But what is February, if not 2021 persevering?

Featured

WandaVision’s penultimate episode, and one particular quote from it, has been the talk of the town lately (or: the argument of the weekend on Twitter), but here we can set aside such concerns (I mean, I’ve got a whole post with a WandaVision review in it if you did want to get into it) and just look back at all the films I watched in February 2021…


#27 Weird Woman (1944)
#28 Coming to America (1988)
#29 The Burning Buddha Man (2013), aka Moeru butsuzô ningen
#30 High Life (2018)
#31 When the Wind Blows (1986)
#32 Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
#33 The Dig (2021)
#34 Isn’t It Romantic (2019)
#35 The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926), aka Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed
#36 Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)
#37 Tangerines (2013), aka Mandariinid
#38 The White Tiger (2021)
#39 Shakespeare in Love (1998)
#40 The Last Warning (1928)
#41 Mortal Kombat (1995)
#42 The Guilty (2018), aka Den skyldige
#43 The Quatermass Xperiment (1955)
#44 The House of Fear (1939)
#45 Muse: Simulation Theory (2020)
#46 News of the World (2020)
#47 The ’Burbs (1989)
#48 Xchange (2001)
#49 Vampyr (1932)
#50 Resident Evil: Extinction (2007)
#51 Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983), aka Shu Shan – Xin Shu shan jian ke
#52 Radioactive (2019)
#53 Frankenstein (1931)
Star Trek: The Motion Picture

The Last Warning

The Quatermass Xperiment

Frankenstein

.


  • I watched 27 new feature films in February.
  • That puts it in the top 10 months of all time, in 10th place — the exact same feat January only just managed (so January is now pushed out to 11th, obv).
  • It’s the best February ever, topping 2014’s 24, and is far past the February average (previously 13.2, now 14.2), as well as the rolling average for the last 12 months (previously 23.2, now 23.9), and sets the average for 2021 so far at 26.5.
  • In terms of yearly milestones, I passed both #30 (the quarter-way point of my current 120-film goal) at the earliest time ever (4th February, beating 13th February in 2016), and #50 (the halfway point of my eponymous goal), also at the earliest ever (beating 2016’s 6th March). And #53 is the furthest I’ve ever reached by the end of February, surpassing #44 from (when else) 2016. (2016 wasn’t my best year ever, just a fast starter, so if I keep this up then at some point it’s going to be different year(s) that I’m passing.)
  • Last March I commented on how many letters of the alphabet I’d ticked off — seven in January, eight in February, nine in March. Of the two remaining, I never did get to X. Well, this year I’ve finished all 26 before the end of February. In fairness, that’s because I noticed how well I’d done in January — 15! — and made a point of finishing it off. But it’s also a side effect of watching so many films so much earlier. If I looked at other years up to around the 50-film mark, whenever that was reached, perhaps I’d find those too had hit most/all letters.
  • It’s not something I mention often, but as February began I was in the middle of watching or rewatching 23 film series. That’s quite a few — I certainly wasn’t looking to add any more to the list. But sometimes you just fancy watching a ’70s big-screen spin-off of a ’60s sci-fi TV series, or a big-screen remake of a ’50s British serial, or a classic Universal horror movie. And now I’m up to 26 series underway. (I track which I’m watching via the one I need to watch next on Letterboxd here, if you’re interested.)
  • This month’s Blindspot film: the classic Universal adaptation of Frankenstein. It’s only 70 minutes long, and I always try to save such shorter films on my list for later in the year, just in case for some reason I really need ones I can easily squeeze in; but sometimes you just have to accept that, although you don’t need a 70-minuter you can easily squeeze in, that’s all you want. Also, it paired quite nicely with The Last Warning, which (as I learnt from the audio commentary on the Masters of Cinema Blu-ray) was one of the films that was essentially the forebear to Universal’s famed horror cycle.
  • Talking of The Last Warning, at #44 is The House of Fear — not the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes film (I reviewed that here), but a remake of The Last Warning that used the title of the original novel (that was then reused for the Holmes film — Universal were terrible for that in the ’30s and ’40s, apparently).
  • From last month’s “failures” I watched The Dig, The Guilty, High Life, Weird Woman, and The White Tiger.



The 69th Monthly Arbitrary Awards

Favourite Film of the Month
This month, I boldly went where I’ve never gone before and started the Star Trek movie series from the beginning. Star Trek: The Motion Picture has never had a particularly good rep, but you’ve gotta start at the start, right? So it was a pleasant surprise when I really enjoyed it — to the point where I gave it five stars and a heart-thing on Letterboxd. I nearly didn’t go so high, because Wrath of Khan is “the best one” and now I’ve got nowhere to go if I do like it even more; but I don’t think you can go around rating films on that basis (you’d never give anything full marks just in case there was ever anything better), so…

Least Favourite Film of the Month
This month ended on a bit of a downer, with a run of films that didn’t live up to my hopes and expectations. Nonetheless, they weren’t as outright bad as some I watched earlier in the month — like Mortal Kombat, which was supposedly a mid-’90s blockbuster but actually looked like a mid-’90s syndicated TV series, with writing, acting, and fight choreography of a similar or lesser quality.

Most Recent Best Picture Winner I Hadn’t Seen of the Month
Shakespeare in Love is the only Oscar Best Picture winner from the last 30 years that I hadn’t seen. Hurrah! Now that I’ve ticked that one off, my oldest unseen is 1988’s Rain Man, which is helpfully on this year’s Blindspot list. After that, I’ll slip back just one year further, to 1987’s The Last Emperor. Indeed, my track record with ’80s winners isn’t great: I’ve seen more from the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s (plus, obviously, the ’90s, ’00s, and ’10s). Well, I’ll tick ’em all off someday.

Film Just Barely on the IMDb Top 250 of the Month
When I watched it, Tangerines was the 249th film on the IMDb Top 250. It’s not there now, but it might be again tomorrow — those ones near the end are very volatile; a handful of films that switch places back and forth, jumping on and off the list, on a regular basis. So why focus any viewing efforts there? After all, eventually they’re certain to drop off when something darts in higher up (even in a movie-poor year like 2020, two films made it onto the Top 250; there are eight from 2019). Well, I feel like once these movies do definitively drop off the list, they’re liable to become a bit forgotten. Not all of them, obviously — films in the “danger zone” like Three Colours Red or It Happened One Night have enough cache to keep them talked about for other reasons — but smaller, often foreign films like Tangerines are liable to just slip away. And, in theory, they’re still great films. I mean, they may disappear from the top 250, but they’re still theoretically among the top 260, or 275, or 300 (etc), greatest films ever made. But then they won’t be on a list, so I won’t think to watch them — so better to do it now, right?

The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
Although it only went live early yesterday evening, my 67th TV column still managed to storm past all last month’s film reviews to by February’s most-viewed post. (A distant second, with almost exactly half as many hits, was my review of Muse: Simulation Theory — which had also been on TV. Really, TV’s the game to be in if you want those page views.)



My Rewatchathon was right on pace this month, although that means I still have to catch up for last month’s shortfall.

#3 Frozen 3D (2013)
#4 The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926), aka Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed
#5 Crocodile Dundee II (1988)
#6 Apollo 13 (1995)

In a rare (I think probably unique) feat, The Adventuress of Prince Achmed is both 2021’s #35 and Rewatchathon 2021’s #4. This isn’t just because I enjoyed it so much (although it is very good), but because the BFI Blu-ray has a choice of soundtracks: the original 1926 musical score, or an English voiceover narration, recorded in 2013 but based on director Lotte Reiniger’s own English translation of her original German text. I watched them in that order, and felt the narration added nothing of value to the experience, especially as it sounds like it comes from a preschool storybook. Just stick to the original music.

As for the others, I rewatched Frozen in readiness to finally watch Frozen II sometime soon (though I didn’t get round to it this month, did I). I hadn’t seen it in 3D before; the effect was solid but surprisingly low-key, although it took off anytime it snowed, etc. If you want some idea of when that “sometime soon” for the sequel might be, look to Crocodile Dundee II, which I’ve been meaning to watch since I enjoyed a rewatch of the first one… in March 2019. I’m sure I watched it as a kid (hence why it’s a rewatch), but I didn’t remember a second of it — probably because it’s a rather perfunctory sequel; kinda slow and lacking most of the charm of the original.

Finally, Apollo 13 completed a mini Tom Hanks kick, as I watched it immediately after News of the World and The ’Burbs. It’s a great movie — indeed, I had a little word with Letterboxd about how it’s not getting the kind of ratings it deserves.


At one point this month Twitter was all over new comedy Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar, but as a premium VOD release it’s £14 and I’m not paying that to rent anything, thanks. Also going straight to rental was the latest Nic Cage craziness, Willy’s Wonderland, although at a normal rental price. Mixed reviews put me off so far, though. I did rent David Byrne’s American Utopia (on offer from Amazon), so that’ll be in next month’s viewing, and I was going to fork out for the interesting-looking documentary A Glitch in the Matrix until I saw a raft of negative reactions.

The streamers continued to throw out brand-new exclusives, with Netflix’s Malcolm & Marie probably the most talked-about this month. It sounds irritating, to be honest, whereas Korean sci-fi Space Sweepers is probably more in my lane. Over on Amazon, Gerard Butler disaster flick Greenland, Rosamund Pike’s Golden Globe-winning I Care a Lot, and Bliss, starring Owen Wilson/Salma Hayek in a sci-fi romance from the writer/director of Another Earth, all made my watchlist but didn’t actually grab my viewing time. The same is true of teen time loop romcom The Map of Tiny Perfect Things, which feels a bit like a placeholder before Palm Springs‘ belated UK release in April.

Talking of stuff finally making it to the UK, Netflix added Josh Trank’s Capone this week, so that can go on my watchlist out of curiosity but never actually get got to because it’s meant to be rubbish. More in my lane, perhaps, is Cold War thriller The Catcher Was a Spy, which apparently came out in 2018, but not here in the UK, where it’s just popped up as an Amazon Original. Going even older, Netflix added a mass load of Swedish films this month, including three silents — Terje Vigen, Ingeborg Holm, and Herr Arnes Pengar — that are all in IMDb’s Top 50 for the 1910s, so that’s interesting. Meanwhile, Amazon added 2013 Jason Statham actioner Homefront, which came onto Netflix US last month and shot to #1, despite being a flop on its theatrical release. I do like a bit of Statham action now and then, and this one comes recommended, so it’s probably worth a shout at some point. Another discovery was The Grand Heist — the kind of film I only hear of when it randomly pops up on a streamer or whatever, this Korean flick appears to be a period Ocean’s 11 about stealing ice… literally, blocks of ice. Sounds like it might be fun.

My cheap MUBI subscription is still going, but even with a new title everyday they managed to add little this month that caught my interest — just Cathy Yan’s feature debut, Dead Pigs, and Ridley Scott’s Legend, which is usually on Amazon Prime anyway; plus a few titles I own on disc anyway (The African Queen, Heat, and The King of Comedy, the latter two of which I’ve seen but are long overdue a rewatch). This month’s BBC TV premiere of Stan & Ollie means that’s now on iPlayer, although it’s also still on Prime, where it’ll be in higher quality; and on All 4 I managed to miss my chance to watch Love, Simon (its spin-off series is now on Disney+ but not, apparently, the original film) and Song Kang-ho in A Taxi Driver.

Finally, my disc purchases continued unabated. There was the release of Indicator’s second Columbia Noir set — I haven’t started the first yet, so that’s 12 minor-league noirs for me to catch up on now. Other new releases included a lavish edition of Jackie Chan classic The Young Master, restored with a choice of three different cuts, and Roger Corman’s The Masque of the Red Death, with a choice of two cuts, only one restored. But it was sales and random discounts where people really got me: from Arrow’s 30th anniversary sale, I picked up The Apartment, Horror Express, and Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway; from a BFI offer at HMV, I scooped up the original British Gaslight, Penda’s Fen, Ian McKellen’s Richard III, That Sinking Feeling, The Wages of Fear, and their four-film Hirokazu Koreeda box set; and I also got Ken Russell’s The Devils on offer on DVD from elsewhere.

Physical media fans will surely have noticed that Zoom changed hands this week. The new owners haven’t got their version fully up and running yet, so it remains to be seen if they’ll ruin one of the best Blu-ray retailers there was. Just before they shut down, I managed to get in one final Criterion gift card order — if you missed it’s existence, sorry to tell you now, but they sold a Criterion gift card for £50 that allowed you four titles (from a selected list). That works out at £12.50 each, which was a bargain, and because it’s been a while since I looked they had plenty in their selection that I wanted. So I snaffled up The Age of Innocence, Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman, The Cranes Are Flying, and Three Outlaw Samurai, but I could’ve chosen another four easily, maybe even eight — if I’d known for sure Zoom-as-we-knew-it was going away, I might’ve put up the extra £50, but hey-ho.


It’s gonna be a monstrous March with Godzilla vs. Kong. Whoever wins, we win, I reckon.

The Past Month on TV #67

Featured

This month: real-life grief in HIV/AIDS drama It’s a Sin; superhero grief in WandaVision; and “good grief, what have they done to The West Wing?” in a charity special. Plus, more classic Twilight Zone.

It’s a Sin
It's a SinThe latest series from writer Russell T Davies is a story he’s been mulling for a long time — I seem to remember it first being mentioned in his book The Writer’s Tale, which chronicles his final couple of years on Doctor Who, over a decade ago now. It’s had a bumpy ride to the screen, with the pitch being rejected by several networks, and eventually the planned eight episodes being negotiated down to just five. If this were a lesser writer then you’d assume the concept must have some fundamental flaw(s), but perhaps it was just the subject matter that scared so many commissioners: it’s about the emergence of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s, told from the perspective of a gang of mostly-gay twentysomethings who’ll see the disease rip their world to shreds. Not exactly a cheery topic, and one still affected by taboos and ignorance all these decades later. But that’s why this is a story that needed to be told, and here it’s safe in the hands of a master screenwriter.

That matters, because the series is balanced perfectly. You expect this story to be tragic and sad, and it is, but it’s also not some kind of misery-porn. It doesn’t hide from the devastating effects of the virus, but nor is it dwell on them unnecessarily. Nor does it sanctify the victims — they didn’t deserve what happened, but they’re human beings. Some of them deny its existence, even as evidence mounts. Some don’t take the proper precautions. Some are nice and sweet. Some are selfish. They’re human, and that’s the really important thing. Yes, this is a sad drama about young lives cut tragically short, and a condemnation of the cruel way some people (family, friends, colleagues, politicians) chose to handle that. But, more than that, it’s a celebration of those people whose lives were lost. The reason it’s so good, and so worthwhile, is because it never forgets that they weren’t just “people who got sick and died”, but people who lived.

WandaVision  Episodes 5–8
WandaVisionWandaVision had seemed to settle itself into a nice little groove in its first few episodes, each edition spoofing a different era of sitcom with an occasional hint at what was really going on, before episode four came along to blow that up with a raft of revelations about what had been happening outside Wanda’s little fantasy all this time. I was worried how the ensuing episodes would deal with that, as we’d been promised more eras of sitcom spoofery, but now the cat was kinda out of the bag. Well, thankfully it didn’t do the ’90s thing of following an arc-plot-heavy episode with a series of non-arc episodes that act almost as if the big developments didn’t happen. Instead, we got what I thought was a pretty nice balance between continued era-specific sitcom emulation and the exploration of what was actually going on. The latter meant sacrificing the mystery and some of the strangeness that helped those first few episodes feel so unlike anything the MCU has attempted before, but in its place we got the comforting familiarity of mystery box-style plotting. It’s certainly not as special, but it is engaging in its own way, and led to some nice surprises (Pietro) and unsurprising inevitable reveals (it was Agatha all along!)

Now, the stage is set for the finale. Many people have expressed surprise that the show will be able to wrap everything up in a single episode. We’ll see, but I have three thoughts on that. One, don’t discount the MCU’s ability to focus hard on plot and therefore cram an awful lot into a relatively short space of time. Two, there might be less to wrap up than we think — a lot of the pervading mystery is thanks to multitudinous fan theories, and the show has already suggested it might not be being as complex as some think. And three, we know Wanda will be a major part of Doctor Strange 2, so don’t write off the idea that this series will actually leave a lot open-ended for that movie to pick up on. It would be a shame if it did that too much, because it would render the whole series as little more than a backstory-expanding prequel to the movie, but I don’t for a second believe the finale will tie everything up in a neat bow only for Wanda to return afresh in Doctor Strange — the two will surely be connected. Only a few days until we get our first idea of how…

A West Wing Special  to Benefit When We All Vote
A West Wing Special to Benefit When We All VoteIt’s been a very long time since I watched any of The West Wing, and I never saw it in full, but I always meant to go back and watch the whole thing properly. I thought watching this one-off charity reunion thingy might ignite my interest in finally doing that. And, indeed, this did make me want to go back and rectify that — by, ironically, clearly not being as good as the show used to be.

I don’t know if this actually aired in the UK in the end, because it’s very much focused on getting Americans to vote in last November’s election. To achieve that, the original cast of The West Wing reunited to reenact a season three episode of the show, Hartsfield’s Landing, which is all about voting and democracy and stuff. The fact it was made in 2020 means it had to deal with COVID protocols, although that doesn’t really factor in the final result (some behind-the-scenes clips are thrown in to reassure us that they observed all the stuff they should observe) — I presume that performing it in an empty theatre with sparse props and scenery is more to do with evoking that “this is a one-off for charity” thing than a pandemic necessity.

Anyway, as for what I was alluding to in my opening paragraph, the direction and staging of this production are nicely done, but I think you can feel that the cast are no longer on well-practised form to deliver the snappy dialogue as it’s meant to be done, and some of the original episode’s B-plots struggle in this setting by being parts of arcs that were never meant to stand alone like this. Of course, the entire thing is really just an excuse on which to hang voting PSAs, which are delivered by some celeb cameos that are kinda fun… even if the entire point is (a) limited to the US, and (b) now expired. Though it does make for a surprisingly condensed and sad reminder of how the US has, despite its unwavering national self-belief, consistently failed to actually be an exemplar of how free and fair democratic elections should work.

More of  The Twilight Zone
This week has brought news that the Jordan Peele revival of Twilight Zone (the launch of which first provoked my visits to the original series back in March 2019) has been cancelled after two seasons. I haven’t started that version yet (I’ve been watching these ones!), but it seems a shame — it’s such an iconic show, you feel it should do well in any era. But we’re spoilt for choice with TV nowadays, and I don’t recall any real chatter around the release of season two, so this cancellation is hardly surprising.

What You NeedThat news aside, let’s return our gaze to the 1959–64 iteration of the programme. Having already reviewed many of the best and worst episodes of that original run, I’m now covering episodes that happened to pique my interest. First up this month, What You Need, which jumps straight onto my list of the series’ best episodes. It’s the story of a peddler who can provide people with the one small item that will be of invaluable use to them shortly, and the punter who wants to exploit this power. The episode has a nice balance of sweet whimsy and darkness; the length is perfectly paced for the half-hour; and, although it’s not got one of Twilight Zone‘s famous massive twists, the end is fitting and in-keeping. It’s nicely directed too, particularly the scene where the punter confronts the salesman in his apartment. An excellent episode that deserves to be better regarded.

Next is an episode that some do hold in high esteem, The Night of the Meek, which is effectively a Twilight Zone Christmas special — it originally aired on 23rd December 1960, and it certainly plays up to its airdate. It’s about a drunken department store Santa, adorned in a grubby costume and matted beard, who can’t even show up for work on time, but who nonetheless has more Christmas spirit at heart than any of the sober, responsible people he encounters. It’s a little bit twee and cheesy, but also kinda charming in that “only at Christmas” way. It’s a shame it was one of the half-dozen episodes shot on videotape, because it looks absolutely terrible and that emphasises the tackiness. If it looked slicker, it might come across a bit classier, and then it might earn the “you’ll want to watch it every Christmas” accolade that I feel should be the ultimate goal of any Christmas special or movie.

Person or Persons Unknown has a good setup: a man awakens after a drunken night out to discover no one remembers him and there’s no evidence he ever existed. It’s the kind of existential psychological horror that’s the fuel for many a good TZ tale, and it does play well for a while, but writer Charles Beaumont doesn’t have a proper ending to offer us, resorting to that most clichéd of cop-outs, “it was all a dream”. It’s a shame, but not exactly a surprise: the episode offers no clues about where it might be going or why this might be happening, so you begin to think Beaumont either has something very clever hidden up his sleeve or the reveal is going to be a tacked-on disappointment. Sadly, it’s the latter.

I Sing the Body ElectricFamed sci-fi writer Ray Bradbury’s only formal contribution to the series, I Sing the Body Electric, is another case of a great premise writing cheques the rest of the episode can’t cash. Here, rather than running out of steam, the places it takes us to are morally questionable and raise more questions than they answer. The plot is almost like a sci-fi twist on Mary Poppins: a widowed father is struggling to bring up his three kids, so they get a robot grandma, but one of the daughters doesn’t like her. It’s eventually revealed that the daughter’s distrust stems from the belief that her dead mother “ran away” and she thinks robot-granny will do the same — but it’s okay, because granny’s a robot and can live forever. Hurrah! Maybe your mileage will differ, but the idea that mothers who die have run away from their kids, or that this grief is best handled by giving the kid a parental figure who will never die, all seems a bit distasteful. And that’s before we get to the ending, where we learn that RoboGran’s consciousness will gather with others of her kind so they can share what they’ve learned. It’s spun as if this is somehow a good thing, but to me it sounds like a prequel to The Matrix

That good ol’ Twilight Zone staple of a man confused by his predicament arises again in Judgment Night, set aboard a passenger ship crossing the Atlantic during World War II. Maybe it’s just a coincidence of the visual style of 1960s US TV, but the way it’s shot feels very in-keeping with all those ’40s movies set on passenger ships, which helps make its setting feel authentic — if this had been made as a film in the ’40s, it would look exactly the same. Everyone aboard is concerned they’ll be sunk by a U-boat, with our protagonist particularly het up about the idea. Of course, we eventually learn why. The twist isn’t hugely surprising — it’s the kind of thing you expect from TZ and so can predict — but, like I’m finding of many episodes in this middle-ground between the series’ best and worst episodes, it’s a solid piece of work.

Also watched…
  • Dial M for Middlesbrough — The third in Gold’s annual series of comedy murder mysteries (after 2017’s Murder on the Blackpool Express and 2018’s Death on the Tyne) aired at Christmas 2019, but I’ve only just dug it out from the depths of the DVR. I thought it was the best one yet. It’s a kind of magnificent silliness, from the first murder (which involves impalement by a swing ball pole punctuated by a perfectly-chosen pop song on the soundtrack) to outlandish plot twists (a hidden Chicago hitman) to Jason Donovan chewing up all the scenery as a former love interest for one of our heroes (complete with flashbacks to 1999 that look ever so ’80s. I guess it takes pop culture a long time to make it up north…) I presume they had to sit out 2020 because of the pandemic, but I’d welcome another outing this Christmas, please.
  • For All Mankind Season 1 Episode 1 — Finally made a start on this Apple TV+ series (which is currently releasing its second season). Season 1 review next month.

    Next month… I’m gonna review For All Mankind — didja not just read that bit? Also the WandaVision finale, plus more of “More of The Twilight Zone”.

  • Muse: Simulation Theory (2020)

    2021 #45
    Lance Drake | 90 mins | TV (HD) | 2.39:1 | UK / English | 15

    Muse: Simulation Theory

    Often cited as one of the best live acts around, for their latest concert movie British rock band Muse have attempted something a bit different: rather than just footage of them performing songs in front of a massive audience, Simulation Theory attempts to tell a sci-fi narrative… driven by and/or interspersed with the band performing songs in front of a massive audience, natch.

    It begins with a slow track into a television set playing a news station where the presenter is talking about some kind of global events that have been traced back to the O2 Arena in London. Cut to a team of hazmat-suited scientists entering said arena, which they find deserted. Then, an arcade machine rises from the stage. One of the scientists approaches it, tries to play it, and is transported to another time/place/something, where the arena is full of screaming fans and a certain band begin their show. From there, the film cuts back and forth between Muse performances and a storyline about alternate simulated worlds, a highly infectious disease, and a few other bits and bobs. Frankly, it’s not the most coherent tale ever told.

    Combining a concert film with a sci-fi narrative is the kind of concept that immediately piques my interest, but I’m not sure how well Simulation Theory really pulls it off. Ultimately, it’s kind of just a few scenes sprinkled between the songs. Occasionally there’s a link between the music and the story, but not as often or as clearly as one might expect. This isn’t akin to, say, Jeff Wayne’s The War of the Worlds, where the music is like a soundtrack just waiting for its visual accompaniment. Indeed, despite the title and ’80s-style retro theming being taken from Muse’s 2018 album, fewer than half the songs performed come from that EP. That’s not a criticism, just an observation that the album wasn’t exactly waiting for the movie treatment. If that’s what they wanted to do, previous albums — like 2009’s The Resistance or 2015’s Drones — are concept albums more ready to be converted into a narrative.

    They didn't do this bit live on stage

    Setting aside the narrative aspirations, judged as ‘just’ a concert film, Simulation Theory is still only a mixed success. Perhaps because of the desire to connect it up with that cinematic storyline, the actual concert footage, editing, and sound mix are all a little too slick, feeling more like a big music video than a replication of the “in the room” experience. In fairness, that doesn’t seem to be the goal at all, with the film mixing up the order of the set list and even ditching half-a-dozen songs (more on that later). Eventually, it can no longer half-ignore the crowd. That doesn’t come until the ninth track played, Uprising, but suddenly you can really feel that Matt Bellamy has a connection with the audience, which then resurfaces in later songs (not least Mercy, aided by Bellamy going for a little off-stage walkabout).

    For me, Muse were at their creative peak back in the ’00s, so it was often when those songs emerged that I felt their performance was at its most enjoyable, with the likes of Supermassive Black Hole, Starlight, and the aforementioned Uprising. That said, the film gave me a new appreciation for some of their more recent songs, like Mercy, Algorithm, Dig Down, and Madness (I say “recent” — Madness is from 2012), although others primarily work thanks to the theatrical staging — Propaganda, for example, looks impressive on stage, but I still think it’s an odd track.

    As noted, the film has dropped several tracks from the live show, meaning we miss out on some of their very best material, like Plug In Baby, Hysteria, Time is Running Out, and Knights of Cydonia (actually the closing number in real life). That’s a shame — I’d rather the film had given us the full track list than spent time on the interstitial narrative. But why not both? Surely there wasn’t a restriction on the film’s running time? (And if there was, why?)

    Sci-fi singer

    Despite all these nits I’ve picked, overall I enjoyed Simulation Theory. It’s not wholly a success as a narrative, and, in my estimation, it’s a long way from being any kind of “greatest hits” gig for Muse; but the ambition is admirable, and most of the music plays well in situ. Plus, the finale involves a giant evil puppet hovering over the stage, so that’s got to be worth some bonus points.

    4 out of 5

    Muse: Simulation Theory is available on BBC iPlayer for the next 11 months.

    The Tenacious Monthly Review of January 2021

    Some people have decided that January is actually the 13th month of 2020, given how most of the woes of last year didn’t magically evaporate when our arbitrarily-appointed start-time for a “new year” rolled around. Funny that. It’s a nice idea — to think that we can write off this month by association with last year — but, the way things are going, I think if you want to carry that idea through you’re going to end up with a 2020 that has 17 or 18 or 19 months… perhaps even a full 24, who knows.

    So, back in the real world, the inevitable “second year of shittiness” that is 2021 began with January. Here’s what I watched during it…


    #1 Bill (2015)
    #2 WolfWalkers (2020)
    #3 Ernest & Celestine (2012), aka Ernest et Célestine
    #4 Happy Death Day 2U (2019)
    #5 Festen (1998), aka The Celebration
    #6 You Only Live Once (1937)
    #7 The Frighteners: Director’s Cut (1996)
    #7a Meshes of the Afternoon (1943)
    #8 Hotel Transylvania 3D (2012)
    #9 Wolf Warrior (2015), aka Zhan lang
    #10 Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo (2017)
    #11 One Night in Miami… (2020)
    #12 Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)
    #13 Joint Security Area (2000), aka Gongdong gyeongbi guyeok JSA
    #14 Calling Dr. Death (1943)
    #15 Under Siege (1992)
    #16 Who? (1974)
    #17 The Pinchcliffe Grand Prix (1975), aka Flåklypa Grand Prix
    #18 Blithe Spirit (2020)
    #19 Tower Heist (2011)
    #20 The Social Dilemma (2020)
    #21 3 Idiots (2009)
    #22 Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
    #23 The Secret Garden (2020)
    #24 Cats (2019)
    #25 Sansho Dayu (1954), aka Sansho the Bailiff
    #26 Psycho Goreman (2020)
    WolfWalkers

    Joint Security Area

    Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

    Psycho Goreman

    .


    • As should be self-evident, I watched 26 new feature films in January.
    • I used that exact wording for my opening note last year too, which I only discovered after I wrote the above sentence and then went to look up how I’d worded it last year. I guess you could call it consistency, or style, or something like that. “Unimaginatively repetitious” would be a less kind label…
    • Anyway, that tally actually edges January 2021 into my top 10 months ever, in 10th place. With 169 months in 100 Films history, that means it’s in my top 6% of months ever.
    • There are no other Januarys in the top 10 — which is another way of saying, this is my best January ever, beating 2016’s 21.
    • Naturally, that also means it obliterated the January average (previously 11.46, now 12.50), as well as toppling the rolling average of the last 12 months (previously 22.0, now 23.2).
    • As you may also have already extrapolated, being my best-ever January means this is the furthest I’ve ever reached by the end of January. It’s also the earliest I’ve passed the quarter-way point of #25, beating 6th February in 2016. (Though these days I’m ‘officially’ aiming for 120 Films in a Year, which makes the quarter-way point #30.)
    • As we know from past experience, trying to use any month to make a prediction about the whole year is futile. But, just for fun, if I kept up this rate for the entire year, I’d make it to #312. Well, never say never…
    • Another achievement: I watched a new film on January 5th for the first time in recorded history (i.e. since 2009, at least). Regular readers will know I’ve been tracking these ‘missing dates’ and ticking them off for a few years now (since July 2017, to be precise), and now there’s just May 23rd outstanding.
    • One thing I didn’t do this month was post any reviews of the films I watched. That comes after a 2020 where I performed similarly poorly in that regard, averaging 1.6 reviews a month of films I’d watched that month (it was zero or one review in eight months of last year, with better tallies in April, June, July, and August bolstering the average). At this rate, the 100-week roundups in 2022 are going to be chocka (heck, the 2021 ones are going to be pretty busy).
    • With Calling Dr. Death (#14), the Inner Sanctum Mysteries joins the list of film series I’m in the middle of watching, which currently numbers 23. I’ve got a list of them on Letterboxd, if you’re interested.
    • This month’s Blindspot film: Kenji Mizoguchi’s gut-punching folklore drama, Sansho Dayu (aka Sansho the Bailiff).
    • From last month’s “failures” I only watched WolfWalkers.



    The 68th Monthly Arbitrary Awards

    Favourite Film of the Month
    Cartoon Saloon have produced several excellent movies, but WolfWalkers may be their best yet — gorgeously animated, an exciting adventure, with plenty of heart too. Such a shame it’s buried away on Apple TV+ where most people will never see it.

    Least Favourite Film of the Month
    Wholly predictably, it’s Cats. I mean, really, did you expect anything else?

    Worst Dinner Party of the Month
    Sure, the antics of the couple at the heart of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? may be famously uncomfortable and wild and weird, but that’s nothing on standing up at your father’s birthday meal to announce to dozens of assembled friends and family that… well, that would be a spoiler. Suffice to say, Festen’s got this one.

    Most Jingoistic Action Movie of the Month
    Joint Security Area may deconstruct and expose the futility of war and nationalism, but that’s hardly stopped other action movies indulging in it aplenty. Under Siege comes with the prerequisite praising of America’s military might, but the villains are its own agents gone rogue, so at least there’s some acknowledgement of their own (potential) flaws. Wolf Warrior, on the other hand, sometimes borders on propaganda piece… although the fact they feel the need to send basically their entire army to track down a handful of insurgent mercenaries isn’t actually the great advertisement someone might’ve thought it was…

    The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
    Now, normally I’m quite strict about this category — which means that if, say, I post something on the last day of the month it basically stands no chance of making it, because it doesn’t have as much time to build up the hits. However, I published my review of Death to 2020 at 11pm on December 31st — having only a single hour to qualify for last month’s count seems a particularly unfair fate. So that’s why I’ve declared it this month’s winner, especially as it got more than four times the views of the ‘genuine winner’, my Christmas TV post. (Talking of “posts on the last day not doing well”, the TV column I posted yesterday afternoon amassed enough views in that short time to come a close-ish second/third, which just goes to show, um, something.)


    In case you missed them, I began January with my usual extensive multi-post review of the previous year…

    Now, as for actual film reviews…


    A new year means a new Rewatchathon, too. My goal of 50 rewatches means I need to average four a month, so this year isn’t off to the best start…

    #1 Happy Death Day (2017)
    #2 Crimson Tide (1995)

    I rewatched Happy Death Day immediately before its sequel (see #4 on the main list). Their shared “reliving the same day” conceit means the second film has a lot of references back to the first, so they work quite nicely as a double-bill.

    I’ve fancied rewatching Crimson Tide for a while, but it never seems to be available anywhere, so I gave in and bought it from Apple — it was only 50p dearer than renting it. Then they went and announced the Disney+ Star slate and it’s going to be on there. Oh well.


    With cinemas still shuttered here due to lockdown, it once again falls to streamers to provide the brand-new releases. Netflix are promising at least one original movie premiere every week throughout 2021 (with some 70-odd films coming in total). Once upon a time you would’ve assumed that was based on a technicality — i.e. lots of cheap made-for-TV-style filler to bolster the numbers — but, so far at least, they’ve been keeping the standard at a level of noteworthiness. For example, January’s offerings included the hard-hitting drama Pieces of a Woman, which comes with plenty of awards buzz; blockbuster-ish sci-fi action with Anthony ‘the Falcon’ Mackie in Outside the Wire; adaptations of bestselling books like The White Tiger and Penguin Bloom; and they even wheeled out that good old Brit-flick formula of quality actors + period setting in The Dig, with Carey Mulligan, Ralph Fiennes, and Lily James starring in a true story from the 1930s. Meanwhile, Amazon had Dave Franco’s directorial debut, The Rental. Not quite as high-profile a slate, eh.

    In terms of catalogue stuff, it was really the TV catch-up services that were catching my eye in January, including Korean Cold War spy thriller The Spy Gone North on iPlayer, alongside acclaimed sports doc Hoop Dreams, Beatles classic A Hard Day’s Night, and recommended gambling drama Mississippi Grind. Over on All 4, I missed some classics I’ve been meaning to see for years, like Animal Farm and Withnail & I, but still available (for a few weeks yet) are the likes of A Taxi Driver starring Song Kang-ho, and Danish crime thriller The Guilty, which is currently being remade for Netflix by Antoine Fuqua and Jake Gyllenhaal.

    Because I don’t have enough to watch as it is, this month I subscribed to MUBI. Okay, I have plenty to watch, but the offer of £1 for three months was hard to pass up — I mean, at that price, watch just one film and it was worth it. I’ve already watched a couple, but films on my watchlist for the remaining time of my cheap subscription include Bacurau, High Life, Paterson, Rocco and His Brothers, Transit, and… Showgirls. Yes, Showgirls is on MUBI.

    None of which stopped me from buying more stuff on disc, of course. In terms of brand-new releases, I’ve got The New Mutants in 4K, Arrow’s new edition of Southland Tales (including the longer Cannes cut), and the bells-and-whistles-less 4K reissue of Total Recall (the 1990 one, obviously), plus Eureka’s release of the Inner Sanctum Mysteries, which I have at least started (see #14). Watching JSA (#13) inspired me to plug some of the gaps in my Park Chan-wook collection, so I picked up I’m a Cyborg and Thirst nice and cheap; and Kind Hearts and Coronets (#12) prompted me to buy StudioCanal’s bells-and-whistles-full 4K edition of The Ladykillers. Finally, thanks to an HMV sale I continued to fill out my Ray Harryhausen collection with The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and The Valley of Gwangi. Between those and the various Indicator box sets, I’m only a couple away from owning all his feature film work. Just need to watch some more of them now…


    Slightly belated UK releases for Promising Young Woman with Carey Mulligan, and Tom Hanks in Paul Greengrass’s News of the World. Hopefully I’ll have reviews of both.

    The Past Month on TV #66

    After it had to sit out 2020 entirely (who knows why that happened?!), the Marvel Cinematic Universe is back — but now on TV! *gasp*

    Also this month: the continuation of another film-turned-television franchise in Cobra Kai; the examination of film by television in new episodes of Mark Kermode’s Secrets of Cinema; and television that has nothing much to do with film in Staged series 2 and more classic episodes of The Twilight Zone.

    WandaVision  Episodes 1-4
    WandaVisionWandaVision isn’t the first television series set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (in fact, it’s the thirteenth); nor is it the first to feature characters and actors from the movies (that’s been the case in at least two others, off the top of my head); but it is the first to be produced by the same division that makes the movies, so it’s set to be a lot more important (read: not totally ignored) going forward. Indeed, it’s already been reported that the events of this series tie directly into the storylines of the next Spider-Man 3 and Doctor Strange 2, at least.

    So it’s a little surprising, then, that this marks such a departure from the regular style and feel of Marvel’s films; much more so than any of their previous TV series did. The setup is that somehow Wanda Maximoff, aka Scarlet Witch, and her robot lover Vision, who died, are living in a world modelled after classic TV sitcoms, and they’re perfectly unaware that there’s anything weird about this. The show emulates these old TV formats down to a tee — it’s not simply that they’ve cropped it to 4:3 and desaturated it to black-and-white, but it’s the camera angles, the acting styles, the set and costume design, the laughter track… The whole vibe of ’60s and ’70s sitcoms is neatly evoked, and the cast are clearly having a ball playing in a different era, with stars Elisabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany particularly up to the task. Plus, the fact this is a nine-episode series, rather than another two-hour action-adventure blockbuster, also allows the show to indulge in old-fashioned standalone-episode storylines, so that each episode feels like a self-contained unit of entertainment, rather than just part of a long movie cut into nine segments

    But, of course, something fishy is going on, and when that begins to break through the show cleverly subverts its own format: when a guest starts unexpectedly choking at a dinner party, Wanda urges Vision to use his powers to save him, and the directorial choices suddenly become much more modern, briefly breaking the spell for us as much as the characters, but without doing anything obvious like switching to colour or widescreen. There are increasing flashes of this Twilight Zone-y, Twin Peaks-y, Stepford Wives-y oddness in future episodes, I guess to reassure regular MCU viewers that this is all going somewhere, rather than just being a bit of fluff.

    And then we reach episode 4 (spoilers follow). I think we all expected this — i.e. an episode set ‘outside’ that explained (some of) what was going on — to come along at some point. It had to, really. But I thought it would be teased and teased, as it was in the first three episodes, as the show gradually moved through more eras of sitcoms, until eventually we’d start getting to real answers around maybe episode 7 or 8. It’s a very fan pleasing episode — as well as some answers, there’s also a host of roles for minor characters familiar from other MCU outings — but it does slightly concern me for the next five episodes. We know the show is heading back into Wanda’s world, because they’ve promised spoofs of sitcoms from the ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s, but surely it can’t expect to go back to a “sitcom of the week” format and that be sufficient? Now that they’ve opened up the outside, they can’t expect us to just watch Wanda cosplay different eras of sitcom history while learning nothing more about the bigger situation, can they? We’ll have to tune in next week to find out…

    Staged  Series 2
    Staged series 2The David Tennant- and Michael Sheen-starring (or is that Michael Sheen- and David Tennant-starring?) filmed-over-Zoom sitcom about lockdown life was a hit during one or other of the 2020 lockdowns, so here it is again — just in time for the 2021 lockdown, as things turned out. The second series is very much a follow-up — a sequel, if you will — rather than merely “more episodes of the same”. In fact, it’s a meta-sequel: the first series exists as a fictional project in the world of the sequel. This isn’t a continuation of the storyline(s) we watched in the first series; it’s a follow-on from the fact the first series was a success. Got that? The title card sometimes calls the series Staged², and one feels that’s more than just a typographical play on Staged 2.

    That said, what we get in practice is more of the same: actors and creatives bickering about a project over video calls. But this time, rather than a play David and Michael are lined up to star in, it’s a Hollywood remake of Staged that won’t star them. Gasp! Cue a parade of famous-face guest stars as potential new cast members. No spoilers here, because the “oh look, it’s him/her” factor is part of the fun, just as it was in the first series; although, frankly, none of this series’ lot (and there are quite a lot) can pull off the same element of surprise as series one’s biggest names. However, this time the celebrity cameos dominate, with David and Michael spending most of the middle episodes meeting people who might replace them. Even bingeing the series over a couple of days, the plot feels spread thin, with very little actually happening to sustain the two hours (yes, across eight episodes it runs only two hours). The subplots that helped fill out series one (Michael’s neighbour; Georgia’s novel; in the extended cut, Lucy’s relationship; and so on) are gone, with nothing significant in their place. There is a sporadic subplot about Georgia, Anna, and Lucy prepping a charity sketch, which makes for some welcome interludes, but that’s only two or three scenes across the whole series.

    And yet, ironically, the show tends to be most fun when nothing happens at all, and we’re left with David and Michael chatting to each other. When they’re separated, having different one-on-ones, it’s enjoyable to discover the foibles of another big-name guest star, but the “huh, it’s Person X” element wears off quickly and we want to go back to our leads hanging out. Fortunately, the last two episodes ride in to save the day, first with probably the best pair of guest stars of the series, then with a quite touching finale that simply abandons all the remake schtick to just be about David and Michael’s friendship as lockdown comes to an end. It’s a sweet, touching farewell to a show that I would guess has now run its course, but was a tonic while it lasted.

    Mark Kermode’s Secrets of Cinema  Series 3
    Secrets of Cinema: Cult MoviesA trio of new editions of the critic’s explanation of cinematic genres, which play like the best Film Studies lectures you could imagine. Each explores and explains its chosen subject in depth, often spinning out into tangential and related branches of film history — see the episode on pop music movies, for example, which is primarily concerned with movies about pop stars or musicals starring pop stars, but takes a moment to explore the phenomenon of pop stars as proper actors, such as David Bowie’s secondary career. It’s like Kermode and his writers (which include the insanely knowledgeable Kim Newman) can’t help themselves: there’s so much interesting stuff to talk about, so many connections and parallels, and they’re going to squeeze as much of it in as possible. Cited examples are copious and wide-ranging — if an episode is about a subject you’re interested in, be prepared to see your watch list grow. The best of this trilogy is the third, on cult movies; a genre, as Kermode explains, that is defined not by filmmakers but by audiences. It’s also a particularly wide-ranging field, but one whose contents engender genuine love — what makes them cult movies, after all, is that someone loves them. Kermode helps us to understand why.

    Cobra Kai  Season 2
    Cobra Kai season 2The third season of this Karate Kid TV spinoff/continuation debuted at the start of the month, but I’ve been pacing myself: it’s a really good show and I didn’t want to just burn through it. While I thought season two lacked the moreishness I experienced during season one, I attribute that partly to its quality not coming as a surprise. Also, not tasked with having to set up the whole premise of the show, it can dig a little deeper into what’s already there. That includes more references to the movies. The first is remembered as an ’80s classic; the sequels as an old-fashioned case of diminishing returns — in that situation, many modern revivals choose to ignore the less-favoured follow-ups. Not so Cobra Kai, which this season explicitly references and flashes back to Karate Kid 3 on several occasions. Part of the series’ strength is fleshing out and making real some of the “kids’ movie” logic of the originals, and this season takes on a particularly tough target: the former sensei of Cobra Kai, John Kreese. He’s a bit of an “evil for evil’s sake” villain in the movies, but the series works to add some explanation for that, and even asks if it’s possible that he could be rehabilitated and redeemed, much as former bully Johnny Lawrence has been (or, you might say, is in the process of being).

    The series isn’t just stuck in the past, continuing the rivalries between the high-school-aged students of Cobra Kai and competing Miyagi-Do dojo, both on the karate, er, mat (is that what it’s really called?) and in the romantic realm. I suppose it gives the show a “something for everyone” angle, with both teen melodrama and the reflectiveness of its older characters (one of the season’s best episodes sees Johnny catch up with his old gang from school, one of whom is dying from cancer). All of which builds to a stunning climax: as the kids return to school after the summer break, the opposing factions end up in a karate battle that sprawls through the halls and stairways of the school, fellow students watching and egging them on. It takes up half the episode, including the best hallway fight oner since Daredevil — yes, such lofty comparisons are merited. But, as parents always say, “if you keep doing that, one of you’s going to get hurt”, and so of course it ends in (various kinds of) tragedy. What will happen next?! Oh, season three is already calling to me…

    The Twilight Zone
    The Twilight Zone: SteelSo far on my journey through the original 1959–64 series of The Twilight Zone, I’ve covered ten selections of the best episodes and three of the worst, as chosen by various critics. With 85 episodes still to go, I’m leaving the opinions of others behind (for the time being) to check out some episodes that caught my attention for one reason or another — not because they’re acclaimed as good or derided as bad, but something about the premise grabbed me while I was perusing all those various rankings.

    First up, The Bard, in which an enthusiastic wannabe TV writer uses a magic spell to bring Shakespeare back to life, and persuades the Bard to be his ghostwriter. Serling uses his years of experience to make this a satire of the TV industry, but it’s a pretty mild one — probably due to a mix of the era (when I guess the general public wouldn’t have had too much of an idea about the behind-the-scenes of TV) and the fact Serling still had to work in the industry. Also, it was apparently written in a hurry, and it shows: there are some good lines and moments, but various things don’t pay off or go anywhere. Plus, even the story angle is slightly misjudged: surely the gag here is that Shakespeare’s writing appraised by modern TV execs would be a flop; that TV execs would reject the “greatest writer of all time”. Well, at least we get to see Shakespeare punch a pretentious Method actor (played by a young Burt Reynolds), so there’s that.

    Based on the same Richard Matheson short story that later inspired Hugh Jackman CGI-fest Real Steel, Steel is set in the future year 1974 (remember, this was made in 1964), when boxing has been outlawed and replaced by robot boxing. The episode centres on one bout, between our heroes’ knackered old B2 robot and a more modern B7, against which the B2 doesn’t stand much chance, despite the hopes of its owner, played by Lee Marvin. I’ve not read the original story, but that’s a broadly similar plot to the film; except here things go in a more Twilight Zone direction: when the B2 breaks down entirely, Marvin decides to enter the ring pretending to be it. The ending tries to spin what occurs as some kind of moral about mankind’s tenacity and optimism, but that feels like a bit of a stretch — the remake reimagining the concept as sports/action entertainment is actually a better use of the concept.

    The Twilight Zone: The Old Man in the CaveAn altogether different vision of 1974 is presented in The Old Man in the Cave. This time, it’s a post-apocalyptic world after “the bomb” was dropped, and what’s left of humanity makes do as it can in the remnants of the old world. In particular, one town has survived by following the guidance of an old man who lives in a nearby cave, who seems to know where to plant food, what tinned goods are safe to eat, what the weather will bring, and so on. When a militia turns up (led by James Coburn) planning to bring order to the region, the townsfolk are faced with the choice of continuing to listen to the old man or side with the militia’s view that he’s actually an oppressor and they’re a lot nicer. It turns into a neat little sci-fi fable — the finale says it’s about the error of faithlessness, but I’m more inclined to say it’s about trust in experts vs selfishness and greed. The townsfolk have followed this expert’s guidance for a decade and it’s kept them alive, but that life hasn’t been easy or fun, so they’re tempted by the fantasy sold by the newcomers: that you can have whatever you want; the expert is keeping you down for no reason. Naturally, it can only pan out one way. It’s a story whose moral seems only more pertinent today.

    The Rip Van Winkle Caper also catapults us into the future, as a gang of gold thieves cryogenically freeze themselves to wake up 100 years after their crime, when their loot won’t be ‘hot’ and, as a bonus, will have benefited from 100 years of inflation. But crime doesn’t pay, even in the Twilight Zone — doubly so in this episode, where the crooks bring about their own destruction even before we reach the episode’s ironic twist. As a sci-fi lesson in where greed gets you (nowhere), it’s not the series’ greatest parable, but it’s not bad.

    The Twilight Zone: A Kind of a StopwatchThe same could be said of A Kind of a Stopwatch, which takes on a perennial “what if”: what if you could freeze time? It wasn’t an original idea even when this episode was made in 1964, with Serling once saying he received dozens of pitches a year along those lines. He didn’t think any of them had an original enough take on the concept to be worth adapting, until this one. Frankly, I’m not sure what’s so special about it. That’s not to say it’s bad — it’s a reasonably well handled version, although it falls victim to the series’ regular bad habit of having the main character take much longer than the audience to understand the rules of the situation. But the episode’s real flaw comes at the end, when the punishment doesn’t fit the crime: the main character’s fate is not an ironic twist especially suited to him. It’s that which stops Stopwatch from reaching TZ’s true heights; that leaves it a solid “good” episode when it could possibly have been a great one.

    Things to Catch Up On
    It's a SinThis month, I have mostly been missing It’s a Sin, Russell T Davies’s new drama about a group of friends coming of age amidst the emergence of AIDS in the ’80s. It’s only a couple of episodes in on Channel 4, but the whole five-part series is already available via All 4 (FYI, it’s out in the US on HBO Max in mid-February). I intend to binge the whole thing and review it next month.

    Next month… more WandaVision, more Twilight Zone, plus whatever else the TV Gods still have left in the pre-pandemic tank and/or have managed to produce during the various lockdowns.

    Blindspot 2021: What do you mean you haven’t seen…?

    Now that all my “looking back at 2020” posts are done, it’s time to start the first full week of 2021 wi— sorry, what? Second week? Where did the first one go?! Alright, well, it’ll have to do. So, dragging myself belatedly into the same year as everyone else, it’s time to present my Blindspot picks for 2021.

    The Blindspot challenge (for the benefit of those still unfamiliar with it) involves choosing 12 films you should have seen but haven’t, then watching one a month throughout the year. I started doing this eight years ago, calling it “What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…?” (WDYMYHS for short), but then someone else came up with the same idea independently and gave it a much snappier moniker, and that caught on.

    My 12 films for this year are below in alphabetical order. After that there’s a few stats, and then I’ll explain how and why I chose them.


    Aguirre,
    Wrath of God
    Aguirre, Wrath of God


    The Birth of a Nation
    The Birth of a Nation


    Cinema Paradiso
    Cinema Paradiso


    Come and See
    Come and See


    La Dolce Vita
    La Dolce Vita


    Frankenstein
    Frankenstein


    La Haine
    La Haine


    The Life and Death
    of Colonel Blimp
    The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp


    Pather Panchali
    Pather Panchali


    Rain Man
    Rain Man


    Sansho Dayu
    Sansho Dayu


    Sátántangó
    Sátántangó

    Here’s a few stats about this year’s list…

  • The average running time of the films is 2 hours 36 minutes. Yes, that’s the average. While the shortest film, Frankenstein, runs a measly 1 hour 10 minutes, there are only two others below the two-hour mark, and four that run over 2½ hours. And the longest, Sátántangó, is a whopping 7 hours 19 minutes — that’s longer than six Frankensteins.
  • There’s a spread of exactly 80 years between the oldest film (1915’s The Birth of a Nation) and the newest (1995’s La Haine). Of course, that means the most recent film here is over a quarter of a century old…
  • Exactly eight decades are represented, too. The most prolific is, amusingly enough, the ’80s, with three films. The ’50s and ’90s have two each, and there’s one apiece from the 1910s, ’30s, ’40s, ’60s, and ’70s.
  • The films come from nine countries: three from the USA, two from Italy, with the rest being from France, Germany, Hungary, India, Japan, the Soviet Union, and the UK.
  • There are eight different main languages spoken, plus one silent film. English is the most common with three films, two are in Italian, and the rest encompass Bengali, French, German, Hungarian, Japanese, and Russian.
  • Six of the films are from directors who I’ve never seen a feature from before. They are D.W. Griffith, Werner Herzog, Elem Klimov, Satyajit Ray, Béla Tarr, and Giuseppe Tornatore. (I have seen a short by Griffith before, but this is his first feature for me.)

    I tend to mix up my method for choosing films each year, but for 2021 I’ve retained one thing from last year — itself a legacy of the couple of years where I did two 12-film lists — and that’s to have six films ‘chosen for me’ via a consensus ranking of various “greatest movie” lists, and then to choose the other six myself from my massive unwatched disc pile. Inevitably, the latter seems to get influenced by films that piqued my interest in the former, but, eh, why not? (If you fancy a challenge, feel free to guess which six films belong to which selection process. Answers coming up.)

    The lists that contribute to the “poll of polls” selection can only be varied so much. I mean, there are probably thousands of such lists out there, but there are only a handful that are well known and respected (to one degree or another), and so I tend to use a lot of the same ones every year. You might think that makes which films appear a foregone conclusion — surely they’re the ones that narrowly missed out last year? — but things do change on some of these lists. For example, when I chose last year’s selection, Come and See was ranked 7th on Letterboxd; this year, it’s 2nd. That’s not an insignificant change: when I’m combining multiple lists, a jump like that at the top of a list could be the difference between inclusion and not quite making it. Besides, I do vary my lists and how I count them every year, precisely so as to keep things slightly unknowable.

    This year’s contributing lists were:

  • Letterboxd’s Official Top 250 Narrative Feature Films
  • IMDb’s Top Rated Movies (aka the IMDb Top 250)
  • the Reddit Top 250
  • Empire’s The 500 Greatest Movies of All Time (aka the Empire 500)
  • Empire’s The 100 Best Films of World Cinema
  • Sight & Sound’s 2012 poll, using the 250-film version listed on Letterboxd (the official list only goes to 100)

    A notable absentee this year is They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They?’s The 1,000 Greatest Films, itself a “poll of polls” that is therefore one of, if not the, definitive lists of greatest movies. That’s why I normally include it, and that normality is why I didn’t this year: it’s gone just for the sake of a change. In its place (sort of) is the Empire World Cinema list. It’s shorter than the others, so under my scoring system (which I’ll explain in a moment) it contributed somewhat less than the other lists. That means it served to tweak which foreign films got in, rather than acting to wipe out US/UK films — although, as it turns out, no US films made it through that way.

    So, each poll was scored out of 250 (250 points for 1st place, 249 for 2nd, etc), except the Empire World Cinema one, which was out of 100. Any film beyond 251st place on the Empire 500 earnt one point; and there were 10 additional points for each list a film appeared on (i.e. every film got 10 bonus points, because every film had to be on one list; but if it was on two it got 20, etc.) The full chart ended up including 230 films — that’s everything I hadn’t seen from the Letterboxd, IMDb, Reddit, and Empire World Cinema lists, plus those from the top 150 on Sight & Sound and the Empire 500 (by the time I got to those, I figured any films further down that weren’t on another list didn’t stand a chance; of course, I did include their rankings for all films that were on another list). Further to the plain scores, I also applied other rules — “no repeat directors” is the main one. I used to limit myself to films I already own, but not anymore; and I try to ensure variety in the kinds of films included, to get a spread of ages, countries, genres, etc.

    With all that considered, I think this is the first year I’ve simply accepted the films at the top of the chart without having to eliminate any. The only film to appear on all six lists was Come and See, so perhaps it’s no surprise that it came first with 810 points. Mind you, only one film appeared on five lists (Paris, Texas) and that came 17th, so being on fewer lists with higher ranks could beat merely appearing on many lists. In second place was La Dolce Vita with 647 points; third was Cinema Paradiso with 510; fourth was Pather Panchali with 502; fifth was Sátántangó with 461; and in sixth, just behind it with 460, was The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. Regular readers (or those who’ve clicked and read some of the links in this article) may remember that Come and See and Sátántangó both qualified for the 2020 list, but were removed because new restorations were on the way. Those have now materialised: Come and See on a Criterion disc that I imported, and Sátántangó on very different UK and US discs (it’s also available to rent digitally, which is how I intend to view it).

    As for my ‘free choice’ films, three have a spot on that consensus ranking. They were La Haine (13th, 413 points), Sansho Dayu (16th, 398 points), and Aguirre, Wrath of God (38th, 262 points). You’ll note that none of those films are American, and so my only three picks that are not on the consensus ranking (The Birth of a Nation, Frankenstein, and Rain Man) are also my only three US films. Make of that what you will.

    I’ve spent most of 2021 so far working towards one self-imposed deadline after another, to get all of these end of year/new year posts done, so now I’m looking forward to catching up on other blogs — and actually watching some films!

  • The Past Christmas on TV

    Christmas is properly over now: adults are back at work; kids are back at sch— wait, what? Another lockdown?

    Well, the festive season is over either way, isn’t it? So it’s time for my annual look back at some of the TV highlights. Or what was on, anyway.

    Doctor Who  Revolution of the Daleks
    Doctor Who: Revolution of the DaleksThis year’s Doctor Who special felt like a bid by showrunner Chris Chibnall to keep fans happy. Popular character Captain Jack Harkness is back, properly this time — after a cameo-ish appearance last season, this is his first major role in the show since 2008. And the proper Daleks are back, too — we got a sort-of-Dalek two years ago in the last special, but, after that’s used as the model for an army of “security drones”, the real Daleks turn up to exterminate them, with the 2005-style bronze Daleks making their first full appearance since 2015 (yes, it’s been that long).

    Of course, the one thing most fans would really like Chibnall to do is bugger off and let someone better write the show. He hasn’t given us that gift yet, sadly, but at least this is one of his better episodes. It’s suitably romp-ish for a seasonal special, with plenty of running down corridors, exploding enemies, and the odd gag or two. There’s even some political satire, albeit fairly familiar, heavy-handed, and underdeveloped. Well, that’s Chibnall’s whole style, isn’t it? He can’t seem to escape it, or doesn’t want to (there are surely other writers or script editors he could employ to help point him in the right direction).

    The other big news this episode is the departure of regulars Ryan (Tosin Cole) and Graham (Bradley Walsh). The latter has been one of the highlights of this era, but is given short shrift here. He barely has anything to do all episode — with a cast this big there’s no time for everyone to get emotional subplots (or what Chibnall thinks passes for them), and here they’re shared between the Doctor, Ryan, and Yaz… plus returning villain Robertson, of all people, who is arguably the episode’s main character. What a shitty way to write out two of your leads. And when it comes down to it, Graham only decides to leave the TARDIS because Ryan wants to go, and he wants to spend time with Ryan. Walsh is a fine actor when given the chance, and he deserved better. Ryan’s reasons for leaving aren’t <iquite as underwritten, but Cole does most of the heavy lifting, injecting a lot into unspoken moments to convey what Ryan’s feeling. A bit of screenwriting advice I once read asserted that, if you don’t bother to give your characters subtext, a good actor will invent their own regardless — it feels like that’s what’s happened here; or, at least, Cole has expanded well on the thin material Chibnall gave him.

    In any other recent era, Revolution of the Daleks (an inaccurate title — it should’ve been called something like Purity of the Daleks, or even Security of the Daleks) would be a middle-of-the-road episode, at best. At present, it’s probably going to be remembered as of the highlights of the era. There are now rumours that Jodie Whittaker is planning to leave the show after her next run, having completed the more-or-less standard three series. Well, the wrong person is going: she’s a fine Doctor let down by poor writing, and we’d all be better off if Chibnall would go and let someone else have a crack at giving Whittaker the material she deserves.

    Cinderella  A Comic Relief Pantomime for Christmas
    Cinderella: A Comic Relief Pantomime for ChristmasWith theatres mostly shut this November and December due to Covid restrictions, the UK’s traditional pantomime season was a write-off. But where there’s a will there’s a way, and so an all-star bunch of actors and entertainers (including the likes of Olivia Colman, Helena Bonham Carter, Tom Hollander, and Anya Taylor-Joy, plus multiple surprise cameos) came together over Zoom to record this hour-long panto in aid of Comic Relief. (FYI, there are two versions available: a 60-minute one that aired on BBC Two, and a slightly extended 63-minute cut available on iPlayer.)

    I imagine it would’ve been easier logistically to film everyone separately (and would we have been any the wiser?), but instead they seem to have wrangled all these stars together on the same Zoom call and performed it in more-or-less real-time. That ‘almost live’ aspect adds an element of unpredictability to proceedings — there’s the occasional tech issue, and a fair degree of corpsing and improvisation. Looking at other reviews, I guess this wasn’t to everyone’s taste (“a poor effort when better productions were hidden online”), but I thought it added to the do-it-yourself charm. It’s not a slick production by a bunch of pros, but has an air of fun similar to a bunch of mates doing their best and having a ball. The end result is very silly, of course, but all in the right spirit.

    Roald & Beatrix: The Tail of the Curious Mouse
    Roald & Beatrix: The Tail of the Curious MouseSky’s big special this year was this based-on-a-true-story tale of when a young, bereaved Roald Dahl went on a trip to meet an ageing Beatrix Potter. Two of the great British children’s authors meeting up at very different points in their lives? It’s a wonder no one’s thought to film this before. Although, based on the evidence here, the meeting was fairly short and inconsequential — that they met is an interesting bit of trivia, not a defining moment in either’s life. To get this anecdote up to barely-feature-length (it’s just over an hour without ads), there’s a lot of expanded backstory on both sides. The Roald side feels like it must be broadly true — it’s all about him (and his mother) struggling to cope with the deaths of both his sister and father — but the Beatrix side feels dreamt up to balance it out — it’s just about her arguing with an agent about the contents of her latest book. Eventually, these threads converge on the eponymous pair’s brief meeting… and that’s the end. It’s a slight and gentle film, but it made for moderately charming Christmas Eve fare.

    Comedy Specials
    The Goes Wrong Show: The NativityAs usual, the schedules were full of sitcoms and panel shows offering half-hour doses of festivals merriment. Highlights included a fourth Christmassy edition of The Goes Wrong Show, in which the accident-prone Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society turned their attention to The Nativity, with predictably disastrous — and hilarious — results. I get that Goes Wrong is too silly for some, but it hits just the right note for me. A more heartwarming tone was struck by the Ghosts special, in which Mike’s overbearing family coming to stay (clearly not set this Christmas, then). In keeping with the style of the recent second series, their presence prompted flashbacks to the life of horny MP Julian, which, via a series of kinky sex parties, delivered a message about appreciating your family while you can.

    Meanwhile, Shakespearean sitcom Upstart Crow very much engaged with the current situation in an episode entitled Lockdown Christmas 1603, which imagined Will and his landlady Kate stuck at home during a plague-induced lockdown. Naturally this was a vehicle for observations about present-day life. It would be too kind to call it satire, but it was moderately amusing. After several years of Christmas specials, Not Going Out instead turned its attention to that other major end-of-December event: New Year. A show already fond of gathering its whole cast in a single location for basically a one-act play was perfect fodder for lockdown-constrained filming, and that’s what we get here: everyone gather for New Year’s Eve. Cue their inevitable sniping at one another — but when that gets too much, the assignation of New Year’s resolutions turns into some kind of group therapy session. It’s quite bold of a sitcom to deconstruct its characters’ defining foibles so explicitly, especially when there are more series on the way. One suspects the life lessons learnt won’t last…

    Also watched…
  • Blankety Blank Christmas Special — Yet another revival for the popular gameshow. It was supposedly a one-off, but I suspect it was intended as a backdoor pilot; as it was a ratings hit, I’d wager we’ll see more. I could’ve included it in the comedy roundup, because its main appeal is less as a gameshow and more in the format’s potential for humour.
  • Death to 2020 — I brazenly counted this as a film for statistical reasons, but it’s a TV special really. My full review is here.
  • Have I Got 30 Years for You — An entertaining but also insightful look back at three decades of the predominant news quiz.

    Things to Catch Up On
    Black NarcissusThis Christmas, I have mostly been missing Black Narcissus, the BBC’s three-part re-adaptation of a novel most famous for being adapted into a film by Powell & Pressburger. It’s on iPlayer in UHD now, which is usually an incentive for me to catch it. Talking of three-part re-adaptations, I also didn’t watch Steven Knight’s version of A Christmas Carol — that was on last year, when I didn’t have time for it until after Christmas had passed. “Guess I’ll have to try to remember to watch it next year, then,” I said. Oops.

    Next month… Perhaps Cobra Kai. After loving season one, I deliberately didn’t rush on to season two so that I didn’t burn through it too fast before season three. Then Netflix announced season three for early January, and then moved it forward to January 1st, and now instead of nicely spacing it out I just feel very far behind. Must resist the urge to burn through two seasons now instead…