The Random Mid-Monthly Review for Valentine’s Day 2020

Roses are red,
Violets are blue,
I’m a blogger not a poet,
Though I did do a Creative Writing degree with a poetry component, which I don’t think I was the greatest at, but, you know, not all poetry has to rhyme…
But it’s better when it do.

Hello, dear readers. It’s been a while since my last post, but I don’t have any reviews banked ready to go, so here’s a random mid-month update. (Normally the 14th would be right smack in the middle of February, but of course I would end up doing this on a leap year. Still, it’s near enough.)

How you doing? You good? Awesome.

Me? Well, after the back half of last year was sent into relative disarray by house moves and whatnot (just look at this graph from my 2019 statistics to see how up-and-down the year was from June onwards), 2020 is off to a similarly bumpy beginning as I spend my time hunting around for a new job. Also, more directly related to film viewing, much of my DVD/Blu-ray collection remains in boxes as we shelve out The Library. Oh yes, I’m going to have a DVD/Blu-ray library. (Photos when it’s done, I’m sure.) Not that there’s a shortage of stuff I could be watching, what with Netflix and Amazon Prime; plus I currently have Now TV (for the Oscars); and there’s always new releases, both at home and at the cinema (my local is finally screening Parasite from today (hurrah for its Oscar win!), so I really ought to make the effort to see that).

A normal monthly review would have a list of things I’d been watching, of course, but I’ll save that for the proper one. But, talking of Oscar-y recent films I still haven’t seen, the Joker Blu-ray has been sat right next to me all week, waiting (I’ve been focusing on trying to get value for money out of that month of Now TV. I don’t think I have, yet). But, as mooted in my last TV review, I have finally got round to Good Omens. Gotta be honest, I’m not enjoying it as much as I thought I would. I think that might be a case of too high expectations on my part, though. It’s still good, mind — I’d recommend it. Anyway, there’ll be more about that in the next TV column.

Overall, my film viewing tally currently places this February as my worst month since April 2010. That’s very nearly an entire decade ago, people! Fortunately, there’s still half (and a bit) of the month to go yet…

1917 (2019)

2020 #6
Sam Mendes | 119 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | UK & USA / English & French | 15 / R

1917

BAFTABritish Academy Film Awards 2020
9 nominations

Nominated: Best Film; Outstanding British Film; Best Director; Best Cinematography; Original Music; Best Production Design; Best Make Up/Hair; Best Sound; Best Special Visual Effects.

I haven’t been following awards season too closely this year, but from the snippets I have picked up here and there it seems to be quite a variable race — every time a frontrunner emerges, something else wins some other award and suddenly the field is open again. 1917 was one of the early tips, and now has several wins under its belt to back that up. It may not be a lock at the Oscars, where the latest works by American auteurs like Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino will give it a robust run for its money (plus the six other contenders, several in with a shot), but tonight it’s BAFTA’s turn. The British Academy may seem to be more focused on being counted among the major Oscar forerunners than anything else, but they do still have a penchant for rewarding British films — and 1917 isn’t just “a British film”, it’s a British film about a key event in British history with an all-star cast of cameos from great British actors. So, as it’s a season-wide contender anyhow, if 1917 doesn’t win the big prize this evening it’ll be a genuine surprise.

Does it deserve it? Take a sample of social media and you’ll get different answers. As with any big, much-discussed film nowadays the initial reception has been followed by waves of backlash — or maybe that’s too grand a term for it; maybe it’s just been different ‘sides’ expressing their opinion in turn. If it wins, there’ll be a vocal contingent about how it didn’t deserve it. As someone observed the other day, literally the only way to avoid such a negative reaction nowadays is to literally take the award out of the incorrectly-named winner’s hands. (If you think that’s facetious, think about it for a second: do you remember any significant backlash to Moonlight winning? I don’t. Every other winner in recent years? Yep. I’m not saying it should’ve had one — it’s a great film — but it is unique in avoiding it.)

Personally, having seen 60% of this year’s BAFTA Best Film nominees, 1917 would be my pick (the others I’ve seen are Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and The Irishman; the remainder are Joker and Parasite, which is only out in UK cinemas next week so probably doesn’t stand a chance). My view may very well change once I’ve ticked all the boxes (Parasite is supposedly the greatest film ever made, after all), but that doesn’t lessen 1917 as an achievement.

War, huh? What is it good for? Winning BAFTAs, probably.

Famously, the film is a single take… sort of. That caveat comes for two reasons. First, because it isn’t a single take, because there’s a fade-to-black in the middle. It’s an effective, well-timed event — basic filmmaking technique as narrative twist, because this is so famous as “a single-take film” and, by that point (it comes fairly late in), we’re so embedded in the technique that the sudden blackness comes as quite a surprise. Second, because it isn’t a pair of single takes, because there’s no way you could shoot a film of this scale and complexity in a genuine single shot. Rumours abound of how many hidden cuts are in the movie. One said there were as many as five. Editor Lee Smith refuses to confirm the exact number, but makes a very sensible point: the film was shot over 65 days — you can’t put together 65 days’ worth of footage with only five cuts. But that shows how well it was achieved: people thought that, gasp, there could be as many as five, when actually there are far more.

“Wait, this film had an editor? That must’ve been a quick job!” Yeah, there’s been a lot of that on social media. People have been quick to dismiss it — people who should know better, quite frankly. As with so many things in life, just because it looks easy doesn’t mean that it was. There’s more to editing than just “sticking shots together”, and planning a film as complicated as this involved Smith’s input throughout shooting, not just in post-production. Plus, they didn’t just do one take that worked for each setup and call it quits — the job still involves choosing which take has the best performances, the right lighting, making sure it matches exactly enough for the transition to the next shot, and so on. The least number of takes for any individual shot was “five or six”, the most 39, so there’s plenty for an editor to do with choosing. I’m getting this info from an interview with Smith by Catherine Springer at AwardsWatch, which is worth a read if you’re interested in getting some insight into why there is actually a lot of difficult, impressive editing work going on here. One further titbit: some of the cuts were ‘improvised’, in that there are some cuts where a cut hadn’t been planned. You can’t do that kind of thing without a skilled editor, surely.

Deakins!

And it makes it all the more impressive that the end result is so seamless — you can buy that you’re watching a single take (okay, two single takes) rather than dozens strung together in pretend. Well, I say it’s seamless — yeah, sure, any Tom, Dick, or Harry can spot places where there are surely cuts (they walk through a dark doorway; someone/thing passes in front of the camera, blocking the view for a split second; etc). But unlike other faked single cuts I’ve seen, where the action doesn’t flow perfectly across a hidden cut, it’s at least conceivable that some of 1917’s hidden-cut-opportunities don’t actually mask a cut at all. Plus, as that interview suggests, there are actually dozens of cuts in the movie, and there aren’t that many glaring opportunities (which is probably how whoever it was arrived at their total of five).

The fact I’ve spent most of this review so far talking about the film’s single-take-ness is some people’s problem with 1917 — that it’s a filmmaking stunt and nothing more; that it’s a technical achievement at the sacrifice of character or narrative or anything but “look what we can do”. I don’t agree with that assessment. I think the single take serves a purpose beyond showing off. At the most basic level, it puts us on this mission with the characters, attaching us to them and their fate in a very intimate way. The camera rarely strays far from their side, choosing to remain at eye level and near to them when it could float off to give us a godly overview. Some have taken to describing it as “like watching a video game” for that reason, but I bet those people also refer to CG effects as “graphics” and, basically, spend too much time watching/thinking about computer games and conflating them with films (I’ll move on before I get distracted into a wholly different argument…) There are plenty of other ways for filmmakers to attach you to characters, of course, but that doesn’t invalidate this method.

The other thing it brings is a tangible sense of time. Our heroes are on a time-sensitive mission, and we’re with them every step of the way — they don’t get to jump from one side of a field to the other with the magic of editing, we must walk across it with them. (The film is certainly not as boring as “watching characters walk across a field” makes it sound — there’s plenty of action and incident.) Again, you don’t need a single take to create real-time — 24 proved that over ten seasons and a movie (not that all of those seasons take their real-time conceit wholly seriously, in my opinion) — but it does emphasise and enhance it.

Walking (running) across a field (a battlefield)

Regular readers will know I love a bit of real-time, so that was right up my street. I have similar feelings about single takes (fake or not), so I loved that aspect too. Plus I’ve got a long-standing interest in World War One, which I don’t feel is represented well enough on film (at least, not as well as its sequel), so getting a big-budget high-profile movie about it is something else I welcome. And I love the work of cinematographer Roger Deakins, who is absolutely on fine form here (when isn’t he?) The long and the short of it is, 1917 was always a movie almost tailored to things that interest me. Fortunately, it lives up to them. Is it the very best picture of 2019? I dunno, I’ve not seen Parasite yet. Will it be a worthy winner nonetheless? I think so.

5 out of 5

The British Academy Film Awards are on BBC One tonight at 9pm.

Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986)

aka Tenkû no shiro Rapyuta

2020 #12
Hayao Miyazaki | 125 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | Japan / English | PG / PG

Laputa: Castle in the Sky

The names Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli go hand-in-hand (I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if quite a few people think they’re synonymous, i.e. that all Ghibli films are directed by Miyazaki), but his first two features (The Castle of Cagliostro and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind) were produced before Ghibli’s formation. So it’s Laputa, his third film, that is actually Ghibli’s first — which makes it appropriate to look at today, as it’s also one of the first titles being made available under Netflix’s new deal with Ghibli.* (Though if you search Netflix for “Laputa”, you won’t find it.)

Acclaimed as one of the first major works in the steampunk subgenre, Laputa takes place in a Mitteleuropean alternate past — the architecture is inspired by Welsh mining villages; the uniforms and hardware by historical German military; there are steam-powered automobiles and flying machines; but there’s also magic-like stuff, so it’s not just tech-based. In this world we meet Sheeta (voiced in Disney’s English dub by Anna Paquin, retaining her New Zealand accent), a young girl wanted by both the military and sky pirates for a necklace she wears. When she falls from an aircraft, the necklace glows and lowers her gently to the ground — and into the life of Pazu (James “Dawson’s Creek” Van Der Beek), a young orphan who immediately resolves to help her. And so off they go on an adventure to find out just what’s so desirable about Sheeta’s necklace, and what it has to do with the legendary flying city of Laputa.

If you watched Miyazaki’s first three movies ignorant of the knowledge they came from the same writer-director, I’m sure you’d work it out for yourself. It’s an action-packed adventure laced with humour and morally grey characters, like Cagliostro, with a well-imagined fantasy world populated by flying machines and brave young heroines, like Nausicaä. But it’s no act of self-plagiarism — Miyazaki is too inventive for that. His world-building is first rate, sketching in the details of this alternate reality in between character building scenes and thrilling action sequences. If this were live-action, it would make an exemplary action/adventure blockbuster, so well paced and structured is it.

The castle in the sky

That’s why it immediately clicked with me as an instant favourite among both Miyazaki’s and Ghibli’s oeuvre. It’s unquestionably an adventure movie, so it lacks the heartfelt depths of something like My Neighbour Totoro, but it’s at least the equal of Cagliostro in terms of how wildly exciting the set pieces are. And it’s not as if it’s totally empty headed, touching on longstanding universal themes like the corruption of power, and with a minor-key ecological message too (another Miyazaki staple).

I always feel like I should watch anime in Japanese, and I often do, but when the English voice cast includes Mark Hamill, well, that’s good enough for me. He’s the villain, channeling a certain amount of his Joker (but not too much) into a government secret agent in pursuit of Sheeta and in search of Laputa. He’s just one of a memorable cast of characters — I mean, did I mention there were sky pirates? They’re as awesome as they sound, bringing both broad humour and fuelling several action scenes (you’d expect nothing less of frickin’ sky pirates, right?) One of the most memorable characters transcends the language barrier: a giant speechless robot, questionably friend or foe, who leaves a mark almost as great as the Iron Giant’s but in considerably less screen time. (Considering how much Pixar are renowned fans of Miyazaki, and that Brad Bird made Iron Giant over a decade after Laputa’s debut, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was at least a little cross-pollination.)

Like any good blockbuster, Laputa has it all: thrills, humour, emotion, wonder… It’s the complete package. Plus, that level of broad familiarity (it wouldn’t take too many steps to imagine this remade as a Hollywood blockbuster, although they’d inevitably mess it up somehow) probably makes it the perfect starting point for any newbies to anime or Ghibli.

5 out of 5

Laputa: Castle in the Sky is available on Netflix from today.

* If the news passed you by: Netflix have acquired the rights to 21 Studio Ghibli films (that is, their whole back catalogue of features except Grave of the Fireflies, which has separate rights issues, plus Nausicaä) for most of the world (the USA, Canada, and Japan are excluded). They’re being released in three batches of seven — the first lot today, the next on March 1st, and the final ones on April 1st. As well as Laputa, today’s selection includes My Neighbour Totoro, which I reviewed here, plus Kiki’s Delivery Service, Only Yesterday, Porco Rosso, Ocean Waves, and Tales from Earthsea. ^

The Personal History of January 2020

We’re a whole month in — 2020 is properly underway!

The less said about yesterday’s biggest news the better, so I’m just gonna plow on into some films…


#1 Crooked House (2017)
#2 Evil Under the Sun (1982)
#3 Rocketman (2019)
#4 Little Women (2019)
#5 Dial M for Murder 3D (1954)
#6 1917 (2019)
#7 The Dead Don’t Die (2019)
#8 Dolemite Is My Name (2019)
#8a What Did Jack Do? (2017)
#9 Bait (2019)
#10 Ad Astra (2019)
#11 (1963)
#12 Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986), aka Tenkû no shiro Rapyuta
Rocketman

Laputa: Castle in the Sky

.


  • As should be self-evident, I watched 12 new feature films in January.
  • I watched my first film on New Year’s Day — the first time that’s happened since 2016.
  • I watched my second film on January 2nd — the first time that’s happened since 2012.
  • I watched my third film on January 3rd — the first time that’s ever happened.
  • I watched my fourth film on January 8th — which doesn’t sound as remarkable, but it’s earlier than I watched last year’s #1.
  • By #8, I was ahead of every previous year. By #12, I was ahead of just 54% of them.
  • In terms of averages, 12 slightly beats the January average (previously 11.42, now 11.46), but is slightly behind the average for 2019 (12.6).
  • Dial M for Murder is the first 3D film I’ve watched since last May, eight months ago.
  • This month’s Blindspot film was Federico Fellini’s semi-autobiographical search engine / hashtag nightmare of a title, .
  • From last month’s “failures” I watched just Little Women.



The 56th Monthly Arbitrary Awards

Favourite Film of the Month
I’m always wary of picking the last film I watched as my favourite of the month — I worry it’s just recency bias giving it a boost. And there are certainly other films I liked a lot this month — when I’ve settled on my final ratings, up to 50% of them will be getting full marks. But, eh, it’s just an opinion. So, for now, this month’s victor is a Miyazaki classic (of which there are so many!), Laputa: Castle in the Sky.

Least Favourite Film of the Month
This is a very straightforward choice, though. I’d heard only terrible things about The Dead Don’t Die, but the trailer had looked such fun that I went ahead and rented it anyway. Sadly, it was the word of mouth that was accurate — it’s a dud.

Most Quotable Film of the Month
You might not expect a black-and-white hand-developed art-house-y drama about the plight of locals in a Cornish fishing village to be full of zingers, but there are loads of such memorable bits in Bait. My favourite? A barmaid watching a local bloke chat up a bit of posh totty from out of town: “He’s wasting his time with her… ‘ow’s she gonna suck his dick with that plum in ‘er mouth?

Least Hashtag-Friendly Film of the Month
Continuing the theme of “recycling stuff I already put on Instagram”, you try and come up with a workable hashtag for .

The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
This month’s winner slayed all before it to become, not just my most-read new post, but my most read post overall for last month (that happens quite rarely — just thrice last year, or 25% of the time). The post in question was my Christmas TV review. It received more than double the number of views as the post in second place (which was the previous TV review), a lot of that powered by referrals from IMDb for people wanting to read about Dracula. I hope I switched them on to The Goes Wrong Show while they were here… (The highest new film-related post was my review of The Personal History of David Copperfield.)



Last year’s Rewatchathon limped to an ignominious end (only just over half of my 50-film goal), but 2020’s is off to a solid start…

#1 Zatoichi at Large (1972)
#2 The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939)
#3 The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939)
#4 Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979)
#5 Twin Peaks (1990), aka Twin Peaks: Pilot

Starting at the end, Twin Peaks — the original pilot, which I watched in UHD courtesy of the From Z to A box set. I was counting it as a film as part of a long-term setup for eventually including it on a list of my favourite films (oops, given the game away!)… but I feel less sure after watching it again. Not of its greatness — I still reckon it’s one of the very best episodes of TV ever made, with at least one sequence that’s among my favourites in the entire history of visual storytelling — but it’s so obviously a pilot; so made to set wheels in motion for a series to run with them over many more hours. Yeah, there’s the close-ended International Version, but that’s a bit of a mess. This is something I’ll continue to ponder on.

As for the picture quality of this UHD version, it’s unfortunately a mixed bag. Lynch chose not to use HDR here, apparently… though I don’t know if that’s been confirmed or if it’s accepted wisdom from the disc not playing with HDR. I say that because when I turned Dolby Vision on, it kicked in. So is the disc encoded for Dolby Vision but not normal HDR? Is that possible? Or was my player ‘faking it’? I don’t know enough about how HDR/DV works to answer that. Normally I have Dolby Vision switched off because I don’t like it (I don’t know if I just consider it inaccurate or if it’s my TV’s fault, not displaying it properly for some reason), and Twin Peaks did nothing to convince me I should change that. Mainly it just seemed to make things too dark, erasing detail in the shadows (I tried fiddling with my settings in case I’d set it up poorly, but that didn’t help). With or without DV, the pilot doesn’t look right. The resolution is good, with improved fine detail compared to the Blu-ray, so that’s nice; but the colours look far too pale. Considering classic Twin Peaks is renowned for its warm look, this is especially jarring. Some scenes — outdoor ones, mainly, where the colours are cooler anyway — look just fine, but others look thoroughly wrong. What’s really baffling is that Lynch supposedly supervised this new version, so it should be bang on; but I’m pretty sure he supervised the previous one too, so what’s gone awry? Whenever I next watch the pilot, I’m going to have a difficult choice on my hands: 4K for the base-level image quality, or 1080p for (what I think is) the correct colour balance. Argh!

As anyone au fait with the news has likely guessed, I watched Life of Brian in honour of Terry Jones. Plus, I’d been meaning to rewatch it ever since I watched Holy Grail last September. Like that film, it’s now down to get the “Guide To” treatment at some point.

Rather than regurgitate comments about my other rewatches, I’ll point you towards Letterboxd for my thoughts on The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and why I rewatched Zatoichi at Large when there are still several original Zatoichi films I’ve not seen.


2020 got off to a solid start, but there were still plenty of things I failed to see. On the big screen, I saw most of the stuff I really intended to — I’m happy to leave both Guy Ritchie’s latest, The Gentlemen, and belated trilogy-maker Bad Boys for Life until they reach rental. Speaking of which, I’ve got both Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale and Danny Boyle’s Yesterday sitting on my Amazon Prime Video account with the days ticking down — definites for next month, those.

In terms of new disc acquisitions, I watched a few as soon as they landed on my mat, but I went on a bit of a spending spree this month — a mix of new releases, random bargains, and having some vouchers to use up. In the former camp, the BFI’s new Blu-ray of Judgment at Nuremberg rubs shoulders with Arrow’s release of Black Angel, a film noir directed by Roy William “director of 11 Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes films” Neill (which was recommended to me almost eight years ago by an esteemed fellow blogger, so it’s about time I got round to it).

The random bargains pile, meanwhile, is mostly made up of horror: the 101 Films Black Label edition of David Cronenberg’s Rabid; 88 Films’ box set of Hollow Man and Hollow Man II; and an import of Dario Argento’s Dracula 3D, which is meant to be absolutely terrible but, eh, I’m curious (it’s also only available in the UK on DVD or digital, neither of which are 3D, so I got the German one. The extras aren’t English-friendly, but I don’t reckon I’m ever likely to watch an hour-long making-of on this particular film). And in the “I had a voucher” camp, Don’t Look Now in its 4K limited edition form. Frankly, I’d’ve snaffled that up even without the voucher — it’s sold out online and so the price is beginning to rise on eBay and the like, but I happened across a single copy in a branch of HMV, where they were still charging the original price. The voucher comes into play because I wouldn’t even have been looking were it not for having an HMV voucher that expired the next day. So, that was nice.

And finally, the ever-burgeoning ranks of what’s available on streaming. Headliners this past month include In the Mood for Love cropping up on Prime Video — it’s one of the most acclaimed films of this century, but it never seems to be available in the UK, apart from an old DVD. It’s on my Blindspot list this year too, but I’d already got hold of it by, er, other means for that purpose. Other additions that drew my attention on Prime included Booksmart (particularly as I previously rented it but accidentally let the clock run out), Samuel Fuller’s The Naked Kiss, The Boondock Saints (one of those films I’ve heard of but don’t know much more about), and Jason Statham vehicle Wild Card — it’s been a while since I watched a run-of-the-mill Stath flick, so I feel overdue. Also overdue is a rewatch for Brokeback Mountain, which is also now on Prime here. Back in 2006 I was one of that rare breed who thought Crash was better. I didn’t hate Brokeback, but I didn’t like it much either. So, it’s long overdue that I revisit it and form a new opinion, now that I’m older and wiser.

Over on Netflix, the biggest hitter is probably Uncut Gems, which is one of this year’s many “should’ve had Oscar noms” films. But that only came out yesterday, so it’s not much of a “failure”… yet. Also catching my eye were Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (not to be confused with A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, which is only just reaching UK cinemas) and Zhang Yimou’s Shadow. Plus they now have Phantom Thread, which I personally don’t intend to rewatch in anything less than 4K, but I mention its presence nonetheless because I highly recommend it.


Ghibli comes to Netflix! Well, not if you’re in North America, but for the rest of us: hooray!

…although I own Blu-rays of most of the ones I’m interested in seeing, I’ve just not got round to watching them yet, so their presence on Netflix isn’t likely to affect my viewing much at all. Hey-ho.

The Past Month on TV #55

It’s SF/F-agogo in this month’s TV update, with new Star Trek, new Doctor Who, old Twilight Zone, and I’ve finally finished His Dark Materials too.

Doctor Who  Series 12 Episodes 3-5
Doctor Who series 12Well, it certainly has been an eventful first half to this series of Doctor Who! Never mind bringing back the Master and destroying Gallifrey (again) in the opening two-parter — showrunner Chris Chibnall has much bigger continuity-bothering ideas on his mind. But before that, two standalone episodes.

The first, Orphan 55, is currently the worst-rated episode of modern Who according to IMDb voters, with a score almost as low as the much-maligned Game of Thrones finale. But whereas I defended that episode, unfortunately I have no love for Orphan 55. I know a lot of people’s issue with it is that it’s a bit of a climate change polemic — some people just hate Who engaging with contemporary ‘political’ issues. Sorry, but it’s been doing that since at least the Pertwee era. It’s normally a mite more subtle than this, though. I mean, The Happiness Patrol is a blatant analogy for Thatcher, but at least it’s an analogy. So Orphan 55’s problem isn’t the content, it’s the delivery: an on-the-nose lecture, practically delivered straight to camera, stapled on the end like an afterthought. But it doesn’t exactly ruin the episode, because the rest of it isn’t much cop either: a logically-dubious runaround with a shopworn twist (one that Doctor Who itself has done before, in fact). But is it actually worse than previous “most despited” editions, like Fear Her and Sleep No More? Um, actually, I think it might be.

Thankfully, the week after things swung back in the right direction. In previous years Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror would probably have been regarded as a solid midseason bit of fun, but in the current era it virtually amounts to a classic. There were undeniable overtones of the Racnoss in the creature design, and Vincent and the Doctor in its depiction of an unappreciated-in-his-time historical genius (I half expected them to take Tesla into the future to show him there was a car named after him), but plenty of Who is like other parts of Who (it is 57 years and 879 episodes old, after all, not to mention the uncountable spinoff novels, audio dramas, comic strips, etc). All in all, it was fun enough.

But the real belter was the most recent episode, Fugitive of the Judoon. It’s most impressive as a bit of show-running stagecraft: foregrounding a popular returning monster in the title and publicity (the Judoon, obv) in order to hide the long-awaited return of a popular character (Captain Jack), which was a big surprise that in itself is designed to distract you from the real twist: another incarnation of the Doctor, played by Jo Martin.The two Doctors Social media and fan forums and whatnot have debated and analysed that revelation to death, so I won’t bother digging too much into all the possibilities of what it means — only time can tell. I will stake out this opinion, though: I am not a fan of the theory that she’s a pre-Hartnell version of the Doctor. The idea there were incarnations before the one we know as the first has always seemed disrespectful to me, somehow. Yeah, the Daleks ‘made’ Doctor Who, but Hartnell gave it his all too — without him week to week, and the effort he put into public appearances and the like, would the series have survived those early years? He’s not the only thing responsible for its success, and certainly not for its longevity, but he was The First — leave that be, thanks.

But, as I say, we’ll find out in time. More interesting to me, for now, is how showrunner Chris Chibnall is going about his job nowadays. Comparing his two seasons so far, Chibnall’s attitude to reusing stuff from Who’s past seems to be — very literally — all or nothing. Last season, he made a point of not using any continuity — no returning characters or villains, no significant references to the Doctor’s past or previous adventures. This season, he seems to be using all the continuity. I can’t remember a Doctor Who story so loaded with references to not-recent previous adventures as this one. Even the Chameleon Arch gets an outing, a thing that mattered in two stories that aired 13 years ago. It feels like Chibnall is an RTD-era fanboy revelling in bringing back stuff from a time when the show was at its peak of popularity. Maybe that’s what it needs right now. Though, in a broader sense, I feel like last season was Chibnall trying to copy RTD-in-2005 (fresh! new! start watching here!), while this time he’s doing his best to be Moffat-in-2011 (complicated mysteries! revisionist continuity! wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey explanations!)

Whether these additions to the mythology are interesting and productive, or whether it’ll be like “half-human” and fans ignore it ASAP, will depend on what’s to come. Either way, it’s the most exciting the show’s been in a good few years, and that’s something in itself.

Star Trek: Picard  Season 1 Episode 1
Star Trek: Picard season 1The Star Trek series boldly goes where it’s never gone before: into the Prestige TV market. (Despite initial appearances, based on things like the reviews I’ve read and variably-sized season orders, I’m not sure Discovery was really “prestige TV” in the end.) Is it up to competing with the big boys of this peak TV era?

Well, after just the first episode, I’m going to hang fire on answering that — on the evidence of this one instalment, it could go either way. It can certainly walk the walk: it looks very nice, with plenty of lush cinematography and expensive visuals (both globe-hopping locations and swish CGI), and it certainly wants to appear weighty, with themes of ageing and decay (not only of people but also institutions). But can it talk the talk? Does it actually have things to say beyond “Picard is old now, and Starfleet’s a bit shit”? Once upon a time I’d’ve said the fact it’s heavily (heavily) embedded in existing Trek continuity was a barrier, both to entry (“only fans will know enough to follow the plot”) and quality (“it’s so busy looking to the past it doesn’t do anything new”) and acclaim (“I’m not a Trekkie so I didn’t care”) — but that’s not necessarily the case anymore, as HBO’s Watchmen only just proved: you can reuse and remix and lean hard on previous texts, and still produce a high-quality work. That said, while Picard does invest energy in making sure newbies have all the continuity stuff explained, I feel like the show already shows signs of wavering towards Trek’s usual habits, for good or ill. But there’s an interesting enough set of mysteries just getting underway, and it’s always great to see Patrick Stewart, so I remain optimistic it’s going to go somewhere good.

His Dark Materials  Series 1
His Dark Materials series 1I reviewed the first three episodes of His Dark Materials in my previous regular update, just over a month ago, but I’d actually watched them much earlier, so when I returned to the series in the new year I decided to restart from the beginning. That improved my opinion of them considerably, I must say, but then a second viewing always has the ability to help clarify things you were unclear of before. Still, I got much more invested this time, and was swept along for the ride and the mysteries the show unfurled. Like the two series I’ve reviewed above, there’s plenty of mystery and intrigue here — some of it answered, much of it left hanging for future seasons (there’s two whole books to come, intended to be adapted across four more seasons). But even in this first salvo, events and characters move in interesting directions. It’s a very dark show at times, especially for something adapted from what are ostensibly children’s books, but that at least creates a genuine sense of jeopardy and unpredictability. So too the way it handles its characters — there’s not just simplistic twists of “hero turns out to be villain” or vice versa, but definite shades of grey. With the promise of whole new worlds to come, I’m definitely excited to see what’s next.

Also, I bloody love the theme music now.

The Twilight Zone  ‘Best Of’
The Midnight SunIt’s been six months since I did one of my “best of The Twilight Zone” roundups, but I always intended to continue them, so here we are again.

Having already reviewed the top ten episodes as ranked by several different sources (IMDb voters, ScreenCrush, and Paste), I decided to resume my journey through the original Twilight Zone by producing an average of various different lists to identify which instalments are acclaimed by consensus (because that’s the kind of thing I do). To help broaden the range of opinions, I added a bunch of new lists to my calculations — namely, Ranker’s The Best Twilight Zone Episodes of All Time as sorted by voters; Buzzfeed’s Ranking Every Episode by Arianna Rebolini; TV Guide’s 50 Essential Episodes Ranked by Joal Ryan: and Thrillist’s The 50 Best Episodes by Scott Beggs.

This new average ranking gave me a fresh top ten with a couple of episodes I’d not seen. The first of those was in 9th place (also, for what it’s worth, it’s now in IMDb’s top ten too, having moved up from 11th to 8th since I last looked). That’s The Masks, which I think is one of the series’ best-paced episodes. I’ve found that even some of the greatest episodes can feel a little thin, with a singular concept that only just fills 25 minutes, but this one doesn’t overstay its welcome by a second — and yet it’s as simple and clear a concept as any. That’s perhaps when TZ is at its best: simple but effective concepts, cleanly executed. And there’s a moral lesson too, of course.

I was slightly less impressed by The After Hours, which finishes off the consensus top ten. It’s an effectively creepy edition for the most part, with some genuine scares, but for me it was slightly undermined by the final explanation, which I don’t think quite hangs together with what’s gone before. A definite case of “it’s about the journey not the destination”, then, because up ’til that point it’s superb.

Number 12 Looks Just Like YouMoving beyond the top ten to complete the top 10% (i.e. the 16 best episodes), next is Number 12 Looks Just Like You (which, by-the-by, comes 10th on Thrillist). This is what some people might call “proper sci-fi” — an idea of the future spun out of what’s possible in the present, using it to present an analogy for the times we live in. And what is the analogy? In this case, there’s a few things you can read into it: mental health; conformism; the transition from childhood to adulthood; maybe all of the above; maybe something else. The only real downside is the episode hints at a wider world that isn’t explored. It’s mentioned in passing that the writing of Shakespeare, Keats, and others has been banned. Why? By whom? And while a bunch of middle-class white people are choosing which generic model they want to look like, what about other races? Class is less of an immediate issue because it seems this is a government-backed thing that everyone must undergo — but then, why do the lower classes get to look just the same as their ‘betters’? Surely there’d be different models depending on your social station? Never mind a 25-minute episode, someone could spin an entire series out of this… Still, having so much to ponder is one mark of a very good episode.

The Midnight Sun is the penultimate episode in the top 16, and also is another one that’s 10th on one list, this time Ranker’s. I’d probably put it even higher — this is definitely one of my favourite episodes so far. It takes a massive world-altering event and shows it to us from the point of view of two ordinary women; and not even from when the event happens or is discovered, but from a month into the new status quo, when it’s become a fact of life rather than some revelation. It’s a different way to approach such a story even today, and it works all the more for it. And, of course, there’s a twist (spoiler to come!) — one of the very, very few times “it was just a dream” works.

Robert Redford invites you to The Twilight ZoneFinally for now, the last episode in the top 16 (and the only one of today’s episodes not in anyone’s top ten), Nothing in the Dark. Probably best known for staring a young Robert Redford, it’s about an old woman who’s paranoid and agoraphobic due to her fear of meeting Death; but when Redford’s cop is shot right outside her door, she has to let him in to save his life. It’s a nice idea for a story, but (to loop back to what I was saying about The Masks) it feels a little slight in the execution. Half of the second act is taken up in a diversion with a demolition guy which is just that, a diversion. Still, there are very good performances from the two leads, and it comes with a well-meant little message by the end.

Also watched…
  • The Goes Wrong Show Series 1 Episodes 3-5 — I love this show with all my heart. Episode 3 was perhaps the best yet (even the title, A Trial to Watch, is a gag). So this is a friendly reminder that the series so far is available on iPlayer and the sixth (and final, *sob*) episode is on tonight.
  • The Great British Bake Off Series 1 Episodes 1-3 — I joined Bake Off before it was an all-encompassing phenomenon, with series two. So I’ve always meant to go back and see the one season I’d missed, especially since the whole lot became available on Netflix. It’s funny watching it now, though, because so much of it is familiar as Bake Off, but it’s early days and it’s unrefined. It’s a bit like watching a version of the show made by someone who pretty much remembers how it works but not exactly.
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation — I’ve never seen all of TNG (far from it), so as Picard is expected to be heavily indebted to existing continuity, I sought out a few likely-to-be-relevant episodes. The first was season 5 episode 23, I Borg, which is regarded as one of the series’ very best, and deservedly so. The other was the season 6 finale / season 7 premiere, a two-parter called Descent, which I guess was decent. There’s some good stuff in the first half about Data dealing with the possibility of experiencing emotion, but the second half is a bit too pulpy in a way I’m not sure fits Trek (or at least my idea of it). If any Trekkies reading this have other episodes they’d recommend (for relevance to Picard, not just because they’re good), I’m open to suggestions.
  • Twin Peaks in UHD — The recently-released Twin Peaks: From Z to A box set includes a bonus disc with two episodes in 4K Ultra HD. Yeah, just two. Why they didn’t do the full series, who knows. Expense, I guess. Some people reckon this is testing the waters for a full-series UHD release, but I dunno — considering they’ve already released the whole series on individual season DVDs, then a complete box set DVD, then Blu-ray, now a collector’s edition Blu-ray, do they think they’ll manage to sell it to people again? Sure, there’ll be some customers, but enough? Anyway, the two episodes here are the original pilot and season 3 / A Limited Event Series / The Return (whatever you want to call it) Part 8. The latter looked pretty great, even without HDR enhancement; the former… I’m counting as a movie, so will write about in January’s Rewatchathon segment.

    Things to Catch Up On
    Good OmensThis month, I have mostly been missing Good Omens… again! I didn’t get round to it on Prime Video when it premiered last May, and now it’s airing weekly on BBC Two but I still haven’t started it. I read the book as a kid and absolutely loved it (for a very long time I would’ve said it was my favourite novel), so when they announced a miniseries adaptation I was excited — especially as it was being managed by Neil Gaiman himself and starred a bunch of my favourite actors, not least Michael Sheen and David Tennant in the lead roles. That’s almost the problem: I want to watch it properly; I can’t just bung it on. Maybe I’ll get to it before next month’s column.

    Also missed: The Trial of Christine Keeler (I hear it got pretty good, but only after a couple of episodes); White House Farm (I’m interested in the case, but apparently the series is overly slow and long-winded); Deadwater Fell (David Tennant again); and probably a tonne of other stuff that’s slipped my mind for the moment…

    Next month… more Doctor Who, more Picard, more Twilight Zone. As for new stuff, Locke & Key finally makes it to the screen via Netflix… but that’s about all I can foresee for now. Maybe I will finally do Good Omens

    P.S. If you’re an attentive regular reader who’s thinking, “hold on, did I miss #53 and #54?”, the answer is no, you didn’t — the mistake is mine. A whole year ago, I forgot to count the 2018 Christmas post towards the numbering, which is the way I’d previously done things, so I am belatedly correcting for it by ‘hiding’ the jump alongside the one for 2019’s Christmas post. If you think that’s terribly confusing, just remember: it doesn’t really matter anyway.

  • Ad Astra (2019)

    2020 #10
    James Gray | 123 mins | Blu-ray (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA & China / English | 12 / PG-13

    Ad Astra

    This review contains spoilers (though most of them are in the trailer).

    Rad Astra”, “Bad Astra”, “Sad Astra”, “Dad Astra”, “Mad Astra”, “Glad Astra”, “Brad Astra”, “Fad Astra”… the puns came thick and fast when Ad Astra hit cinemas back in September (and, as you may see in some of those links, ever since). I’d love to contribute to the game, but I’m four months late so I think all the puns have been had Astra.*

    Resisting the urge to describe the film’s plot using some of those aforementioned puns (considering I already gave into that urge for the email notifications and social media posts promoting this review), I’ll instead do it in an equally pithy fashion: this is “Apocalypse Now in space”. Kinda. After unexplained energy waves from Neptune have disastrous consequences on Earth, astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is informed that his believed-dead father may actually still be alive and be the one causing these waves, and NASA Starfleet his bosses want him to send a message into space in the hope his dad’s out there and it reaches him. But with Earth facilities damaged by the aforementioned energy waves, Roy must travel to Mars, via the Moon, to even send the message. Hence where Apocalypse Now comes into it: it’s about a man travelling ‘up river’ in search of a superior-gone-rogue.

    Apocalypse Now is one of my favourite movies. Sci-fi is one of my favourite genres. “Apocalypse Now in space” sounds like a pitch aimed at me. Ad Astra doesn’t score a direct hit, but it gets pretty close. One thing is it’s not just an emulation of the previous film’s plot (which itself is, of course, rejigged from Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness), but also adopts its meditative style. Roy is a man with emotional problems, struggling with the state of his relationship on Earth (with Liv Tyler) and with the comfort the isolation of space brings him. Is it comfort, or is it just escape? And is that healthy? These are the things the film has on its mind.

    In space, no one can hear you ponder your own sense of isolation

    While it does have something to say about them, I feel like it thinks it’s deeper than it actually is. The final act, in particular, gets a little muddled. Why did his father make the decisions he made? Thematically, what does Roy gain by learning the truth about his father? On a simplistic level, he sees what isolation taken to extremes does to you; but he and his father seem to have fundamentally different attitudes to disconnection anyway. I appreciate that the film dodged the easy blockbuster-y versions of things (it would’ve been a bit pat if his dad was either desperate to be rescued or outright insane and tried to stop the mission), but I’m not convinced what it did instead wholly hung together. Still, as third acts go, “not completely ruining the film” is better than some.

    But it does seem like Ad Astra is at least a partially compromised movie. Co-writer/director James Gray has said that he had to make some changes to the ending to get a studio to finance it, and if you watch the trailers again after the film it’s clear that stuff was cut, including much of Liv Tyler’s character. How big an effect that had it’s impossible to say (unless someone inside the production speaks up), but it certainly implies some reworking in post-production. Another thing that makes me wonder this is the film’s use of religion. At times it seems fairly foregrounded — not in a heavy “this movie is about religion” way, but there are lots of references to it, people saying prayers for the dead, that kind of thing — but then the film doesn’t really seem to do anything with that. No one’s actions are different because they’ve found God, nor is caused to find God by the events of the movie, nor rejects God because of them, nor thinks they are God… Religion seems to be this underlying theme (it might be too kind to call it that, even) which ultimately disappears from the narrative just when it should, perhaps, be becoming more prominent.

    On the flip side, perhaps it was meant to be this subtle. Ad Astra is certainly trying to say something about our place in the universe (are we alone? If we are, what does that mean? How does the vastness of space, the emptiness, the isolation, the distance from home, affect the mind?), and maybe that’s all implicitly tied to religion and our belief (or otherwise) in an all-powerful creator who made us in his image (and, by extension, no other ‘intelligent’ life). Or maybe the studio got cold feet about tackling religion and made Gray cut that, too.

    Moon pirates!

    Nonetheless, there’s still a lot more good than bad in Ad Astra. Its depiction of the future is interesting; a plausible extension of the present, where space travel has been at least partially commercialised, the Moon more like a concrete shopping mall than a place of genuine wonder. That groundedness extends to the ‘action’ scenes. I mean, you wouldn’t expect a movie that I’ve described as “meditative” to feature “a chase/shoot-out with moon pirates” — that sounds like the pulpiest thing imaginable — but it’s here, and it’s achieved with what feels like a large degree of plausibility and realism. Personally, I like the way the film mixes together contemplativeness with such spikes of adrenaline — again, it’s quite like Apocalypse Now. There’s also the bold choice not to present sound in space. This isn’t the first film to make that choice, certainly, but it remains a noteworthy decision, and it has a more tangible impact than you might expect. Indeed, that seemingly-simple choice goes a long way towards that feeling of reality, though it is just one of several connected choices that ground the film’s vision of the future and make it plausible.

    Ad Astra is certainly a journey into darkness — of space; of mind. Whether it gets to the heart of it, I’m not convinced. But it’s still a trip worth taking.

    4 out of 5

    Ad Astra is released on DVD, Blu-ray, and 4K Blu-ray in the UK this week.

    * I’m so proud of that gag I’ve already used it on three different social media posts, and now I’ve worked it in here for posterity. ^

    Blindspot 2020: What do you mean you haven’t seen…?

    The Blindspot challenge (for the benefit of those still unfamiliar with it) is where you pick 12 films you feel you should’ve seen but haven’t, then watch one a month throughout the year. I started doing this in 2013, calling it “What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…?” (WDYMYHS for short), but then someone else came up with the same notion independently and gave it a much snappier moniker, and that caught on.

    My fortunes with the Blindspot / WDYMYHS challenge have been up and down over the years. I’ll spare you a full potted history, but last year I set myself two lists of 12 films each and didn’t complete either — although between them I did watch 17 movies. I braved 24 films because for two years before that I’d done 22 and completed it with relative ease. So maybe I should aim for 24 again this year…

    …but I’m not going to. In the same way that the second half of 2019 was a bit unpredictable (leading to my failures), I’m not wholly sure what the future holds, so I’m going to rein it back to the original 12 and see how it goes. And besides, if I find 12 unchallenging then I’ve got the seven remaining films from last year I could move on to; plus one from 2015 that I never got round to. That’s a pretty big ‘buffer’ to work on.

    Now, I’ll jump ahead to the main event: the 12 films I must watch, in alphabetical order. Afterwards, I’ll explain how they were chosen.


    8½


    All Quiet on
    the Western Front
    All Quiet on the Western Front


    An American Werewolf
    in London
    An American Werewolf in London


    Andrei Rublev
    Andrei Rublev


    The Battle of Algiers
    The Battle of Algiers


    Do the Right Thing
    Do the Right Thing


    Fanny and Alexander
    Fanny and Alexander


    The French Connection
    The French Connection


    In the Mood for Love
    In the Mood for Love


    Ordet
    Ordet


    Ugetsu Monogatari
    Ugetsu Monogatari


    Under the Skin
    Under the Skin

    So, some people just pick their 12 films. When I did two lists, that’s what I did for one of them. But the rest of the time I’ve let consensus decide, by compiling “great film” lists in various different combinations to suggest the films other people feel I should’ve seen. I quite like both methods, so for 2020 I’ve picked six with one and half-a-dozen with the other. That said, my ‘free choice’ six were influenced by some of the films that didn’t quite make it into the ‘preselected’ six. (Feel free to guess which films belong in which six. Fun and games! Answers in a mo.)

    This year, the selection process involved the following lists:

  • Letterboxd’s Official Top 250 Narrative Feature Films
  • IMDb’s Top Rated Movies (aka the IMDb Top 250)
  • The 1,000 Greatest Films by They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? (aka TSPDT)
  • the Reddit Top 250
  • Empire’s The 500 Greatest Movies of All Time (aka the Empire 500)
  • Sight & Sound’s The 100 Greatest Films of All Time (2012 edition)

    Because TSPDT takes Sight & Sound’s voter ballots as its foundation, I counted the Letterboxd scores twice as a way of evening it out a bit and not letting S&S be too dominant. It only worked up to a point. For example, Harakiri is ranked 4th on the Letterboxd list and 33rd on IMDb, but it’s a lowly 647th on TSPDT and nowhere on the other lists. So as I started adding the lists together (in the order I’ve credited them above), Harakiri was right at the top, then gradually fell right back. But that’s kinda the point of counting multiple lists: it’s getting a consensus of consensuses. Letterboxd users clearly think Harakiri is one of the very greatest films of all time; IMDb voters aren’t quite as enthusiastic, but it’s up there; everyone else… not so much.

    But it’s not just about the raw numbers of which films top the list: I have some rules. Chief among them, I’ve previously only selected films I already own on DVD/Blu-ray or have access to on Netflix/Prime/etc. This year, I let the door open to anything, though I did first make sure I could reasonably source a copy. So, top of the list was Andrei Rublev, followed by Federico Fellini’s . Next, in a somewhat ironic turn of events, my new “open door” policy actually led to some high-scoring films being eliminated. While sourcing copies of Come and See and Sátántangó, I discovered that both have recently been restored and are expected to get Blu-ray releases in 2020. You might think that’s perfect timing, but what if one or both slipped to 2021, or were insanely overpriced? So I decided to adopt a “wait and see” approach. Maybe they’ll be on 2021’s list.

    Next in the running was In the Mood for Love, followed by Ordet. Then my only still-standing regular rule came into play: one film per director. That meant the next film — La Dolce Vita, which shares Fellini with — was cut. After that is actually where Sátántangó was ranked (keeping up? I don’t blame you if you’re not), followed by Mirror — but Mirror is directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, the same as Andrei Rublev, so out it went too. But now we do finally reach the end: the next two high-scorers were Fanny and Alexander and The Battle of Algiers, which (as you’ll know from their inclusion in the list above) were fine.

    And with those six settled upon, I turned to picking six more from my DVD/Blu-ray collection. There’s less to say about these: I made a long-list of 127 ‘maybe’s; narrowed it down to 38 ‘very possibly’s; and then picked six, based on a mix of intuition about what I ‘should’ have seen and things I’ve personally been wanting to see for a while. I did also try to keep some variety in terms of the films’ ages, genres, countries, and languages… but almost all the ones that made my short-list were in English, so, er, oops. It meant Ugetsu Monogatari was an easy choice, anyway; and I was sure to include some British films (or British co-productions, at least); and Do the Right Thing may be American, but it’s also the only one of the 12 from a black filmmaker. (No female directors, though, which is an unfortunate oversight.) Still, on balance there are more films not in English (seven vs five), and the B&W/colour split is exactly 50/50.

    Four of my six ‘free choices’ do appear further down the rankings I’d compiled. That’s coincidence rather than design, although I suppose seeing them on the list might’ve helped push them to the forefront of my mind. Those four were Do the Right Thing (18th), Ugetsu Monogatari (23rd), An American Werewolf in London (127th), and The French Connection (162nd). I don’t know about you, but I was a little surprised All Quiet on the Western Front didn’t make it. Well, of the lists I’ve used this year the only one it’s on is TSPDT, at a lowly 742nd. (I’m not surprised Under the Skin wasn’t on any, what with it being so recent. For one thing, it hadn’t even been released when the Empire and Sight & Sound polls were conducted.)

    And that’s all that thoroughly over-explained.

    (Did anyone read all this?) (Hello future-me, who surely will re-read all this at some point, sad egocentric that I am.)

    Finally, if I manage those 12 and want more, the eight left outstanding from 2015 and 2019 are…

  • All About Eve
  • All the President’s Men
  • The Breakfast Club
  • Ikiru
  • The Ipcress File
  • The Royal Tenenbaums
  • The Thin Red Line
  • To Kill a Mockingbird

    This is hardly a chore — there are some great-looking movies there — so hopefully I’ll find time for all 20. It would only be fitting, given the year…