The Past Month on TV #32

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Turns out I watched lots of great TV series this month, so here are several big ol’ reviews to try to explain what was so good about them…

A Series of Unfortunate Events  Season 2
A Series of Unfortunate Events season 2Abandon your vapid, facile distractions and set aside your very fine dramas, because it’s time to indulge in some vicarious fearsome disaster with the return of Netflix’s venerable family delight — a phrase which here means: A Series of Unfortunate Events is back.

This season adapts volumes five to nine of Lemony Snicker’s thirteen-tome investigation into the terrible events that befell the Baudelaire siblings following the death of their parents; specifically, the many nefarious schemes of Count Olaf and his troop of miscreants as they endeavoured to steal the Baudelaire fortune. Although we left the Baudelaires feeling alone in the world — seeing as Olaf had managed to off each of their appointed guardians in turn, and the banker charged with finding them fitting accommodation is, well, incompetent — these episodes see the trio finding new friends and learning that secret forces are working in the shadows to keep them safe… though why they’re doing that, and who they are, is only slightly less mysterious than the inexorability of Count Olaf’s vendetta against the Baudelaires.

Season two retains all the best qualities of the series’ first run, remaining witty, intelligent, satirical, literate, surprisingly attuned to genuine emotion, nicely scattered with meta-jokes, and manages to deliver all of this at a rate of knots that risks you missing one excellent moment while you’re still laughing at the last. What we get considerably more of here — much more than I was expecting, even — are answers. Reading between the lines (i.e. trying to avoid spoilers), I get the impression the book series left many things unresolved. Maybe the TV adaptation will too by the time it’s done, but at the moment it’s dishing out new information on the regular. It makes for an exciting game as a viewer, connecting up the snippets of info that are doled out, piecing together the bigger picture. There’s also some solid character development, on both sides: it seems there’s more to Olaf than just moustache-twirling villainy, while one story sees the Baudelaires indulge in an ends-justify-the-means betrayal that does them no favours later on.

Not at all theatricalNeil Patrick Harris is having a whale of a time as Olaf and all his varied aliases, while the apparent earnestness of child actors Malina Weissman and Louis Hynes is clearly well measured for effect rather than poor work. There’s an array of memorable guest performances this season as well, from Kitana Turnbull, fantastically horrid as Carmelita, a little-goody-two-shoes teacher’s-pet bully the Baudelaires encounter in the opening two-parter; to Lucy Punch as an obsessive fashionista; to Sara Rue as a new inductee into the secret organisation trying to help the Baudelaires. Best of all is Nathan Fillion, born to play the fast-talking dashing hero who gets a ton of the best lines. If there’s a downside, it’s that we don’t see enough of some people. Unlike most kids’ fare (and, let’s be honest, some stuff made for adults), this isn’t a show where good is always rewarded and bad behaviour always punished, and that means some people may be shuffling out before we’ve had as much as we’d like. I guess the clue was in the title…

It all ends on a bit of a damp squib cliffhanger. I mean, the series itself is in good shape: there are lots of mysteries left, with answers tantalisingly close, and most of the main cast are headed to a key location that’s pregnant with promise. But it’s undermined slightly with a big character reveal that doesn’t quite come off — they don’t reveal who the character actually is on screen (I guessed wrongly who she was meant to be, in fact), and while they’ve cast a moderately famous actress, she’s not famous enough for her mere presence to count as a reveal — and they put the kids in a moment of jeopardy that’s entirely empty — no one believes season three is going to begin with the two leads falling off a cliff to their death, do they?

But, really, these are minor complaints in a show that continues to hit almost all the right notes. Fortunately season three is already in production, so hopefully there won’t be too long to wait for what should be a vehemently final denouement.

Westworld  Season 1
Westworld season 1With season two imminent (it begins tomorrow, people!) I finally got my behind in gear (it’s only taken 18 months) and missioned my way through the first season of HBO’s reimagining of the Michael Crichton film. I imagine that’s the last time I’ll be mentioning the original movie in this review, because while the TV series takes the basic premise and some of the iconography of the original, it has much bigger, deeper, broader ideas on its mind.

For thems that don’t know, it’s about an immersive theme park — the titular Westworld — populated by robots, known as “hosts”, who imitate humanity with near-unerring accuracy. Guests pay a fortune ($40,000 per day) to effectively time travel, spending their time in the park as if it was the real Wild West, except with the freedom to do as the please with complete impunity — the hosts can’t hurt the guests, but the guests can kill, maim, of shag anything they like. And boy, do they. But the hosts seem to be developing, evolving, moving beyond their programming. The series follows both the adventures of some guests in the park and the activities of the team behind-the-scenes, trying to keep the show on the road and work out what’s going wrong. But most of all it follows a handful of hosts, who repeatedly live the same day on a loop, their memories wiped so they don’t realise it… unless, of course, that wiping isn’t 100% effective…

Despite all the praise it attracted, I took a while to warm to Westworld. The first four episodes felt like a bit of a slog. There are good, even great, scenes and performances in those opening hours, and of course it’s introducing all the potentially interesting concepts and themes; but, much like the hosts, I felt like it was slowly going round in circles at times, and I felt little drive to push on and find out what happens next. I think I must finally know what it feels like to be one of those people who think Netflix shows don’t go anywhere fast.

More human than humans?During its production Westworld hit the headlines because they shut down production for a while to retool the scripts and hone the story. Maybe this was why. If so, it paid off, because from the fifth episode things pick up considerably. Developments and twists really kick the mysteries into gear. Scenes between characters begin to carry more meaningful dialogue and affecting emotion. There’s even some action to give it a nice adrenaline kick at times. Rather than feeling like it’s ambling nowhere in particular, you feel like showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy have some very particular things in mind, but good luck guessing what they are because there are many surprises in store: however close you think you are to uncovering Westworld‘s games, someone always has something else up their sleeve. It develops an almost Game of Thrones-esque ability to pull surprising but plausible developments out of ‘thin air’.

It was interesting to observe that from the outside, actually. Famously, the series pulls off some pretty big tricks that are revealed in the final few episodes, but the hive-mind of Reddit figured most of them out well in advance. (Indeed, they also figured out some of what was going to happen in season two, leading to rewrites.) Therefore I’d had some of the twists and developments spoiled before viewing, or I’d learnt enough to figure them out easily for myself; but there were others… well, I guessed almost everything, I think. I’m not trying to brag — I know I’m far from alone in making those deductions. But it made me think: did I just have a leg up to get there, from hearing what other people had figured out? Or are loads of us super-duper clever and so ‘beat’ the show? Or is the show not as clever as it thinks it is? Maybe it’s a bit of all of those things. Audiences are so sophisticated nowadays, so used to looking out for clues and twists, especially in programmes that demonstrate or suggest a propensity for them, that actually pulling the wool over viewers’ eyes is nigh impossible — especially when your biggest fans are basically crowd-sourcing solutions.

Who's in control?The other most striking thing about the show are the performances. It’s like an acting masterclass: there are numerous fine performers here, and they’re all doing their best work. Ed Harris, Anthony Hopkins, Thandie Newton, Evan Rachel Wood, Jeffrey Wright… they’re all so magnificent that I don’t know who to single out without going on forever. And that’s not to undersell the rest of the cast either, many of whom would be said to excel in most other shows, but here there’s just so much raw talent on display.

So, over the course of the season I went from finding it a bit of a drag (I didn’t even like the theme music) to being completely enthralled (now I can’t get the theme out of my head). And season two is sure to spin off in all sorts of new directions, as the trailers confirm. I won’t be waiting 18 months to watch it this time.

Archer  Season 5 Episodes 1-5
Archer ViceHere in the UK, animated spy-comedy Archer originally aired on Channel 5, until they started really titting about with the scheduling, which is what led me to drop off watching. It’s all on Netflix nowadays though, so I’m finally getting back into it.

This fifth season made huge changes to the show’s basic setup, even giving itself a new title in the process: Archer Vice. Obviously such a big reenvisioning generated lots of chatter at the time, some of which I overheard, and from the way people were talking about it I expected a ground-up reboot. That’s not really the case. Yeah, the situation has changed (instead of working for a spy agency they’re now trying to become drug dealers), but it’s all the same characters and the same style of humour. So, it depends how vital you think the “sit” is in “sitcom”, because while the backdrop is technically entirely different, everything else about the show is still in the same vein. In other words, it doesn’t feel like a reboot, just like the same show but with a huge change to the status quo. It almost proves Archer was never really about the spy stuff (which, as neat a hook as it was, it wasn’t) — as with most sitcoms, the “sit” is almost irrelevant: it’s the characters that matter. Now, all of that said, maybe these aren’t entirely the show’s finest episodes, but it’s still very funny. As I always say about comedy, what more do you need?

Line of Duty  Series 4
Line of Duty series 4Another superb performance from Thandie Newton here, as the subject of AC-12’s latest internal affairs investigation. She’s convinced she’s arrested a notorious serial killer known as “Balaclava Man”; our faithful heroes reckon she’s cut corners, overlooking serious concerns about the evidence; the higher-ups who were exerting pressure on her to close the case would rather it all just went away. And as is the Line of Duty way, some shocking early developments send things spiralling in different directions. After the programme had become increasingly mired in its multi-season meta-arc last series, culminating in an extra-long finale which brought much to a head, it’s refreshing to have a brand-new case… for most of the series, anyway. For all those last-minute connections, the real star here remains Newton, with a nuanced portrayal of a copper who starts out professional and certain she’s doing the right thing, then disappears off down a rabbit hole of increasingly serious indiscretions to keep her initial beliefs on track, before eventually revealing her true character by the end. I suppose there are some similarities to Keeley Hawes’ role in series two — a clever female detective running rings around AC-12 thanks to her cunning and intelligence — but when the performances are this good and the plots this knotty, does it matter?

Lucifer  Season 2 Episodes 1-10
Lucifer season 2While I very much enjoyed the first season of Lucifer, the second one ups the ante. This is mainly thanks to the addition of Tricia Helfer to the regular cast as a great antagonist: everything she does is motivated by what she thinks is best for Lucifer, but that’s not at all the same as what he wants. It makes for a different dynamic than you see in most series, where bad guys do bad things, however many shades of grey the writers pretend to find in them. Plus, although it continues to take the form of a case-of-the-week cop show, it’s putting increasing emphasis on both ongoing story arcs and the fantastical elements. It makes for a nicely balanced, addictively watchable show. The Devil has all the best tunes, indeed.

Also watched…
  • Episodes Season 5 Episode 1 — The long-awaited final season of the Matt LeBlanc sitcom finally made it to UK TV this month. For various reasons I’ve only watched the first episode so far, so I’ll (probably) say more about the whole season next month.
  • The Silent Child — The Oscar-winning short film screened on UK TV this past month, and is still available on iPlayer. Review here.

    Things to Catch Up On
    The City and the CityThis month, I have mostly been missing the BBC’s miniseries adaptations of China Miéville’s The City and the City and Agatha Christie’s Ordeal by Innocence, both of which I’ve been saving up to watch in a more condensed fashion once they’re finished. The Christie ended on Sunday but the Miéville is only halfway through. Anyway, I imagine I’ll cover both next month. Also released this past month was Netflix’s big-budget reboot of Lost in Space, which I would’ve watched if I hadn’t been missioning my way through Westworld this past week. That might be here next month also. And finally, the last-ever season of The Best Show On TV™, The Americans, is underway in the US. Again, I’m saving it all up ’til it’s done, but I do intend to watch it promptly so as to avoid finale spoilers — my real hope is to time it just right so that I can watch the finale the day after it airs in the US, but we’ll see. Said finale isn’t until May 30th, so whatever happens I won’t be reviewing that until June.

    Next month… straight on to Westworld season two.

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  • The Verbose Monthly Update for March 2018

    As the year reaches its quarterway point, my eponymous goal has (not for the first time) passed the halfway point. That and other equally delightful observations from my March viewing now follow…


    #37 Sausage Party (2016)
    #38 Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (2016)
    #39 In & Out (1997)
    #40 The Jungle Book 3D (2016)
    #41 Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016)
    #42 Where the Wild Things Are (2009)
    #43 Happy Death Day (2017)
    #44 Death at a Funeral (2007)
    #45 Annihilation (2018)
    #46 Death at a Funeral (2010)
    #47 Transformers: The Last Knight 3D (2017)
    #48 The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984)
    #49 Black Narcissus (1947)
    #50 Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword (1964), aka Zatōichi abare tako
    #51 Hot Tub Time Machine (2010)
    #52 Victoria & Abdul (2017)
    #53 Benji (2018)
    #54 Cars 3 3D (2017)
    #55 It Comes at Night (2017)
    #56 The Hangover Part II (2011)
    #57 Rocky (1976)
    #57a The Silent Child (2017)
    Happy Death Day

    Annihilation

    Benji

    .


    • This month’s 21 new feature films see me sail past the halfway mark.
    • I viewed #50 on 22nd March, which is the second earliest I’ve reached that milestone (behind 2016, when it was on 6th March).
    • 21 is the same number of new films as last month, both of which are ahead of January, so it again raises the 2018 average, from exactly 18 to exactly 19.
    • It also surpasses the rolling average of the last 12 months, but it’s only a sliver higher than March 2017, which means it only increases the average from 15.1 to 15.2.
    • The 2018 Oscar winner for Best Live Action Short Film, The Silent Child, becomes the first short I’ve watched this year. (The previous low for number of shorts watched in a year was 2014, with just two, so I only need to watch a couple more in the next nine months to avoid that fate.)
    • This month’s Blindspot film: Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus, which I selected because it was on TV shortly afterwards and it’s always nice to a tie a review to something. But then I had conflicted feelings about the film, so no review yet while I continue to ponder it.
    • This month’s WDYMYHS film is the Best Picture Winner that inspired a nation, apparently: the original Rocky. Now, just six more of them to go…



    The 34th Monthly Arbitrary Awards

    Favourite Film of the Month
    There wasn’t a single 5-star film this month, but I do have a solid array of 4-star-ers to choose from for this award. Similarly, while there were a couple of very acclaimed features amongst my March viewing, I think the movie I most enjoyed was Groundhog Day-meets-Scream horror flick Happy Death Day, which I can’t help but feel has been somewhat underrated.

    Least Favourite Film of the Month
    There were also very few disasters this month. That said, I did finally get round to Where the Wild Things Are and was thoroughly disappointed. However, while that may’ve been the greatest gulf between my hopes and the reality, I’m still going to plump for the remake of Death at a Funeral in this category — I may’ve had low expectations, but it still didn’t meet them.

    Most Prolific Director of the Month
    I watched three films directed by Frank Oz this month — not deliberately, it was just one of those random coincidences. He’s only directed 12 films, so that’s a full quarter of them. They were: In & Out (which has been available to stream on Sky Cinema for years and goes on my “to watch” long-list every time I get a subscription; this year, it actually made it, on Oscars Sunday (if you’ve not seen the film, it was appropriate viewing for the occasion)); Death at a Funeral (for a while I’ve wanted to watch both this and its remake side by side, and one each was available on Netflix and Sky Cinema while I happened to have both services (a rare occurrence)); and, finally, The Muppets Take Manhattan (because I’m gradually making my way through all the Muppet movies (this is the third)). Review spoiler: I gave them all 3 stars.

    Most Number of Film Series I’ve Been in the Middle of Watching at Once (Probably)
    While I was watching Rocky towards the end of the month, I realised that technically meant I’d embarked on watching the Rocky series; and that made me realise how many film series I’m in the middle of right now. Not counting ones that we’re all in the middle of while we await further instalments to be released, but including rewatches as well as first-time viewings, I reckon I’m currently partway through fourteen different series (“series” being anything that’s a trilogy or greater). Those include, in alphabetical order: the Back to the Future trilogy, Die Hard, the Disney canon, the Hangover trilogy, James Bond, Jaws, the Man With No Name trilogy, Mission: Impossible, the Muppets, Rocky, Shrek, Terminator (though I only really intend to follow up December’s viewing of The Terminator with T2 in 3D and then stop, so maybe it shouldn’t count), Twilight, and Zatoichi. Phew! (And I still feel like I’ve forgotten something…)

    The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
    For much of the month my review of much-discussed Netflix “original” Annihilation was in pole position here, but in the last week it’s been pipped by my monthly TV column — the first time that’s bagged the award this year, but (based on last year) surely not the last.



    After last month’s larger-than-average selection, this one is half as big… but that still leaves me slightly ahead of target.

    #11 Bad Boys (1995)
    #12 The Jungle Book (2016)
    #13 Bad Boys II (2003)

    Like The Love Punch last month, The Jungle Book earns a speedy rewatch by being all-round family entertainment (and by being freshly added to Netflix the day we watched it, too). Similarly facilitated by a streaming service, I’ve been intending to rewatch and reassess the Bad Boyses for a while, and the opportunity presented itself while I had Sky Cinema to watch the Oscars.

    Next month, hopefully I’ll get back to my Shrek and Mission: Impossible series rewatches. Plus, perhaps a Marvel or two before Infinity War arrives.


    Marvel Cinematic Universe: Episode XIX.

    The Past Month on TV #31

    Murder abounds in this month’s reviews: Jessica Jones and Cormoran Strike are both on the trail of killers with a personal connection; Shetland’s top cop has deaths old and new on his hands; and Lucifer offers weekly homicide with a fantasy spin.

    Meanwhile, the only thing getting murdered on Nailed It are the recipes.

    Jessica Jones  Season 2
    Jessica Jones season 2When the first season of Jessica Jones debuted 28 months ago it was practically a cultural phenomenon. Its fresh, unique take on the superhero genre marked it out as noteworthy even at a time when there are innumerable other films and series in that space. A large part of that was the intelligent and grounded way it engaged with some thorny issues, making it a critical darling and attracting audience admiration too. So I’ve been a little surprised that no one really seems to be talking about season two. Perhaps it’s just me and my little internet bubble, but since the flurry of pre-release reviews I’ve heard nary a whisper. I’m sure there must be reviews and recaps out there, which I wasn’t seeking out so as to avoid spoilers, but I didn’t stumble across any either.

    Anyway, this season sees Jessica and co on the trail of the secretive medical organisation who gave her superpowers. I suppose saying any more than that might count as spoilers, depending on your point of view — they structure these seasons like novels, or long movies, meaning explaining the setup for the overall narrative can see you giving away things that don’t happen for three or four episodes. I mean, for example, in season one Kilgrave didn’t even appear until something like episode three or four, and wasn’t a major presence for another couple of episodes. A similar thing goes on this season. Some people criticise this form of storytelling on a fundamental level, wanting a more episodic approach, but it’s how these shows function — if you don’t approve of it, their very form will always offend you. You either give up on them, or take it at face value and roll with it. Sometimes it does make it feel like they’re moving too slowly, but there is a structure to the thing when viewed as a 13-hour whole.

    It’s a worthwhile caveat to note that I watched the season in five multi-episode clumps over the course of five days. You definitely get a decent chunk of story when you watch several episodes back-to-back. It would play differently if spread more thinly, I’m certain, but whether that’s a negative (making everything feel slower) or a positive (allowing more time to process each beat of plot and character), I couldn’t say. Nonetheless, I would say that giving the pace a kick up the arse wouldn’t hurt.

    This season's best thingAnd that’s not to say these series never work in episodic form. For instance, events at the start of episode five, AKA The Octopus, see Jessica begin to force herself to be a better person. It’s one of the season’s strongest episodes, in part because of this burst of character development. Okay, it’s a bit blunt, in that she’s told she needs to improve and we see her consciously trying, but it pays off in a scene where she has to be empathetic to question a mentally-impaired witness. It’s not only Jessica who benefits from development: supporting cast members like Malcolm, Trish, and Jeri get meaty subplots to tuck into. Jeri’s is the best — indeed, her storyline might be the strongest bit of the entire season. There’s a fantastic, nuanced performance from Carrie Anne Moss — it feels like they’ve really worked to make use of her in a storyline that’s far more emotional and nuanced than what she’s had previously in these shows.

    Conversely, Trish’s storyline feels slapdash. She falls off the wagon… until she runs out of her new drug, after which she’s fine. Well, more or less, because then they make it all about how she’s envious of Jessica’s powers. That’s a fine thread to pull — it’s been there all along — but some of the steps she takes as a result… it feels a bit much. Fundamentally it’s a good idea for her subplot, but I’m not sure it’s been well enough executed.

    As for the main story thread, although the season starts off in the mould of a superhero thriller (like most of these Netflix/Marvel shows), around the halfway mark it morphs into a family drama. A family drama where people have superpowers, and get shot, and debate the ethics of murder and running away to non-extradition countries, but, y’know, some families are unique. It also does the material the courtesy of digging into it. Several times the season reaches what looks like an ending, and in other shows would be, then pushes past it into what happens next; the psychological reality for these characters. That’s what the whole season is about, really: these characters as people, not as heroes or villains or whatever.

    Heroes, villains, or just people?For me, it lost its way a bit again in the final pair of episodes — there are still really good bits, but others feel like a wearisome rehash of plot beats familiar from other superhero/thriller series. Eventually it comes to a good ending — there’s a surprising resolution to the plot, plus an epilogue that lays some intriguing hints for a third season (an inevitability, surely?) — but the faffery of episodes 12 and 13 to get us there… there were more streamlined ways to do this, I think. Or, considering the mandated episode count they have, more interesting ways to have spent the time. So it’s not perfect, but it’s still one of the best of the half-dozen Netflix/Marvel shows.

    Strike  Career of Evil
    Strike: Career of EvilThe latest Strike adaptation (and the last for at least a couple of years) was the best so far, I thought — a mysterious, reasonably complicated case, and plenty of character stuff for our likeable pair of heroes, too. The latter is certainly a big part of the series and its appeal, sometimes to the detriment of the actual investigation storyline, I suspect. By which I refer to the fact that some fans of the books have complained that the series isn’t devoting enough time to each adaptation, necessitating big cuts to the plot to fit into just two hours. I’ve not read them myself, and such editing didn’t feel noticeable during the first series, but Career of Evil did feel a little hurried at times. It’s hard to deny that the BBC have raced through their adaptations a little too fast. And now we have to wait goodness-knows-how-long to find out if Robin manages to stay married to her new husband. At the start I thought this would be a series that avoided the clichéd will-they-won’t-they between the male and female leads, but clearly it isn’t. Really, I don’t care too much if they get together or not, but her husband’s a bit of a dick and I look forward to her ditching him.

    Shetland  Series 4
    Shetland series 4In almost the polar opposite to Strike, Shetland is no longer based on the books that inspired it (even though I believe there are one or two they’ve not adapted), and it takes a whole six episodes to tell its story. Actually, I feel a bit daft calling Strike’s case “complicated” now, because it’s as nothing to this series of Shetland, which sees DI Perez and his team struggling with both a 23-year-old cold case, which has resurfaced because the convicted murderer has just been awarded a mistrial, and a new murder with clear echoes of the first. If that wasn’t enough, the investigation leads them to Norway, where both the suspicious activities of an oil drilling firm and the plotting of a far right nationalist group come into play. Shetland has always had a bit of Scandi Noir about it (must be something to do with the cold northern environs), but it strays even further into that territory by, you know, actually going there.

    All this while dealing with the continued fallout of events from last series in a respectful, mature, understated, and relevant manner. It might look like “just a cop show”, but there’s some depth here; and when everything finally comes together and the truth is revealed in the final episode, there are some revelations and developments that really hit home — it’s sad and horrifying, without wallowing in it or going tonally overboard. Good news: a fifth series has already been commissioned.

    Nailed It!  Season 1
    Nailed It!Not a reality show about manicurists (that’s what it sounds like, doesn’t it? If I was making a reality show about manicurists I’d be annoyed this took my title), but rather Netflix’s answer to The Great British Bake Off (possibly literally: they were miffed they didn’t get a chance to bid for it when it went to Channel 4). It’s not about super-skilled amateur bakers, though, but rather normal folk who attempt the kind of grand bakes you sometimes see online… and fail miserably. It’s like that bit of An Extra Slice where they look at viewers’ photos, only turned into a whole programme. It’s also very American — brash, loud, fast, unnuanced… It’s also the way it’s shot and edited, very much more like American reality series than British ones, but I shan’t bore you with a Media Studies-esque explanation of that.

    So, for all those kinds of reasons, the first episode nearly put me off, but I stuck with it and it turns out it’s quite fun once you get used to it. It’s not as nice as Bake Off, but they’re not mocking the contestants either. Sure, they want them to mess up (they’re given ludicrously tight deadlines and bloody hard bakes), but it’s in a spirit of fun. Another difference between the UK and US shows: on Bake Off taste and decoration are equally important, leaning towards the former; on Nailed It, they do taste the bakes, but all that really matters is how they look. I mean, if you could distill what the rest of us think of as Americanism into a baking show…

    Lucifer  Season 1
    LuciferHaving finally finished Castle last month, there was a gap in our viewing schedule for a light crime-of-the-week cop show. Lucifer seemed to fit the bill. For one thing, it’s been knocking around for a few years now, meaning there’s a nice backlog of episodes to get through. Loosely inspired by a DC comic, it’s about the actual Devil quitting Hell and setting up a life in Los Angeles, where — for one reason or another — he ends up helping the police investigate murders. Meanwhile, he enters therapy, and there’s an angel knocking around who wants to drag him back to Hell. The series nicely balances the bog-standard US-cop-show case-of-the-week stuff with the ongoing fantastical subplots, powered by a cast of engaging characters with conflicting motives. Best of all is the lead, Tom Ellis, giving a deliciously charming and slightly camp turn as the Prince of Darkness himself as he tries to become a better person. I’m not sure the series has really made any waves (especially on this side of the pond, what with it being an Amazon Prime exclusive here), but it’s really rather good. I mean, it’s not going to be challenging Quality TV for greatest-of-all-time status — it’s still a case-of-the-week buddy show when you boil it down — but it’s done well and a lot of fun.

    Also watched…
  • The 90th Academy Awards — A solid but uneventful ceremony this year, I thought; a bit like everyone was playing it safe after last time.
  • Absentia Season 1 Episodes 7-10 — I was quite positive about this last month, but the second half of the series squandered my goodwill. It got a bit too daft, and the characters were too stupid (especially the husband). If it gets recommissioned I’m not sure I’ll bother.
  • The Great Stand Up To Cancer Bake Off Series 1 Episodes 1-3Bake Off’s channel change means it’s on its third charity, with its most unwieldy title yet. Watching celebrities fail at baking is still just as amusing though.
  • Not Going Out Series 9 Episodes 1-2 — Some people seem to write this sitcom off without a second thought, I guess because from the outside it looks a bit old-fashioned. Maybe it is. But it makes me laugh pretty consistently — what else do you want from a sitcom? Plus, this year’s second instalment, Escape Room, was a great bottle episode.

    Things to Catch Up On
    13 CommandmentsThis month, I have mostly been missing The X Files season 11, which finished earlier this week in the US (and comes to the same end here in the UK with a double-bill on Monday). I watched (and reviewed, natch) its first episode last month, but that was so uninspiring that I haven’t yet bothered to continue. I’m expecting the rest of the season to be an improvement (not that I’ve read any reviews — I’m just basing that on the show’s own form), but still, here we are. Other than that, I can’t think of anything new that I’ve missed; although I did happen to see an ad on Channel 4’s app for Belgian import 13 Commandments, which they reckon “makes Se7en look like Sesame Street”. As Se7en’s my favourite film, I feel I should give that a shot, but I don’t know when I’ll find time for its 13 episodes.

    Next month… Look away! Netflix’s vile family dramedy returns for a second series of Unfortunate Events.

  • Make/Remake: Deaths at a Funeral

    In 2007, Frank Oz directed a gaggle of British thesps (plus Peter Dinklage) in a darkly comic farce set during an English funeral.

    Just three short years later, director Neil LaBute and a gaggle of American comedians (plus Peter Dinklage) remade it in the US.

    Why did they so speedily re-do an English-language film in English? Goodness only knows. But I watched both versions almost back to back, so here are my thoughts…

    Death at a Funeral
    (2007)

    2018 #44
    Frank Oz | 91 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | UK, USA, Germany & Netherlands / English | 15 / R

    Death at a Funeral (2007)

    The plot of both versions is identical: a group of family and friends gather at the home of the family’s patriarch for his funeral. A variety of subplots unfold from there, but the main one revolves around the appearance of a guest that no one knows, and what he wants.

    The thing that surprised me most about Death at a Funeral is how well-liked it is online. I vaguely remember it coming out but thought it had been mostly ignored, but it has a fair amount of ratings on IMDb (a similar number to films like All About Eve or Dumbo), and relatively high user scores on sites like Letterboxd too. I thought maybe people (well, Americans) had come to it via the remake and it seemed a lot better by comparison, but that has less than half as many ratings on IMDb, so…

    I was mulling on this a lot because often I like films a bit more than the online consensus, but I wasn’t feeling it with this one. I certainly enjoyed it, but it takes a while to warm up, the laugh rate isn’t quite high enough, and some of the storylines feel overly familiar (how many times have we seen someone accidentally take drugs and try to hide it? I don’t know, but it feels like I’ve seen it a lot). Nonetheless, it develops into a decent little farce. I suppose it’s a black comedy too, what with it being set at a funeral and some of the events that unfurl, but other people have pushed the boundaries of “black comedy” so far in the past couple of decades that it didn’t feel that dark to me.

    Peter Dinklage with one of the few British actors who hasn't been in Game of Thrones

    The cast is a quality array of recognisable British faces, many of them not known for comedy (Matthew Macfadyen, Keeley Hawes, Rupert Graves), which lends some surprising strength to a couple of scenes. Others that are more familiar from the genre (Andy Nyman, Ewen Bremner, Kris Marshall) keep the guffawing in check. And there are some Americans too, including an exposed performance from Alan Tudyk (who’s doing a British accent) and a pre-Thrones Peter Dinklage (who isn’t), but they both fit in well.

    The film’s best gag, in my estimation, comes courtesy of the entire cast, in a way; an in-joke that I wasn’t 100% sure was deliberate: the end credits begin with each cast member’s name accompanied by a brief shot of them corpsing. Corpsing, during a film called Death at a Funeral. Well, I do like an in-joke.

    Anyway. Although this original British version of Death at a Funeral wasn’t quite as hilarious as I’d hoped for, it’s worth a watch as a well-performed and amusing farce. And it does improve somewhat when compared to to its remake…

    3 out of 5

    Death at a Funeral
    (2010)

    2018 #46
    Neil LaBute | 89 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Death at a Funeral (2010)

    Where the original was a little underwhelming, this is just kinda shit. It’s the most pointless remake since Gus Van Sant’s Psycho.

    That comparison isn’t a bad one, because this is a scene-for-scene remake — sometimes shot-for-shot, line-for-line. Even the title sequence is an inferior riff on the original. Not only that, but some bits aren’t even done as well. If it worked the first time, why are you changing it? Maybe the original cast and crew made it look more effortless than it was. Some of it doesn’t even translate very well. For example, there’s a joke in the original about how “tea may solve many things”. Here, that’s translated to be about coffee. Yes, it’s been adapted to suit the different culture, but in the process has lost the cultural significance (to Brits, tea is more than just a popular beverage).

    I guess he's showing him the screenplay

    There are some new gags, most likely the result of the cast improvising (this version is more populated by comedians than the British one). Some of them are even funny. Unfortunately, more often the cast don’t hold up. Most of the performances are like an under-rehearsed am-dram version of the same screenplay. They certainly don’t have the acting chops to sell the more emotional moments. James Marsden is quite good in the Alan Tudyk role, though. Peter Dinklage plays the same part, but not as well — it’s less nuanced, less believable.

    Director Neil LaBute previously found notoriety as writer-director of the Nic Cage Wicker Man remake This does nothing to rehabilitate his reputation (what is this guy’s obsession with re-doing and ruining British films?) Again like Van Sant’s Psycho, it’s more interesting as a cinematic exercise than as a film in its own right.

    2 out of 5

    The Snowbound Monthly Update for February 2018

    Oh, the weather outside is frightful, but films are so delightful; and since we’ve no place to go, let’s look back at the last month on 100 Films


    #16 Accomplice (1946)
    #17 Airplane II: The Sequel (1982)
    #18 The Cloverfield Paradox (2018)
    #19 Casino (1995)
    #20 Hitchcock (2012)
    #21 Fast & Furious 8 (2017), aka The Fate of the Furious
    #22 WarGames (1983)
    #23 Black Panther (2018)
    #24 Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold (1964), aka Zatôichi senryô-kubi
    #25 The Dark Tower (2017)
    #26 The Duellists (1977)
    #27 Persepolis (2007)
    #28 Being John Malkovich (1999)
    #29 One for the Fire: The Legacy of “Night of the Living Dead” (2008)
    #30 Birth of the Living Dead (2013)
    #31 Mute (2018)
    #32 Big Fish (2003)
    #33 My Cousin Rachel (2017)
    #34 Mindhorn (2016)
    #35 The Villainess (2017), aka Ak-Nyeo
    #36 I Origins (2014)
    Black Panther

    Big Fish

    The Villainess

    .


    • With 21 new films watched this month, February is all set to beat a few stats.
    • So, it passes all averages: for the month of February (previously 11.5, now 12.4); for 2018 to date (previously 15, now 18); and the rolling average of the last 12 months (previously 14.5, now 15.1).
    • It’s also the second highest February (behind 2016’s 24) and the second furthest I’ve reached by the end of February (behind 2016 again, when I’d made it to #44).
    • In 11-and-a-bit years of doing this blog, it’s only the 10th month with 20+ films. That puts it in the top 7.5% of all months.
    • Despite February being the shortest month, 21 is the most films I’ve watched in a single month since last October. If you include rewatches (more on those further down, as usual), it’s the most since… the same. But to find another month where I watched more overall, you’d have to go back to another October: October 2015, aka my highest month ever.
    • This month’s Blindspot film: one of the few gaps in my Tim Burton viewing, probably his most restrained (and, by no coincidence, one of his best) film in the last 20+ years, Big Fish.
    • This month’s WDYMYHS film: one of the many gaps in my Martin Scorsese viewing, though sadly I found Casino to be rather overrated.



    The 33rd Monthly Arbitrary Awards

    Favourite Film of the Month
    This month wasn’t a bad one for quality viewing — far from it — and yet options for this category quickly narrowed to just a couple of prime contenders. Of those, I had little doubt about my favourite: ticking all sorts of boxes with its African James Bond superhero routine, it had to be Black Panther.

    Least Favourite Film of the Month
    There were a few less-good films this month, two of them courtesy of Netflix’s Originals line. Of that pair, undoubtedly the worst (to my mind) was The Cloverfield Paradox. Its surprise release may’ve been hailed as genius, but when you actually see the film you realise that innovation was almost all it had going for it. If Netflix ever try to pull the same stunt again… well, it’s not going to bode well for that film’s quality.

    Best Action Sequence on Wheels of the Month
    Black Panther has a cool semi-virtual car chase, and obviously Fast & Furious 8 bases almost all of its action around motor vehicles, but neither can come close to The Villainesssword fight on speeding motorbikes. And later it trots out a bus-based finale, just to make sure no one else would stand a chance in this category.

    Flower of the Month
    It may not be the weather for them, but after Big Fish it has to be daffodils.

    The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
    It’s the film everyone’s been talking about this month — and going to see in droves, too — so it’s no surprise to find Black Panther in pole position here.



    In a real turn-up for the books, my Rewatchathon is currently well ahead of schedule…

    #5 Blade Runner 2049 3D (2017)
    #6 Beetlejuice (1988)
    #7 The Mask (1994)
    #8 The Love Punch (2013)
    #9 Mission: Impossible (1996)
    #10 Shrek (2001)

    Regular readers with exceptional memories may recall I only last watched The Love Punch in January. Frankly, it’s not a film I necessarily thought I’d ever revisit, let alone so soon, but sometimes you need something inoffensive that will placate a group of family members with varied tastes. And, to be completely honest, although it’s an utterly daft movie, I do quite like it.

    Beetlejuice turns 30 next month, so I’ll post more about it then. Mission: Impossible and Shrek will also be getting the “Guide To” treatment, to fill out my archive with posts about the entirety of each series — three of the five Mission films are already here; and while there are no Shreks yet, three of those five will be first-time watches when I get to them. This is also the beginning of a rewatch of all the M:I films before this summer’s sixth arrives. It’s the first time I’ve watched the first two in at least a decade — time bloody flies, don’t it?


    It’s time for the annual update of my director’s page header image, which features the 20 directors with the most films I’ve reviewed. (The excitement never stops around here, folks!)

    There were no humungous changes like the surge of Spielberg last year. Nonetheless, Michael Bay and Ron Howard have moved into positions where they definitely get to appear on the banner; but there’s a ten-way tie for 18th place, from which only three directors can be selected. Already included in the header were John Carpenter, Alfred Hitchcock, Ernst Lubitsch, Tony Scott, and Billy Wilder — at least two had to go to make way for Bay and Howard. Also under consideration for the remaining three slots were Danny Boyle, Kenneth Branagh, David Lynch, M. Night Shyamalan, and Quentin Tarantino.

    In the end, I decided to go for a near-maximum refresh: off come Carpenter, Lubitsch, Tony Scott, and Wilder (Hitchcock stays because, c’mon, it’s Hitchcock), and on go not only Bay and Howard, but also Lynch and Tarantino.


    British Summer Time begins. No, seriously: right now it couldn’t be more wintery, but in just 25 days the clocks change. Madness.

    The Past Month on TV #30

    So, this TV overview is a little later than normal — a full nine days, in fact — but I guess no one notices that but me, so let’s get on with the shows:

    Strike  Series 1
    Strike: The Cuckoo's CallingAdapted from the series of novels by Robert Galbraith — the mystery-writing pseudonym of one J.K. Rowling — you might’ve assumed this would’ve followed in the footsteps of the author’s other literary series and have Hollywood come a-knocking. Maybe they did, but TV is a more natural home for the material: it’s a decent low-key murder mystery with appealing lead characters, which is the sort of stuff that can generate TV ratings but doesn’t spell box office nowadays (well, unless it’s Murder on the Orient Express, with its $350 million worldwide gross, but that’s a different kettle of fish). While the general shape of the drama is familiar from, well, every other TV detective show, Rowling’s well-known interest in social issues regularly comes through — not least in its two main characters, one of whom is a war veteran living with the realities of an amputation, the other a talented woman finding equality in the workplace. I suppose that’s all very timely.

    The series’ biggest challenge is not whether it’s original or not (that’s clearly not a problem), but may be whether it can keep itself going long-term. Rowling isn’t the type to let other writers dream up new stories for her characters (the path that ends up fuelling most initially-book-based detective shows), but she’s not exactly pumping the novels out either: this first series adapted the initial two books; an adaptation of number three starts tomorrow; and… that’s all she’s published, for now (there are reportedly plans for ten more books). Will Strike end up with a Sherlock-esque production schedule? Or will it just quietly disappear when viewers and/or the cast lose interest after a couple more adaptations? Only time will tell…

    The Good Place  Season 2
    The Good Place season 2Having blown the doors off its own enjoyable premise with a clever twist at the end of season one, I was worried The Good Place had left itself with nowhere to go in the future. Fortunately, that isn’t the case. A cleverly-structured double-length opener burns through what I thought would be the entire second season’s plot, and then the second episode burns through even more ideas at a rate of knots. Where most sitcoms find an idea and milk it for all it’s worth (that’s the “situation” part, after all), The Good Place is restlessly inventive.

    That said, it does begin to settle into a new status quo, and at that point it goes off the boil a little. It’s still funny, but not so much as the first season was, and by standing relatively still it’s not as exciting. But then, a little over halfway through, it begins to tear it all apart again, and we’re off on a wild ride where you don’t quite know where things are going to end up — there are several episodes that most other shows would’ve been more than happy to make their finale, but The Good Place just keeps up the “and what happens after that?” barminess. But it does have to end eventually, of course. It doesn’t have a massive twist to rival the end of season one, but then trying to top that would be a fool’s errand. No, instead it sends the show spiralling off in a whole new direction. Superb.

    Absentia  Season 1 Episodes 1-6
    AbsentiaStana “Beckett from Castle” Katic stars in this mystery-thriller, an Amazon exclusive in the US and UK (and everywhere else there’s Amazon Video, I presume). She plays FBI agent Emily Byrne, who was declared dead in absentia after she disappeared while on the hunt for a serial killer. Six years later, she turns up alive, apparently having been held captive all that time — even though the main suspect was convicted of her murder and has been in prison. Events quickly take a turn where her former colleagues wonder if Emily was in on it too, meaning she has to go on the run to prove her innocence. Of course, none of those people ever stop to wonder what she’s actually been up to for six years (it’s not like the killings continued), or why she’d decide to fake her comeback now, or… all sorts of other things. A subplot with her kid — who was too young to remember her, and now has a new real mom because his dad remarried — has emotional potential, but goes a bit too swimmingly at first and then is soon abandoned in favour of shoot outs, and unearthed skeletons (both figuratively and literally), and all that mystery-thriller stuff. So this isn’t one to think about too much, in any respect, but it’s passably entertaining as a pulp thriller. I’m going to stick with it until the end, at least, but I kinda hope it doesn’t try to end on a cliffhanger — I’m not sure I want a whole other season (or two, or three, or more).

    The X Files  Season 11 Episode 1
    The X Files season 11The second season of The X Files since its revival only recently started airing in the UK, but we’ve caught up as far as episode three now. Well, the broadcasts have — I’ve only watched the first episode, and it was so goddamn terrible I’ve not had the heart to continue. (I will, I’ve just not mustered the motivation yet.) Said opener was My Struggle III, continuing the series’ never-ending mythology arc plot, which last season (two years ago now!) was covered in My Struggle I and My Struggle II. Well, at least the mythology episodes are clearly marked these days — there’s a My Struggle IV later in the season, for our sins.

    Anyway, the problems with My Struggle III are manifold, but the key one is that it’s confusing. Partly that’s because it plays heavily off what happened in Part 2 — which, as I say, was two years ago now — and partly because it all builds on the entire history of the series’ overarching storyline, which is long and complex and I haven’t even seen all of. (Someday I need to sit down and properly watch the entire show, all 218 episodes of it. Goodness knows when.) But even allowing for that, this was a bad hour of television — poorly made, with strange stylistic choices (what was with all that random voiceover from Mulder?) Ugh. But hey, I guess most of the season will be standalone monster-of-the-week episodes; and while that as a format has fallen out of favour in the past couple of decades (everybody loves serialisation now), I think it’s what The X Files has always done best.

    The Man from U.N.C.L.E.  Season 1 Episodes 1-4
    The Man from U.N.C.L.E. season 1I’ve had this knocking around waiting to be watched for yonks after I picked up the complete series DVD set on offer. (“For yonks” being “since 2015” in this case.) I remember seeing some episodes as a child and enjoying them, though I don’t remember any specifics. I guess they were from the show’s later, crazier, full-colour years, because these early black-and-white adventures don’t quite chime with that vague sense-memory of what the show should be. That said, although they start out almost serious (as ’60s spy-fi goes, anyway), by just a couple of episodes in there’s already a kookier side on display. Anyhow, I expect the best is yet to come.

    Murder on the Blackpool Express
    Murder on the Blackpool ExpressThis one-off feature-length comedy aired at the end of last year, presumably timed to tie-in with the theatrical release of Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express — as the spoofing poster highlights, of course. (Who thought I’d wind up referencing that film twice in a TV column nearly four months after it came out? I really ought to get on with reviewing it…) Truthfully, that poster is probably the best thing about this. There’s a large cast, all recognisable from a host of British sitcoms, but half of them go underused. Those that do have a part to play get material that’s fairly amusing, amid a plot that’s somewhere between predictable and too mad to be guessable. It was funny enough on balance, but it didn’t live up to its full potential.

    Also watched…
  • The Brokenwood Mysteries Series 3 Episode 1 — Murder with a Kiwi accent.
  • Castle Season 8 Episodes 16-22 — Murder with an American accent.
  • Death in Paradise Series 7 Episodes 3-7 — Murder with a Caribbean accent.
  • Vera Series 8 Episodes 2-4 — Murder with a Northumberland accent.

    Things to Catch Up On
    Altered CarbonThis month, I have mostly been missing Altered Carbon, Netflix’s cyberpunk murder mystery. Reviews looked to be mixed, so I haven’t actually decided whether to bother with it or not. Two series I will definitely (intend to) get round to, but I’m saving up to binge once they’re done, are: BBC Two’s starry political thriller Collateral (led by Carey Mulligan, John Simm, Billie Piper, and no doubt some actors who haven’t had significant roles in Doctor Who. FYI, it’s coming to other counties as a Netflix “Original” next month); and the latest run of Scottish detective drama Shetland (the last series of which was covered in the early days of this column).

    Next month… the MCU returns to Netflix in the unique shape of Jessica Jones.

  • Say Hello to My Little Monthly Update for January 2018

    Let’s start the new year with a bang…

    Say hello to my little friend


    #1 Bright (2017)
    #2 The Narrow Margin (1952)
    #3 My Life as a Courgette (2016), aka Ma vie de Courgette
    #4 The 400 Blows (1959), aka Les Quatre Cents Coups
    #5 The Purge (2013)
    #6 The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
    #7 The Love Punch (2013)
    #8 The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! (2012)
    #9 The Man from Earth: Holocene (2017)
    #10 La La Land (2016)
    #11 Zatoichi on the Road (1963), aka Zatôichi kenka-tabi
    #12 The Boss Baby 3D (2017)
    #13 Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters (2017), aka Gojira: Kaijū Wakusei
    #14 Scarface (1983)
    #15 King Arthur: Legend of the Sword 3D (2017)
    La La Land

    Scarface

    .


    • 15 new films this month gets 2018 off to a strong start. It’s equal to the 2017 average of 14.5, which bodes well for another good year.
    • It’s ahead of the January average (previously 11.2, now 11.5), though ranks joint third of all Januarys: it’s the same tally as last year, only slightly behind 2015’s 16, but 2016 retains the all-time best January with 20.
    • The Boss Baby was the first film I watched from 2017’s 50 Unseen. Did not expect that!
    • This month’s Blindspot film: on the rare occasion I watch a film from the nouvelle vague I always expect to find it irritating and pretentious, but there are some I’ve liked — Breathless, for example. Now joining that list is another of the movement’s best-known texts, François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows.
    • This month’s WDYMYHS film: Al Pacino stars in Brian De Palma’s ’80s epic about a Cuban immigrant who’s a whizz at designing winter neckwear, ScarfAce.



    The 32nd Monthly Arbitrary Awards

    Favourite Film of the Month
    There were quite a few films I really liked this month (by the time the reviews are in, four will receive full marks), but when I sat down to consider this award there was a clear victor for me. I can’t quite believe it’s taken me this long to get round to it (I first noticed it when it was getting raves at festival screenings in the latter half of 2016), and I’m not sure which stage of backlash we’re on at this point (so I don’t know if I’m currently ‘meant’ to like it or not), but I loved La La Land.

    Least Favourite Film of the Month
    There was nothing I’d consider an outright stinker this month (yes, I enjoyed The Boss Baby and King Arthur), so it falls to what I consider the most disappointing, basically. I’m afraid that has to be The Man from Earth: Holocene. After spending so long waiting for it (I supported the Kickstarter campaign back in 2014), the end result didn’t live up to the original. Perhaps it never could have, but here we are.

    Worst Title Translation from French of the Month
    The French title of François Truffaut’s debut film, Les Quatre Cents Coups, does indeed literally translate into English as The 400 Blows, but that’s not really what it means. It’s a (slight) abbreviation of a French idiom, faire les quatre cents coups, which has a meaning equivalent to “to raise hell”. So in English, The 400 Blows sounds like a pretty meaningless title once you’ve seen the film; something like Raising Hell, on the other hand…

    Worst Title Translation from Japanese of the Month
    The fifth film in Japan’s long-running samurai series is called Zatôichi kenka-tabi in its original language, which translates as Zatoichi’s Fighting Journey. Suggests some action, doesn’t it? Instead, in English it’s known as Zatoichi on the Road, which is both less exciting and also thoroughly generic — it could be the title of pretty much any Zatoichi movie. (Not that Fighting Journey is that much more specific, to be honest.)

    The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
    A clear victor this month (it had five times as many hits as the post in second place), and for the first time in a quarter of a year it’s actually a film review too: The Man from Earth: Holocene.



    I didn’t bother to furnish my Rewatchathon with an introductory post this year because the concept remains fundamentally the same as 2017 (that intro is here). However, because reaching 52 felt like a bit of a scramble towards the end, I’ve lowered my sights ever so slightly to 50. It’s a rounder number anyhow.

    First off the block, then…

    #1 Dunkirk (2017)
    #2 Die Hard (1988)
    #3 The Man from Earth (2007)
    #4 Die Hard 2 (1990)

    That’s a bang-on-target start — a lot better than last year, when I only rewatched one film in January.

    Believe it or not, Die Hard and Die Hard 2 are the only Die Hard movies I’ve ever seen. I’ve been meaning to get to Die Hard with a Vengeance for absolutely ages, but for a while have also been wanting to rewatch the first two first. Well, that’s done now, so hopefully #3 will follow soon. And then #4 and #5? Perhaps. I mean, I watched Die Hard 2 for the first time in 2008 and I’m only now watching With a Vengeance, so maybe I won’t see the fifth one until 2038…


    The MCU is back, in black.

    The Past Month on TV #29

    After the bustle of Christmas TV, it’s been a quieter January on the box here at 100 Films Towers. Nonetheless, I did catch up with one of the best series of 2017 — possibly of all time…

    Blue Planet II
    Blue Planet IIDespite the massive hype, I missed this when it aired. I say “missed” — I always intend to watch these big natural history shows, then never get round to them. I confess, it was new tech that persuaded me: after I saw it was all available in UHD on iPlayer, I had to give that a go. And…

    Wow.

    That’s the only word for it, really. Well, it isn’t — “stunning” would be another one. Incredible. Wondrous. Mind-boggling. I’m talking about both the UHD photography and the series itself here. In the latter camp we can also add educational, and informative, and eye-opening, but those are kind of a given — it’s a BBC David Attenborough series, of course it nails that part. Attenborough’s script and delivery strikes the perfect balance between acknowledging the creatures’ intelligence and personalities without slipping into anthropomorphising them. But many of the creatures and places we’re shown are almost unbelievable. Never has that old chestnut “we know more about the surface of the Moon than the oceans” seemed more true. James Cameron is planning to explore the alien life in Pandora’s oceans in Avatar 2, but he’s going to have to go some way to imagine anything more alien than what’s to be found in our real depths. I wonder if he’s seen this? He should. Everyone should.

    If that wasn’t enough, the visuals are awe-inspiring. The vibrant colours of some of these creatures were incredible, unquestionably enhanced by the wider spectrum of HDR. The level of detail the extra resolution seems to afford made it all feel very real too — creatures like dolphins and sharks don’t show gaudy colours, but the texture and sheen of their bodies felt like you could reach out and touch it.

    I wish you could see this in HDR...Now, I didn’t do a comparison to the regular HD stream, so I can’t really say how much better the UHD made things, but I do have a few observations. Related to it looking “more real”, after viewing I saw a good resolution photo taken for the series of one creature (this chap) which didn’t seem to capture the texture of its body in the same way the episode did. That could be the added effect of motion vs a still photo, but it could also be the extra detail from 4K. And talking of comparing still images, when a UHD episode was selected it displayed the iPlayer menu in UHD/HDR too, so I was able to do a direct comparison of each episodes’ key image. In particular, the one pictured above (from episode five) really showed off the vibrancy of HDR.

    Finally, the making-of bits they have at the end of every episode looked more muted than the main show, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s because they were finished at HD rather than UHD. But that’s not to say those segments looked bad. So while I feel fairly sure the HDR image was better to at least some degree, I’m also certain that at least some of this marvellousness would come across in regular ol’ 1080p — quality does filter down with image resolution, and they’ve done such sterling work here.

    Anyway. Like everyone else, I can’t recommend Blue Planet II enough to anyone… but doubly so if you have a chance to see it in UHD with HDR.

    Little Women
    Little WomenAs I mentioned last time, I’ve never seen or read a previous version of Little Women, but apparently this new one was pretty faithful so I figure I’m all learned about it now. The biggest change appears to be in the ages of the four eponymous heroines: in this version they look to be about the same age, in their late teens or early 20s at the start, but in fact they should be 16, 15, 13 and 12. Quite different. A challenge for adapters, though, because the story covers a timespan of five or more years (by my reckoning). Other films have dodged this by casting two actresses in some roles, but this adaptation sought to avoid that. It has its cons (an early petulant act comes across very differently if done by a 12-year-old versus a c.17-year-old, I think), but it is what it is.

    Anyway, setting that point aside, it seems quite clear why the book has endured in popularity. (Or, if you prefer, books — in the US it’s one novel with a Part 1 and Part 2, but in the UK it’s separated as Little Women and Good Wives. This version adapts both.) There’s a certain tweeness and sweetness to it — it’s about four sisters who are poor but not that poor and all love each and do fun homely things and have romantic entanglements and so on and so forth — but it’s laced with enough seriousness and sadness (to say more would be spoilersome) to add a bit of welcome grit. Plus the big central romance doesn’t pan out how you might expect. Actually, it develops with a solid dose of realism that more romance-based storylines might benefit from.

    This particular adaptation shines with the typical high quality of a BBC drama, with a recognisable elder cast (Emily Watson, Dylan Baker, Michael Gambon, Angela Lansbury) being equalled by a quartet of newcomers and almost-newcomers as the girls — including Maya Hawke, who looks scarily like her mother, Uma Thurman. (Once you’ve seen it, you can’t unsee it. Seriously, it’s like they’ve used time travel to cast a young Uma Thurman.)

    Also watched…
  • Bright — Well, some people counted it as TV. Review here.
  • Death in Paradise Series 7 Episodes 1-2 — As sunny, breezy, and predictable as its island setting. Reliably lightweight and cheery viewing for dreary January.
  • The Great Christmas Bake Off — For a show just about people competitively baking that I watched in the middle of January, this was surprisingly heartwarming and Christmassy. (Not watched the New Years special yet because the trailer looked strangely disappointing.)
  • Not Going Out The True Meaning of Christmas — The plot may be predictable, but writer-star Lee Mack keeps the jokes coming thick and fast.

    Things to Catch Up On
    McMafiaThis month, I have mostly been missing the BBC’s pair of big, grim January dramas, McMafia and Hard Sun. They both seem to have received a very mixed reaction (not that I’ve been following too closely because, y’know, spoilers), but both have intriguing setups: the former a drama about the global business of the Russian mafia inspired by a non-fiction book; the latter a pre-apocalyptic sci-fi/crime thriller from the creator of Luther.

    Next month… no specific idea, to be honest. But I’ve got the latest seasons of The Crown and Peaky Blinders waiting to be binged, and plenty of Arrow and The Flash to catch up on.

  • What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2018

    In an emulation of last year, in 2018 I’m setting myself the goal of watching not only a dozen Blindspot films, but also a decad WDYMYHS movies. Last year there was a reason for this (marking my tenth blogiversary); this year, I’m doing it just because it worked before.

    In another similarity to last year, my Blindspot list is a ‘free choice’ selected from films I either already own or have ready access to (i.e. they’re available on Netflix / Amazon Prime / etc), while my WDYMYHS list is chosen by mixing together lists of must-see movies to find those that consensus says I should’ve seen.

    To select this year’s ten, I noted films from IMDb’s Top 250 (or whatever they want to call it nowadays) that I already owned or had ready access to, then saw which were also on They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They?’s 1,000 Greatest Films. Then I narrowed that long-list to films that also helped complete a list on iCheckMovies. After ruling out Princess Mononoke under my old “no duplicate directors” rule (because I really wanted to include Nausicaä on my Blindspot list; and also because I’d already had a shot at Mononoke during 2015’s list), these were my final ten — listed here in whatever order they ended up ranked.


    Das Boot


    The Lives of Others


    Full Metal Jacket


    Stalker


    Amadeus


    Scarface


    Ran


    Casino


    The Elephant Man


    Rocky

    Exciting observation: six of them are from the ’80s. No idea how or why that came about.

    Blindspot 2018

    In an emulation of last year, in 2018 I’m setting myself the goal of watching not only a dozen Blindspot films, but also a decad WDYMYHS movies. Last year there was a reason for this (marking my tenth blogiversary); this year, I’m doing it just because it worked before.

    In another similarity to last year, my Blindspot list is a ‘free choice’ selected from films I either already own or have ready access to (i.e. they’re available on Netflix / Amazon Prime / etc), while my WDYMYHS list is chosen by mixing together lists of must-see movies to find those that consensus says I should’ve seen.

    Although this is a ‘free choice’ list, I did get a helping hand: I determined I wanted to include films directed by Alfred Hitchcock and Ingmar Bergman, but how to choose which from their lengthy and acclaimed filmographies? So I turned to iCheckMovies to see which were on the most lists, had the most favourites, that kind of thing. That produced clear frontrunners for each director, and they’re the ones I went with.

    Below are all 12 of my selections, in alphabetical order.


    The 400 Blows


    Attack the Block


    Big Fish


    Black Narcissus


    The Hunt


    Nausicaä of the
    Valley of the Wind


    Snowpiercer


    Strangers on a Train


    Suspiria


    True Romance


    The Wild Bunch


    Wild Strawberries

    Exciting observation: eight of them (aka two-thirds) are non-US productions. How cultured of me.