Review Roundup

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In today’s round-up:

  • Snoopy and Charlie Brown: The Peanuts Movie (2015)
  • 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (2016)
  • Young Frankenstein (1974)


    Snoopy and Charlie Brown:
    The Peanuts Movie

    (2015)

    aka The Peanuts Movie

    2017 #25
    Steve Martino | 84 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | U / G

    Snoopy and Charlie Brown: The Peanuts Movie

    Charles M. Schulz’s popular comic strip hits the big screen in this likeable but hardly Pixar-level movie. Much of it plays like a series of shorts or sketches with a connected theme rather than a feature-length narrative — kind of like binge-watching a cartoon series — but they’re pleasant enough. There are some good gags (“Leo’s Toy Store by Warren Piece”), though the saccharine ending is a bit much and the pop songs are terrible. One review described Snoopy as “Peanuts’ Tyler Durden”, which is a thought that entertained me even more than the film.

    The most notable aspect is the animation style. Schulz’s strips have a distinct 2D style, but the movie is animated in 3D, presumably because you’re not allowed to make a Western kids’ movie with 2D animation anymore. Nonetheless, most of The Peanuts Movie is composed to emulate Schulz’s original strips, i.e. quite flatly — like, you know, 2D. And yet, somehow… Well, The Telegraph’s Robbie Collin summarised it well in his review: “Written down, [the animation style] just sounds chaotic, like a four-way mash-up of South Park, The Clangers, Wallace & Gromit and a flip book. But in motion, it’s a thing of serious, faux-artisanal beauty”. That might be going a bit far, but I did end up kinda liking the visuals. It’s quite a clever style for 3D, mixing in many 2D-ish touches. It should probably be a mess, but it weirdly works.

    3 out of 5

    13 Hours:
    The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

    (2016)

    2017 #40
    Michael Bay | 139 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

    The not-at-all-controversial events in the Libyan town of Benghazi on 11th September 2012 are here dramatised by that master of subtlety and understated reality, director Michael Bay, so you know you’re going to get a considered and truthful account of events.

    Yeah, most of that opening paragraph is completely facetious. Bay takes a real-life gunfight, in which a secret mercenary security team went against orders (possibly) to defend an American diplomatic compound that was under assault, and turns it into a blazing action movie that may as well be scored with the theme from Team America: World Police. If it was Bay’s goal to convey the sheer confusion on the ground in the midst of the situation, I guess he’s done a bang-up job. The problem is, that confusion extends to bits where the characters seem to have some idea what’s going on, but we’re left half in the dark.

    Having Bay be reined in after the excess of his Transformers movies is no bad thing, but being completely constrained by reality is not his strong suit either — the heightened reality of something like The Rock is where he excels.

    If you’re interested in a longer read on the film’s adherence (or otherwise) to reality, this article at Vox is interesting.

    3 out of 5

    Young Frankenstein
    (1974)

    2017 #46
    Mel Brooks | 106 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | PG* / PG

    Young Frankenstein

    I have mixed feelings about the work of Mel Brooks. I reviewed his Hitchcock spoof, High Anxiety, back in 2009 and found it wanting. I reviewed his Robin Hood spoof, Men in Tights, earlier this year and found it uncomplicated but enjoyable. When I was a kid I liked his Star Wars spoof, Spaceballs, but on a slightly-more-adult rewatch I enjoyed it less. And as for Blazing Saddles, regarded by some as one of the pinnacles of screen comedy… no, I didn’t like it. At all. I so didn’t like it that I really must rewatch it to see if I can see what I didn’t see.

    Young Frankenstein was released the same year as Blazing Saddles, and is placed on a similar pedestal by many — slightly higher, on the whole (Frankenstein edges it by a few points on IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes, and Metacritic). It’s quite remarkable that Brooks managed to produce two such esteemed movies within the same year. At least I liked one of them.

    Young Frankenstein has many funny lines and moments, including a lot of familiar Brooksisms (“walk this way”) and, in the Puttin’ on the Ritz number, perhaps one of the funniest sequences ever committed to film. The films being spoofed (Universal’s classic monster movies) are evoked well, in particular with the potent black and white cinematography, but Brooks also lets things spiral off in their own direction when warranted. On the downside, I’d say it’s a little too long.

    Don’t take that criticism too seriously, though. I enjoyed it very much.

    4 out of 5

    * Hilariously, in 1987 the BBFC thought it should be rated 15. It wasn’t downgraded to the much more sensible PG until 2000. ^

  • 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)

    Featured

    2016 #180
    Dan Trachtenberg | 104 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    10 Cloverfield Lane

    After Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is in a car crash, she awakens in a basement chained to a wall. Her captor, Howard (John Goodman), tells her he’s saved her life: a massive attack has taken place and they, along with an acquaintance of Howard’s called Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.), are in Howard’s self-built bunker to hide from the deadly fallout. But Michelle only has Howard’s word as evidence these attacks happened at all, or that their aftermath is lethal, and can he be trusted?

    For most of its running time, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a good psychological puzzle. Michelle has little choice but to trust her captor(s) / quarantine-mates and little chance to investigate the truth for herself, try as she might. I must say I never felt a particularly palpable sense of tension, despite the varied and regularly renewed attempts to make Goodman a threat, but it nonetheless works as a characterful mystery-driven single-location thriller. And then…

    We’ve all read reviews where a critic (or blogger!) will write something like, “it would benefit from being 10 minutes shorter”. That sounds very precise and therefore clever, but it’s really a number plucked from thin air. No one who’s written a sentence like that has actually sat down with a film, noted all the bits they’d cut, added them up, and then presented that total in their review. It is, at best, intuition (at worst, it’s random and thoughtless). However, with 10 Cloverfield Lane I can say exactly how much needs to be cut: 9 minutes and 10 seconds. To be exact, those’d be the 9 minutes and 10 seconds between a (spoilery) revelation and the credits rolling.

    Roomies

    There’s no need to go into detail here — if you’ve not seen the film it’s a massive spoiler; if you have, you surely know what I’m talking about. This climax feels wholly unnecessary and like it belongs in a totally different movie. Tonally, and in terms of the main plot points that drive the story, it has absolutely nothing to do with the movie we’ve just watched. If you cut that bit out, it wouldn’t make the rest of the film any less satisfying. And because it’s so unnecessary, I found it intensely irritating.

    The bulk of 10 Cloverfield Lane is a very solid contained psychological thriller, undoubtedly deserving a strong 4-star rating. Then the final ten minutes happens. It’s so misjudged, in my opinion, that it overshadows what’s come before, to the point that I’ve taken a whole star off my rating.

    3 out of 5

    Our Kind of Traitor (2016)

    2016 #191
    Susanna White | 108 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & France / English, Russian & French | 15 / R

    Our Kind of Traitor

    Based on a John le Carré novel, Our Kind of Traitor sees a couple of holidaying Brits, Perry and Gail MacKendrick (Ewan McGregor and Naomie Harris), befriending a Russian chap called Dima (Stellan Skarsgård), who it turns out has links to the Mafia and wants our hapless heroes to deliver an information-filled USB stick to British intelligence. As MI6 (primarily represented by Damian Lewis) seek to act on the information, the MacKendricks get drawn into the espionage game thanks to their relationship with Dima.

    Some of Traitor’s detractors have a problem with it right from the off, finding the premise to be inherently ridiculous. I disagree. In fact, I think it’s quite a good plan on Dima’s part: to use an unsuspected casual acquaintance to smuggle important documents to the authorities. The way the MacKendricks continue to be involved does wind up stretching credibility, but that’s narrative structure for you — it’d be a real trick to construct a satisfying relay of perspective characters.

    If anyone could pull that off it’s probably Le Carré, but this is not his most complicated plot — there are even less twists or double-crosses than you’re probably expecting — but as a tense thriller it satisfies often enough. However, Le Carré as author, plus screenwriter Hossein Amini and director Susanna White, seem to be more interested in the story’s real-world resonances. They’re using a thriller plot to bring up the kind of probably-genuine corruption we get in government today. On the one hand it feels a little obvious, especially to those of certain political leanings, but on the other it’s worth highlighting. An impassioned speech by Damian Lewis to some of his superiors sums it up, probably rather too neatly for some discerning critics.

    British intelligence

    Lewis is always good value, both in scenes like that and in his tentative partnership with McGregor. Although the MacKendricks are our point-of-view characters, the innocent normal people we should relate to, McGregor’s Perry is ultimately a little flat and Harris is underused. The real star is Skarsgård as the gregarious and foul-mouthed Russian banker, who is by turns unsettlingly dangerous and engagingly likeable. Or perhaps it’s the beautiful cinematography by DP Anthony Dod Mantle — the varied international locations are particularly effective at adding scale to a story that’s really about the personal interactions of four or five people.

    Our Kind of Traitor is not the very best Le Carré adaptation, especially given the increasing number we’re being treated to these days, but it’s still a reasonably engrossing thriller with something to say about contemporary geopolitics.

    4 out of 5

    Space Jam (1996)

    2017 #76
    Joe Pytka | 84 mins | TV | 16:9 | USA / English | U / PG

    Space Jam

    Space Jam is one of those movies that everyone of my generation seems to have seen, and many of them have fond childhood memories of it too. I remember when it came out. I pretty thoroughly dismissed it at the time, because I had no interest in basketball (partly because I’m British — I was baffled anyone else over here cared at all), and not much more interest in the Looney Tunes characters either, to be honest. Plus it just looked silly. And not in a good way. But, as I say, everyone else seems to have seen it, so I thought “why not?” and taped it off the telly one day. (Well, I didn’t tape it — no one uses tape anymore, do they? Recorded it. DVR’d it. TiVo’d it. Whatevs.) Then, one night when my critical faculties were feeling like they didn’t want to be challenged with anything too worthy of my time, I decided to bung it on — and learnt that I was right in the first place.

    For those who’ve managed to avoid awareness of this movie, it stars Michael Jordan as Michael Jordan, the basketball player, who ends up being recruited by Bugs Bunny and co to teach them how to play basketball so they can beat a group of aliens who want to kidnap them. I would say “it makes sense in the film”, but it doesn’t make much more sense.

    Not even Bill Murray can save this movie

    A plausible plot is not a prerequisite for an entertaining kids’ movie, but Space Jam provides nothing in its place. It is joyless. Not funny. Not clever. It’s just flat. The concept of character is nonexistent — no one has an arc. It wastes time on a subplot about a bunch of players who aren’t Michael Jordan. (I say “wastes time” — the whole thing’s a waste of time.) Bill Murray turns up for no apparent reason — did he need the money? Does he really love basketball? I don’t know. He brings some small joy just by being him. Elsewhere, there’s a grand total of one funny line.

    Even on a technical level, the animation and live-action interaction isn’t all that good. So much of it is obviously just Michael Jordan on a green screen, looking around himself at thin air which some animators filled in. It’s perhaps a little smoother around the edges than Roger Rabbit (which was released eight years earlier), but it lacks that film’s class and tactile sense that the live-action and animation are genuinely interacting, which is more important than computer-aided precision.

    You may have seen earlier this week that a list was released of “Must See Movies Before You Grow Up”, aiming to list the 50 films every child should see by the age of 11. Space Jam was on it. So was Home. Over half the list came from this millennium, a third from the past seven years. There’s lots of good stuff on there but, yeah, I think I’m going to ignore it. Like I suggest you should ignore Space Jam.

    1 out of 5

    Moonlight (2016)

    2017 #83
    Barry Jenkins | 111 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Moonlight

    Oscar statue2017 Academy Awards
    8 nominations — 3 wins

    Won: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay.
    Nominated: Best Supporting Actress, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Score.

    Last year’s (eventual) Best Picture winner could pithily be described as “Boyhood with a black kid”, and I’m sure it has been plenty of times, but that does a disservice to Moonlight’s own unique qualities.

    That said, it’s not difficult to draw obvious comparisons between the two. Both follow the lives of an American boy as he grows up across a decade-and-a-bit. Whereas Boyhood was shot in real-time with the same actor, Moonlight drops in on its central character, Chiron, at ages 11 (played by Alex Hibbert), 17 (Ashton Sanders), and 25 (Trevante Rhodes). Both films see the lead trying to figure out his place in the world, while also dealing with an absent father, surrogate father figures, and a mother often preoccupied with her own problems. But whereas Boyhood frequently felt like a ramshackle collection of vignettes that together created a loose portrait of a childhood, Moonlight is a bit more focused: Chiron is both bullied and gay, and how he deals with these things gives a shape to the narrative that Boyhood seemed to lack.

    Much of the credit for creating that smooth storyline belongs… well, with writer-director Barry Jenkins, of course (and at this juncture I must shoehorn in a mention of his charming Criterion closet video — if you didn’t love the guy before, I’m sure you will after watching that). But it also belongs with the three actors playing Chiron, who not only chart his development over time, but also make him a highly relatable protagonist in a very subtle way. The connection the viewer builds with him comes from the understated power of their acting — at all ages, Chiron expresses a lot without saying much, which only serves to draw us closer to him as we feel like we understand him nonetheless.

    Boyhood

    The quality of the performances from Hibbert, Sanders, and Rhodes is only emphasised when you learn that the three actors never met, never rehearsed together, never even watched each other’s work. That makes it all the more remarkable that they share something — in their eyes, or the way they hold themselves, or the hesitancy with which they connect to other people. It’s especially apparent in Rhodes: at first his version of Chiron seems completely different to the earlier two, but then we realise that’s just a front, and the real Chiron he’s buried comes to the fore when he reconnects with an old friend. From that point, he’s so like Hibbert and Sanders that it’s almost uncanny.

    Another thing the film handles with admirable subtly is the time jumps. Numerous subplots continue across all three sections, but rather than bluntly spell out what’s changed between each, Jenkins lets us infer it; and because we’re only getting a snapshot each time, some of these arcs (in particular that of Chiron’s mother, played by Naomie Harris) are contained as much in the gaps of what we’re shown as they are in what’s actually presented on screen. That we can pick up on what’s happened off screen is as much a tribute to Jenkins and his cast as is the quality of what we do see. And although the characters may change and develop off screen, what we witness each time is almost like the inciting incident that leads (in)directly to the next part of the story — the effects of actions are magnified over time, and the jumps mean you go directly from where something begins to where it ends up.

    Boys to men

    In telling the story of a young gay black man, Moonlight is exposing a world and lifestyle that’s not seen much, or at all, in (mainstream) cinema — that is, being black and gay. Or just being gay, really. Or black, to an extent. There’s an inherent positivity in getting such untold stories out into the open. Nonetheless, there’s a certain universality to Chiron’s experience. Lest one thinks that’s just a straight white guy trying to make everything relate to him (and I’ve seen others be accused of such appropriation), Jenkins observes it too in the film’s Blu-ray extras. A film doesn’t need that element of recognisability — there’s nothing wrong with illuminating a lesser-seen facet of the world; depicting a unique life experience — but Moonlight’s shy love story speaks across boundaries of race, gender, and sexual orientation.

    5 out of 5

    Moonlight is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today.

    New Tale of Zatoichi (1963)

    aka Shin Zatôichi monogatari

    2017 #75
    Tokuzô Tanaka | 92 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

    New Tale of Zatoichi

    With studio Daiei apparently realising they had a potential long-running series on their hands, blind masseur cum roving wrong-righter Ichi (Shintarô Katsu) makes his colour debut in this third film. Despite the obvious visual change, New Tale picks up on plot threads from the previous film, concluding a trilogy of sorts that spans the series’ first three instalments.

    Two strands from Ichi’s past come forth to challenge him this time: as he’s hunted by the brother of a villain he killed in the previous film, Ichi runs into the master who trained him to be a sword fighter, Banno (Seizaburô Kawazu). Desperate for money, Banno has fallen in with a criminal gang, while also trying to marry his younger sister, Yayoi (Mikiko Tsubouchi), to a respectable samurai — but Yayoi has feelings for Ichi.

    Where the first Zatoichi sequel was faster and more action orientated, New Tale takes a slower, character-driven tone. Ichi is pulled in multiple emotional directions, most of which he keeps stoically buried, but we can still interpret them from Katsu’s nuanced performance. The most forefront theme is violence and the honour of it: Ichi vows to renounce those ways to marry Yayoi, while Banno is betraying them with his greedy actions — and naturally those two are going to come into conflict. It makes for a sombre film, that doesn’t come to a happy conclusion.

    Family dynamics

    Although this is the first colour Zatoichi, director Tokuzô Tanaka keeps the palette muted throughout, but this is particularly obvious at the end: after Ichi gives in to his old ways, the final shot is practically in black and white, like the previous two films — perhaps a visual indicator of our hero’s return to, or acceptance of, his previous position. Although this dull colour scheme means New Tale isn’t the most vibrantly exciting film visually, it’s compositionally strong, making appropriate use of the wide frame. It’s interesting to note that Tanaka was previously an assistant director on such acclaimed masterpieces as Rashomon, Ugetsu Monogatari, and Sanshô Dayû, so I guess he picked up a thing or two.

    As Ichi hits the road again at the end (I don’t think it counts as a spoiler that he doesn’t ultimately settle down), it feels a little like an origin story has been completed, setting Ichi off on a path ready for standalone adventures. That said, according to the liner notes that accompany Criterion’s Blu-ray release, audiences “became increasingly starved” for details of Ichi’s past as the series went on, so I guess some people weren’t satiated.

    I don’t think New Tale is quite the equal of the first film, which seems the purest execution of the character as yet, but its thoughtfulness in engaging with the emotional effects of a violent life mark it out as a step above the second movie.

    4 out of 5

    The Past Month on TV #18

    One-third of it has happened again…

    Twin Peaks (Season 3 Episodes 1-6)
    Twin Peaks season 3 UK posterWhen the return of Twin Peaks was announced with the tagline “it is happening again”, I think everyone assumed it was, at worst, just an echo of one of the series’ famous lines which happened to worked well for a revival; or, at best, an indicator to the plot — that the strange, sometimes otherworldly events of the original series were about to reoccur. As it’s turned out, perhaps what the tagline is most applicable to is the series’ effect: 27 years ago, Twin Peaks pushed new boundaries for what could be done on television, and the medium as a whole spent a couple of decades catching up. Now, rather than merely return to what he did all those years ago, as most revivals do, co-writer/director David Lynch is once again pushing at the boundaries of what’s possible or acceptable on mainstream(-ish) television. If “it” is “David Lynch being way beyond everybody else”, then it is indeed happening again. If you were after a comforting pile of references, callbacks, reflections, and imitations of the original series, you’re going to be disappointed — as one or two critics have been. If you were after something new in the weird world of Twin Peaks, well, step on up.

    Before the series aired, Lynch said that prequel movie Fire Walk with Me would be important to understanding what’s going on. As much as it’s possible to understand what’s going on in the new Twin Peaks, that’s very true — there’s a ton of stuff touched on that wasn’t part of the series. Tonally, too, this is much more aligned with the movie: there’s a brand-new murder investigation; it’s set largely outside of Twin Peaks itself; and some of the biggest moments are based more around emotional resonance than strict storytelling necessity. It’s also sometimes reminiscent of The Missing Pieces, or what Fire Walk with Me would’ve been if they had remained included, as it shoots off on scene-long tangents that don’t seem to connect up to anything else. Some people are assuming it will all make sense and come together eventually, but based on how many of those Missing Pieces went nowhere, I’m not convinced it will.

    Evil CoopIt’s also been widely reported that Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost wrote a single 400- or 500-page screenplay, shot it all, then chopped it up into 18 episodes in the edit. This I can very much believe. Individual episodes are almost shapeless as hours of television, and plot threads disappear for several episodes at a time, only to crop back up as if we’d never been away. While many series these days boast they are “actually an X-hour movie”, they still often function as individual episodes — they may not be completely standalone, but the shape of each hour, the way they’re paced and build to a cliffhanger, and so on, is episodic. Twin Peaks, however, feels like it means it — no doubt the legacy of Lynch’s production methodology.

    Because of this, it feels tailor-made for binge-watching, except Lynch himself requested that it be released weekly, reportedly because he didn’t want to spend three years making something only for people to polish it off in a weekend. I can understand that position, but given the pace of the series, I can’t help but feel it would be better binged. When it’s over, a lot of viewers are going to remember the Dougie Jones material as a long, slow trudge, possibly putting it on a par with some of the worse plotlines from the middle of season two, and that would be ameliorated slightly if it could be consumed across a few consecutive hours rather than several weeks (or, possibly, months). Of course, I’m not sure Lynch cares about that. He may be planning something different altogether. What that plan is, maybe we’ll never even know.

    Damn good coffeeSome five-and-a-half hours into this 18-hour movie, Dougie hands his boss a stack of files. The boss slowly looks through them one by one, baffled by the seemingly senseless doodles Dougie has scrawled all over the pages. But after a while he begins to see a pattern, and comes to understand something. In the end he thanks Dougie. Dougie, as ever, looks blank, before doing a failed imitation of being a normal human being. Is Lynch deliberately setting out to say that he is Dougie and we are Dougie’s boss? That all of us are taking a long, slow look at Lynch’s indecipherable doodlings until we eventually discern some meaning. Or is it just a scene in Lynch’s world that we can coincidentally project that interpretation on to? As ever with David Lynch, I’m not quite sure.

    Doctor Who (Series 10 Episodes 6-9)
    Doctor Who series 10 part 2Well, I suppose it was too much to hope it would last. The most consistently great season of Doctor Who in over half a decade threw it all away with a frustratingly variable trilogy of stories (note: not a three-parter — this pedantic old-school Who fan insists we observe the difference). It all began with Extremis, which starts strong with a decent mystery (there’s a book in the Vatican library that causes anyone who reads it to commit suicide) and some good humour (Bill’s interrupted date), but increasingly becomes a lot of running around to delay the reveal. It’s a non-story pretending to be a story, basically. I don’t even care that it basically has an “and it was all a dream” ending. In fact, writer Steven Moffat found a way to make “and it was all a dream” work, which is a rare and miraculous thing. But the episode that leads to that ending doesn’t do enough heavy lifting to support it. A waste.

    That leads, sort of, into The Pyramid at the End of the World, where the Monks — who were technically the villains in Extremis — actually commence their invasion of Earth. This is where the trilogy is most clearly a trilogy rather than a three-parter: Extremis is a prologue to Pyramid, not a vital component of it. Again, it’s a frustratingly imperfect episode, with some ideas landing very well and others feeling hurried or ill thought through. Like, it’s neat that the Doctor’s hubris in hiding his blindness ultimately becomes his (and everyone else’s) downfall, but the hoops the show has to jump through to make this work get in the way.

    That leads to The Lie of the Land, which could justifiably be classed as part two of a two-parter — Pyramid ends with a direct cliffhanger, Lie deals with it, albeit in an atypical way because it’s now months later and there’s a new set of problems. It suffers from the same problems as the first two instalments, however, in that it’s regularly disingenuous. The opening act, with Bill and Nardole attempting to rescue the Doctor, who’s working with the Monks, feels like a massive sequence designed to provide some shocking moments for the trailer — again, the internal logic is not completely wrong, but is slightly off. Same with the “love conquers all” ending. It’s a potentially powerful message, but the episode doesn’t invest enough in making it work. It also squanders the successful invasion / 1984-esque dystopian world it sets up, which is a pity because I don’t imagine Who will re-attempt the same milieu anytime soon.

    So, it’s a run of three almost-there episodes, which sadly undercuts the quality displayed in the first five episodes. They’re not bad per se, but they’re wasteful. Though, that said, I’ve developed a strong dislike for Extremis after some people went head-over-heels for it. No. It’s not good.

    I only speak the truth

    Finally this month, Mark Gatiss writes for the series for the ninth (and possibly final — we’ll see) time in Empress of Mars. I like the Ice Warriors; I don’t dislike Gatiss’ episodes in the way some people seem to — I’d say he’s more-or-less 50/50 on really good ones / not very good ones. Empress basically straddles that divide. There’s strong imagery with the Victorian soldiers on Mars, and the seeds of some nice thematic material in issues of honour and cowardice, and what actually characterises either. Unfortunately they’re not allowed to grow properly, the episode wasting time on silly business like the TARDIS flying off for no reason when it should be developing the Victorian soldiers beyond shallow archetypes. Like the three episodes before it, it feels like the necessary time wasn’t devoted to polishing these episodes; to making all the decent ideas they exhibit coalesce in the most effective way possible. It’s a shame.

    Still, the season isn’t a write-off yet. These four episodes may have underwhelmed, but there are promising ideas to come in the remaining three instalments.

    The Kettering Incident (Season 1)
    The Kettering IncidentIn a remote small logging town where everybody knows everybody else, a teenage girl, who’s secretly into drugs and partying and is the daughter of a prominent local man, goes missing under mysterious circumstances in the creepy woods, which have a history of possibly-supernatural strangeness… Yes, this is the Australian answer to Twin Peaks — a comparison I have perhaps unfairly amped up with that description. It’s more about Anna Macy (The Night Manager’s Elizabeth Debicki), a London doctor who has been getting strange black outs since she was a child, when she lived in Kettering and her best friend disappeared after they saw mysterious lights in the woods — the “incident” of the title, in which some believe the other girl was abducted by aliens. Now she’s returned home and, as one character literally says (as a deliberate or accidental homage to Peaks, I’m not sure), “it’s happening again.”

    Sadly, The Kettering Incident lacks the quirky charm of classic Twin Peaks, but neither does it have the balls to be as bold as the new one. (I’m not sure anyone bar David Lynch has those balls, so perhaps that’s an unfair comparison too.) It’s more like The X Files crossed with Top of the Lake — both series I enjoyed, but not on the same level as Peaks. (Well, maybe X Files was in its prime. I need to watch it more thoroughly, to be honest.) Where Peaks started out looking like a small-town murder mystery and gradually mixed in undeniably fantastical elements, Kettering has them in from the start, with the UFO stuff. Will that be explained away by something normal and earthly? Well… that’d spoil it. Though it’s worth noting that, despite looking like a miniseries, Kettering is nothing of the sort: it ends with some answers, but even more questions, and it’s clear a further season (or, according to some sources, two) is needed to actually explain everything.

    Stranger thingsPersonally, I want to know what the hell is meant to be going on, but the finale felt a lot like weak sci-fi to me and I’m not sure the answers will be worth it. I have that same hot/cold feel about the series as a whole: whenever it’s actually in front of my eyes I become engrossed, invested, and enamoured; but within hours of it finishing I feel a kind of indifference creep in. I can’t really explain why. It’s probably not a fair reaction.

    Not a glowing recommendation, then. However, if you’re looking for something else that plays in Twin Peaks’ tonal ballpark, although it’s surely just a pretender to the throne, there are certainly worse.

    (As a side note, it’s brought to my attention that Tasmanian Gothic is a thing. Colour me intrigued.)

    Also watched…
  • Arrow Season 5 Episodes 21-23 / The Flash Season 3 Episodes 21-23 — oh no, Barry Allen’s trapped in the Speed Force and most of the cast of Arrow died (off screen)! How will either show be able to go on without such major characters?! (Or: why bother with cliffhangers that are so extreme they can’t possibly stick? Though they may actually be planning some kind of cull on Arrow, considering the cast is now so large that they can’t afford to have every regular in every episode.)
  • Cowboy Bebop Season 1 Episodes 23-26 — as news comes in that the US remake is moving ahead for TV, I’ve finally finished the original series. Now to make time for the movie.
  • General Election 2017 — quite unplanned, I ended up watching election coverage for 25 hours straight (well, with breaks for a couple of hours’ sleep, and just one or two other things). I’m not sure I learned much I couldn’t’ve got by just reading updates every few hours, mind.
  • Grantchester Series 3 Episodes 4-6 — in which the lead character almost resigns from his job because it won’t let him be with the woman he loves, but ultimately chooses the job over her because how else are they going to have a fourth series?
  • Jamestown Series 1 Episodes 2-3 — not bad, but I didn’t find it especially compelling either. As noted last time, the writing was the problem. With so much stuff to watch nowadays, it wasn’t worth another five hours of my time.
  • The Persuaders! Series 1 Episodes 1-5 — they don’t make ’em like this anymore! They should though, because it’s such fun. RIP Messrs Moore & Curtis.

    Things to Catch Up On
    Poldark series 3This month, I have mostly been missing the start of the third series of Poldark. Well, I’ve not even watched series two yet. I also still haven’t started American Gods, the finale of which is here on Monday. I guess that can go on the finished-and-ready-to-binge pile beside Westworld and Legion (and goodness knows what else), then.

    Next month… as if TV wasn’t crazy enough right now, Preacher’s back. Plus: The Americans season five.

  • Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made (2016)

    2016 #162
    Tim Skousen & Jeremy Coon | 93 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English

    Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made

    You may have heard about this: in 1982, a group of teenagers decided to remake Raiders of the Lost Ark shot for shot, starring themselves. It was a project that ended up filling their whole adolescence, filming scenes here and there every summer for years. Decades later, their amateur recreation (known nowadays as Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation) was uncovered by director Eli Roth, who passed it to Harry Knowles to screen at a film festival he organises, and it began to gain cult notoriety. Eventually, that new appreciation led to the guys reuniting in an attempt to crowdfund production of the one scene they were never able to shoot originally. This documentary tells the stories of both the original production and the attempt to complete it.

    It’s a great tale, but unfortunately it’s told in a really sloppily made documentary. The narrative is a complete jumble — it jumps in and out of stories all over the place, getting distracted by something else before looping back around. Exposition and setup are bungled, leaving the viewer constantly playing catch-up and trying to piece things together. It throws in general observations mid-film that really belong in an introduction or conclusion. It goes back and forth in time at will — presumably someone thought they’d structured it to tell the parallel stories of the original project and the 2014 shoot, but the editing isn’t clear enough to support that structure. Interviews are cut to shreds, leaving soundbite-sized snippets that often fade out while the person’s still talking, just moving away without letting them finish.

    Some people never grow up...

    As a viewer, you endure all of this because the underlying story is so good, but there’s a better film to be made here — one that tells the story more clearly, that better draws out the characters of the people involved, the psychology of what they’re doing, and any latent thematic points too. I mean, what these guys did is extraordinary in its dedication, but it’s also completely bizarre. Why did they start it? What does it say about them, or their lives, or maybe even the human condition? And it does say something, I’d wager — you can almost glimpse it around the edges and in the corners of the documentary, but it rarely comes close to actually exploring it. There is a section on the kids’ shitty home lives — that’s something they all seemed to share — and how the Raiders project was a refuge. At this point the editing calms down and it’s briefly very good. If the whole film had displayed that same clarity, it would merit a higher rating.

    As it stands, Raiders! has a brilliant story to tell, meaning it’s worth watching to learn about that, but I yearned for it to be told better.

    3 out of 5

    Mr. Nobody (2009)

    2016 #192
    Jaco Van Dormael | 156 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Belgium, Canada, France & Germany / English | 15 / R

    Mr. Nobody

    Jared Leto stars in this sci-fi drama about the last mortal on Earth reflecting on his life… or is it lives? Essentially, the film is an explanation or exploration of scientific theories realised as a character drama, using a nonlinear narrative to mix and contrast different timelines and realities. For some, this makes it a very confusing movie.

    That said, if you get the theories behind it, I don’t think it’s an especially complex film at all. It can’t be understood as a linear story with a singular chain of cause-and-effect, but if you let that narrative shape go then I don’t think it’s hard to follow the multiple permutations it presents. What is tricky is gleaning any point from them. We see all the paths Leto’s Nemo could have chosen… but which does he choose? All of them? None of them? Is it immaterial which he picks? Maybe that’s the point — any number of things can happen to us in our lives, any number of little choices can lead us in fantastically different directions, and ultimately we have no control over any of it. Free will is an illusion, etc. Maybe, to put it in Disney terms, we just need to let it go. Or… not?

    Based on online comments, Mr. Nobody is a very divisive film: some people absolutely adore it (I’ve seen the word “perfect” thrown around a surprising amount), while others think it’s an empty experience, all talk and no walk. I certainly wouldn’t agree with the former, but I think it’s thought-provoking enough to be more than the latter.

    4 out of 5

    The Saint’s Return (1953)

    aka The Saint’s Girl Friday

    2016 #154
    Seymour Friedman | 65 mins | download | 4:3 | UK / English

    The Saint's Return

    Long-time readers may remember I reviewed all eight of RKO’s Saint films back in 2012. That series ended amidst an argument over rights (and they replaced it with the ever-so-similar Falcon series, which I also reviewed), but a decade later this continuation movie happened. I wasn’t even aware it existed until it was brought to my attention in the comments on another film. It’s technically not part of the same series (it was made years later by Hammer, believe it or not) so it’s harder to come by, but eventually I tracked it down… as a download that was clearly sourced from a VHS (it even lost tracking at one point!) that was quite possibly recorded off the telly.

    The story sees Simon Templar, aka the Saint, rushing back to England to help a friend, but she’s killed in suspicious circumstances before he arrives. Investigating her death, Templar finds she was indebted to the River Gang, and sets about bringing them down.

    The Saint, with a girl

    Although this was made years after the RKO films and by a different studio, it’s not a reboot or remake. Even allowing for those terms having become more applicable recently than they probably were in the ’50s, The Saint’s Return actually seems to be making a concerted effort to appear connected to the earlier series: near the start there’s a small scene where Inspector Fernack, the Saint’s regular nemesis/ally in the NYPD, acknowledges that Templar has left for England, which serves no purpose other than to suggest a connection to the other films. It’s even shot in a way that’s reminiscent of the older films (though, I don’t know, had low-budget studio filmmaking changed much in the intervening decade?)

    That said, there are changes: the Saint is now an American, for no particular reason, and it’s more serious than I remember the other films being; but that might be my memory being clouded by the Falcon films, which were similar but lighter. In a rare feat for these movies, it managed to trick me with a plot twist, as I incorrectly guessed who secretive villain ‘The Chief’ would turn out to be. That’s either an achievement or a sign of me underestimating the film just because it’s old and cheap…

    The Saint, with another girl

    Taking the lead role is Louis Hayward, who originated the Saint on screen fifteen years earlier in RKO’s first film, The Saint in New York. He only played the role once before, but nonetheless makes a convincing return here. The rest of the cast includes Britain’s answer to Marilyn Monroe, Diana Dors, whose charms haven’t dated, and a minor role for one Russell Enoch — aka William Russell, who’d go on to find fame in the title role of the BBC’s The Adventures of Sir Lancelot, before ensuring his screen immortality as one of the original leads in Doctor Who.

    Still, there’s more to The Saint’s Return than before-they-were-famous star-spotting. Although it seems to be the black sheep of the Saint film family, it’s actually a pretty good little thriller. Indeed, there were definitely worse films in the series proper. I’m not going to quite stretch to four stars for it but, for fans of the series, it’s worth tracking down.

    3 out of 5