seem to stick (especially when it went past three books). The original Swedish films have been bundled as “The Girl” trilogy, owing to the formula of their English language titles. For this latest incarnation, they chose to label it “A New Dragon Tattoo Story”, I guess reasoning that “Dragon Tattoo” was a more unique identifier than “The Girl” (not wrongly).

The status of this film itself is equally confused. Is it a reboot? A sequel? If so, to what? I mean, it’s adapted from the fourth book, but only the first has been filmed in English (as is this movie), so is this now meant to be the second story? But as there doesn’t seem to be a Swedish language adaptation forthcoming, maybe this is intended to be a fourth one after all? Frankly, I suspect the filmmakers would rather we didn’t ask. The film makes little or no acknowledgement of any specific predecessors (aside from the fact that the recurring characters already know each other), instead diving headlong into a new, standalone story. Well, standalone-ish, because a lot of what occurs comes out of the past of Lisbeth Salander, the titular girl; and the events of her past were a key feature of some of the other stories as well, so…! Well, that you can’t escape your past, however much you might try, is sort of a theme here, I guess, so maybe we can kindly say it’s only appropriate.

Whichever films or books you take in before this one, I don’t think Spider’s Web is a good jumping-on point. It assumes we have familiarity with the lead characters — hacker Lisbeth Salander (now played by Claire Foy) and investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist (now played by Sverrir Gudnason), and their relationship, or lack thereof — which is a barrier to it being newcomer friendly. Anyway, the actual storyline sees Lisbeth being hired to steal a dangerous computer program from the CIA, which leads to all sorts of trouble with crime gangs and spies and whatnot.

l33t h4x0r skillz

Where the first three Millennium / Girl / Dragon Tattoo stories were all fundamentally crime thrillers, Spider’s Web opens up the storytelling world into much more fanciful realms. It’s a bit like they’ve tried to make Salander a kind of freelance female James Bond, using her l33t h4x0r skillz to stop evil cyber-terrorists. It also helps that she’s pretty handy on a motorbike and with a gun. How? Just because. Unfortunately, an element of ‘just because’ powers too much of the film, with fundamental flaws in even its basic setup: the computer program she has to steal is uncopyable, hence the she has to steal it, but that’s (apparently) not even possible. I guess the writers just thought “eh, it sounds plausible”, but, well, it didn’t sound plausible to me, and apparently it is indeed not possible to create a program that can’t be copied, so there we go.

And yet, if you can suspend your disbelief, Spider’s Web is mostly enjoyable while it’s on. There are plenty of twists and turns in the plot — few, if any, are genuinely surprising, but it keeps it ticking over; as do the running about and shooting at things. It’s nothing special as action-thrillers go, but I’ve seen a lot worse. They’ve plumped for an R rating, in keeping with the darker adult themes the series is known for, but it’s a funny one: some of it feels tamed down as if they were aiming for a PG-13 (it’s scrupulous about never showing Lisbeth naked, even when she is), but there are some swears and the odd burst of violence that would never have got past at the lower certificate. Arguably that kind of half-heartedness extends to the whole experience.

Yas Queen!

Consequently, I feel kinda bad for Claire Foy in the lead role. After her acclaim in The Crown I can see she must’ve had big opportunities calling, but I imagine was also keen to show her range after becoming famous for such a particular kind of role. Lisbeth Salander is about as big a 180 from Queen Elizabeth II as you can get, right? However, she has big shoes to fill. Lisbeth is a potentially complex role, much desired by actresses keen for some meaty material (well, there was tough competition when they were casting the US remake of Dragon Tattoo, anyway), but both Noomi Rapace and Rooney Mara have put a firm stamp on it already (the latter even secured an Oscar nomination). I’d wager Foy is up to the task, although the screenplay doesn’t give her a whole lot to work with. Giving Lisbeth some (more) familial conflicts sounds potentially weighty, but the actual material doesn’t dig into it a whole lot.

As for the rest of the cast, the fact they’ve cast someone you’ve probably never heard of as Blomkvist, the role previously played by a hot-off-Bond Daniel Craig, shows how he has a downgraded part to play here. The rest of the supporting cast includes a few somewhat more familiar faces, like Stephen Merchant, LaKeith Stanfield, and Sylvia Hoeks, all of whom are fine with what they’re given, but, as I say, it’s not exactly something to write home about.

Burning down the franchise

Once upon a time Dragon Tattoo was a darling of the pop culture world, the books attracting a tonne of attention, the Swedish films going down very well, and the star-studded US remake suitably hyped up. Its shine has waned since then (possibly as a result of said US remake underperforming at the box office, which is a whole other can of worms), and now Spider’s Web is probably too little too late to revive it — certainly, it fared poorly with both critics (40% on Rotten Tomatoes) and audiences (a paltry $35 million worldwide). To say it deserved better might be overselling it, but there is value here, at least for any undemanding fans of the action-thriller genre.

3 out of 5

The Girl in the Spider’s Web is available on Sky Cinema from today.

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The Karate Kid (2010)

2018 #72
Harald Zwart | 134 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & China / English & Mandarin | PG / PG

The Karate Kid

For some, The Karate Kid is one of the defining films of the ’80s, with a legacy so strong that, 34 years after the original film, YouTube launched a sequel/spin-off series — and it did well enough to get recommissioned twice (so far), so I guess they were right. I’m pretty sure I rented the original film on video when I was a kid, but my memories of it are incredibly vague, and I’ve no idea if I ever saw the sequels. Anyway, my point is that I don’t have a nostalgic attachment to the original, which seems to have coloured some people’s response to this remake (which is itself rapidly approaching being a decade old!) Maybe that’s for the best, because it seems to be a pretty thorough reimagining — heck, the kid doesn’t even learn karate!

This version stars Jaden Smith (son of Will) as the eponymous child, Dre, who’s forced to move from Detroit to Beijing when his single mother (Taraji P. Henson) gets a job transfer. Struggling to find his place in a foreign country, Dre gets bullied by his schoolmates, including a young kung fu prodigy (Zhenwei Wang). During one particularly vicious beating, Dre is saved by his building’s unassuming maintenance man, Mr Han (Jackie Chan), who it turns out is a kung fu master himself. When the bullies refuse to apologise because they’re taught poor values by their master (Yu Rongguang), Han agrees to teach Dre so that he might enter a kung fu tournament and face them fairly.

So, having a quick read through a plot summary of the original film, the actual story isn’t that different — set in China instead of the US, with different character names, and with kung fu instead of karate (apparently Sony considered changing the title to The Kung Fu Kid but producer Jerry Weintraub refused), but otherwise fundamentally the same narrative. Well, it is a remake — what do you expect?

Everybody was kung fu fighting. I mean, it was a kung fu tournament; that's kinda the point.

From reading other viewer reviews, I get the impression a lot of people dislike it just because they’re nostalgic for the original or because they’re annoyed by Jaden Smith’s parents trying to make him a movie star. But if you remove those external contexts, the film offers a decent storyline and some strong performances — it’s Jackie Chan, c’mon!

Speaking of which, there’s an alternate ending which features Chan fighting the other teacher (something that doesn’t occur in the film as released, obviously). I can see why they wanted to get more of Jackie fighting into the movie, because his is a supporting role otherwise, but it would’ve kinda diluted what the film is really about right at its climax. That said, some versions of the film are perhaps already structurally comprised: apparently the Chinese release was re-edited to make it seem like the American kid started all the fights against those good Chinese boys. I can see why Chinese censors would force that on the film, but I don’t see how it quite chimes with an ending where Dre comes out victorious.

As for the cut the rest of us get to see, I can’t speak for how it compares to the 1984 original, but it holds up pretty well as an enjoyable film in its own right.

4 out of 5

Witness (1985)

2018 #74
Peter Weir | 108 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 15 / R

Witness

Witness is, I think, one of those (many) films that used to be pretty well-known but hardly anyone seems to talk about anymore. I guess it falls into that bracket of being “very good, but not great”, and, devoid of the kind of cult appeal that can keep good-not-great movies popular for decades, it’s kind of slipped off the radar.

It’s the story of an 8-year-old Amish boy (Lukas Haas) who, while travelling with his mother (Kelly McGillis) through Philadelphia, happens to witness the murder of an undercover cop. The case is handed to Detective John Book (Harrison Ford), who manages to get the boy to ID the murderer, but that puts the trio in danger, so they hide out among the Amish community.

With such a storyline, the film could descend into a culture-clash comedy — the big city cop chafing against historical rural life — but, while that clash is certainly in play, it’s not milked for laughs. Rather, the film is about Book experiencing a way of life so different to his own, and it changing his perspective on the world. Indeed, with the focus it gives to Amish ways, the film almost seems like it wanted to be a documentary about that community as much as a story. Certainly, the crime plot is a little rote, though it builds to a thrilling climax, with a definite touch of “modern Western” about the film’s style and structure. Additionally, the burgeoning romance between Book and the boy’s mother is touchingly and believably handled.

Witness protection

Ford gives a good performance, though I didn’t think it was that far outside his usual wheelhouse, actually. Sure, this is a drama where he plays a real-world cop rather than an adventure flick where he’s a dashing space smuggler or a swashbuckling matinee idol, but he’s still a bit of a charming rogue who eventually reveals his good heart. Or maybe Ford is just so effortlessly good that he makes it look easy. Among the rest of the cast, look out for a baby-faced Viggo Mortensen, popping up briefly with no lines.

The film’s only significant downside is a horrible synth score by Maurice Jarre. Maybe it’d be fine in itself, if ever so ’80s, but it’s an ill fit with the film’s theme about the appeal of traditional ways of life.

Otherwise, Witness is, as I said, a good-but-not-great kind of drama; a more-than-solid effort from all involved, but not so remarkable that it’s endured among Great Movies. There’s nothing particularly wrong with that, mind. Certainly, in our present era of Western cinema where that sort of dramatic movie is falling by the wayside as studios focus solely on mega-budgeted effects spectacles, this kind of film feels all the more wanted.

4 out of 5

Shaft (2019)

2019 #98
Tim Story | 111 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Shaft (2019)

I wrote recently about Shaft 2000 (I’m gonna start calling it that, even if nobody else does), the turn-of-the-millennium attempt to reboot the ’70s blaxploitation classic. It didn’t really take off, for various reasons, but I think it’s a pretty solid thriller in its own right. Now, 19 years later, they’ve decided to try again, only this time they’ve thrown away the spirit of the original in favour of an intergenerational buddy comedy.

John Shaft Jr (Jessie T. Usher) is a bookish FBI data analyst whose dad, John Shaft (Samuel L. Jackson), abandoned him when he was a baby so he could go off galavanting with other women and solving crime while looking cool. Down the years he’s sent Jr presents like condoms and a box of porn mags — he’s that kind of dad. (Is that a kind of dad, or is it just a caricature of one?) Anyway, after Jr’s former-junkie best friend dies of an apparent overdose, everyone else believes it was a relapse, but Jr isn’t convinced. Struggling to investigate on his own, he turns to his estranged father for help.

Where Jackson’s Shaft was once a cool dude kicking ass and taking names (or whatever it is cool dude PIs did in the early ’00s), here they’ve turned him into a bit of a throwback dinosaur, spouting politically incorrect opinions with every other line of dialogue. This film does acknowledge the existence of the 2000 movie (an opening montage covering the last 30 years of the Shafts’ lives includes shots from that film to show Shaft Sr quitting the police), but it doesn’t feel like the same character we saw back then — he’s much more of a caricature of an outdated sex-obsessed oldie here. At times it’s like someone adapted one of those facile “millennials are to blame for everything” articles into a movie; or at least copy-pasted it into Shaft Sr’s dialogue.

Still a sex machine to all the chicks

This aspect has come in for much consternation among the film’s wider critical reception, but, eh, I dunno — the crap Shaft comes out with is definitely being played for laughs, with other characters eye-rolling (and similar) at most of what he says and does. At the same time, Jr’s character arc still comes down to “manning up” in the way his father wants him to. For instance: he hates guns, but when assassins attack at a restaurant, he borrows his date’s handbag-sized pistol and takes them out with expert marksmanship, before throwing the gun down in disgust. Put another way, the film is having its cake and eating it — it knows these old-fashioned ideals are, well, old-fashioned, but it’s gonna let them play out anyway. Even the plot pretends to be kinda modern by suggesting it might all have something to do with terrorism and radicalising Muslims — though as that’s been a plot driver for nigh on 20 years now, maybe it stretches the idea of “modern”. But it doesn’t matter anyway, because really that’s a red herring to cover up a standard drug smuggling affair.

The film’s best bit comes at the end, when Richard Roundtree’s OG Shaft gets roped into things for no particularly good reason. But it doesn’t matter, because granddad Shaft’s antics, and the banter between all three generations, is the most entertaining part of the movie. It certainly helps cover for the TV-movie-esque quality of the action scenes. It’s a shame the film waited so long to get him involved.

Shaft cubed

So Shaft 2019 is antiquated in myriad different ways, be it the values espoused by its co-lead or the general tone and content of its story. It didn’t need to be like that — Shaft may’ve been born in the ’70s, but I don’t think the very nature of the character requires him to still embody ’70 values. Nonetheless, if you don’t let that stuff bother you too much, the result is a moderately entertaining watch — nothing special (the other two films with the same title are both better), but a passably humorous 110 minutes.

3 out of 5

Shaft is available on Netflix everywhere (except the US) now.

Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival (1970)

aka Zatôichi abare himatsuri

2019 #80
Kenji Misumi | 96 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese | 15

Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival

No, this isn’t a film about a samurai at a ‘luxury’ music festival (and that’s the extent of Fyre references you’ll get here, because I’ve not watched either documentary and don’t really know much about it). Rather, this 21st entry in the long-running Zatoichi series (once released on UK DVD as Zatoichi at the Fire Festival, and also known by sundry other variations of those words) sees the eponymous blind masseur-cum-swordsman clash with evil underworld boss Yamikubo (Masayuki Mori). This boss is as blind as Ichi, which he initially uses to claim a kinship with our hero, but then Yamikubo engages in a series of schemes to kill our hero. Meanwhile, a nameless ronin (Tatsuya Nakadai) stalks Ichi too, intending to kill him for an imagined slight.

More or less business as usual for a Zatoichi adventure, then. The blindness of the villain should really add an extra frisson of something — it’s a clear parallel with our hero, after all — but I’m not sure it does, in actuality. More striking is that Fire Festival is pretty sex obsessed. Sex has been a factor of Zatoichi films before, but I’m not sure any other is as consumed by it as this one. It starts with a mistress auction and teases of nudity; the mystery ronin’s quest is to kill everyone who slept with his wife, which he thinks includes Ichi; the major set-piece is a fight in a bathhouse between Ichi and an army of assassins, all of whom are stark naked; Ichi spends an evening with five prostitutes; the villains decide the best way to kill our hero is with a honey trap (who winds up genuinely falling for Ichi, of course); there’s the roadhouse owners we randomly come across, who are casually perverse… and that’s all before the one-hour mark. Though if you’re expecting to see flashes of flesh, the nude scenes feature almost Austin Powers-level endeavours to make sure nothing explicit is shown.

A sweet transvestite?

There’s also an androgynous fellow called Umeji, who’s played be Peter, aka Pītā, aka Shinnosuke Ikehata — to quote his Wikipedia page, “one of Japan’s most famous gay entertainers, Peter’s androgynous appearance has enabled him to often play transvestite characters and he often appears on stage in women’s clothing.” He first gained attention the year before, as the lead in Funeral Parade of Roses, and later would have a supporting role in Akira Kurosawa’s Ran. Here he’s the pimp of those aforementioned five prostitutes, part of an attempt to prove he’s a “real man”. That doesn’t really work out, so his next attempt is to try seducing Ichi. It’s a startling, unexpected sequence in a genre film of this era, especially as he seems to get quite far — I mean, they end up under a bedsheet where we can’t see exactly what’s going on… until a knife slips out, anyway, with which Umeji was trying to kill Ichi. Naturally Ichi’s not impressed by that murder attempt, although he has nothing to say about the apparent homosexuality.

Peter isn’t the only noteworthy face here. Easily missed by Western audiences are Utae and Reiji Shoji as that roadhouse couple I mentioned — apparently they came from family of famous comedians, which perhaps explains all the screen time they’re given. More recognisable is Nakadai, who would also later star in Ran, and also appeared in Yojimbo and The Human Condition trilogy, amongst many more. One of those others is another samurai movie, The Sword of Doom, in which he reportedly plays a very similar character to his role here — I’ve not seen it so can’t vouch for that myself, but many other reviews cite the comparison. Depending which of those you listen to, he’s either “comically bad” (DVD Talk) or “puts in a stellar performance” (Lard Biscuit Enterprises). His character is a bit of an odd one — his motivation is thin and decisions border on nonsensical — but Nakadai brings immense presence to the role nonetheless.

Is that a katana or are you just happy to see me?

Mind, most of the rest of the film’s plot is similarly confounding. It starts with a title sequence in which Ichi tries to run away from a little barking dog, ends with an out-of-nowhere scene where Ichi turns down a horse ride, and in between is almost as odd and randomly constructed as those two extremes. And yet it does tick most of the regular Zatoichi boxes, especially in terms of the action scenes. They’re as slickly choreographed and staged as ever, continuing to come up with fresh ideas even after all these movies. The nude bathhouse fight is the obvious standout, but there’s also a finale where Ichi faces down an army and a cunning foe with a hostage, but has a trick up his sleeve… literally! (Ho ho ho.)

If you’re wondering where the titular festival has got to in all this, well, it never really turns up. The climax does begin with Ichi stranded in the middle of a lake that’s then set alight, but that’s not really a “fire festival”, is it? But it is a visually arresting sequence, just one of several throughout the film. This is the last contribution to the Zatoichi films from director Kenji Misumi, who directed the first and would end up tied for the title of the series’ most prolific director; and also for cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, who shot six of the films for various directors; and they both go out on a visual high with their work here. (I don’t like to over-clutter my reviews with pictures, so here are just a few additional memorable shots I grabbed. And this is really in a class of its own for images that evoke a sense of smell. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.)

The film’s story, as I said, is less commendable. Altogether, it makes for a movie that I wouldn’t rank among the Zatoichi series’ finest achievements, but nonetheless has its share of entertainment value for fans.

4 out of 5

The Puny Monthly Review of June 2019

All good things must come to an end, and so a half-decade-long streak has concluded… well, we now know said streak ended last month, but it was this month that actually put a stop to it.


#95 Deadwood (2019)
#96 Murder Mystery (2019)
#97 Untouchable (2011), aka Intouchables
#98 Shaft (2019)

(That poster was so pathetically small, I almost felt I shouldn’t bother… but then I wrote this note, meaning I could embiggen the image to go alongside here too, at which point it became much more satisfactory. Yay formatting!)

Deadwood: The Movie
.


  • So, I only watched 4 new feature films in June.
  • On the downside, that ends a five-year streak of watching at least 10 films every month. (A streak that lasted exactly five years, by-the-way — I forgot to mention that last month.)
  • On the bright side, it means there’s some slightly different stuff to talk about in these stats. Like, for example, that June 2019 is the lowest-totalling month since June 2013, which was six whole years ago.
  • It’s the 150th month of 100 Films, by-the-by, but also the 15th with 4 or fewer films. That means it’s in the bottom 10% of all months, which is its own kind of achievement.
  • It takes the average for June down from 10.5 to 10.0, meaning it just keeps its head above the waterline for something I’ve been working on for a while now, i.e. getting every month’s average above 10. (The only remaining outlier is July, which is on 9.9, so that’ll be fun next month…)
  • It also takes the average for 2019 so far down from 18.8 to 16.3, and the rolling average of the last 12 months down from 19.3 to 18.0.
  • This month’s WDYMYHS film: true-story French comedy-drama Untouchable, aka Intouchables in its original language, aka The Intouchables in the US. It’s amusing and heartwarming, but its elevated position on lists like the IMDb Top 250 oversells it somewhat.
  • There’s no Blindspot film this month. If I hadn’t upped my goal to 12 films on both lists that’d be fine, but now I’ve got one to catch up.
  • I also watched nothing from last month’s “failures”, so I guess that makes them a double failure. Oh dear.



The 49th Monthly Arbitrary Awards

Favourite Film of the Month
Not much to choose from this month, obviously, so the belated TV movie revival/finale of Deadwood walks away with this one easily.

Least Favourite Film of the Month
It’s come in for a pasting from critics and box office figures alike, but I thought the new Shaft was passably entertaining, but as it’s fuelled by outdated gags and a buddy-movie tone that sits awkwardly with the franchise, it’s certainly the weakest of this meagre selection.

Ranking All the Shaft Films I’ve Seen
1) Shaft
2) Shaft
3) Shaft

Look, I’m Struggling To Think of Categories For This Because I Only Watched 4 Films This Month, Okay?
Er, I think that ‘award’ title just about covers it…

The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
Adam Sandler’s latest film generated Netflix’s biggest ever ‘opening weekend’ viewership this month, being watched by almost 31 million accounts over its first three days. So it’s no surprise to see Murder Mystery easily top this month’s list of my most-visited new posts — it had almost 15 times as many views as the post in second place.



Considering I couldn’t even keep up with my main list goals, it should come as no surprise that my Rewatchathon suffered — and suffered worse, too, as I didn’t rewatch a single film this month. Oh well.


In a month where I watched so little, it should come as no surprise that I failed to watch plenty of stuff in particular. On the big screen, I missed the finale for this iteration of the X-Men, Dark Phoenix, as well as attempted franchise revival Men in Black: International (based on the poor reviews, I expect said revival will be short-lived), and the seemingly-unnecessary but now acclaimed Toy Story 4. That last one looks like it’ll be playing for a while, so maybe I’ll catch it yet.

At home, a couple of things I missed at the cinema in February have now made it to disc, where I failed to watch them again — namely, How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (which I bought) and The Kid Who Would Be King (which I didn’t, mainly because I couldn’t tell if its UK 4K release was actually happening or not (I suspect it’s not)). Other recent purchases fall into the Rewatchathon bracket: Glass, Annihilation, Schindler’s List, and the Mummy trilogy… although I never got round to seeing the third one, Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, so, er, that’s not a rewatch.

Actually, between sales and limited edition new releases, I also added a bunch of older films to my unseen pile, including The Blood on Satan’s Claw; The Holy Mountain; John Woo’s Last Hurrah for Chivalry and Hand of Death; and Arrow box sets presenting trios of early Brian De Palma works (The Wedding Party, Greetings, and Hi, Mom!) and Jia Zhangke films (24 City, A Touch of Sin, and Mountains May Depart). I really ought to get on with watching some of them…


I’m away on holiday for half of next month, so, along with everything else going on, there’s a very real chance July will continue this fewer-than-10-films streak — though hopefully it won’t be as disastrous as July 2009

The Past Month on TV #48

I ended my last (ever so popular and entirely uncontroversial) TV column by asking, “what can possibly follow Game of Thrones?” Well, here’s the answer…

To get specific, this month’s column includes the first two seasons of BBC America’s big success, Killing Eve; the newest work from TV auteur Stephen Poliakoff, Summer of Rockets; the opening episodes of ITV’s new Downton-wannabe, Beecham House; and the latest season of internal affairs thriller Line of Duty. Plus the usual array of bits & bobs, and stuff I meant to watch but haven’t. (No Twilight Zone this month. It’ll be back.)

Killing Eve  Season 1
Killing Eve season 1Adapted (loosely, I understand) from a series of novellas, BBC America’s Killing Eve is a spy thriller with a difference. Quite a few differences, really. That’s no doubt part of why it’s been such a success. Its US ratings aren’t huge, but it seemed to be talked about all over Twitter when it was airing there, and it went on to win some awards. When it finally made it to UK screens some five months after its US premiere, UK viewers went even bigger for it (it gets more than ten times as many viewers here as in the US, according to the figures I found), and it scooped up even more awards.

If you’re not familiar with it, it follows lowly MI5 agent Eve (Sandra Oh), the only person to spot a pattern in a string of unconnected murders. They have indeed been carried out by one person, assassin Villanelle (Doctor Foster’s Jodie Comer), a quirky, fun-loving young woman who brings that same attitude to her skilful kills. When Eve is appointed to lead an MI6 task force hunting Villanelle, the two women become fascinated with each other, and a strange bond grows between them.

The espionage thriller aspect is a mixed bag. There’s an early plot line about a mole that ended with the most obvious “could be a mole” character being ‘unmasked’ as a mole, but then there’s a lot more intrigue to be found in the secretive machinations of Eve’s MI6 supervisor (Fiona Shaw), Villanelle’s handler (The Bridge’s Kim Bodnia), and just who is employing Villanelle and why.

But, as written by Fleabag creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge (who served as showrunner for the first season), it all plays out with offbeat humour and a certain degree of comical groundedness — even as the life of an international assassin is as wildly improbable as, well, it is, Eve’s life is a recognisable world of church hall bridge clubs, wheelie suitcases, and microwaved shepherd’s pie. The comedy that arises from these culture clashes is a big part of the show’s charm.

Killing Eve  Season 2
Killing Eve season 2The second season is still airing in the UK (people who didn’t even notice that five-month wait for season one got ever so het up when the US got the second run two months before the UK), so no spoilers here. Season two brings with it a new showrunner, and it does seem to lack some of that special spark in the writing, although to emphasise that as a criticism would be unfair: it’s still a lot of fun, and the cast know how to get the most out of the material. With Villanelle on the back foot and Eve diverted onto another serial killer case (a subplot which peters out long before it’s been used for maximum drama, sadly), there’s a different dynamic to the early part of the season. Later on (in the episodes that’ll air next month over here) things come together in new and surprising ways, which is more rewarding. It lacks the striking freshness of the first season, but it still has its moments. And, of course, it leaves things in an intriguing place for the already-confirmed third season.

Summer of Rockets
Summer of RocketsI’m not sure there are many people like Stephen Poliakoff working in TV nowadays — people who are seemingly given free rein to author standalone miniseries exactly how they want. I’m sure it’s more complicated behind-the-scenes than it looks from the outside, but it appears like Poliakoff’s reputation is solid enough that he’s allowed to write and direct with his own particular voice for entire six-episode stories. Honestly, I’ve skipped his last few, because I haven’t always found his work wholly engaging, but this espionage-tinged series sounded more up my street. Like Killing Eve, it’s an idiosyncratic take on the spy genre; though whereas that’s quirkily comical, Summer of Rockets is more rooted in period family drama.

It stars erstwhile Bond villain (and regular radio Bond) Toby Stephens as Samuel Petrukhin, a Russian-Jewish émigré who’s keen to be thought of as an Englishman but can’t quite escape his background in the highly structured society of the UK, especially as it’s 1958 and the Cold War is at its height. After accidentally befriending a society lady (Keeley Hawes) and her MP husband (Linus Roache), Samuel is approached by MI5 to feed them information about his new friends. But why? And are the men from MI5 actually on the level? Meantime, Petrukhin’s teenage daughter is being forced to attend society parties she has no interest in to help bolster the family’s status, and his son is being sent off to boarding school for the same kind of reasons. Apparently it’s semi-autobiographical — I guess that comes more from the latter subplots than the spying stuff. It all plays out with the pace and air of an auteur drama, making it feel a bit heavy-going and possibly impenetrable in its early episodes, but I warmed to it immensely as it went along. I love traditional, genre-based spy thrillers, but it’s also nice to see something that takes elements of that but plays it with a few different flavours.

Beecham House  Series 1 Episodes 1-2
Beecham HouseIt’s been a few years since Downton Abbey ended now, so it makes sense ITV continue to search for a replica of its success. I think Victoria ticked that box for a while, until its ratings sloped off against Poldark… and so now we have Beecham House, which mixes a bit of Poldark into the familiar period soap opera mix. There’s also some pedigree behind the camera: the series is co-created, -written and -directed by Gurinder Chadha of Bend It Like Beckham fame. I think it’s meant to be vaguely educational, too, as it’s set in a period of Indian history a bit earlier than we’re familiar with from other British Raj dramas.

Well, I’m not sure how successfully any of that has translated onto the screen. Most of the main characters are white Englishmen and women, including the lead, John Beecham, a kind of Poldark-y, Indiana Jones-y figure — a former soldier who left the East India Company because he didn’t like their values. He believes India should be ruled by Indians, you see… although the current ruler is set up to be one of the series’ villains, as his suspicion of Beecham is standing in the way of our hero’s business plans. But it’s okay, because the house’s servants are all locals, and they’re a funny bunch so we like them. I guess your mileage will vary on whether the show is outright regressive or just not as progressive as it perhaps ought to be, given how they were talking it up.

But even leaving that aside, the exposition-heavy dialogue is frequently leaden and undramatic, leaving the cast floundering unsuccessfully to breathe some life into their characters. It all looks suitably lavish, thanks to copious location filming and a no-doubt-healthy costume budget, but the lack of polish where it matters will sink the programme unless it can somehow improve quickly. But then again, it is on ITV, so you never know, it might run for years and years at this level…

Line of Duty  Series 5
Line of Duty series 5Every series Line of Duty introduces us to a new case of possible police corruption for the dedicated boys and girls of AC-12 to expose, and every series it turns out to tie into the overarching tale of deep-rooted links between organised crime and a never-ending parade of bent coppers. But could they finally be getting to nub of it all? They’ve got a solid lead… and so, it seems, does their newest case: an undercover officer who seems to have gone native, but might actually be onto the top man behind it all. The real problem is, he suspects it’s good ol’ Ted Hastings, the head of AC-12 himself. Well, who better to run police corruption than the guy in charge of investigating corruption? And it forces his underlings to ask: are his borderline-illegal actions just bold moves to get the job done, or is he trying to cover for something?

So never mind “who watches the watchmen,” who watches the watchmen who watch the watchmen? Well, turns out it’s Anna Maxwell Martin, popping in for the last couple of episodes as a very by-the-book copper to interrogate the suspected mole to end all moles. Except she’s so by-the-book, so keen to catch out our one-time (and possibly still) hero, that you may wonder: who watches the watchmen who watch the watchmen who watch the watchmen? If that makes your head spin… well, that’s Line of Duty for you.

Also watched…
  • Deadwood The Movie — A feature-length one-off produced by HBO Films but airing on TV? I figure that’s as much of a film as most of Netflix’s original movies, so I’ve counted it as 2019 #95 and will review it separately later. For now, suffice to say it’s really good.
  • Glastonbury 2019 — Between living in the Westcountry and never really being big into music, Glastonbury is more something that’s liable to cause traffic and travel disruption than be a significant part of my cultural life. Nonetheless, this year I watched the headline sets from the main Pyramid Stage: Stormzy, which, er, wasn’t my kind of thing; and the Killers, which was. So that was nice. There’s tonnes of it still available on iPlayer, if you’re interested.
  • Historical Roasts Season 1 Episodes 1-2 — I’ve long nurtured the theory that British and American standup are different enough that they don’t necessarily translate well to the other audience, and this new Netflix series is doing little to dispel that notion. That said, it’s an entertaining enough concept and the results are amusing enough. Though its low scores on IMDb make me wonder if my pet theory is wrong after all…

    Things to Catch Up On
    Good OmensThis month, I have mostly been missing stuff left, right and centre due to my house move. Sorry to bring that up again, but it’s really upended my viewing schedule. Headliners include the Amazon/BBC adaptation of Good Omens — it’s one of my favourite novels, it’s adapted by one of the original authors, and it stars some of my favourite actors, so I’ve been very much looking forward to it; but because of all that I want to be able to sit down and watch it properly, and I’ve just not found the time yet. Another is the final outing for the MCU on Netflix, Jessica Jones season 3, which is perhaps blighted by the fact it’s 13 episodes long — that wasn’t a lot once upon a time, but as things trend down to 10 or 8 or even the good old UK standard of 6, it feels like more of a commitment. Other things that have been similarly afflicted include the feature-length Game of Thrones making-of, The Last Watch; film-to-TV sitcom adaptation What We Do in the Shadows (and I loved the movie, so I must get round to it); the other new sitcom starring Matt Berry, Year of the Rabbit; and Chernobyl, which I was just going to skip (there’s so much “great TV”, no one can watch it all), but the extremity of the praise it’s garnered has changed my mind on that one.

    Next month… Stranger Things 3 is out (in just a few days’ time, in fact), but I’m off on holiday, so it’ll have to wait ’til I get back.

  • Shaft (2000)

    2019 #37
    John Singleton | 99 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA & Germany / English | 18 / R

    Shaft (2000)

    With there now being another ‘reboot’ for the black private dick who’s a sex machine to all the chicks (released a couple of weeks ago in the US, and available on Netflix today in the rest of the world), I thought it was about time I got round to the first ‘reboot’ (I saw the original yonks ago, long before this blog existed). I’ve put ‘reboot’ in inverted commas both times there because, despite the unadorned titles of both the 2000 and 2019 films, both are actually continuations of the ’70s original: Samuel L. Jackson plays John Shaft II, the nephew of the original Shaft, played by Richard Roundtree, who pops by for a cameo here. Jackson and Roundtree reprise their roles again in Shaft 2019-flavour, alongside Jessie Usher as John Shaft III.

    (Would it’ve been cool if they’d actually called this Shaft 2000? I feel like it would’ve. Maybe by the year 2000 the idea of sticking 2000 on a title to make it cool/futuristic was over, I dunno, but I feel like it would’ve worked. And because they didn’t, we’ve now got three movies called simply Shaft that all exist in the same continuity. Madness.)

    Anyway, back to the first time they rebooted-but-didn’t Shaft. Jackson’s character isn’t actually a private dick, but a proper copper… that is until sleazy rich-kid Walter Wade Jr (a hot-off-American Psycho Christian Bale) literally gets away with murder, prompting Shaft Jr to go freelance to catch his man.

    A black cop frisking a rich white guy? What is this, a sci-fi movie?

    This Shaft is almost 20 years old now (obviously), and yet all the white privilege bullshit that drives its story makes it feel like it could’ve been made yesterday. (Why are you so enable to evolve societally, America?) Other than that apparently-eternal timeliness, it’s a pretty standard kinda thriller, with most of its charm coming via an array of likeable performances. As well as the reliably cool Jackson and reliably psychopathic Bale, there are memorable early-career turns from Jeffrey Wright and Toni Collette, plus Vanessa Williams as Shaft’s cop colleague who lends a hand even after he leaves the force.

    The original Shaft spawned two big-screen sequels and seven more TV movies, but there was no such future for the new incarnation: Jackson’s disappointment with the film, plus a box office performance that was regarded as mediocre (although it opened at #1 and returned over $100 million off its $46 million budget), was enough to scupper a planned follow-up… at least until this year’s reboot-that-isn’t. Reportedly that’s not so great either (with a 31% score on Rotten Tomatoes, a 6th place opening in the US, and of course going directly to Netflix everywhere else), but, given the series’ history, I wouldn’t write Shaft off just yet. After the 29-year gap between Shaft Mk.I and Shaft Mk.II, and then 19 years between Shaft Mk.II and Shaft Mk.III, maybe in 2028 we’ll be treated to a film about child detective John Shaft IV. Naturally, the film itself will just be called Shaft.

    3 out of 5

    Stalker (1979)

    aka Сталкер

    2018 #100
    Andrei Tarkovsky | 162 mins | Blu-ray | 1.37:1 | Soviet Union / Russian | PG

    Stalker

    Described by the blurb on its Criterion Collection Blu-ray release as “a metaphysical journey through an enigmatic post-apocalyptic landscape”, Stalker is… probably that… I guess…?

    Adapted from the novel Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (which, according to critic Mark Le Fanu in Criterion’s booklet, is more hardboiled pulp than artistic thinkpiece), it follows a professional ‘Stalker’ (Alexander Kaidanovsky) — someone who can enter and navigate a mysterious restricted area known only as the Zone — as he guides two latest clients, a depressed writer (Anatoly Solonitsyn) and an inquisitive professor (Nikolai Grinko), into the Zone and to the attraction at its heart: the Room, a place which is rumoured to grant a person’s innermost desires.

    That’s the plot, anyway. Considering it’s over two-and-a-half hours long and I just summarised most of the story, you know it’s About more than that. But suffice to say I didn’t get it. It’s just some blokes wandering around, being depressed, occasionally philosophising about bugger all; then the ‘stalker’ chap is depressed even more by his clients’ attitude at the end, for some reason; and then we see his kid has telepathic powers because… um… People think director Andrei Tarkovsky’s previous sci-fi film Solaris is slow and obtuse, but it’s pacy and its meaning is crystal-clear compared to Stalker. Indeed, watching this just made me want to watch Solaris again — that was a slow Soviet sci-fi I actually found thought-provoking and interesting. One inspired thought I will credit it with is the notion of what “innermost desire” actually means. We might think we know, but do we? If the Room grants, not what we choose to ask it for, but our true innermost desire, then it reveals the truth of our self to us… and we might not like what we find.

    Some blokes being depressed

    The film “resists definitive interpretation” says Geoff Dyer in a featurette on Criterion’s Blu-ray. It’s “a religious allegory, a reflection of contemporaneous political anxieties, a meditation on film itself […it] envelops the viewer by opening up a multitude of possible meanings,” adds the blurb. Oy. So is it profound or just pretentious? I think the lack of clarity — the lack of definitive interpretation — can be used as evidence for both sides. Its acclaim would suggest most think it profound, so I’m the one missing something. That’s always possible. Also, I’m always wary of calling something “pretentious” — that’s become too much of a catch-all criticism for people who don’t understand an artwork and want to blame the work itself rather than their own intellectual capabilities. So we’ll have to settle on me just not understanding it.

    Some of it does look good, at least… which is handy when long stretches of it are just staring at things in unbroken takes (there’s something like 142 shots, which is about one cut every 88 seconds). Whatever the film is or isn’t trying to say, I feel fairly certain it didn’t need to take so much time to say it.

    Equal parts Annihilation but without the exciting stuff, privileged white male angst, and flicking through a photo album of deserted urban environments at someone else’s too-slow pace — with strange dashes of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and X-Men Origins: Jean Grey for good measure — Stalker is… definitely something.

    2 out of 5

    Stalker was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2018 project.

    True Romance (1993)

    2018 #150
    Tony Scott | 121 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & France / English & Italian | 18

    True Romance

    Directed by Tony Scott from Quentin Tarantino’s first screenplay,* True Romance is pretty much everything you’d expect from an early Quentin Tarantino screenplay directed by Tony Scott. It stars Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette as a pair of Bonnie and Clyde-ish lovers, who accidentally steal a load of cocaine from her pimp and end up on the run from the mob.

    At first blush, I’d say this feels much more like a Tarantino movie than a Scott one. It’s all there in the dialogue, the subject matter, the characters — it’s everything you’d expect from early QT: verbose, funny, littered with pop culture references, violent. It’s well paced, too; not exactly whip-crack fast, but also never slow or draggy. It is shot more like a Scott flick than a QT one, but only somewhat — it lacks both the slick flashiness we associate with Scott’s early work (Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop II) and the grungy hyper-editing of his later stuff (Man on Fire, Domino). That said, some scenes (like one between Arquette and James Gandolfini’s underboss in a motel room, for example) are shot like Tony Scott to the nines, reiterating my opening point.

    Other observations: There’s one helluva supporting cast — it’s just littered with famous names in roles that only last a scene or two. (I could list them, but that might spoil the fun.) The sweet plinky-plonky score by Hans Zimmer is so unlike either his normal stuff or this genre of movie, which is no bad thing. On its original release the film was cut by about two minutes to get an R rating, with the original cut eventually released “unrated” on home formats, sometimes labelled the “director’s cut”. All the differences are relatively short trims to do with violence (full details here). The “director’s cut” is the only one that’s ever been released on DVD or Blu-ray anywhere, thus making the distinction between “theatrical” or “director’s cut” pretty much moot at this point… or at any point in the last 20 years, frankly.

    Clarence and Alabama go to the movies

    It’s got a funny old trailer, too: it’s centred around a bunch of made-up numbers that have no basis in the film (“60 cops, 40 agents, 30 mobsters”), it mostly features the film’s climax, and it doesn’t once mention Quentin Tarantino — I guess “from the writer of Reservoir Dogs” wasn’t considered a selling point just the year after it came out. (Though obviously it was in the UK — just see the poster atop this review.)

    Of course, nowadays it’s often regarded as “a Tarantino movie” — the copy I own is part of the Tarantino XX Blu-ray set, for instance. I wonder if that ‘divided authorship’ is why, while the film does have it’s fans, it’s not widely talked about as much as some of either man’s other work: it’s not wholly a Tony Scott film, but, without QT actually behind the camera, it’s not really a Tarantino one either. Personally, I’m a fan of both men’s work, so of course it was up my alley. I don’t think it’s the best from either of them, but mixing together the distinct styles of two such trend-setting iconoclasts does produce a unique blend.

    4 out of 5

    True Romance was viewed as part of my Blindspot 2018 project.

    * True Romance came out between Reservoir Dogs and Natural Born Killers, but apparently QT wrote this first, then when he failed to get funding for it he wrote NBK, then when he also failed to sell that he wrote Reservoir Dogs. Another version says True Romance and NBK started out as one huge movie, written in Tarantino’s familiar chapter-based non-chronological style, until QT and his friend Roger Avery realised just how long it was and decided to divide it in two. ^