Once Upon a Time … in August 2019

After a couple of months that looked like a throwback to the 100 Films of six years ago (i.e. 2013, the last time I had two consecutive months with five films or fewer), August’s tally looks more like the blog’s past few years. I can thank Quentin Tarantino for that: as you may be aware (especially if you’ve been following my review roundups this month), in advance of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood he programmed a series of ten related movies — and I watched all of them, meaning he single-handedly pushed me back up over the ten-film threshold.

More on all that in a moment. As always, we begin with the list of my viewing…


#104 Dumbo (2019)
#105 The Favourite (2018)
#106 Model Shop (1969)
#107 Getting Straight (1970)
#108 Arizona Raiders (1965)
#109 Gunman’s Walk (1958)
#110 Road to Zanzibar (1941)
#111 Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (2008)
#112 Hammerhead (1968)
#113 Cactus Flower (1969)
#114 Easy Rider (1969)
#115 The Wrecking Crew (1968)
#116 Battle of the Coral Sea (1959)
#117 Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969)
#118 Zatoichi at Large (1972), aka Zatôichi goyôtabi
#119 Viceroy’s House (2017)
#120 Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019)
#121 Rififi (1955), aka Du rififi chez les hommes
#122 Les diaboliques (1955), aka Diabolique
Gunman's Walk

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

Rififi

.


  • So, I watched 19 new feature films in August.
  • That marks something of a return to normal after a low-totalling June and July. Although, as I said at the start, Quentin Tarantino is mainly to thank for that: if he hadn’t programmed that series of films, this month’s total would be down at nine. (Of course, if I hadn’t been watching those films then I might’ve watched others; but it certainly wouldn’t‘ve been as many.)
  • But 19 it is, and that makes it my best August in over a decade. In fact, you have to go right back to 2007, this blog’s first year, to find one with a higher total.
  • It also provides a boost to all my flagging stats, beating and increasing the averages for August (previously 11.9, now 12.5), 2019 to date (previously 14.7, now 15.25), and the rolling average of the last 12 months (previously 15.9, now 16.3).
  • This month’s viewing also included the 2,000th film listed on my reviews index… but as I haven’t posted 159 of those yet (egads!), I’m actually a long way off genuinely celebrating 2,000 reviews.
  • This month’s Blindspot films were a double-bill of exceptional French crime thrillers from 1955, Rififi and Les diaboliques. Watching two means I’ve caught up after missing one in June
  • …but I chose to watch another Blindspot at the expense of this month’s WDYMYHS film, so now I’m behind on that instead. Give with one hand, take away with the other, etc.
  • From last month’s “failures” I watched Dumbo (which was also an April failure), and that was it.



The 51st Monthly Arbitrary Awards

Favourite Film of the Month
Quite a few really good films this month, some of them expected (The Favourite, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood), others very pleasant surprises (Gunman’s Walk, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day), but my pick of the bunch is French crime thriller Rififi. The famous half-hour dialogue-free heist scene lives up to its hype, but the rest of the movie is no slouch either.

Least Favourite Film of the Month
While I was watching and writing about that Tarantino marathon, it all felt a bit underwhelming. Reconsidered with hindsight, I did like most of what he scheduled, but it suffered overall because the lows were pretty darn low while the highs weren’t that high. One was my clear least-favourite, however, and that was The Wrecking Crew. As I wrote in my review, “this is the kind of mediocre imitation that gives you a new appreciation for even the worst Bond movies.”

The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
It’s Tarantino again! Well, sort of. The four roundups I posted of his movie marathon topped this chart for most of the month, with the opening double-bill and the spy-fi selection duking it out for first place (the former won that local derby, by just one view). But such tussles were rendered meaningless when my 50th TV column came storming in (powered, no doubt, by its review of Peaky Blinders season four) to dominate all other new posts. (Though, in terms of all posts, it didn’t even crack the top 20.)



Ohhh dear — I didn’t rewatch any films again. Having also watched none in June, and only one in July, that makes my average for the last quarter of the year 0.3 when it should be 4.2. Totted up, I’m 12 films behind schedule. There’s still four months of the year left, but if I make my goal of 50 I’ll be surprised — I’ll need to up that average from 0.3 to 7.3, a dizzying 24-fold increase.


Despite redoubling my viewing efforts, I still had plenty of misses this month. On the big screen, major titles included actioners Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Show (to use its marginally-shortened UK title) and Angel Has Fallen. Also of note was a theatrical re-release of Apocalypse Now. Well, as it was the new “Final Cut”, you could argue it’s not technically a re-release. It’s also now out on disc in the US, and it was due in the UK too, but late in the day it was pushed back to next month. Hey-ho.

Talking of discs, I picked up quite a few. New releases included Shazam (previously mentioned in April’s failures) and Indicator’s Marlene Dietrich & Josef von Sternberg at Paramount set, which duplicates the six films contained in Criterion’s similar set from 2018, as well as Avengers: Endgame in 3D (which is out tomorrow but turned up yesterday). Plus, thanks to sales and/or discounts, I’ve now added Black Book, Black Hawk Down (in 4K), The Cooler, and, erm, Iron Sky: The Coming Race to my kevyip. Also, just dropping in at the last minute thanks to a brief price drop on Amazon Italy, the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes films in HD — so that’s another 14 movies. Sometimes I feel I need more restraint (though I’ve had my eye on that Holmes set for ages. Waiting has its benefits).

In fact, actually, there were several title of interest that made it to disc but I didn’t purchase: the new Hellboy (forgot to mention that whenever it was in cinemas!); the new Laika, Missing Link; the latest direct-to-video DC animation, Batman: Hush; and a rather spiffy new edition of In Bruges, which is limited and so I’m itching with worry that it’ll sell out before I allocate funds for it. But it’s looking like an expensive few months to come, with several big, limited, expensive box sets on my radar…

Finally, streaming offered nothing new in the movie department, with the possible exception of The Crystal Calls — the making-of for Netflix’s new Dark Crystal TV series, but it’s feature length and listed as a “Netflix Film”, so why shouldn’t it count as a ‘proper’ movie? In terms of non-exclusive stuff coming onto the streamers, added to my Netflix radar were mother!, 3 Idiots (a Bollywood film that’s on the IMDb Top 250), and Shakespeare in Love (one of only two Best Picture winners from the last 30 years that I’ve not seen), while Amazon offered Lars von Trier’s latest, The House That Jack Built, and a film more noteworthy for its troubled production history than anything else (because apparently it’s not very good) Tulip Fever.

That’s 39 films I’ve just listed, vs the 19 I actually watched. Really, there’s no hope…


Well, I’m away (again!) for the first week, so it’s going to be a slow start. But maybe later I’ll manage to get both Blindspot and WDYMYHS back on track at the same time. That’d be nice.

Advertisements

The Past Month on TV #50

Last month, I said this month would hopefully feature Stranger Things 3, Veronica Mars season 4, and The Boys season 1. It doesn’t. Not any of them. But I’m not short of other things to write about…

Years and Years
Years and YearsThe writer most popularly known for reviving Doctor Who, Russell T Davies, returns to science fiction for the first time in almost a decade with this acclaimed miniseries. This is a very different kind of sci-fi, though — no space invaders or malicious AI or mad scientists here. No, this story begins in 2019 as we know it and then moves across the next 15 years to explore just where we’re headed, in a realistic and grounded way. It focuses on a normal family from Manchester — four siblings, their grandmother, and assorted spouses and children — and how the changes in society and technology affect them. It’s a story of the ordinary people; the folks who don’t shape history, history happens around and to them.

Cannily, it dodges the Brexit bullet — there are implications it went ahead, but it doesn’t have any bearing on the story: these big changes are happening everywhere anyway, whether Britain leaves the EU or not. What it is aware of is how much society and technology are now intertwined. In the first episode, a teenager comes out to her parents as trans — not trans gender, but transhuman. She wants to ditch the limitations of flesh and live forever as data. Some people will scoff at that, but the way it’s presented and plays out over the next five episodes is highly plausible. RTD tackles a whole host of societal issues in a similar way — immigration, the gig economy, nationalism, etc — all mixed together in a way that reflects real life. After all, we’re never just dealing with or worried about one thing at a time, especially nowadays.

As someone who grew up in the ’90s and ’00s, learning about the Cold War as an historical event, I sometimes wondered how people lived their day-to-day lives with the constant threat of nuclear annihilation. Except that’s not what it was actually like, was it? It may’ve been there, in the background, ebbing and spiking depending on the political factors of the day, but people just got on with their everyday lives while that played out on the news. It’s the same nowadays, isn’t it? There’s so much crap going on in the world, and most of it we just see on the news — unless it happens to butt into our own lives for whatever reason. And Years and Years is that same thing, but projected into future events; and not fantastical things, like a mission to Mars or an AI breakthrough, but a very plausible extrapolation of where we’re headed.

Personally, I thought it was a work of borderline genius. RTD has always had a way with characters — of quickly shading in believable individuals, their families and lives; of writing scenes that sing with dialogue and interactions that seem plucked straight from real life — and here that’s married with an imaginative vision of the near future, the two working in harmony to create a drama that’s also a warning about what we’re getting ourselves into… although it’s also an admonishment, showing us what we’ve got ourselves into and wondering if it’s too late to stop it. But there’s a dash of hope in there, too; just a sliver of “maybe it’ll be mostly OK in the end.” Fingers crossed.

Peaky Blinders  Series 4
Peaky Blinders series 4Birmingham’s premier gangsters return with a storyline that forces them to reckon with their past actions. So it’s unfortunate that this is a show that can’t be doing with recaps at the start of episodes. I spent most of the first instalment trying to remember the events of previous series and how they’d led to where things were, which is an unwelcome distraction that could be easily solved with a simple “previously on” at the opening. I don’t know why Netflix hate them so much (well, I do — it’s the assumption you’ll just binge-watch everything, and if you don’t then they want you to feel you have to; and we’re all just buying into what we’re told to do, which is half the problem (funnily enough, that’s a lot of what Years & Years was all about…)

Anyway, once things get up and running, and you can get your head around what’s going on enough to be going on with, this is another thrilling story of ’20s criminality. Adrien Brody pops in as a series-long guest star, a Mafia enforcer from New York who has a vendetta against the Blinders because they killed his dad, and now he’s brought his American muscle to wipe them out. With bigger forces out to gobble them up, the Blinders must rely once again on a mix of their wits and straightforward firepower. The show itself is the same, blending together tricksy plotting (Tommy Shelby may always have a plan, but we’re not always privy to it until after the fact) and impressively staged action scenes (there’s an extended shoot-out at the start of episode five that must’ve eaten up a lot of the budget; and if it didn’t, they’ve done a good job making it look like it did). In fact, the series as a whole looks stunning — style drips off the screen, whether it be the slow-mo hero walks or the pulsating rock soundtrack.

For my money, the plot was a little smaller-scale than previous seasons, despite involving ever-bigger outside forces, which made it feel almost like an extended movie rather than a dense season of television. But don’t take that criticism too much to heart — previous seasons may’ve been even better in my personal estimation, but this is still top-drawer drama.

Unforgotten  Series 3
Unforgotten series 3Where the other shows reviewed this month are big, brassy productions told on a mythic scale, Unforgotten is almost the opposite, and yet it tackles themes no less grand. But it’s a quiet, understated drama, as London detectives Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar (along with their team) investigate a cold-case murder, in the process having to tackle the fallout that time has wrought on the victims left behind.

This time, the skeleton of a teenage girl is found under a motorway, and it turns out to be a girl who disappeared on December 31st, 1999, and was a huge story at the time, which naturally leaves our little team under intense media scrutiny. (It’s somewhat amusing seeing this ITV-produced show get to use real ITV News presenters and graphics while the hero characters are slagging off the attitudes and methods of the media.) Unforgotten has the usual murder mystery array of suspects for us to theorise about, but what it also does well is portray the terrible sadness of such crimes. Reveals in the final episode push the storyline in a slightly different direction which allow it to pull focus in a different direction, too, although I’m not sure it really has the time or space to dig into that aspect.

Like Peaky Blinders, I don’t think this was the very best series of the programme (series two was harder hitting and even more emotionally complex), but it’s still more or less on form. It wears its heart on its sleeve, trying to treat these victims and suspects not just as pawns in an elaborate guessing game, but as real people whose lives have been torn apart. That makes it one of the better cop shows on TV, I think.

Also watched…
  • Agatha Raisin Series 2 Episodes 1-3 — Sky 1’s murder mystery series (which they cancelled but an American outfit revived and now they just buy in) is the very definition of cosy crime, though with enough humour that it plays more like a rom-com than a crime drama. Also, looks surprisingly gorgeous in UHD. Happily, there’s a third lot in production.
  • Beecham House Series 1 Episodes 4-6 — Oh yes, I stuck with this to the end. (Please let this be the end.)
  • Grantchester Series 4 Episodes 5-6 — Been catching up with this in bits and pieces, but just realised I’ve not mentioned it until now. James Norton’s gone off to bigger things (Joss Whedon’s new show, to be precise), so they’ve got a new co-lead, who’s fine. This season attempted an arc subplot with contemporary social relevance (a woman being harassed by a coworker), which went for the happy modern-ish ending rather than what I expect was the full misery of actually suffering that kind of thing in the 1950s.
  • Lucifer Season 3 Episodes 1-3 — Since I last watched it Lucifer has been cancelled, revived, recommissioned, and extended (Netflix ordered a ten-episode final season but, after fan outcry, added a further six), so I thought it was about time I got on with it. It’s a fun show, that I’ll probably be watching in drabs and drabs for a while. (See my reviews of seasons one and two, which broadly apply to season three as well.)
  • Susan Calman’s Fringe Benefits Series 1 — A mix of chat and standup from the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Calman’s an infectiously jolly host, and the chance to get an overview of different acts, including ones you don’t see on TV as often, is nice. If anything, it’s a shame it’s only three 45-minute episodes — there’s so much going on at the Fringe, I expect they could do a half-hour every night and still not touch the sides.

    Things to Catch Up On
    Wu AssassinsThis month, I have mostly been missing Wu Assassins on Netflix, starring Iko “The Raid” Uwais. The trailers look perhaps a bit cheesy, but also promise regular doses of Uwais’ incredible combat skills, so that’ll do me. Elsewhere, Preacher has embarked on its fourth and final season. Considering I’ve not seen most of season two and none of season three, that’s a bigger catchup project. And talking of stuff I’ve not seen, I never got round to Mindhunter season one, even though David Fincher directed some of it, and now there’s a second season, which he’s also partly directed. Considering it’s been five years since his last movie, I do kinda need that Fincher fix…

    Next month… take your pick for what I’ll’ve watched and what I’ll’ve missed out of Peaky Blinders season 5 (starts tonight), Dad’s Army: The Lost Episodes (starts tonight), Sanditon (starts tonight), The Great British Bake Off (starts on Tuesday), Carnival Row (out on Friday), and The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance (out on Friday). Bear in mind: I’ve only just finished one season of Peaky Blinders, and I didn’t much like The Dark Crystal. (Why do I feel like that means it’ll be the only one of these I end up actually watching…)

  • The Eleventy-First Monthly Review of July 2019

    I’ve been writing 100 Films for 151 months now, but I only instituted these monthly progress reports in May 2010 — and that makes this the 111th one! I think that’s worthy of a Hobbity celebration…

    I don't know half of you half as well as I should like, and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.

    Coincidentally, it’s also the 50th month of these “new look” monthly updates (the ones with the funny titles and all the formal sections), which means it’s also the 50th iteration of my Arbie Awards. You can see how I’ve honoured that special occasion when you reach the relevant section.

    But before that, there’s this…


    #99 Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman (1971), aka Shin Zatôichi: Yabure! Tôjinken
    #100 The Killer (1989), aka Dip huet seung hung
    #101 Toy Story 4 (2019)
    #102 Sherlock Jr. (1924)
    #103 The Lion King (2019)
    The Killer
    .


    • So, I watched just five feature films in July.
    • That continues my new fewer-than-10-films-per-month streak. Once upon a time such numbers were my norm (from 2008-2013, 58% of months had 9 or fewer films), but for the past few years it, er, really wasn’t (in 2014-2018, 95% of months had 10 or more films).
    • My longest previous fewer-than-ten streak was 7 months, from June to December 2011. If 2019 continues the way it’s going, it could replicate that exactly. But, equally, a lot can change: at the end of July 2016 I was at #127 and went on to finish the year with 195, and in July 2017 I was at #107 and ended on 174; but July 2015 was lower than both of those, ending at #102, and I went on to reach 200. So while I’ll be very surprised if 2019 even comes close to last year’s 261, never say never.
    • In terms of averages, it’s distinctly less heartening. It takes the average for July down from 9.9 to 9.5, leaving it as the only month with an average lower than 10. It also brings the 2019-to-date average down from 16.3 to 14.7, and the rolling average of the last 12 months down from 17.8 to 15.9.
    • Of of the five films I did watch, one was #100 — later than I’d anticipated, because my underwhelming June tally didn’t get me there, but still the 3rd earliest #100 ever (behind 2018 (10th May) and 2016 (28th May), and ahead of 2017 (15th July)).
    • It was a double catch-up for last month, too: I missed my should-be-monthly Blindspot film in June, so made a selection from that list to be 2019’s illustrious #100. My pick was John Woo’s career-defining heroic bloodshot classic The Killer. Still holds up today, for my money. It’d be nice if we could get a quality Blu-ray release of it, though.
    • And this month’s WDYMYHS film was Buster Keaton’s slapstick classic Sherlock Jr. At 45 minutes, it’s just long enough to qualify as a feature rather than a short. As well as the comedy, it has madcap stunts Tom Cruise would be proud of, and technical effects that still hold up almost 100 years later.
    • Finally, from last month’s “failures” I watched only Toy Story 4. Well, one is better than none…



    The 50th Monthly Arbitrary Awards

    It’s the 50th Arbie Awards! In honour of that milestone, I’m… not doing anything special whatsoever. So let’s get on with this:

    Favourite Film of the Month
    Not much to choose from, though I did really enjoy almost all of the limited selection of films I did watch. The winner, though, is an action movie… and also a comedy: Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr., which (as I said above) is not only very funny but also technically audacious and full of daredevil stunts.

    Least Favourite Film of the Month
    This is an easy pick. I didn’t hate it, but I was certainly left underwhelmed by Jon Favreau’s too-faithful live-action animated remake of animation The Lion King.

    Song That Should’ve Been Retitled of the Month
    Can You Feel the Love Tonight This Afternoon?

    Joke I Stole from Letterboxd of the Month
    See above + here.

    The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
    It was a relatively meagre month for new posts. Well, in fact, there were 10, and my average for the first six months of 2019 was 13, so maybe not so relatively low after all. Whatever, none of those new posts challenged archival ones for popularity: this month’s victor may’ve been a Netflix new release (outside the US) but it only came 39th overall. Perhaps Shaft isn’t the man after all.



    I didn’t rewatch a single film last month, which means I’ve got a mountain to climb to get to my goal of 50 rewatches this year — and July is barely helping…

    #21 Die Another Day (2002)

    To stay on target I should be on about #28 by this point. Oh dear. And the one I did watch was a fluke: I happened across it on TV the other day and ended up sucked in. So, okay, I didn’t really watch it — certainly not all of it — but I did see a fair bit of it; probably a comparable amount to when I caught Skyfall on TV last year, and I counted that, so here it is. I’m still intending to re-watch all of Bond properly at some point (or at least pick up where I left off, which was with OHMSS); but then I’ve been meaning to do that ever since the Bond 50 Blu-ray set came out in 2012…


    I made a couple of trips to the cinema this month, but I still missed some big titles — primarily, Spider-Man: Far from Home. There was also Richard Curtis/Danny Boyle/Beatles comedy Yesterday (which actually came out in June, but I didn’t mention it last month), and smaller releases (which therefore weren’t necessarily playing near me or at accessible times) like Midsommar and The Dead Don’t Die. (If you’re a US-based reader wondering why I haven’t mentioned Quentin Tarantino’s successful new film, it’s not out here for another two weeks.)

    Last month I noted that some cinema misses from February had now made it to disc, where I’d missed them again. That’s also true this month, with the release of Alita: Battle Angel. The same was true of Dumbo, though that was from my April failures — the fact it and Alita have now reached disc at about the same time shows something about the vagaries of release windows, I guess. Finally on disc, a rewatch candidate: Captain Marvel (not that I’ve posted a review from when I saw it in the cinema yet).

    The noisiest releases on streaming this month were TV series, but a couple of Amazon co-productions came to Prime Video: Mike Leigh’s Peterloo, and Beautiful Boy, with a BAFTA-nominated performance from Timothée Chalamet. As for Netflix, they offered doc The Great Hack, about the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which is the kind of thing that’s destined to sit on my watch list for ever and a day. They also threw up some stuff I missed from last year in the form of Paul Feig’s black-comedy mystery A Simple Favour and acclaimed comedy-drama Blindspotting.


    So, in conclusion, July’s prospects were marred by my being away on holiday for almost half the month. Perhaps that means August will see things perk up again…

    The Past Month on TV #49

    I’ve only got a small selection of TV viewings to offer this month (check out the “things to catch up on” section for all the big stuff I’ve missed), but at least that means it can be headlined by a series that I hope gets the attention it deserves…

    Year of the Rabbit  Series 1
    Year of the RabbitRipper Street gets a comedic makeover in Channel 4’s recent comedy series, which stars Matt Berry (of Toast of London fame, and also recently seen starring in the series version of What We Do in the Shadows) as a Victorian detective by the name of Rabbit. He investigates murders and other nefarious goings-on amid the scum of the East End accompanied by a rookie posh-boy sidekick (Freddie Fox) and the force’s first female officer (Susan Wokoma).

    Rabbit juggles three things at once: being a comedy, being a case-of-the-week cop show (with basic storylines that would hold up in a genuine cop show), and also a conspiracy arc plot. That it pulls all three off (just about) with only c.25 minutes per episode is impressive. In that respect it reminded me a bit of BBC Two’s wonderful The Wrong Mans, which was definitely a comedy but also definitely a crime thriller. The style and tone of the humour is very different, mind: Wrong Mans was quite grounded, whereas this is kookier and borderline surreal, as you’d expect from Berry, really. By way of example: every episode features an aside of street urchins selling a different East End delicacy, like “twigs in a bun”. It’s also quite freewheeling: running gags are quickly established and just as quickly abandoned; other things that seemed like discardable bits come back later.

    The three leads are stars that ably carry the show. Berry’s talents are well documented (I guess to a lot of people he’s Toast, but I’ve never actually got round to that. I always remember him from one of his first roles, in Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace). Fox’s family legacy may suggest he could play “posh boy” in his sleep, but a stint undercover as a Cockney geezer proves his range. Wokoma more than holds her own as the young woman determined to break into the police (her dad may be the boss, but he’s no help) and prove she’s as good as the guys. The recurring supporting cast are their equal, including Paul Kaye as a rival copper out to ruin Rabbit, Keeley Hawes as a scheming feminist, and, most memorably, David Dawson as a theatrically camp Joseph ‘Elephant Man’ Merrick (under a movie-quality prosthetic — the production values are no slouch either). There’s also blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameos from Berry’s Shadows collaborators, Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement.

    Rabbit wraps up its arc plot, but ends with a tantalising tease for a second series storyline. It’s not been recommissioned yet, but I’ve optimistically labelled this “series one” because the writers already have ideas for more and, well, I really want some more.

    The Twilight Zone  ‘Best Of’
    Shadow PlayHaving exhausted the top tens of both IMDb’s and ScreenCrush’s Twilight Zone episode rankings in my four previous “best of” selections, I’ve still only scratched the surface of the series: I’ve reviewed 16 episodes, which is 10% of the 156 that were produced. Now: the only reason I’ve been using ScreenCrush’s list is that I happened to see it on Twitter — it’s certainly not the only ranking of its kind. So after a bit of Googling for alternatives (which included rejecting BuzzFeed’s list because it was consistently illustrated with bloody big spoilers), I’ve decided to use Paste’s ranking to dictate which episodes I watch next. That’s partially because 50% of their top ten is episodes that weren’t in either IMDb’s or ScreenCrush’s, so that’s quite interesting. Indeed, their writer, Oktay Ege Kozak, has some very different opinions to ScreenCrush’s Matt Singer, as we’ll soon see…

    First, for reference, the episodes in Paste’s top ten that I’ve already reviewed are: Eye of the Beholder (Paste’s #1, IMDb’s #3, ScreenCrush’s #11); The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street (Paste’s #2, IMDb’s #5, ScreenCrush’s #1); Time Enough at Last (Paste’s #3, IMDb’s #4, ScreenCrush’s #4); Nightmare at 20,000 Feet (Paste’s #5, IMDb’s #2, ScreenCrush’s #14); and The Hitch-Hiker (Paste’s #8, IMDb’s #21, ScreenCrush’s #6). Not a huge deal of disagreement there, but some of the gaps are about to get wild.

    Indeed, the second-biggest difference is up first: season two’s Shadow Play is right up in 4th on Paste’s list, but a whopping 98 places lower at 102nd on ScreenCrush (it’s 22nd on IMDb). It’s the story of a man sentenced to execution, who claims that they’re all living inside his dream and if he’s executed everyone else will cease to exist. Is he trying to plead insanity… or might he just be telling the truth? Paste are on the money here: this is a great little story, with Dennis Weaver as the condemned man driven to the brink by (he claims) being executed over and over in a never-ending nightmare; and, on the other side, the DA and court reporter struggle with the idea that he might be telling the truth, meaning they’re not people at all but mere figments in someone else’s dream. It’s a horror story of a nightmare and an existential musing all in one, with a strong vein of tension about what will happen in the end. Kozak praises it for pulling all that off, but Singer counters that “the premise is too convoluted [with] two ideas that would each work more effectively on their own.” I can see where he’s coming from, but I don’t wholly agree — if you disconnect the two ideas, they’d both need something to fill the resultant gap in order to function as narratives.

    Five Characters in Search of an ExitThere’s closer agreement about Paste’s 6th choice, season three’s Five Characters in Search of an Exit, which ranks 14th on IMDb and 32nd on ScreenCrush. Singer writes that “if you enjoy the movie Cube you have this episode written by Serling from a story by Marvin Petal to thank,” which immediately put it high on my must-see list because I love Cube. This has a similar premise: five mismatched strangers awaken in a featureless metal cylinder, each with no memory of who they are and how they got there. The top of their de facto prison is open — if they can just climb up there, maybe they can find answers. The result is both a mystery drama about just what’s going on, and something of a character study on dealing and coping with situations you can’t explain or change. Naturally, there’s a twist ending. In fact, at one point the characters, theorising about why and how and where they are, list a bunch of options that all sound like Twilight Zone endings. It’s quite a bold move, really; almost acknowledging the show’s MO, and casually discarding a bunch of potential conclusions in the process — and if one of them was your guess, well, the show’s just laughingly dismissed you before the halfway mark! Weirdly, though, I did manage to guess the twist pretty precisely from early on. I’m not sure how, really — blind luck, I think, because there’s nothing to tip its hand. Possibly it’s just experience: as with so many Twilight Zone twists, this was probably highly innovative and/or unusual back in the ‘60s, but has been imitated and copied (deliberately or otherwise) since. Still, as a mystery thriller, the episode is as good as any of the similar works that have been produced in its wake.

    The InvadersOne of the series’ more famous episodes is in 7th place for Paste (IMDb #28, ScreenCrush #58): The Invaders, starring Agnes Moorehead as the lone inhabitant of a remote shack, who must suddenly deal with hostile six-inch spacemen landing their saucer on her roof. It’s a near-silent drama, as Moorehead is terrorised by the miniature monsters and struggles to fend them off. And, obviously, there’s a twist. I don’t want to sound boastful, but, yeah, I saw it coming. I’ve said this many times now, but I really do suspect the series is a victim of its own success in this regard — it’s 60 years old and highly influential, so of course all the media a modern viewer has experienced leaves us ready to guess the outcomes. Actually, I bet it’d be a great show for kids — a formative experience; and, with less media exposure, the twists might retain the appropriate level of mind-blowing-ness. Anyway, at least The Invaders has more going for it than just the final reveal, with the woman vs the mini-spacemen playing like a tense horror movie. There’s a lot of praise for Moorehead’s performance, but I thought she was overacting somewhat in compensation for her lack of dialogue. In fairness, though, this was made for 1961 TV sets — with no speech to work with, the performance needed to be ‘big’ to come over on those tiny tellies. Unfortunately, it’s another mark against the episode when watched in HD on a modern setup.

    Two season one episodes round out Paste’s top ten, both of which are placed considerably higher than on ScreenCrush’s list. In 9th place is Perchance to Dream, which is ranked way down at 128th on ScreenCrush, and 87th on IMDb — both sizeable gaps, and in this case I side with the latter. It’s about a man with a weak heart who thinks his dreams are trying to kill him, only it’s somehow much more dull than that setup sounds. It doesn’t even have any great point or twist to cap it off. Kozak reckons this is a “haunting, cinematically captivating campfire story [that] never lets go of its meticulously built suspense until the wickedly unforgiving finale,” an opinion I don’t agree with a word of, sadly. Singer says that “while Conte’s character is terrified to fall asleep, the whole thing is a bit of snooze,” and that I do agree with.

    The LonelyFinally for now is The Lonely, which is ranked 10th on Paste (obv.) but only 105th on ScreenCrush (IMDb is much closer at 27th). Sorry to harp on about this, but here’s another episode that may’ve been great once but recent years have seen other films and TV series tackle similar themes in much greater depth, far surpassing the mere 20-odd minutes it’s afforded here. Indeed, this is the rarest of things in my experience: a Twilight Zone episode where 25 minutes isn’t enough to explore its concept. It’s about a man imprisoned in solitary confinement. His cell? An entire asteroid (filmed on location in Death Valley, which adds a magnificent grit and desolation to the visuals). He’s visited quarterly by a supply ship, and after a few years the captain takes pity on him and brings a robot woman to be his companion. It’s as good a setup as any, but the episode simply doesn’t have the time to dig into the questions and musings it throws up — though it’s not helped by wasting most of the first half on chatter between the prisoner and the captain, establishing their relationship more fully than the one between the prisoner and his robo-woman; a relationship the episode supposedly hinges on.

    So if there’s one Twilight Zone episode that begs to be remade and expanded upon, it’s this one. It’s even ripe for someone to add one of the series’ trademark ironic twists — I thought of two or three while watching, but the episode itself doesn’t have one, exactly (I mean, it kinda does, but it’s more a plot development than a final, cruel twist of the knife like the series’ best). But then again, does it need remaking when other storytellers have already taken up this episode’s theme and expounded on it better? This is a forerunner to the likes of Her and Ex Machina and Blade Runner 2049 and the Westworld TV series. You’ll note those are all very recent works (the eldest, Her, has yet to reach its 6th anniversary), which perhaps shows how far ahead of its time The Twilight Zone was. But their thoughtfulness also really shows up how little The Lonely actually has to say about its subject matter.

    Also watched…
  • Ghosts Series 1 Episodes 5-6 — Accidentally fell behind on this and only just finished it. My review of the first half of the series is here and still applies. Happily, it’s already been recommissioned for a second series.
  • How to Break into the Elite — This sounds like a bit of a “get rich quick” documentary or something, but it was actually far more insightful. Basically, about how class is the last great barrier to employment in the UK; the one thing recruiters still discriminate on (even if it’s subconsciously, or they don’t say it). To some (i.e. those who’ve struggled in the system) it might all feel obvious, but there’s evidence and proof to back it up. It’s available on iPlayer (for another 11 months) if you’re interested.
  • University Challenge Series 49 Episodes 1-3 — An excellent show for making you feel astoundingly unknowledgeable. I kill it whenever a film- or TV-related picture round comes up, though.

    Things to Catch Up On
    Stranger Things 3This month, I have mostly been missing Stranger Things season 3, which seems to have provoked controversy with some of its character decisions (I’ve been avoiding spoilers, but have seen news headlines that imply as much); and Veronica Mars season 4, which, er, seems to have provoked controversy with some of its character decisions (I’ve been avoiding spoilers, but have also seen news headlines that imply as much). As they’re only eight episodes apiece, hopefully I’ll have found time for them before next month’s column. (Veronica Mars still doesn’t have a UK broadcaster (in fact, I don’t think it has one anywhere outside of the US and Canada, I guess thanks to it being on Hulu (though other Hulu shows have international carriers, so who knows what’s going on here)), but where there’s a will there’s a way.) And if that wasn’t enough, Amazon also recently released subversive comic book adaptation The Boys, which also looks right within my wheelhouse. That’s also eight episodes, incidentally. I seem to remember reading a while ago that Netflix’s research suggested eight was the optimum number of episodes to have in a season nowadays. I guess everyone took that to heart.

    Next month… see above (with crossed fingers).

  • Il blogger prodigo

    Aside

    Buongiorno, dear readers — the prodigal blogger has returned! (“Prodigal” being a word I’ve here misused, as I’m sure many of us do, thanks to that Biblical story. Though as it actually means “spending money freely and recklessly”, anyone who’s seen the size of my unwatched DVD and Blu-ray collection might consider it fitting after all.)

    So, I’ve just spent two weeks in Italy, much of it during a heat wave (Jesus wept, it was hot), so at least I got to laze about doing next to nothing. I certainly didn’t spend it learning Italian — almost the entirety of the vocabulary I picked up has already been used in this post. I didn’t spend it writing blog posts either, as it turned out (I favoured reading books instead) — so that’s why there are no new reviews just yet, but instead this brief post to note my return.

    Anyhow, I’ve got plenty of blog-reading and review-writing to catch up on now, so if you’ll excuse me again…

    The Puny Monthly Review of June 2019

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


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

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

    Deadwood: The Movie
    .


    • So, I only watched 4 new feature films in June.
    • On the downside, that ends a five-year streak of watching at least 10 films every month. (A streak that lasted exactly five years, by-the-way — I forgot to mention that last month.)
    • On the bright side, it means there’s some slightly different stuff to talk about in these stats. Like, for example, that June 2019 is the lowest-totalling month since June 2013, which was six whole years ago.
    • It’s the 150th month of 100 Films, by-the-by, but also the 15th with 4 or fewer films. That means it’s in the bottom 10% of all months, which is its own kind of achievement.
    • It takes the average for June down from 10.5 to 10.0, meaning it just keeps its head above the waterline for something I’ve been working on for a while now, i.e. getting every month’s average above 10. (The only remaining outlier is July, which is on 9.9, so that’ll be fun next month…)
    • It also takes the average for 2019 so far down from 18.8 to 16.3, and the rolling average of the last 12 months down from 19.3 to 17.8.
    • This month’s WDYMYHS film: true-story French comedy-drama Untouchable, aka Intouchables in its original language, aka The Intouchables in the US. It’s amusing and heartwarming, but its elevated position on lists like the IMDb Top 250 oversells it somewhat.
    • There’s no Blindspot film this month. If I hadn’t upped my goal to 12 films on both lists that’d be fine, but now I’ve got one to catch up.
    • I also watched nothing from last month’s “failures”, so I guess that makes them a double failure. Oh dear.



    The 49th Monthly Arbitrary Awards

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

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

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

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

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



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


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

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

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


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

    The Past Month on TV #48

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • The Surprisingly Thorough Considering How Quickly I Dashed It Off Monthly Review of May 2019

    Hello, fine readers! I’m going to have to make this quick, because I’m actually right in the middle of a house move. The palaver around that has led to regular tail-offs in posting over the past few months, and during May in particular, though it hasn’t had too much affect on my actual viewing, as you’ll soon see (June may be another story, but that’s next month’s discussion).

    That’s also why there isn’t my usual header image for this post — they take a disproportionality long time to put together (whereas the post itself is still fairly lengthy because, as the famous adage alludes, it’s easier to write something long than something short). Hopefully I’ll have time to retroactively create the header next week. (In case you were wondering, the chap in the current image isn’t me — it’s some fella off YouTube. I just found it on Google Images.)


    #71 Godzilla (1954), aka Gojira
    #72 Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
    #73 The Secret Life of Pets 3D (2016)
    #74 The Eyes of Orson Welles (2018)
    #75 Bad Times at the El Royale (2018)
    #76 Jaws 2 (1978)
    #77 The Meg 3D (2018)
    #78 Ice Age: The Meltdown (2006)
    #79 Everybody Wants Some!! (2016)
    #80 Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival (1970), aka Zatôichi abare himatsuri
    #81 Zombieland (2009)
    #82 Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956)
    #83 Bumblebee (2018)
    #84 The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
    #85 Cleopatra (1970), aka Kureopatora
    #86 BlacKkKlansman (2018)
    #87 Dracula (1931)
    #88 Widows (2018)
    #89 Cosmopolis (2012)
    #90 The Girl in the Spider’s Web (2018)
    #91 The Kennel Murder Case (1933)
    #92 The Saint (2017)
    #93 Devil’s Cargo (1948)
    #94 Hairspray (1988)


    • So, I watched 24 new feature films in May.
    • That makes it the best month of 2019 so far, passing the average for the year to date (previously 17.5, now 18.8).
    • It’s a good all-timer too, in the top 5% of all months. It’s still not the best May ever — that was last year’s, which is also my best month ever. Therefore it brings the rolling average of the last 12 months down (from 20.1 to 19.25), even though it beats it.
    • It’s my 60th consecutive month with a tally of 10+. With all that’s going on right now, June may yet be the month to break that streak.
    • I can’t remember when I last discussed this (so apologies for the lack of link to the full background), but I’ve been tracking the days of the year on which I’ve ‘never’ seen a film, and I only have three left to tick off. One of those was May 23rd… and still is, because I missed it again. Darn.
    • This month’s WDYMYHS film is also this year’s Stanley Kubrick film (I’ve been working my way through his oeuvre at the rate of one per year, initially by coincidence but now semi-deliberately), Eyes Wide Shut.
    • This month’s Blindspot film: classic Universal horror Dracula.
    • From last month’s “failures” I watched Bad Times at the El Royale, Everybody Wants Some!!, and Widows.



    The 48th Monthly Arbitrary Awards

    Favourite Film of the Month
    Plenty of worthy films to pick this month, whether they be critically-acclaimed awards-winners or critically-acclaimed films that were snubbed for awards, and most of those are more likely to make my year-end favourites list than what I’m going to pick now. It’s certainly not the ‘best’ film here, so maybe it’s just my current stresses making me wish for simpler entertainment, but I did have a lot of fun watching The Meg.

    Least Favourite Film of the Month
    When the rumour broke that Robert Pattinson was going to be the next Batman, some people on social media joked that he’d already done a great Bruce Wayne movie. Or maybe they weren’t joking, I don’t know. Anyway, the movie in question was Cosmopolis, which I’d been meaning to get round to, so I did, and I hated it. My Letterboxd comments are here.

    Most Destructive Giant Monster of the Month
    My May was incidentally filled with monsters of all different types: sharks from the sea, giant prehistoric sharks from the sea, giant prehistoric radioactively-enhanced dinosaur-like creatures from the sea… Also vampires, zombies, and alien robots… But worst of all was definitely the KKK in BlacKkKlansman.

    Most Vivid Reminder of Stuff I Watched Years Ago of the Month
    A few years back I reviewed the RKO film series starring the crime-solving character The Saint, which I continued by reviewing RKO’s follow-on series about The Falcon, and later covered the similarly-toned Thin Man series. So #91 to #93 this month brought back memories: The Kennel Club Murders stars The Thin Man’s William Powell as another murder-solving layman accompanied by his trusty dog (though neither had as much character as in the better-known series); The Saint was an attempt to reboot the character for a 2010s TV audience, later expanded into a feature-length film (and it’s as ropey as a rejected-pilot-turned-movie sounds); and Devil’s Cargo was an attempt to continue the Falcon series after a few years off, with a brand-new leading man and no continuity… but while it has a pretty poor rep, I actually thought it was a solid addition to the series.

    The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
    In terms of site views, May 2019 is far and away my biggest month ever — it individually surpassed the totals for the entirety of 2012 (the first year for which I have these stats), 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016. The driver of that was my reviews of Game of Thrones. What I said about the finale provoked lots of comments, and the number of hits it’s received in the past 10 days would normally mean it’d not just be the month’s top post, but already a lock for the most visited post of the year. But the TV post before that, which included my thoughts on Thrones episodes three and four, had an additional 13 days to rack up visitors during a time when it seemed like everyone was talking about the series. So it’s no real surprise that The Past Month on TV #46 is this month’s victor, as well as a likely candidate for the most-visited post of the year. In fact, it received enough hits in its first week to get into, not just my top posts of the week, or month, or even year, but my all-time top ten! (It’s wound up as 4th all-time for now.)


    I finally gave the directors page header image its annual update this month (it was due in January but I kept just not getting round to it). For those who don’t know, it displays the 20 directors with the most number of films I’ve reviewed.

    What were this year’s changes? Woody Allen is gone, for the first time since I started the page, and Tarantino’s out too. But I had seven directors tied for the last three slots. So, David Lynch went as well, because I often like an “all change” approach; John Carpenter and Tony Scott have been on the banner before, so I ruled them out for similar reasons; and also the Coen brothers, because I wasn’t entirely sure how to fit them both in. That meant the new additions were: Stanley Kubrick (those “one per year”s finally built up!), Richard Linklater, and M. Night Shyamalan. I also changed a couple of the other photos, just to give it a bit of a refresh (specifically: Ron Howard, Christopher Nolan, and Robert Zemeckis).



    This has continued apace too…

    #17 The Matrix Revolutions (2003)
    #18 Ghostbusters II (1989)
    #19 John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)
    #20 Hairspray (2007)

    I rewatched each of the Matrix movies a month apart, which would be kinda neat if I’d actually planned to do that. More thoughts at the above link. I’ll save what I thought of Ghostbusters II for when I give it the same “guide to” treatment.

    I rewatched John Wick 2 ready for the third, then haven’t had a chance to see it. For some reason I felt no desire to rewatch the original as well, which is weird because, while they’re pretty equal in quality, I’d say the first one is slightly better on balance.

    Finally, that’s my fourth viewing of Hairspray, which probably makes it one of my most regularly rewatched films now — it’s been four years since I last saw it, and before that the gaps between viewings were three years each time, and that’s pretty often and repeatedly by my standards!


    No time for trips to the cinema again this month, so I missed the likes of John Wick: Chapter 3, the live-action remake of Aladdin, and just-released Godzilla: King of the Monsters. Maybe next week.

    I’m sure Netflix have added some stuff that ought to be on my watchlist but I also haven’t had time for. And naturally my Blu-ray collection has grown (when doesn’t it?), but right now I can’t actually remember what with (normally I’d have a pile somewhere nearby, but that’s all packed).

    Also on the way out is my V+ box. For the past couple of months I’ve been listing some of what’s recorded on it that I haven’t got round to, and so here’s the final batch of that: Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans, Camelot, Chef, Colombiana, The Counsellor, Dead of Night, The Dressmaker, Elizabeth, The Ghoul, The Innocents, Joy, The Love Witch, Only Yesterday, Rare Exports, Ruby Sparks, The Servant, Straight Outta Compton, and Supercop. Whew!


    With all that’s going on in my life right now, will June be the first month since May 2014 where I watch fewer than ten new films? I need at least six to make it to #100…

    The Past Fortnight on TV #47

    This fortnight: mad queens, burning cities, and melting chairs on Game of Thrones; disembodied little girls, controlling space captains, and time travelling dreamers on The Twilight Zone; and a couple of other bits & bobs at the end, too.

    Game of Thrones  Season 8 Episodes 5-6
    These episodes have been hella controversial, so I’m going to stake my position right away: the penultimate episode isn’t perfect but is very good; the finale was fantastic. If you’re one of those people who rated it 1 on IMDb, you’re an idiot. Yeah, sure, opinions differ, and if you didn’t think it was as superb as I did then you may have some valid arguments… but 1 out of 10? No. Those people are morons.

    The Mad QueenTo call these two episodes “the climax” of Game of Thrones feels slightly disingenuous, because really the whole season has been the climax (to wit, my review of episodes one and two is here, and episodes three and four here). As I think I discussed before, I feel this is where some people’s maladjusted complaints about it stem from — a misunderstanding of the pace the story’s being told at. This isn’t a show that is plot, plot, plot until a conclusion wraps everything up within the final episode. There’s far too much going on for that to be possible. No, the whole season is the conclusion. How they paced that conclusion across the final few episodes is another matter, because I agree that sometimes the story has moved too fast this season, and The Bells is (at times) another case in point. I completely buy Dany’s turn to the dark side: it’s been building since almost the start of the series (mistaken by many for her being powerful and just) and the events of the past few episodes have really pushed her to the edge — and, of course, over it.

    So, I think the groundwork is there to explain her ‘sudden’ turn, but the speed those events were relayed to the audience didn’t give people enough time to process where it was leading her. The distrust of the very people she came to liberate when she arrives in the North; their lack of explicit gratitude after the Battle of Winterfell; the deaths of her closest friends and allies, Ser Jorah and Missandei; not only the grief of that, but losing their cool-headed advice; distrusting the advisors she does have left — Varys betraying her, Tyrion seeming to constantly let her down, Jon rejecting her romantic advances; not to mention that he represents a very real threat to her life-long goal; and, despite his protestations that he doesn’t want it, he went against her wishes and told his family, which means others now know… All of that underpins her ‘sudden’ desire to burn King’s Landing and all its people. But when that’s been conveyed across just a couple of episodes, along with a whole load of other stuff that’s been going on, I don’t think people had time to process it. In my review of Last of the Starks I argued that it should’ve been extended and split in two, and I think the same is probably true of The Bells: everything up to the attack on King’s Landing actually happening is one episode; the extended action sequence(s) that follow is another. That kind of extension would not only bring obvious screen time advantages — literally, more and/or longer scenes to play out what’s happening — but it also adds time between episodes (a whole week) for viewers to mull over and discuss what they’re seeing, rather than pelting headlong into more events.

    Azor AhaiConversely, I thought the finale, The Iron Throne, was excellently handled in virtually every respect, including the pace. Well, mostly. I mean, I think it’s only during their conversation in front of the Iron Throne that Jon realises what he has to do to Daenerys, so that he then immediately carries it out is a little abrupt — should he have gone away, to steel himself for the task, and done it later? Maybe. Equally, why wait? And the scene needs to occur there for the powerful events that follow with Drogon’s grief and melting the throne. Some would also say the time jump to the Dragonpit court is a case of rushing the story, but do we need to see the Unsullied taking Jon Snow prisoner? Do we need to see the armies arrive at the gates of King’s Landing? You could draw the story out by putting all of that on screen, but what you actually need to know for the narrative is conveyed in the dialogue. Mind you, here I am wondering if it should’ve be slower when some of those petition-signing halfwits reckon “nothing happened” this episode. After weeks moaning about the pace being too fast, they think this was slow that “nothing happened”! There’s no helping some people…

    As for the final stretch, where the episode laid out where everyone ends up, I liked that part most of all. There’s a fitting fate for everyone — not necessarily what’s just or fair, but then when has Game of Thrones ever been about delivering that? I would’ve liked to see Grey Worm punished for the heinous war crimes he committed, but sometimes bad people get away with bad things. Poor Tyrion is stuck as Hand of the King, though it’s a job he remains suited to, perhaps especially because he’s not sure he deserves it. Bran is an odd choice for king, perhaps, but Tyrion sold me on the notion in the same way he did the assembled lords; and I don’t think Bran wanted it, but I think that, as the all-seeing Three-Eyed Raven who has always acted to protect humanity, he can see it’s the right course.

    The rest of the Starks get fates that suit them entirely. Arya has talked about wanting to sail west before, in season six; personally, I’ve wondered if that was her destiny even before she voiced it — it fits her nature, to explore the unknown. Sansa is Queen in the North, a role she has earned in so many ways — her arc, from naive little princess to powerful political leader, is arguably the greatest in the entire series. Jon is sent back to the Night’s Watch — as explicitly stated, it’s just as a punishment, but there’s a political motive too: if he can father no heirs then there will never be any offspring to grow up believing they have a true claim to the throne. But it’s not a real punishment, of course, because it means he can venture north of the Wall, where his heart really belongs. I suspect Bran knew that when he sentenced him.

    Last of the StarksTo cap it all off, both episodes were incredibly well made. That’s par for the course on this mega-expensive show, but it still merits observing. Okay, perhaps The Bells had a few too many scenes of King’s Landing’s destruction (a point on pacing again), but it was all spectacularly realised, keeping us mostly in the streets with the people who were really suffering. For striking moments, however, the finale was the place to be: that shot of Dany with Drogon’s wings (the subject of its own mini Twitter controversy, for yet more dumbass reasons); her speech to her assembled forces in the ruins, the staging and design evoking the the Nazis or Stalin’s Russia; the melting throne; the final montage, with the matching shots of Sansa, Arya and Jon embracing their destinies; and the very final scene, a mirror image of the opening scene of the very first episode. What a way to end; even with a green root poking through the snow north of the Wall — a dream of spring.

    The Twilight Zone  ‘Best Of’
    As regular readers will know by now, for the past couple of months I’ve been reviewing the best episodes of the original 1959-64 iteration of The Twilight Zone, according to IMDb voters and an article I happened across on ScreenCrush. So far I’ve mostly stuck to episodes that are in the lists’ top tens (the exception is one I reviewed last fortnight, Nick of Time, which is #12 on ScreenCrush and #25 on IMDb), and in this fourth selection I’ll be finishing off those top tens.

    Little Girl LostFirst, two episodes from season three. The Shelter is one of just four episodes in the entire series with no sci-fi or fantasy element (according to its IMDb trivia page). When the warning sirens go off that missiles, presumably nuclear, may be on their way to destroy the United States, a foresightful doctor and his family are able to retreat to their bomb shelter, but his less prepared neighbours want in too. It’s another of Rod Serling’s morality tales about the truth of human nature, and a particularly potent one because it’s very easy to relate to almost everyone’s position — there are no heroes or villains here (well, except for maybe one racist guy), just people who want to survive. The titular room is made for three people, not the dozen or so who try to break in to share it, which suggests perhaps the episode’s most universally applicable lesson: in panic, logic goes out the window.

    Little Girl Lost merits 8th on ScreenCrush’s list, but only places 39th on IMDb. I side closer to the former. Another episode by the great Richard Matheson, this one is about parents whose little girl goes missing in the middle of the night — they can hear her calling somewhere in the house, but she’s nowhere to be seen. The setup has some contrivances (I mean, it’s the middle of the night, your six-year-old daughter is calling out for you, but she’s not in her bed, nor under it, so your next step is to… phone your friend who’s a physicist? O…kay…), but it just expedites where the story is going to go anyway. That said, it doesn’t always make the best use of the rest of its time (a trippy sequence in another dimension goes on longer than necessary). It’s not as unnerving as it might’ve been (the horror of your child being you-don’t-know-where, plus a disembodied little girl’s voice coming from somewhere and nowhere within the house? Sounds like a recipe for a horror movie to me), but it’s more minded to its edge-of-science explanation than a disquieting atmosphere. Ultimately, it’s using a relatable situation to explore a notion at the limits of scientific understanding, which is very fitting for this show. Plus it has a cute dog who’s instrumental in saving the day, which is always a significant bonus in my estimation.

    On Thursday We Leave for HomeFor its fourth season, Twilight Zone was scheduled as a replacement for another series, meaning it had to expand to hour-long episodes to fill the given time slot. This is largely regarded as being to the series’ detriment, and I can see why — I mean, some of the 25-minute episodes feel padded, so doubling the length…! Consequently, season four has very few episodes at the top of either list. The exception is On Thursday We Leave for Home, which is the highest-ranked season four episode on both: it comes 10th at ScreenCrush, but still only 24th on IMDb. This one is outright sci-fi from the off: it’s set on mankind’s first off-world colony, which has been a disaster, and after three decades a spaceship is finally arriving to take them back to Earth. What unfolds is another tale of man’s hubris and delusion with a self-wrought tragic ending — in other words, an episode of The Twilight Zone. But it has a unique angle and commentary on the corrupting influence of power; about how being in charge of the colonists has become Captain Benteen’s very reason to exist, to the point where he not only can’t imagine life any other way, but he can’t imagine his ‘subjects’ would want it any other way either. He’s thoroughly deluded.

    It’s significant, I think, that Benteen views ‘his people’ as children who are unable to make their own decision, but he was only 15-years-old when they arrived there, and at the end he hides away, like a small child who doesn’t want to go home, until it’s too late and the ride has left; except rather than a parent playing a trick to get the child to change their mind, the ride is really gone, and Benteen discovers too late that he’s doomed himself. The episode makes strong use of the double-length format to let this unravel itself, establishing how tough life has been on the colony, then the relief and euphoria of their “rescue” arriving, before the truth of Benteen’s mind is revealed. Sure, you’d tell the same story faster today, but for the era it doesn’t feel drawn out (there are 25-minute episodes that are worse for that). So, it’s not just “the best of a bad bunch”, but a great little sci-fi parable in its own right. You could probably remake it as a feature…

    A Stop at WilloughbyFinally for now, season one’s A Stop at Willoughby, which doesn’t quite make either list’s top ten (it’s 12th on IMDb, 17th on ScreenCrush), but I keep hearing it mentioned elsewhere as a favourite episode or referenced in other ways (as with Eye of the Beholder last time, it factors into Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!!). It’s about a harried ad exec in ’60s New York, whose boss’ motto of “push, push, push” pretty well tells how he’s feeling. On the train to his suburban home (there’s no real correlation here, but there are definite shades of Mad Men across this setup!) he falls asleep and wakes when the train stops at the village of Willoughby… in the year 1888. It’s an idyllic place on a warm summer day, with people enjoying leisurely strolls in the park — a simpler, calmer time. But then he really wakes up: he didn’t travel in time, Willoughby was just a dream; but it’s a dream of a place and time where he’d rather be — can he get back there? If Walking Distance was an ultimately uplifting story about how you can’t go home again, A Stop at Willoughby is its dark mirror image. Suffice to say, the town of Willoughby is most definitely located in the Twilight Zone.

    Also watched…
  • Eurovision Tel Aviv 2019 — Normally I give Eurovision a full review, but I was a bit underwhelmed by it this year. Even by its own standards the music was mediocre, and there was little memorable in the actual performances either (with the exception of Australia’s pole stuff). Oh well.
  • Thronecast Series 8 Episodes 5-7 — I applaud the final episodes of Sky Atlantic’s tie-in show for not ignoring that there’d been some displeasure online, but deservedly praising the episodes anyway, especially the finale.

    Things to Catch Up On
    Years and YearsThis fortnight I have mostly been missing Years and Years, the new drama from the pen of Russell T Davies that spans the next couple of decades to look at, presumably, how much worse things are going to get even than they are now. I’ve long been a big fan of Davies’ writing, though must confess I’ve missed most of what he’s done post-Doctor Who — I’ve been meaning to get round to A Very English Scandal ever since it aired, which was a whole year ago now. Hopefully I won’t take so long to get to this new one.

    Next month… what can possibly follow Game of Thrones?! No, I don’t know either.

  • The Past Fortnight on TV #46

    I’m throwing off the usual monthly format of these TV reviews to keep up with coverage of Game of Thrones. This time: the Battle of Winterfell and its aftermath. Next time: the series finale!

    Also this fortnight: new BBC fantasy sitcom Ghosts, the first (sort of) episode of Columbo, the latest editions of Mark Kermode’s Secrets of Cinema and Thronecast, and more of the best tales from The Twilight Zone.

    Game of Thrones  Season 8 Episodes 3-4
    Game of Thrones season 8Almost two years ago, just hours after Game of Thrones’ seventh season finale aired, I tweeted the following:

    Crazy(?) Game of Thrones s8 prediction: army of the dead defeated in ep2 or 3; humans return to bickering amongst themselves for 3 or 4 eps.

    Well, reader, I’ve been feeling a bit smug for the past couple of weeks, I must admit. It was quite widely known that the big battle between the living and the dead at Winterfell was coming in episode three, but it seemed like a lot of people expected it to be a victory for the Night King, with a retreat to King’s Landing in order for the final battle to happen later. I suspected differently, and I was right. That a lot of people didn’t suspect that and were consequently outraged that the Night King and his army could be defeated so ‘early’… ugh, let’s not get into that. Other than to say: this has always been a show (a) more concerned with the politicking of humans than supernatural threats, and (b) that zigs when you expect it to zag (or does neither, if your name’s Rickon). And further to that, we’re only three episodes from the end of a 73-episode story — in percentage terms, these final few episodes are kinda the epilogue; they’re about what happens after The Great War is over.

    But I’m getting ahead of myself. The Long Night itself was… well, it was an interesting choice of episode title, firstly, considering the Long Night is already an event in Westeros’ history and is rumoured to be the title of the in-production spin-off series. (It also sent Wikipedia editors into a tizzy, but what else is new?) More pertinent controversy was found in the way the episode was shot, i.e. very dark. Too dark for a lot of people to see, in fact. Many blamed the cinematographer, but it seems to me it was more likely HBO’s compression wiping out detail in the blacks — many other viewers who watched the episode from higher-quality sources (including myself) found no problem seeing it on correctly-calibrated televisions. And, when watching a decent copy in good viewing conditions, much of it actually looked spectacular — the darkness was effective for conveying the scariness of the events being witnessed, and it was punctuated with some beautiful moments from firelight or moonlight.

    The Battle of WinterfellContent-wise, the episode was one long battle — the longest ever in film or TV history, apparently. More isn’t always more, mind. While I didn’t find it boring or drawn-out, it also wasn’t perfect. The battle tactics left a lot to be desired, something spotted by lay-viewers, never mind the “how it should’ve been done” articles by professional military tacticians that followed the broadcast. And the way things played out, a lot more deaths were warranted. Quite a few key characters did fall, and even more faceless masses, but the way it was staged made it a miracle that so many people escaped unscathed. There are three episodes left — you need characters to fuel the story, and major characters left to be sacrificed later too — but that doesn’t mean you have to stage it so everyone effects an improbable escape. There’s a balance to be found between “it looks like they’re all about to die” and “it seems literally impossible everyone would’ve survived those last-minute odds”. But hey, this isn’t the first time the show has succumbed to this, and there was a lot else to like: lots of effective individual sequences within the battle, great callbacks to previous lines and events, some heroic sacrifices, and a perfect ending. (I’m really not going to talk about some dickheads’ reaction to that.)

    So, with the presumed Big Bad defeated with three feature-length episodes still to go, next week’s The Last of the Starks was tasked with both showing the aftermath of the battle and charting a course into the series’ endgame. As it turned out, it was much more than that, with major events all of its own. This is where the reduced episode count rears its ugly head for me because, much like in season seven, I feel like they’re rushing certain events just for the sake of getting the series finished, not because it merits a picking up of the pace. There were things in episode four that felt glossed over or skipped past; things which merited a bit more time and focus. If anything, this felt like two episodes glued together — and out of the three 80-minute episodes the show has now done (the other being the season seven finale), I’ve felt that way about two of them. Why not add another 15 to 20 minutes of scenes and split this episode in two? It wouldn’t be unnecessary padding because, as I said, there was a load of stuff just raced past. I wanted to see Arya and Sansa’s immediate reaction to the news about Jon; and Tyrion’s, for that matter. I felt like there was a lot more to be done with Missandei’s storyline this episode — in my imagined two-part version, she would’ve been captured at the end of the first episode and there’d be scenes between her and Cersei before her ending. And, yeah, I wouldn’t’ve minded seeing Jon say goodbye to Ghost properly (a massive topic of discussion on social media this week).

    The Last of the StarksIt’s frustrating because I liked the tone of the episode overall — as I said, the return to human conflict and schemes; also a lot of the individual scenes between characters and so on. But it needs more room to breathe. It’s especially galling after the exceptionally spacious first two episodes this season, which did exactly that. They’ve said these last two seasons have fewer episodes because of the time and money needed to film the massive battle sequences, but that’s a thin excuse. It’s clear HBO would’ve given them however much money they asked for, and allow them however much time they needed — we’ve had to wait almost two years for this final season, remember. So it doesn’t seem so ridiculous to think that this episode (and, as I said, last season’s finale) could’ve had another chunk of scenes added (which would’ve ‘just’ been characters talking, really) and been split in two. I don’t care about raising the overall episode count (though that doesn’t hurt), I just care about giving these characters and storylines their due.

    Well, I guess it is what is now, but it’s a shame. Hopefully the final two episodes can bring things to a good conclusion — not necessarily a joyous one, because this is Game of Thrones after all, but one that feels suitable and satisfying. Based on the show’s current track record, I’m worried I’ll approve of where it ends up but think it was too hurried getting there. It feels like there should be more than a mere two episodes left to wrap all this up.

    Ghosts  Series 1 Episodes 1-3
    GhostsThis new sitcom from the writing and performing troupe behind the original TV iteration of Horrible Histories and the Sky One fantasy comedy Yonderland is pitched as a more adult-focused series, but it’s not exactly 18-rated stuff, just a little cheekier than they might’ve done before. Anyway, it’s about a young couple who inherit a crumbling old mansion, which is home to the ghosts of various people who’ve died there down the centuries. As the couple attempt to make a life for themselves and restore the place on a budget of nothing, the ghosts cause various issues, while also having problems of their own — turns out being dead isn’t the end of your emotional woes. I wouldn’t say Ghosts is the most hilarious sitcom you’ve ever seen, but it has a definite charm. It also surprises with genuine emotion, particularly in the third episode, where we learn about the death and family of one of the more recent ghosts.

    Columbo  Murder by the Book
    Columbo: Murder by the BookI’ve never seen Columbo before, and despite this being the first episode (er, kind of — I believe it was preceded by two other pilots) this isn’t the start of me watching it regularly. No, I watched this for one simple reason: the director was a certain Mr Steven Spielberg, in his pre-movie days when he directed a handful of TV episodes. Unsurprisingly, such an early work contains little about its style that screams “Spielberg”, but it’s still a classily staged production, with a lot more going for its visuals than the point-and-shoot style we associate with old TV. The story’s not a bad one either, about a crime novelist who murders his co-writer following the methodology from an unused plot. He thinks he’s a clever bugger who’s got away with it easily, but Columbo seems to see through him right from the start. Well, I’m not sure dumping the corpse on your own front lawn is the best way to go about claiming “it wasn’t me.”

    The Twilight Zone  ‘Best Of’
    With still no sign of the new Twilight Zone making its way to a UK platform, here’s another selection of some of the best episodes of the original 1959-64 series, as determined by cross-referencing the opinions of IMDb voters and an article I happened to stumble across on Screen Crush. (My previous such overviews can be found here and here.)

    The Hitch-HikerFirst up, season one’s The Hitch-Hiker is another Twilight Zone tale where we can’t be sure if the protagonist is experiencing paranoia or the supernatural — undoubtedly a recurring theme for the series, almost to the point where it’s less a “theme” more just a fact of its format. Anyway, this particular reiteration is effectively unnerving, with a scenario that’s relatable — you can just imagine how it would feel if you kept seeing the same hitchhiker by the side of the road, always somehow ahead of you, always staring at you with a despondent look… it gives me chills just thinking about it. Director Alvin Ganzer gets good mileage out of that element too, creating some effective shocks. Aside from that the execution isn’t top notch though, with Rod Serling seeming to have taken too much inspiration from the original radio play (by Lucille Fletcher) in his inclusion of some over-explanatory narration. The trademark twist ending is both altogether guessable for the savvy viewer, but also doesn’t really explain a whole lot.

    Two from season two next, including another of the series’ most famous episodes, Eye of the Beholder (spookily, it’s referenced in Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!!, which I happened to watch last night). It’s an episode with a message, but that feels a long while coming because most of the episode clues you in to where the twist is coming from thanks to how it’s shot. Anyway, it’s a commentary on appearances and the segregation of otherness; that the enforcement of “normality”, of conformity, isn’t good. Here it’s being enacted by some totalitarian state, but that’s just a firm example for the sake of analogy — society does it anyway in our real world. The twist ending underscores this point by adding that normality, or beauty, or whatever you want to call it, is all relative anyway. It’s a worthwhile message, but even at a short 25 minutes parts of the episode felt padded.

    Nick of TimeI was more taken with Nick of Time, written by the reliably superb Richard Matheson. Starring William Shatner as a superstitious honeymooner, it’s a neat little tale about a cheap fortune telling machine that might actually predict the future. As well as a genre tale about the perils such a machine might pose, it’s really about superstition and belief in fate vs. self determination — a strong moral life lesson bundled in a quirky supernatural fable. That’s Twilight Zone at its best, really. Similarly, season five’s Living Doll is another of the series’ most genuinely unnerving episodes. Telly Savalas stars as a man whose own insecurities make him paranoid and abusive towards his wife and stepdaughter. When the kid gets a new talking doll, it begins to taunt and threaten him, but only when no one else is around to hear. Again, it’s very creepy, but has a point to make beyond that.

    Finally for now, it’s back to season two for The Obsolete Man. As I mentioned at the start, I’ve been using two different “best of” lists to guide my Twilight Zone viewing, and this is the biggest disagreement between them thus far (though there are 18 other episodes with bigger differences, so it’s all relative). Whereas IMDb’s consensus-voted opinion says this is the 10th best of all 156 episodes, Screen Crush only ranks it in the middle of the list, at 68th. It’s an initially simple story about the evil and cowardice of totalitarianism: in the opening scene, a man is sentenced to death for being of no use to a fascist regime. However, he has a cunning little plan up his sleeve. As a drama it’s clearly born of an era that was still directly reacting to Hitler and Stalin, but it’s all the more pertinent today as Western societies tip dangerously towards the kind of horrendous ideologies we used to fight, blithely ignorant of the lessons of history. Many Twilight Zone episodes have aged in the sense that the narratives can seem straightforward and guessable to the modern viewer (thanks to endless imitation and our exposure to more stories of this type), but the moral lessons remain depressingly relevant over half a century later.

    Also watched…
  • Mark Kermode’s Secrets of Cinema Disaster Movies — Another one-off edition for this excellent series, a Bank Holiday special about that old staple of Bank Holiday TV schedules. Kermode (plus co-writer Kim Newman) is as insightful as ever about the similarities and connections between these movies across the decades. I hope we get another full series, but if it’s set to continue only as occasional specials, well, that’s good too.
  • Thronecast Series 8 Episodes 3-4 — I don’t know if the booker got better or just got lucky, but this picked up considerably with some improved guests. Not that I disliked the people on the first two episodes, but the ones here seemed more knowledgeable and chattier. Episode 4 was particularly good. Fingers crossed the final two editions are equally worthwhile post-episode viewing.

    Things to Catch Up On
    Lucifer season 4This fortnight, I have mostly been missing the fourth season of Lucifer, which just returned as a Netflix exclusive. I’ve not watched season three yet, though, so that’ll be a little while off. I’ve also successfully managed to avoid any spoilers about Line of Duty’s recently-concluded series (touch wood). I’ve got a plan to binge it in a few weeks’ time (so, not in my next TV roundup, but should be the one after) — hopefully nothing will blow its secrets between now and then!

    Next fortnight… at the end of Game of Thrones, you win or you die.