The Past Month on TV #14

After last month’s bumper-bonus TV review (with three major series to review, plus a couple of big specials), the past four weeks have been pretty quiet. I’ve certainly watched stuff, just very little of it feels worthy of comment.

Nonetheless, there was this:

The Missing (Series 2)
The Missing series 2While everybody’s busy fawning over Happy Valley (never watched it) and Line of Duty (series one was quite good; I need to catch up), I reckon The Missing is one of the best dramas British TV has produced in a good long while. The second series (which aired towards the end of last year over here and, coincidentally, started last Sunday in the US) is every bit the equal of the first, and possibly even better — and considering how good the first was, that really is an achievement.

Featuring a brand-new case (what with the first one having been resolved), sibling screenwriters Harry and Jack Williams have this time made their story and scripts even tighter, partly in awareness of the scrutiny fans exacted upon the first run. What that means in practice is every mystery has an answer; nothing is thrown away, nothing is a mistake. That’s even more impressive given some of the audacious twists they pull off, which I shan’t spoil here.

As well as the enjoyable plot theatrics, the emotional lives of the characters are as on point as ever. Maybe none are quite as effective as the toll exerted on James Nesbitt’s character in series one, but the cast is arguably more well-rounded beyond a sole lead. Talking of which, the only major returning character, Tchéky Karyo’s detective Julien Baptiste, is even more central this time, which can only be a good thing because he’s a top character expertly brought to life. The writers agree: while a third series of The Missing is contingent on them having a good idea for a story, they’ve talked about potentially conjuring up a Baptiste spin-off instead.

I’ve recently been thinking about my favourite TV series of the last ten years. There are rather a lot of contenders, considering the golden age of “peak TV” we’re currently living through. Frankly, I’m not sure if The Missing will quite crack the top ten, but it’s definitely in the conversation.

The British Academy Film Awards 2017
The BAFTAs 2017aka the BAFTAs, obv. I have to say, I thought it was a pretty dull show this year. For starters, Cirque du Soleil — impressive, but what’s it got to do with the last year in film? Why did no one write Stephen Fry some good material for his opening monologue? Then there were the awards themselves. Short on surprises — the big prizes went where expected, the smaller ones erred British. None of the American winners are committed to giving a decent speech here because they’re saving it all for the Oscars. Well, apart from the Kubo guy — he knows his award is going to Zootropolistopia next fortnight and so he gave us his best stuff. Good on him.

Also watched…
  • Death in Paradise Series 6 Episodes 2-6 — Caribbean murder.
  • Elementary Season 5 Episodes 4-9 — Sherlockian murder.
  • The Flash Season 3 Episodes 10-11 / Arrow Season 5 Episodes 9-11 — not much need to investigate the murders here, as the heroes are doing them half the time.
  • Who Dares Wins Series 9 Episodes 5-6 — they’ve had to cut out the National Lottery bits now they’ve dropped that from TV, and they’re shunting it around the schedule like an unloved heirloom they’ve committed to display but really rather wouldn’t… and it is a kind of terrible show, really… but the lists, man, they keep me coming back. #addict

    Things to Catch Up On
    LegionIt must be a slow time for TV — I don’t even feel like I’ve been missing all that much. Well, X-Men spin-off Legion recently started and I haven’t got round to that yet, and 24 spin-off / sequel / continuation 24: Legacy started in the UK last night, so I’ve barely had a chance to watch it (I’ll have something to say about that next month, then). So I really have no excuse for not watching Westworld yet. Oh, and I need to get on with starting my long-planned re-watch of Twin Peaks, because there are only…

    94 days until new Twin Peaks.

    Next month… the final series of Broadchurch begins.

  • The Past Month on TV #13

    When I started this TV coverage almost a year ago I promised short reviews, but with three major releases falling under its purview this month — plus a big crossover and the best thing that was on TV this Christmas (and sundry other bits to mention too) — I find myself with quite a bit to say…

    A Series of Unfortunate Events (Season 1)
    A Series of Unfortunate EventsI’ve never read A Series of Unfortunate Events, the 13-book cycle of faux-gothic novels by Lemony Snicket that recount the terrible lives of the Baudelaire orphans as they are stalked by the scheming Count Olaf. I am, however, a verified fan / defender of the 2004 movie adaptation (I even included it in my 100 Favourites series last year) — one of few, it seemed, because the movie wasn’t a huge hit and, though it only adapted the first three of the books, no sequels were forthcoming. So I was most excited when it was announced Netflix were re-adapting the books for the small screen — and, fortunately, the new version turns out to be (aside from a few wobbles) a veritably fine drama.

    The biggest of those wobbles is getting started. The series has a very particular tone and style, and that does take some getting used to. Indeed, some people will never click with it. You may well have already heard it described as “a cross between Wes Anderson and Tim Burton”, a summation which I’m afraid can’t be approved upon or reasonably substituted with another because that is precisely what it is like. If you do decide to sample the programme (assuming you haven’t already, because if you already have then any advice about what you should consider doing if you do watch it would be inherently pointless because you already have), I would recommend treating the first two episodes as a feature-length double-bill. Although delightfully structured to serve as individual segments (there’s a nice surprise at the end of episode one, even if you’re familiar with the story from other media, and a cleverly staged recap/flashback at the top of episode two), I feel like it might take the full opening story to completely settle into the tone and style the show is shooting for and — I think, on balance — hitting.

    One of the big points in its favour are the scripts, which are infused with wit — not just gags in the dialogue, but at times the very structure and construction of the piece.* It also makes good repeated use of one of my favourite comedic techniques, unnecessary repetition, as well as making good comedic use of one of my repeated favourite techniques, unnecessary repetition. I suppose one might describe the style as arch, and that will not be to all tastes, but it was to mine. A lengthy sequence in episode two dedicated to explaining the difference in meaning between “literally” and “figuratively” certainly helped sway me. It’s delivered by Snicket himself, who, in the form of Patrick Warburton, regularly appears on screen to elucidate and comment upon events. I wasn’t sure of Warburton’s casting at first, but he leaves behind the kind of likeable dullards he usually plays to nail Snicket’s verbose, florid declarations and keen intelligence.

    Creepy Count OlafAs Olaf, Neil Patrick Harris has the difficult task of being both comically inept and genuinely menacing, as well as appearing in any number of disguises (well, four). Opinion seems divided on whether he manages this better than Jim Carrey in the film, but, well, that’s opinions for you. Personally, I thought he was very good. The extra screen time here (what was done in 108 minutes of film is granted 299 minutes of TV) means he has to work at a different level and pace to Carrey, and I think there are multiple moments where he nails it. Similarly, some may think the child actors are guilty of vigorously flat delivery of their lines, but I think this is just another aspect of the Wes Anderson-esque style — as the viewer (and, possibly, the cast) become more accustomed to the material, so the quality of the performances (and/or the perception thereof) improves.

    Another thing I want to mention is its pacing as a TV series. Netflix’s usual all-at-once release strategy encourages binge-watching, this we know, but it also encourages what I’m going to call “binge storytelling” — that is, series that are designed to be viewed in their entirety, like very long movies. Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that Unfortunate Events breaks this mould (it’s adapted from four novels, so not being one long story is inherent), but a viewer might naturally expect the season’s eight episodes to consequently play like four movies split into halves. Not so. Rather, it plays like a series made up of two-parters. That’s a very fine distinction, perhaps, but there is a difference. To try to explain what I’m getting at from another angle: it isn’t structured as four movies that have had to be split in two to fit the format, but as eight one-hours where each pair present a change in location and guest cast, even as several narrative threads flow across them all. See? Well, don’t worry if not. Instead, just enjoy the theme song — which changes slightly every episode, therefore encouraging that episodic viewing. I’ve found it to be a total earworm. Look away! Looook awaaay!

    The sorry seafrontI think most would’ve thought A Series of Unfortunate Events was dead on screen after the film, but this series (and the reaction to it) suggests Netflix have been vindicated for deciding to revive the property. Let’s hope they have the common sense to do the right thing and commission the two more seasons needed to complete this sorry tale. In the meantime, I’m very favourably disposed to read all the books…

    * Incidentally, fun game on social media / comment sections: spot the people who are utterly baffled why both screen adaptations of Unfortunate Events have treated it so comically. Seems some people didn’t get the joke when they were kids. ^

    Sherlock (Series 4)
    Sherlock series 4Sherlock comes to an end (for now) with another variable and divisive series. That’s actually the way it’s been received ever since the start (for all the people who think it only lost its way in the third run, there were plenty who slated various parts of it during the first and second series too), so I don’t think we should be so surprised. For my part, I enjoyed it on the whole.

    Opener The Six Thatchers seems to be widely despised, though for the life of my I can’t work out why. Okay, there’s the death at the end, but that was a somewhat inevitable eventuality and it’s fairly well handled. If you’re going to write off something just because it kills off a character you like… well, you need to grow up, frankly. I’m sure that’s not the only reason there are people who dislike the episode, though. Personally I enjoyed all the espionage action stuff. Sherlock has always been about adventures rather than cases and this is surely in-keeping. Anyway, it’s not a perfect episode, but it’s certainly not worse than, say, series one’s The Blind Banker.

    The Lying Detective also has its detractors, but on the whole was much better received (seems to be people who hated Six Thatchers enjoyed Lying Detective and vice versa, as a rule). Between Toby Jones’ excellent, creepy performance, the riffs and reflections of certain real news stories, and the well-done adaptation of a memorable Conan Doyle original, plus the series’ visual and narrative tricks being executed just about as well as ever, I’d actually argue it’s one of the programme’s very best episodes.

    But then we come to the finale, The Final Problem, which is (if you’ll excuse the pun) a problematic tale. Bits of it work magnificently, like Moriarty’s arrival and the Molly scene, but other sections are severely lacking in logic (even allowing for the heightened world of the show) or are inert — ironically so: Sherlock, John, and Mycroft spend the middle of the episode moving, but as they’re just being led from game to game it comes to very little end. It feels like it needed a good script editor to give it a going-over and give it a clearer impetus. And as for the finale, with the magically-timed arrival of another DVD from Mary… ugh. The idea behind the final montage is nice, but why not have, say, Mrs Hudson narrate it?

    Rathbone PlaceSherlock’s commitment to being a fast-paced, audience-challenging adventure drama that strives to be constantly engaging and entertaining is definitely commendable, and a welcome contrast to much of the slow, dour TV drama we tend to produce over here — even if the end result is sometimes messy or unpopular. With events in-show leaving our heroes reset to a more familiar Holmesian situation, here’s hoping the big-name cast can be tempted back for a few more adventures in a couple of years.

    Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life
    Gilmore Girls: A Year in the LifeNine years on and Gilmore Girls graduates from being considered a twee comedy-drama on disparaged network The WB to a major cultural event, thanks to it being produced for the arbiter of all modern televisual culture, Netflix. Instead of 22 42-minute episodes of network TV we get four feature-length instalments, though it’s still very much a series: the pros and cons are shared across the board.

    Pros: at its best it’s still funny, quick-witted, kooky, and sometimes even emotional. It’s a nostalgic visit to old friends, with a nice line in surprise cameos from old characters (even if you know they’re in it, most of them suddenly appear in a scene, hence “surprise”). Cons: at its worst its hero characters aren’t wholly supportable and its narrative choices come overburdened with thematic tin-eared-ness. I’ve always liked that the characters aren’t as perfect as they think they are, but I’m not sure the show knows the characters aren’t as perfect as it thinks they are. It’s hard to know exactly how deep the delusion goes: character-deep, which is kinda clever and maybe even more sophisticated than some people give the show credit for; or writer-deep, which is a little… sad? Unfortunately, there’s plenty of evidence it’s the latter (we’re constantly told of Rory’s prior success but see little evidence to suggest she’s actually capable of it).

    Still, what the show sometimes lacks in realism (be that social or psychological) it makes up for with its fast-paced pop culture banter (not always as on display here as normal, I must say) and delightful kookiness. In the latter camp, an extended selection of songs from Stars Hollow: The Musical seems to get a lot of flack, but I thought it was a consistently amusing highlight. Yes, it’s an over-long aside from the main action, but that’s the kind of thing you can do when you’re given double-length episodes and creative freedom. Conversely, the finale goes overboard with this increased liberty.

    Final four wordsBizarrest of all is the problematic ending. Thematically, A Year in the Life begins to look like it might be about moving on, new horizons, that kind of thing — indeed, I kind of expected it to end with Lorelei moving out of Stars Hollow. But the climax — the infamous final four words… well, you could see the development as a signal of a fresh start (very literally, new life), but it doesn’t play that way. Given Rory’s personal story (her career and relationships falling apart) and situation (single, living at home), it’s less a new path forward and more a depressingly regressive loop. If you’re interested in a fuller dissection of these issues, allow me to recommend this review and, in particular, this discussion at The Verge, which both have a pretty good handle on it in my opinion. And if you want a way to reconcile the early cute perfectness with the divergent behaviour of characters as the series rolls on, this fan theory from Cracked is imperfect but fun.

    A Year in the Life is never Gilmore Girls at its best (there are highs, but most work thanks to “its fun to have them back” nostalgia), but it does reflect the show at its worst. Flawed characters are great for drama, but only if the show is aware of their flaws. Lost amongst all its zany fun, I’m not convinced Gilmore Girls actually understands its protagonists as well as it thinks it does.

    Peter Pan Goes Wrong
    Peter Pan Goes Wrong
    Christmas seems so long ago now, doesn’t it, but it’s okay: the best thing that was on TV during the festive season isn’t all that Christmassy, and if missed it and you’re in the UK it’s still available on iPlayer for a little while yet. If you’re outside the UK, I don’t know if there’s anywhere you can see it (legally), but it’s worth seeking out. Based on the stage show, it does what it says on the tin: it’s about an amateur production of Peter Pan that goes wrong. Farcically, hilariously wrong. It’s the kind of thing that’s far, far funnier than you feel it should be — and I know I’m not alone in saying this because it went down a storm on Twitter too. And the theatre company that originated it have several other shows — here’s hoping the BBC make them a Christmas fixture.

    The Flash / Arrow / Legends of Tomorrow Invasion!
    Arrowverse - Invasion!
    The Arrowverse’s three-night crossover masquerading as a four-night crossover (Supergirl had one scene, which they repeated in Flash anyway) was certainly a hit for The CW in terms of ratings. Quality-wise… well, it was about on a par with the individual series as a whole, which is to be expected I suppose. It was quite neat that the episodes of Flash and Arrow managed to feel like instalments of their own show as well as part of the crossover — especially Arrow, which was also marking its 100th episode — though that was to the detriment of the overarching story: the alien threat that drove the piece was occasionally sidelined, then hurriedly wrapped-up in a frantic final episode. That last part was ostensibly an instalment of the less-popular Legends of Tomorrow, but their regulars only had a little something to do before being shoved aside in favour of characters from the more popular shows. As I don’t watch Legends anymore I can’t say it bothered me, but I almost felt bad for them. I presume there’ll be another such crossover next season, but hopefully next time they’ll fully embrace it: focus on giving adequate time to the story that brings them all together, rather than trying to concurrently maintain the series’ individuality.

    Also watched…
  • Elementary Season 5 Episodes 1-3 — you can never have enough Sherlock Holmes.
  • Outnumbered 2016 Christmas Special — another contender for the best comedy of the season. I liked that it wasn’t a big-fuss return, just another vignette from the lives of the Brockmans.
  • Vicious Series Finale — conversely, this was as odd and kind-of-funny / kind-of-terrible as it always has been. A fitting way to end, then, I guess.

    Things to Catch Up On
    TabooThis month, I have mostly been missing Taboo, the BBC’s dark new period drama starring Tom Hardy and written by Steven Knight. I’m sure I’ll get round to it soon, but then I’ve been saying that about Peaky Blinders (you know, the BBC’s dark period drama written by Steven Knight and sometimes starring Tom Hardy) for years and still haven’t even started it. Its scheduling on BBC One on Saturday nights feels thoroughly at odds with how it looks (surely midweek BBC Two?), but putting a proper drama on our highest-profile channel on its highest-profile night seems to have been a popular move, so what do I know?

    120 days until new Twin Peaks

    Next month… Studio Ghibli’s first TV series comes to Amazon Prime… but it’s quite long and it doesn’t look that good, so I’m not sure I’ll bother.

  • The Last Dragonslayer (2016)

    2016 #195
    Jamie Stone | 101 mins | download (HD) | 2.00:1 | UK / English

    The Last DragonslayerI’m not sure whether to commend or condemn Sky1 for having the balls to schedule a light family-friendly fantasy drama against Doctor Who on Christmas Day — that seems like damning yourself to low ratings. But then Sky never exactly stands at the pinnacle of the charts, and, in the catch-up-driven landscape of modern TV, does it even matter? I mean, as if to show their disregard for schedules, the premiere broadcast was actually at 3am the night before.

    Anyway: adapted from the novel by Jasper Fforde (the first in a series, as will eventually become clear), The Last Dragonslayer is the story of Jennifer Strange (Ellise Chappell), a teenage orphan living in the Ununited Kingdom (a name never uttered on screen, perhaps for fear of looking like political commentary in the current climate). This is an alternate-world Britain where magic exists but is on the wane — it’s powered by dragons, but they’re dying out; besides which, the public have become more enamoured with things like technology and supermarkets. Adopted by the kindly wizard Zambini (Andrew Buchan), Jennifer learns about the importance of magic, and the importance of dragons to magic, which is a bit of a problem when the country’s seers have a mass vision that the last dragon will be slain on Sunday, and shortly thereafter Jennifer discovers her long-prophesied role as the last official dragonslayer.

    Jennifer StrangeAbout now you’re probably thinking The Last Dragonslayer is completely derivative of every other major young-adult fantasy franchise of the last… well, forever. It’s hard to deny that the plot is, at least in its broadest thematic strokes, a pretty familiar affair. What makes the enterprise worthwhile is its humorous execution. This isn’t a spoof of the genre, more a satirical mash-up of familiar fantasy building blocks and modern life. So, for example, the king’s chief knight is also a pop star, followed around by a gaggle of adoring female fans; when Jennifer finds herself in need of money, her dragonslaying assistant signs a sponsorship deal with soft drink brand Fizzipop that requires her to film an advert, make at least two promotional appearances, and wear a branded T-shirt until the dragon is slain. It’s this whimsical slant on our world that is arguably Dragonslayer’s most successful aspect.

    Another would be its characters. Chappell makes Jennifer a capable hero without having to resort to the kind of self-serious moping that dogs so many current young adult leads (Katniss, I’m looking at you). Buchan also gets to move away from the moping that’s so often called for in series like Broadchurch, making the affectionate, skilful Zambini an easily likeable character within just a few deceptively simple scenes. Without meaning to spoil the plot, he’s not in it enough. The slack is taken up by the likes of Pauline Collins and Ricky Tomlinson as a pair of batty magicians, Matt “Toast” Berry as the immature monarch, and Anna Chancellor as the smarmy corporate head of supermarket giant Stuff Co. The only weak like for me was Richard E. Grant as the voice of Maltcaisson, the last dragon — it just didn’t feel like he had the vocal presence to be playing a huge majestic beast. But not everyone can be John Hurt or Benedict Cumberbatch, I suppose.

    Dragon breathI guess The Last Dragonslayer’s irreverent, sometimes silly tone won’t be to all tastes, but I enjoyed it very much. Unsurprisingly (all things considered) the book is the first in a series, and so not everything is fully resolved by the film’s end. Let’s hope that, in spite of their scheduling, it’s done well enough for Sky that sequels are forthcoming.

    4 out of 5

    The Past Christmas on TV

    Christmastime: it’s all about family, food, presents, sweets, more food, alcohol, a bit more food, some kid who was born a while ago, and also food. But most of all, it’s about TV. Oh dear Lord, so much TV.

    Is it just me and my insanely broad and forgiving interests, or has there been more TV to watch this Christmas than normal? Every day in our copy of the Radio Times’ “legendary” Christmas issue seems alight with highlighter markings, an endless parade of visual entertainment to… well, to add to the list of stuff to watch later on catch-up, mainly. But I did actually watch some of it, and here is what I thought.

    Doctor Who The Return of Doctor Mysterio
    Doctor Who: The Return of Doctor MysterioThe controversial Steven Moffat era of nuWho is headed towards its end, but before his final full series next year there’s this penultimate Christmas special. There have been 12 of them now and they’re always divisive: some people think they’re too Christmassy, some that they’re not Christmassy enough; some like that they’re standalone adventures suited to a broader audience, but other times they’re not standalone enough… Each year presents a different mix of these elements, pleasing some and alienating others.

    This year, Doctor Who taps into the zeitgeist by finally tackling superheroes, with a riff off classic-styled Superman. Personally, I thought it was the best Christmas episode for years — a fun, exciting, witty, entertaining romp, that captured the tone of the superhero genre but gave it Doctor Who’s typical gently-irreverent spin. The tone was perfectly suited to Christmas day.

    But was there too much or too little Christmas in it? Well, I’ve seen critics put it in their top five Who Christmasses purely because there wasn’t much Christmas, and Letterboxd fans write it off purely because there wasn’t enough Christmas. When you’re the showrunner of Doctor Who, you literally can’t win.

    The Great Christmas Bake Off
    The Great Christmas Bake Off“Proper Bake Off” came to an end with what felt a little like a joyous celebration of the series’ unique charms, as well as its highs and lows. Considering the two festive episodes were shot before the controversial move to Channel 4 took place, that’s almost impressive. It’s hard to imagine GBBO without the alchemical mix of Mel, Sue, Paul and Mary, and these episodes showed the format on fine form. And then the BBC went and snuck in that perfectly-edited 60-second tribute to the whole thing. Who knew a programme about baking cake could be so good? Or make some people so emotional

    Bob Monkhouse: The Last Stand
    A few months before his death in 2003, Bob Monkhouse gave a one-off gig to an invited audience of fellow comedians which has apparently gone down in comedy legend. I’d never heard of it before, but there you go (I had the same thing with the joke in The Aristocrats and its alleged notoriety, so I won’t say I’m surprised). This was the first time that gig has been televised in a full form, and I confess I’d paid it no heed until it was trending on Twitter. Thanks for that recommendation, Twittersphere, because it’s a very good show: Bob tells jokes, tells stories, and interviews Mike Yarwood in front of an admiring audience who aren’t aware it’s probably his last gig — but, with that hindsight, the themes of sharing a lifetime of wisdom and finding contentment are obvious.

    Grantchester
    GrantchesterThe problem with Christmas specials of on-going shows is you’re sometimes left with on-going plots that must be acknowledged, and Grantchester has a particularly major one with its hero’s life-long love leaving her husband while pregnant. If you don’t watch, it’s set in the ’50s, so this kind of behaviour is the greatest scandal known to man. The special leaps into this without even the by-your-leave of a “previously on”, so I pity any non-regular viewers made to sit down in front of it on Christmas Eve. But it’s an immensely popular show with big ratings, apparently, so who can blame ITV for wanting it in their always-underpowered Christmas schedule? I imagine it fared better than Maigret did the next night…

    Revolting Rhymes
    Revolting RhymesThe team behind previous Christmas specials The Gruffalo, Room on the Broom, and Stick Man returned this year with a two-part adaptation of Roald Dahl’s retold fairy tales. Dahl’s individual tales have been intelligently remixed into a pair of stories (one per part, of course), with a framing narrative that actually contains a neat cliffhanger twist at the end of part one. Maybe it just caught me unawares because I wasn’t expecting it, but I thought it was very effective. Anyway, Dahl’s witty rhyming couplets are retained, delivered by a well-chosen cast, not least Dominic West as a smooth, charming, suspicious Wolf. The claymation-ish visual style of the CG animation is familiar from the makers’ previous films, but as polished and well-applied as ever, with some beautiful details. It makes for a visual treat to equal the excellent words they have to work with.

    The Witness for the Prosecution
    The Witness for the ProsecutionI thought And Then There Were None was one of the highlights of last year’s Christmas schedule, turning Agatha Christie’s most popular novel into a dark, slasher-movie-esque thriller, the first English-language adaptation to remain faithful to the original’s glum ending. I don’t know if this year’s Christie is faithful to her original short story, but it isn’t to the play adaptation (at least as I know it from the excellent film version). It seems to have deliberately followed in And Then There Were None’s tonal footsteps, shooting for a bleak tale about the fundamental darkness of human nature. Instead it’s diluted the satisfying mystery and removed the tension, with a two-hour running time feeling ponderous and its cinematography trying for atmospheric but instead hitting murky. Some people don’t approve of Christie-esque narratives that make a guessing game out of murder, but if you want you can always write your own gloomily realistic meditation on the nature of evil rather than co-opting her work into a grim treatise.

    Comedy round-up
    WILTYThere’s always a lot of special episodes of comedy shows on over Christmas, with varying degrees of success. I thought this year’s Live at the Apollo was woeful, with Romesh Ranganathan the only truly bright spot in 45 minutes of flat observations and unfunny daftness. Conversely, Would I Lie To You? proved to be as good value as it always is, thanks to the quick wit of the regulars plus Tom Courtenay’s affected (I presume) dodderiness. Mock the Week’s clip show format was perhaps improved by the fact I didn’t watch the most recent series, while the imperfect Insert Name Here makes a nonetheless welcome return. In the comedy gameshow sub-genre, Alan Carr’s 12 Stars of Christmas was the kind of trash I’d never watch at any other time of year yet stuck with for all five hours and kind of enjoyed (helped by watching on catch-up and fast-forwarding the really repetitious bits), while the David Walliams-fronted Blankety Blank revival provided as much charm as the format ever has. And normally it wouldn’t count as comedy, but this year’s run of Celebrity Mastermind began with CBBC puppet Hacker T. Dog as a contestant. At least he didn’t win.

    Also watched… (stuff that wasn’t Christmassy)
  • Castle Season 7 Episodes 22-23 — the last episode feels very much like someone thought they might get cancelled. After the quality of this season, I don’t blame them.
  • Class Series 1 Episode 8 — it’s been an uneven series, but the tease for season two’s big plot is very intriguing. Fingers crossed for a recommission.
  • The Grand Tour Season 1 Episode 3 — in which they actually do a version of the Grand Tour.

    Things to Catch Up On
    OutnumberedMy list of Christmas TV to get round to remains pretty extensive. There are all those regular series that insert a seasonal episode — The Grand Tour (that’d be the episode with Richard Hammond’s ice cream comments that you might’ve heard about), Paul O’Grady: For the Love of Dogs, Yonderland (not that I’ve watched any of the latest series), QI, Inside No.9 (which I’ve never watched before, but the special sounds good)… And there are series coming back for one-offs too, like Outnumbered and Jonathan Creek (which I loved during its original run but have been surprisingly lax about watching in the last few years). I’ve also not yet caught a couple of this year’s animated adaptations, Michael Rosen’s We’re Going on a Bear Hunt and Raymond Briggs’ Ethel & Ernest (which I figure will count as a film). Documentaries like Lego’s Big Christmas and West Side Stories also sit on my list, likely to get forgotten. There’s Sky1’s big Christmas Day drama, The Last Dragonslayer (which I wager I’ll also count as a film); Eric Idle’s comedy musical science thing, The Entire Universe; and Charlie Brooker’s 2016 Wipe, which apparently manages to make 2016 funny (I’ll believe it when I see it). Finally, I always save Channel 4’s The Big Fat Quiz of the Year for either New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day, because that just seems more appropriate.

    Whew!

    (And to think: this doesn’t even mention all the big specials for things I don’t watch.)

    Still To Come
    Sherlock series 4Things are beginning to wind down now… but as far as TV schedulers are concerned “Christmas” lasts until at least January 1st, so there are a couple of big hitters left. The biggest of all is a new, potentially final, run of Sherlock. No idea what the quality will be like, but expect lots of handwringing on social media and huge ratings either way. On New Year’s Eve there’s stage adaptation Peter Pan Goes Wrong, which I’ve heard such good stuff about it’s probably going to be a disappointment, and a Winnie-the-Pooh documentary that I’m going to watch even though it’s presented by Alan Titchmarsh. Next week (which you could argue is still part of Christmas if you have very forgiving holiday leave) sees lots of police shows kicking off, if that’s your thing: Death in Paradise, Endeavour, Midsomer Murders, No Offence, Silent Witness, Unforgotten… even Brooklyn Nine-Nine. And in the sphere of movies on TV, tonight you can choose between the network premiere of Captain America: The Winter Soldier on BBC One at 8:30pm and the subscription premiere of Captain America: Civil War on Sky Cinema at 8pm, an almost-double-bill (I mean, you can’t watch them both live) that I only note because of the “huh, well there you go” factor.

    Next month… Sherlock returns.

  • The Past Fortnight on TV #11

    As discussed yesterday, I’m out of the country for a fair chunk of December, including when my regular monthly TV review is due. So to placate the ravenous need for my opinions about television that you will surely feel if such thirst goes unquenched for six-to-eight-weeks, here’s what I watched in the fortnight since my last TV post.

    Crisis in Six Scenes
    Crisis in Six ScenesWhen Amazon started making a serious effort to challenge Netflix in the field of streaming original series, one of their early moves was the headline-grabbing signing of Woody Allen to create his first TV series. As has since become clear, Allen didn’t know what he was letting himself in for. To summarise his comments from various interviews (and read between the lines a little), it seems he had a view of TV that’s about 20 years out of date, and thought he’d be able to dash off something suitable between two of his annual movies. At some point he obviously realised how much more sophisticated TV has become, and coopted a movie idea he’d had on the back-burner to expand into a short TV season. Allen’s been vocal about how miserable he found this process, but I’m not sure if he’s aware that he made a rod for his own back: he essentially made three movies in two years instead of his usual two. It probably would’ve been wise to swap out one of the films for the TV series, but you get the sense that, despite having been shown TV’s burgeoned respectability, Allen’s still something of a film snob. Rather than the potential of TV coming as a revelation to him, he’s declared he won’t be making any more.

    On the evidence of the single six-episode season we did get out of him, that’s neither here nor there: Crisis in Six Scenes is just a slightly-longer-than-average Woody Allen film split into instalments. The first episode is the worst offender in this regard — it doesn’t reach a climax of any description, it just stops. The rest of the episodes aren’t as blatant (episode five’s ending even feels like it’s genuinely meant to be the end of an episode!), but none of them are particularly satisfying as a discrete segment. I’m not really one for binge-watching — I get fidgety and want a change; or if a show’s too good, I want to savour it rather than race on — but I watched all of Crisis in one sitting, because at heart it’s just a chopped-up movie. Some characters or events are confined to a single episode, but you get the impression that’s almost incidental rather than a deliberate attempt to make six finite units. The main storylines flow between episodes like the boundaries are artificially imposed — which, in a medium without the constraints of broadcast time slots and where all the episodes are released at the same time, they are.

    A scene of CrisisBut enough of the form — what of the content? This is not prime Allen, that’s for sure. At times it makes for uncomfortable viewing, when it’s hard to tell if it’s half improvised or if half the cast are just a bit doddery (and I suspect it’s the latter). Other bits do work, though, and while it isn’t massively rewarding it is amusing at times. Even less assured are some broadly political points that it seems like Allen is trying to tap into, or maybe it’s just incidental. He appears to be using the series’ 1960s setting as a mirror of the present: the plot concerns a twenty-something anti-government protestor, and there’s lots of talk about unnecessary wars, campus demonstrations, young people staging protests, rights for women and black people, etc, etc. At first blush these parallels are all well and good, but I’m not sure they develop into much more than wry observations. The best I can take from it is a result of the particularly farcical last episode, where it may be that he’s trying to say people in general should be more aware and active, like the young are — to walk the walk of political change rather than just talking the talk.

    If he was trying to spread such a message, it’s a bit buried. Maybe he was just picking on some low hanging fruit. Considering Allen’s half-arsed attitude to the whole endeavour, I guess that’s more likely. Oh well.

    The Grand Tour (Season 1 Episodes 1-2)
    The Grand TourAnother big gun in Amazon’s streaming mission, their £160 million “Not Top Gear, Honest” original series kicked off last month to widespread positive reviews and, apparently, big ratings (relatively speaking). I’m not really a ‘car person’, but like millions of others I wound up watching Top Gear during the height of the Clarkson / Hammond / May era for all the other hijinks. I thought it was going off the boil a bit even before their semi-enforced departure — I didn’t even get round to watching their last series. They come to Amazon after a short break (a long break for us, but it takes time to film these things, so, short break), and I think reinvigorated — possibly by the rest, possibly by the change of management, possibly by the huge budget.

    There’s no denying that this is their Top Gear with just a few tweaks… unless you’re an Amazon lawyer, in which case it’s a completely different show. But the freedom from being a motoring programme on a public service broadcaster means they’re not quite so constrained by that remit. Episode 2, for instance, is half given over to them attacking a military training course in Jordan, a riff on Edge of Tomorrow in which they get to play at being action movie stars, and which features cars because action movies feature car chases, not because they’re actually reviewing how the motor performs while in a high-speed chase. There are still genuine car reviews, and they’re as dull / interesting (delete as applicable) as they always were. At least they’re excitingly shot and scored (still using cues from film music, as they always have).

    Some bits are improved: the famous Star in a Reasonably Priced Car segment was always one of the weakest parts of the show (the track times were fun, but Clarkson is no interviewer), but here the need for celebrity guests is neatly pilloried. Conversely, a couple of things are weaker: their blatant attempt at a Stig replacement, The American, doesn’t really work. It’s also one of the bits that most feels “changed just enough to avoid a legal challenge”. I imagine there are only so many different ways to do a car show, so of course there are going to be similarities, but you could imagine them having done this as their next run of Genuine Top Gear (well, aside from the expense) without people thinking, “wow, they’ve completely changed the show!”

    Still, it is what it is, and if you liked it before I can’t imagine you wouldn’t like it now, maybe even a little more.

    Class (Series 1 Episodes 6-7)
    ClassThe Doctor Who spin-off that no one’s watching continues with two of its strongest episodes. A two-parter that isn’t, the first is a “bottle episode”, with most of the cast stuck in detention and forced to confess their secret feelings by an alien rock. Cue arguments. Not Class’ strongest instalment — it’s a good idea, but the characters haven’t amassed quite enough secrets over just five episodes to make it feel as cathartic as it should — but it’s considerably better than the weaker ones. Even better is the next episode, which shows what Quill was up to while the kids were bickering. A world-hopping quest (presumably paid for by saving so much money on episode 6), it has several good ideas that it burns through like they’re going out of fashion. It feels most like Doctor Who, too, which provokes no complaints from me.

    Next time: the Shadow Kin are back, again. Ah well.

    Also watched…
  • Castle Season 7 Episodes 16-21 — by sheer bloody coincidence, the night before flying from London to the US I watched the episode where Castle flies from the US to London and has to deal with a murderer and possible terrorist on his flight. Super timing.
  • The Flash Season 3 Episodes 3-5 / Arrow Season 5 Episodes 3-5 — the much-anticipated four-way crossover between The CW’s superhero shows finished last night in the US, which means it’s at least a few weeks away over here. I’ll say something about it next time, then. Or the time after.
  • Junior Bake Off Series 4 — the main thing I take from this is that all kids are incredibly clumsy and slapdash.
  • The Moonstone — the recent BBC adaptation of Wilkie Collins’ novel, which is generally regarded as the first full-length English-language detective novel. This decent miniseries version was produced for daytime, and was the kind of series certain viewers proclaimed was good enough for prime time. It wasn’t.

    Gilmore GirlsThings to Catch Up On
    This fortnight, I have mostly been missing Netflix’s Gilmore Girls revival, subtitled A Year in the Life. Rather than race through the four feature-length instalments between their release last Friday and our departure yesterday, we decided to save them for when we’re back, like a Christmas treat. Maybe we’ll just watch them in four days then instead, but at least we’ll feel like we have a choice.

    Next time… a festive special, looking at what seasonal delights the tellybox has provided us with this year. As far as December 29th or so, anyway.

  • The Past Month on TV #10

    If there’s something strange in your neighbourhood, who ya gonna call? Three middle-schoolers on their bicycles, apparently…

    Stranger Things (Season 1)
    Stranger ThingsHype — it’s a funny old business. It’s hard to have avoided hearing something about Stranger Things, Netflix’s summer hit that went down like gangbusters, its ’80s nostalgia perfectly calibrated to target the kind of people who run entertainment news websites these days — just to be cynical about it. Or truthful. Then there came the backlash, which attested there was nothing more to the show than those callbacks and tributes; a hollow experience of copying and “hey, remember this? That was good, wasn’t it?”

    So, I confess, I approached the first chapter with the thought in mind that I might be about to watch the most overrated thing since sliced bread. The opening instalment did little to sway me either way — as with many a ‘pilot’ episode (it’s not a pilot if it goes straight to series, but anyway), it’s got a lot of establishing to do: teaching us the normality of this world, introducing us to the players, setting up a mystery, teasing where that might be going… Stranger Things does all this well, but not exceptionally. It’s good, it makes you want to stick with it, it has promise, but it’s not one of those first episodes where you come away thinking, “Holy moly, this is gonna be great!” (First example of that that comes to mind: Game of Thrones. Another: Firefly. I’m sure you have your own.)

    Like so many streaming series, produced with an awareness that they’ll be released all at once like a really long movie, it’s a little slow-going at times, but it’s kept ticking over with some exceptional elements. Yes, it’s bedded in the style and tone of many beloved ’80s genre classics — primarily Stephen King tales and films produced (not just directed) by Steven Spielberg — but that’s just the execution. In storytelling terms, it has its own mythology, and it feels like there’s a rich vein of originality there. Or possibly it’s just references and riffs I’m not familiar with, who knows. Even better than that are the performances. Winona Ryder is incredible as the mother of a missing boy, her raw feelings and frantic actions forming a core of plausible emotional reaction in the centre of fantastic events. Millie Bobby Brown is also excellent as the mysterious Eleven, conveying so much personality and internal conflict with very little dialogue.

    Stranger haircutsWithout wanting to get into spoiler territory (despite what the media would have you believe, not everyone has Netflix all the time and not everyone watches every new zeitgeisty series immediately. Apologies if you write for an entertainment site and I’ve just given you palpitations), everything comes together nicely for a barnstorming pair of climactic episodes. For my money, the penultimate chapter is the best one: with a bunch of revelations out of the way (some of them easily guessed but finally confirmed), the series kicks off a run of long-awaited fan-pleasing events (as in many a drama, it takes this long for everyone to finally start talking to each other; also, the bit with the van!) The finale is less accomplished, with some characters wandering around for a bit in away that feels designed to pad the running time. Still, it’s a satisfying conclusion… to season one, anyway.

    As an outsider for most of the summer, the endless and ever-increasing handwringing over whether there would be a second season was actually kind of amusing — and the punchline came when it was revealed Netflix had actually commissioned season two before season one was even released, they’d just decided to keep it secret for a bit. Here’s the thing: Netflix has never not recommissioned one of its original series. Even Marco Polo, which apparently no one watched or talked about, got at least a second run. And here you have a show which everyone’s talking about, and presumably most of them are actually watching too, and you think Netflix aren’t going to bring it back? I mean, it wraps itself up quite well, but there’s a whole pile of blatant teases for future storylines. C’mon, people!

    Anyway, I’m happy to report that Stranger Things by and large lives up to the hype, especially by the time it reaches its climax. Bring on season two! Between that and all the Marvel series, maybe I’m going to end up with a year-round Netflix sub after all… You win, Netflix. You win.

    Class (Series 1 Episodes 1-5)
    ClassTen years to the very day since the launch of the original dark, sexy BBC Three Doctor Who spin-off, Torchwood, we got this dark, sexy BBC Three Doctor Who spin-off. Playing as much like the other 21st century Who spin-off, CBBC’s The Sarah Jane Adventures, it concerns a bunch of Sixth Formers battling alien threats coming through cracks in time and space that occur around their school. And also having sex with each other at the drop of a hat, because that’s totally what life is like for all teenagers. So yes, Torchwood + Sarah Jane x Skins = Buffy, pretty much. I really liked the first episode (as pilot-type episodes go, it’s a strong’un), and the third, Nightvisiting, was also a great concept well executed; but the other three instalments were run-of-the-mill and/or awash with niggles. Plus the two-parter in episodes four and five suffered from having too little story to fill two whole episodes. So it’s a mixed bag, but Torchwood was the same at the start and eventually produced one of the best miniseries ever made (Children of Earth), so you never know.

    The Flash (Season 3 Episodes 1-2)
    Arrow (Season 5 Episodes 1-2)
    The Flash season 3The CW’s raft of superhero shows restarted on UK TV this month. I’ve given up on Legends of Tomorrow and am still not joining Supergirl (though I got hold of the opening episodes, co-starring Superman, to maybe make time for at some point); but, five seasons in, Arrow has me suckered for the long-haul, and The Flash tempted me back with the intrigue of adapting Flashpoint. I’ve never got on the bandwagon with Flash, which attracted a lot of praise during its first season that I simply didn’t agree with, leading it to outshine Arrow in ratings and people’s affections. Arrow has long been off the boil, and season five certainly hasn’t got it back up to temperature so far, but The Flash had plenty of issues of its own. It’s not problem free now, but I actually really liked the first couple of episodes of the new season. It’s still a long way from the top tier of TV superheroes (Netflix have that sewn up), but it’s likeable.

    Also watched…
  • Castle Season 7 Episodes 2-15 — it feels like the quality takes a nosedive with this season, and, sure enough, as I suspected, it turns out this is when they changed showrunner. Halfway through it’s beginning to pick back up a bit, at least.
  • The Crystal Maze Stand Up To Cancer Celebrity Special — I used to love this as a kid. As an adult… eh. I’m sure it’s a lot of fun to actually do, though.
  • The Great British Bake Off Series 7 Final — bye bye, Proper Bake Off. Whatever Channel 4 do in 2018, it won’t be the same.
  • The Musketeers Series 2 Episodes 8-10 — in which everything is wrapped up… and then left open-ended. Good thing there’s a third series.
  • The National Lottery: Who Dares Wins Series 9 Episodes 1-4 — I don’t waste much time on gameshows, but naming as many things as you can think of from semi-obscure lists? Right up my street. An impossible show to watch live, though — you need to fastforward the filler and pause the answers.
  • The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again — full review here.

    Things to Catch Up On
    The CrownThis month, I have mostly been missing the most expensive TV show ever made*, Netflix’s much-discussed The Crown. I don’t know if they’ve been pushing it as much in the rest of the world as they did in the UK, but it certainly felt like it was everywhere… for about a week, as is usually the way with Netflix series. Also missed: the equally-discussed Netflix-exclusive new run of Black Mirror. Both of these are because I don’t keep up a permanent Netflix subscription, but between them, the forthcoming Gilmore Girls revival, and the Series of Unfortunate Events remake in January, I will be signing up again late in December (using the free month voucher they had in the Radio Times, hurrah!)

    * Apparently it isn’t, actually.

    Next month… I’ll be out of the country when the next update is due, so it may be a little later than normal — perhaps a ‘Christmas special’.

  • The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again (2016)

    2016 #165
    Kenny Ortega | 88 mins | download (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English

    The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let's Do the Time Warp AgainWhen this TV movie kicks off with Ivy Levan sashaying her way around a cinema while she mimes to a pre-recorded and over-produced backing track of Science Fiction/Double Feature, full of licks and runs and finding four notes to hit where there used to be one, like a desperate X Factor wannabe who has no concept of the meaning of the lyrics she’s warbling but is ever so desperate to show she can saaang (that’s like singing but with added Cool), you get a pretty fair idea of the terrible experience about to be unleashed upon you by the not-so-catchily titled The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again. That’s to say it’s been modernised, Americanised, and sanitised.

    If you know the original then you know the plot, and if you don’t know the original then you have no business watching this so-called tribute version, which premiered on Fox in the US last week and makes its way to the UK on Sky Cinema from today. “Tribute” is the latest word someone has co-opted to avoid saying “remake”, a marketing strategy that was presumably settled upon after they realised they’d produced a witless, regressive clone of material that, though over 40 years old, is still more subversive and boundary-pushing than this plastic Disneyfied tosh.

    Sweet transgender womanThe interpretation of the songs is appalling. The recordings are all overworked, full of needless warbles and added “oohs”. They’ve been modernised in such a way that, when current popular fads for over-singing things (“licks” or “runs” or whatever else they call them) have passed — as they surely will — these new versions will sound even more dated than the already-40-year-old originals, which have a certain timelessness. The lyrics are sung with the same amount of attention to what they mean as you get from a computer’s text-to-speech function, including or echoing parts of the original without understanding why they’re there or what function they perform; or if it does know the function, it doesn’t know how to replicate it.

    To say its performances are like a bad am-dram production would be an insult to am-drammers everywhere. Almost everyone is miscast. It was, perhaps, a nice touch to include Tim Curry, but his limited scenes are uncomfortable to watch because it’s painfully obvious that the poor man is still labouring under the aftereffects of his stroke. As Brad, Ryan McCartan overacts as if he thinks that’s the whole point. Reeve Carney makes Riff Raff a leering creep, and his needless affected British accent is awful. As Magenta, Christina Miian’s is worse. As Frank, Laverne Cox’s imitative mid-Atlantic twang is even worse again. Why did they do it?! Presumably because, as I said, it’s all a thoughtless copy of the original.

    The casting of a transgender woman as a transvestite is its own kettle of worms — either she’s a woman doing radical things like fancying men and being jealous of another woman stealing her guy, or you’re saying she’s not actually a woman but still a man and… well, like I say, it’s a mess. A commenter on the A.V. Club’s review summed up the cumulative effect quite succinctly: “Fox was actually able to pull off a pretty conservative casting choice while appearing uber progressive… By casting Cox, who identifies as female, in the role of Frank-N-Furter the seduction scenes actually became far less risqué”.

    Well, it's certainly been warpedEverything is blunted further by Kenny Ortega’s ineffective direction. The camerawork is flat and uninteresting, the shot choices unimaginative. Some of the choreography looks interesting — it’s certainly more elaborate than in the original film — but the camerawork seems to be actively trying to obscure it. The editor must have struggled, unable to generate any additional excitement due to a shortage of options. At times it looks as if it was filmed live, under which circumstances its weaknesses might be understandable, if not excusable… but it wasn’t.

    Occasionally there are cutaways to a cinema audience — not a real one, but a gaggle of extras, sat in a theatre watching what we’re watching. These moments are pathetic and pointless. I get that it’s meant to be a nod to the interactive midnight showings that have made Rocky Horror the phenomenon it is, but they demonstrate none of the wit or verve that make those screenings so popular. Plus the original film is good entertainment even without such intrusions; this isn’t. You might think that makes the asides necessary to liven it up, but there are so few of them, and they’re so lacking in imagination, or any discernible content whatsoever, that they just feel like they’re dragging the experience out even further.

    Believe it or not, it’s not all bad. There’s one new gag in the dinner scene that’s actually pretty funny. It’s delivered by Faye Marsay lookalike Annaleigh Ashford, who makes a good fist of Columbia. Rounding out the leads, Victoria Justice has all the necessary charms to make a pretty fair Janet. Victoria Justice's omnipresent cleavage. May also be omnipotent.I refer partly to her omnipresent cleavage, but also her acting. It’s not great by any means, but she’s suitably sweet and twee at the start, then manages to sell Janet’s near-instantaneous transformation from uptight goody-two-shoes to sex-mad strumpet using just a handful of expressions and line deliveries in the slight gap her character has between Over at the Frankenstein Place and Touch-a Touch-a Touch Me. The latter is one of the film’s rare highlights, for various reasons. One of those is actually Staz Nair as Rocky — undoubtedly the least challenging role in the piece, but at least he gets it right, and his musclebound chest counterbalances Justice’s for those of the other persuasion. The only downside are his tattoos: he was supposedly just grown in a tank, how does he have tattoos?!

    More than the ’75 film, Let’s Do the Time Warp Again brings to mind the 2010 episode of Glee that essayed the same musical. If you suffered through The Rocky Horror Glee Show, as I did, you’ll know it was a travesty. Is this even worse? Well, that’s a bit like someone forcing you to eat a dog shit and a cat shit before asking you which tasted nicer. That’s a little unfair: the Glee version was meritless; this one has a couple of minor plus points — so maybe it’s like someone making you eat a very small shit while occasionally showing you a picture of a sexy half-naked person. But unless someone forces you to choose between only this and Glee, there’s no earthly reason to do this particular Time Warp again.

    1 out of 5

    The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again is available on Sky Cinema from today, screening on Premiere at 12:25pm and 8pm.

    It featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2016, which can be read in full here.

    The Past Month on TV #9

    There’s so much TV right now! And that’s before you consider all the old stuff to catch up on (and by “old” I mean “anything aired before the past month”).

    Still, here’s a selection of what’s been gracing my eyeballs in the last 35 days…

    Luke Cage (Season 1)
    Luke CageThe third series in the Marvel/Netflix stable wins points for boldness, much as Jessica Jones did this time last year. Where Daredevil is a well-done but ‘standard’ superhero show, leading to it being somewhat demeaned by the Cool Kids of the critical world (but much higher-rated by us plebs on the likes of IMDb), Jessica pushed into dark psychological territory, and now Luke Cage brings black culture and life into the fold.

    In truth, I still think Daredevil is the best produced of the three. Maybe that’s because it’s operating in more familiar territory, but it seems to know how to construct its storylines to fit the time given, and pace them to really kick off that “just one more episode” feeling that Netflix binge-watching is so famed for. Conversely, Jessica didn’t have enough story for 13 episodes, spinning its wheels and going in circles in the second half. Luke Cage doesn’t suffer from that exact problem, but it spends a lot of time finding excuses to keep its near-invulnerable hero out of the action.

    But, for its plot-related flaws, it’s not a bad show. It has three strong villains — it’s just a shame it’s the fourth who becomes the focus for the back half of the season. Its use of music is unusual and brilliantly executed, though as it’s employing genres and styles, indeed a whole culture, that I’m not exactly au fait with, it’s like watching as a fascinated outside observer rather than someone fully embedded or engaged. That’s not necessarily a negative, just a different way of relating to it. And even with those storytelling faults I mentioned, there’s at least one huge and unexpected twist, which really livens up the show… for a bit. It also gives Rosario Dawson the biggest role she’s yet had in one of these Marvel series, and that’s no bad thing either.

    Indeed, the best thing about Luke Cage is its characters. Mike Colter is an appealing leading man — when the character is allowed to do something, anyway — and the supporting characters on both sides are fantastic (with that one unfortunate exception I already mentioned). This bodes well for when they join up with everyone else in The Defenders next year, and also leaves season two with plenty of potential…

    …if Netflix commission it, of course. Surely they can’t be intending to have 6+ Marvel shows on the go?!

    Ripper Street (Season 5)
    Ripper StreetIt feels like only yesterday I was writing here about season four (it was, in fact, February and March). I think it was assumed this final season would be coming next year, but then Amazon announced it almost out of the blue just before the BBC’s run of season four ended, and made the unusual-for-them decision to dump the whole season at once, Netflix-style. It benefits this particular group of episodes because it really is one long story — when the show moved to Amazon for its third season it got more heavily serialised, but often with “case of the week” plots alongside that; the end of season four and all of season five throw that almost entirely aside for one long, developing storyline.

    Nonetheless, they’ve done a good job of making a TV show rather than a really long movie in six parts. The third episode, in particular, sets our heroes aside almost entirely to spend an hour with a villain who’s barely done more than grunt so far, digging into his psyche and his hopes (if any) of redemption. It almost felt more like an arty drama film than an episode of a period police procedural and proves that, even after five years, a quality programme can still push at and explore its form.

    The final episode, however, is a certified oddity. After wrapping up the season’s primary plots with relative haste, it moves on to an odd, somewhat lethargic non-story. It is, in its way, bold for what started as a police procedural to end with an episode that focuses on the drama of its characters’ lives, but it does so with an almost perverse fixation on setting up certain expectations only to dash them. It is tough to call the episode either satisfying or unsatisfying as a conclusion, though I imagine some will come to the latter opinion purely because it is so uncommon. It’s titled Occurrence Reports, and that seems apt, for it seems to merely report a series of occurrences; but they do at least, in their way, bring all of the series’ parts to their respective ends.

    Leaving aside the finale’s forays into structural experimentation, this is a good final season, that has moments to count among the programme’s very best. I still reckon season three is the best individual run, however.

    Black Mirror (Series 2)
    Black MirrorWell, it’s only taken me 3½ years to get round to this (seriously, where does time go?!) This bunch really represents the series’ highs and lows. On the one hand, Be Right Back — in which Hayley Atwell signs up for a company who create a virtual version of her deceased partner using his contributions to social media — is an exploration of broadly-plausible near-future-tech with a focus on its potential emotional affect. That’s what Black Mirror does best, I’d argue: look at stuff that may, perhaps, be in the pipeline, and how that would actually play out for us. On the other, there’s The Waldo Moment, which is also sickeningly plausible — as Charlie Brooker himself has said, it’s more or less come true, though with the likes of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump instead of a blue cartoon bear — but as an episode it doesn’t quite seem to know where to go with its concept or what it might ultimately signify. The episode just stops rather than ends, until a flash-forward coda that’s a bit silly in its extremity. Even Brooker, while doing press for the third season (released tomorrow), has said he’d go back and re-do that episode if he could. Still, full marks for effort.

    Red Dwarf XI (Episodes 1-5)
    Red Dwarf XIThis latest series of Red Dwarf (which airs its fifth episode tonight, with the sixth available on demand from tomorrow) seems to have gone down rather well, with some reviews even hailing it as a “return to form” — that form being “the good old days” of Red Dwarf VI (or thereabouts), over 20 years ago. Personally, I didn’t dislike Red Dwarf VII or Back to Earth, and I even have a soft spot for Red Dwarf VIII, so what do I know? Nonetheless, I would concur that this Dwarf represents a fine vintage, hitting the series’ unique mix of accessible mainstream-ish comedy and proper science-fiction concepts. Red Dwarf XII is already in the can for 2017, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Dave commission more episodes beyond that.

    Star Trek The City on the Edge of Forever
    Star Trek: The Animated Series Yesteryear
    Star Trek - The City on the Edge of ForeverThe entirety of TV Star Trek is available on Netflix, so I took the chance to watch the most acclaimed episodes of both The Original Series and The Animated Series — which happen to be connected, something I didn’t realise until afterwards. Er, I mean, which I totally planned. Both are pretty fine uses of science-fiction to explore relatable issues. Well, not many of us have to deal with disruptions to reality caused by time travel, or knowledge of the future creating dilemmas about what we do next, but they work the relatable stuff in around the surface plots. And they both still seem pretty bold for network TV episodes even today, almost half a century later, as (spoilers!) Kirk lets a good woman die to retain the correct timeline, and a kids’ cartoon deals with the subject of euthanasia.

    Also watched…
  • Castle Season 6 Episode 8-Season 7 Episode 1 — almost always a nice, light, entertaining show, but the season 6 finale is a mess. Well, the bulk of it’s fine, but the premise is illogical and the cliffhanger is weightless and unneeded.
  • The Great British Bake Off Series 7 Episodes 5-9 — this series has seen Bake Off’s charms firing on all cylinders, I think, which just reminds you what we’re about to lose.
  • Line of Duty Series 1 — as this is on Netflix I thought I’d finally see what all the fuss is about. I think it’s the second run where it really took off, but this has its moments.
  • The Musketeers Series 2 Episodes 6-7 — quite a few grim crime shows in this month’s viewing, so a bit of quality swashbuckling is a welcome change of pace.
  • Scott & Bailey Series 5 — not the strongest run (the “darknet serial killers” case was a little too outlandish for a show that has often thrived on its more-plausible-than-your-average depiction of murder investigation), but still a quality police drama. Shame there won’t be more.

    Things to Catch Up On
    WestworldThis month, I have mostly been missing loads of stuff. Probably the most talked about is HBO’s adaptation of Westworld, which has apparently pulled in even bigger ratings than Game of Thrones. Over here there’s the second series of The Missing, which if it’s half as good as the first will be a real must-see. Then there’s Woody Allen’s first (and last) TV series for Amazon, Crisis in Six Scenes. Reviews have been mixed to poor but I still intend to get round to it. And finally Hooten & the Lady, which may be the worst title for anything in the history of ever, but a globetrotting adventure series inspired by the likes of Indiana Jones and Romancing the Stone sounds right up my alley.

    Next month… the latest Doctor Who spin-off comes to iPlayer; brand-new Black Mirror comes to Netflix; and I’ll finally watch Stranger Things, I promise.

  • The Past Month on TV #8

    With lots of stuff still on a summer break, the last month has proven a handy time to catch up on things I’ve been meaning to get round to.

    24: Live Another Day
    24: Live Another DayThe “event miniseries” short-lived revival of a once-popular TV series is all the rage these days, with 24, Heroes, and The X-Files all trying it out in the past couple of years, Gilmore Girls doing essentially the same thing on Netflix in a couple of months, and Twin Peaks at it sometime next year. The thing that seems to have defined these revivals so far is that time has made no difference: none of them have come back radically new or changed, but have just been “more of the same” as the series they’re resuming, for good or ill. 24: Live Another Day is absolutely an example of this. It may be four years on, set in London, and only 12 episodes long, but if you didn’t know the circumstances behind production you’d be unlikely to think this was anything other than season 9 — after all, the show has always had years-long in-universe time jumps between seasons, and the last few have varied the location also (after seasons 1-6 were set in LA, season 7 was relocated to Washington, DC, and season 8 to New York). On top of that, the way the storyline drags back old characters who hadn’t been in the series for years cements the assumption that it’s a for-the-fans bonus run rather than a fresh-start relaunch attempt (which I guess next year’s spin-off, 24: Legacy, is hoping to be). All of this means that it has its good points, especially the action scenes, but some of the storytelling is overfamiliar, the dialogue at times terribly clunky, and there’s a continued half-arsed application of the real-time concept (which has been a bugbear of mine since season four or five). The fact it ends without really resolving the on-going story of Jack Bauer also feels like a daft mistake.

    Doctor Foster (Series 1)
    Doctor FosterFinally got round to this popular series (from a year ago! Time, where do you go?). I was pleasantly surprised by the plot. The setup was sold as a woman (the titular GP) becoming suspicious her husband was cheating on her — is he, or is she imagining things? For whatever reason I’d presumed that would be the mystery of the entire series, and it would inevitably turn out he was cheating because there’s not much story otherwise. But actually, that’s kind of dealt with in the first episode, and then it spins off in various twists and turns. It’s exciting and unpredictable without quite descending into the easy trap of having characters make completely ridiculous decisions or take extreme actions. It’s a pretty finite story, though, so quite where the commissioned second series is going is anyone’s guess.

    One of Us
    A new miniseries (it only finished on Tuesday — get me, watching something when it’s actually on!) from writers Harry and Jack Williams, who penned 2014’s excellent James Nesbitt drama The Missing (which, like Doctor Foster, has an unexpected second series in production). This is a slighter affair: essentially a murder mystery, but with a few well-executed twists along the way. It starts with the murder of a young couple whose families are neighbours on isolated farms in Scotland. When the suspected murderer turns up injured at those farms on the storm-afflicted night after the murder, they lock him in the barn while they await an ambulance… and then one of them murders him. Whodunnit? And what will they tell the police? And why the hell did he kill the couple, anyway? It’s funny to think of a four-hour drama as slight — imagine thinking a four-hour film was a bit short and lacking incident — but at least it’s not slow with it, somehow. A subplot about the investigating officer’s home life has no relevance to the main story and could’ve been cut, and the final revelations are somewhat farfetched, but other than that it’s a decent little thriller.

    The Tick (Pilot)
    I’ve never read any Tick comics, nor seen the ’90s animated series, nor the short-lived ’00s live-action series, but I am vaguely aware of it, so was somewhat looking forward to this Amazon pilot. For those not in the know, it’s basically a spoof of superheroes — what better time than right now to launch a show like that? Amazon should be chuffed to be hitting the zeitgeist on the head with this one. Unfortunately, on the evidence of this pilot, The Tick isn’t quite all it could be. It comes alive a bit whenever Peter Serafinowicz’s eponymous hero is on screen, but the rest of the plot is too serious — the central character (who’s not The Tick, incidentally) is a young man who has mental health problems after watching his father be killed during a supervillain attack! Unsurprisingly, this leaves it a little short on laughs for a half-hour comedy. Indeed, it finishes just as it seems to be getting going. They either need to extend it to 45 minutes, or get a wriggle on and squeeze more into the half-hour. If it manages to get the full series commission then I’ll probably give it a go to see if they can improve these aspects, but, on the strength of the pilot, I won’t be too upset if they don’t bother. Shame.

    Also watched…
  • Castle Season 6 Episodes 1-7 — got fed up of waiting for Channel 5 to screen this, so I acquired it by other means… then they started it last week, buried on 5USA. Hey-ho. It’s always a fun time filler.
  • Friday Night Dinner Series 4 Episodes 4-6 — this does such a good job of mixing a plausible family dynamics sitcom with deeply silly storylines. Love it.
  • The Great British Bake Off Series 7 Episodes 1-4 — this is proving a tough series of GBBO, both in the tent (Paul Hollywood seemed to be in a particularly harsh mood during bread week) and out of it (“they sold it to Channel 4?!”, “Mel and Sue are leaving?!”)
  • Miranda Series 3 Episode 3-Series 4 Episode 2 — I do love Miranda, but the finale is a bit messy. The first two series are definitely the high point.
  • The Musketeers Season 2 Episodes 4-5Musketeers does Seven Samurai! Feels like an appropriate time to happen to reach that episode.
  • Paul O’Grady: For the Love of Dogs Series 5 Episodes 1-2 — aww, look at all the doggies!

    Things to Catch Up On
    This month, I have mostly been missing Poldark and Victoria, respectively the BBC’s big period drama hit and ITV’s big period drama hope, which are currently going head-to-head on Sunday nights. For some reason I find myself not caring one iota about the latter (has it gone down well, or not? I don’t even know), but will get round to Poldark eventually.

    Next month… Netflix time! Definitely Marvel’s Luke Cage; probably Stranger Things, to see who’s right: the fuss or the backlash.

  • The Story of Film: An Odyssey (2011)

    2015 #112
    100 Films in a Year #1000
    Mark Cousins | 915 mins | DVD | 1.78:1 | UK / English | 15

    The Story of Film: An OdysseyWritten, directed, and narrated by film journalist/historian/fan Mark Cousins, The Story of Film: An Odyssey is an epic 15-hour account of innovation throughout the history of moviemaking, which began its premiere broadcast five years ago today. It’s an acclaimed work, to be sure, but one that also attracts its fair share of controversy — about films and filmmakers that Cousins chose to leave out, in some cases about those he chose to include, and about how the documentary itself was made: the oddly framed interviews, the artistic shots of baubles, Cousins’ accent and vocal inflections. (Also, in the context of counting it as part of 100 Films, you may think it’s a TV series. Well, I went over that here.)

    In the booklet that accompanies the series’ film’s UK DVD release, Cousins explains how and why the project came about:

    There have been histories of the movie genres before, star histories, continental histories, histories of popular cinema, Godard’s essayistic history, etc. But no-one had tried to do a history of innovation in the movies. […] I was angry, too, that movie history is often so parochial, so provincial. We remember Garbo but not the great Chinese actress Ruan Lingyu, we worship Pixar but not the great Iranian kids’ films of Mohammed Ali-Talebi. This is blatantly unfair. The playing field is not level. The bullies with massive marketing budgets force their movies on us, whether they’re good or not, thus restricting our choice.

    Part of the point of The Story of Film, then, is to widen Western audiences’ understanding of film and its history — a position also not without controversy, but I’ll come back to that.

    The original concept was to tell this story over a handful of 90-minute episodes — “three chunky Saturday nights on BBC2 or C4”, as producer John Archer describes it in the DVD’s booklet. Unfortunately, the BBC declared the project was “too big”, which is ironic considering how it ended up. As Cousins describes in this making-of article, to help pitch the series they set out to produce a 10-minute test. When that clocked in at 50 minutes, they realised the final piece would have to be considerably longer than expected. By the time More4 got involved to buy the UK TV rights, the expected running time was 12 hours. It continued to grow, eventually looking like it would finish at 18 hours. Cousins decided this could be honed “to 15 hours but any less and — I told my producer and Tabitha Jackson our Exec Producer at More4 — we’d have to cut out Woody Allen, Robert Altman, people like that… So they gave me 15 hours.”

    Those final 15 hours represent tens of thousands of hours of work. Cousins estimates the work needed to prepare and finish the clips from other films (of which there are about 1,000) totalled 20,000 man hours, most of it completed by just Cousins and Archer, working 90-hour weeks on four hours sleep a night, with festival and broadcast deadlines looming. Before that, they spent six years travelling the world — “across China and LA, to Tokyo and the streets of Mumbai, to the urban canyons of New York, the film schools of Paris, to Eisenstein’s Moscow and Bergman’s Sweden” — recording interviews and scene-setting footage. It’s an epic undertaking, whichever way you cut it. As film programmer Thom Powers described it in the TIFF catalogue, “by taking a DIY approach, Cousins preserves an editorial independence that normally gets lost with a bigger budget and committee decision-making. […] After experiencing this history from such a distinctive viewpoint, you may crave similar treatments for music, literature, politics or whatever compels you.”

    The end result is indeed a magnificent viewing experience. Cousins’ chosen remit is so wide, and his knowledge so deep, that even the most seasoned cinephile is sure to learn something new at some point. It’s like attending a film course with an immensely well-read lecturer who’s keen to share his accumulated wisdom with you. Indeed, to quote from the man himself again, “in the era of DVD, Blu-ray, streaming and VOD, hundreds of thousands of movies are available, often a click away. At times of such plenitude, it’s easy to get bewildered — what should I watch next? The Story of Film: An Odyssey is […] our passionate suggestions of what to watch next.” Those suggestions encompass the whole history and world of cinema, in a very literal way. This manifestly isn’t just the story of Hollywood and European arthouse — Cousins is also keen to cover the emergent cinema of South America, Africa, and others. Including them isn’t a sop; a case of “everyone gets a prize!” It’s a case of films of genuine import or interest that have been overlooked, for various reasons, and Cousins makes a strong case not only for why these wrongs should be righted, but for why you’d want them to be, too.

    Nonetheless, some have criticised the series for its lack of focus on American/Western cinema, which is to spectacularly miss (part of) the point. One of Cousins’ goals is to shake us out of our inward-looking learnt-by-rote Hollywood-centric history of the movies. He’s not seeking to ignore Hollywood, but to share what was going on elsewhere in the world — stuff that, sometimes, Hollywood later appropriated for its own. And besides, I don’t need him to tell me of the rise and fall of the studio system, of the arrival of the film school auteurs, of the birth and growth of the blockbuster, of the indie explosion and near-death, of the rise of a new studio system and the near-dominance of the blockbuster. Some people seem to want a documentary that tells the history of cinema as they already know it; a documentary that does so little to challenge their existing knowledge that they probably could’ve knocked it out themselves given an hour or two. Isn’t it better to have something challenging? Something that says, “you think you know the history of cinema, but are you sure?” Something that shows us something new.

    Cousins specifically outlines pretty much all of this in his eight-minute introduction right at the start of the series. He outright says the accepted history of cinema is wrong and needs rewriting. Now, that doesn’t mean you have to accept that he’s right to say that — and whether or not you feel his story adequately makes the case for it will be the deciding factor in whether you should believe him or not — but to expect anything different is to not be paying attention. He also makes clear that it’s the story of innovation in film. Does that make it comprehensive? No, of course not — there are surely many films that aren’t innovative in and of themselves but that are significant and immensely influential. That doesn’t make Cousins wrong to omit them, because that’s not exactly the story he’s telling. But it also validates the argument that this is “a” story of film rather than a catch-all definitive telling of everything important.

    The other main complaint about the series seems to concern Cousins’ voice, in particular citing a tendency towards AQI. This might sound like a witless niggle, but when you’re essentially listening to that voice talk for 15 hours, it isn’t a small issue. Personally, I find AQI intensely irritating and so think I’m quite sensitive to it, but I barely heard it at all. In fact, on the whole, I found Cousins’ narration to be uncommonly pleasant, especially as it so often comes with the benefit of some nice, crisp diction. Besides, that upward inflection “is also a feature of several UK dialects, especially in mid-Ulster and Belfast” — guess which city Mr Cousins hails from.

    Although The Story of Film works as one (very long) film, it’s also possible to see where the divisions into 15 TV-friendly parts occurred. Here are some of my thoughts on each section, using the titles as found in the DVD booklet (because not everyone agrees on those).

    Part One: Birth of the Cinema (1895-1920)

    Beginning at the beginning, the opening hour is like a “basics of film” class — it covers all the innovations of framing (close-ups), editing (parallel cutting; the 180 rule), and more. It teaches how films are built to this day from how those rules were discovered and established. When it moves on to things like the birth of the movie star, of special effects, of Hollywood, you realise that so much of what still defines the world of movies was set out back in its very earliest days.

    As an opening instalment, it also gives you a sense of Cousins’ stylistic goals for the series. For instance, although this is an artistic history of film (of its concepts, ideas, and meanings), it’s one that’s cognisant of how external real-world forces played a part in that — for example, the American studios being located in Hollywood because of people wanting to avoid the copyrights and patents placed on filmmaking on the East Coast. It also tells the story across the ages at all times. The broad sweep of the narrative structure moves chronologically, but Cousins is unafraid to make connections to films made many decades later to help illustrate a point or to show how ideas or techniques have endured. It’s more effective and informative than remaining slavishly chronological.

    Part Two: The Hollywood Dream (1920s)

    Sticking with the silent era (more on the significance of that in a minute), this hour covers grand fantasies and romances, like The Thief of Bagdad; the innovations and influence of silent comedians like Keaton, Lloyd and, primarily, Chaplin; and the birth of documentary, not as mere observed non-fiction, but as storytelling in its own right. Cousins asserts that documentary is seen by most as being plainly factual, but it is actually one of the most innovative of all genres. Certainly, there’s more to the construction of documentaries than some people realise.

    Even this early in the series, there are so many films of which we get fascinating glimpses — it’s sure to leave you with a massive list of things you want to see. Similarly, it’s so dense with information and analysis that it feels wrong to watch too much at once. It’s like eating too much rich food: you still enjoy it, but you can’t separate it out in your mind, can’t appreciate or process it properly. But then binge watching is all the rage nowadays, so maybe that’s just me. (Or maybe people aren’t appreciating things fully, but that’s a debate for another time.)

    Part Three: Expressionism, Impressionism, Surrealism (1920s)

    The third hour explicitly concerns the people and movements Cousins sees as alternatives or rebels to ’20s and ’30s cinema, both what they did that was different and how it fed back into the mainstream. We’re talking the likes of impressionism (Abel Gance), expressionism (Caligari), surrealism (Buñuel), the Russians (Eisenstein), the Japanese (Ozu), the Chinese (Ruan Lingyu), and more. All innovated in different ways — ways that were either integrated into common filmmaking, or remain striking and boundary-pushing to this day, almost 100 years later.

    Some people write off the silent era as “that funny little bit at the beginning before sound came along”, dismissing a 35-year chunk of culture in a single swipe. That’s like ignoring every film made between 1981 and today (which, in fairness, I suppose some people do). Naturally, Cousins is not so foolhardy: it’s over three hours before he reaches the arrival of sound. When he ends this hour by foreshadowing the coming of sound, it’s constructed like a cliffhanger; not only that, but the narration disappears and is replaced by intertitles, to emphasise the point. This isn’t classical documentary making, but playful, individualistic, and clearly iconoclastic. It’s a personal visual lecture, rather than a glossy, polished, manufactured ‘product’.

    Part Four: The Arrival of Sound (1930s)

    Sound is obviously an important aspect of movies nowadays, but at first it was almost more of a burden. Cousins argues that its arrival standardised American cinema into only six genres: horror, Western, gangster, comedy, musical, and animation. It’s an interesting contention — I suppose his broader point is that Hollywood atrophied, to an extent; its camerawork certainly did, at least at first — but it doesn’t sound quite extensive enough. I mean, surely they made romances?

    Still, it’s easy to let such things slide when Cousins is busy drawing fascinating links elsewhere. Here, he discusses the contrast between the white light of Westerns (films about an idealistic age when laws were made) and the dirty light of gangster pictures (films about a dying world where lawbreakers are the heroes of a cynical age, when the making of the laws is long forgotten). These two genres co-exist, yet don’t consciously interact — except in the mind of the filmgoer, when we see both types of picture and can draw such links; links that none of the filmmakers involved ever intended, but which are unquestionably there. Cousins draws out these connections beautifully.

    Finally, Cousins paints the ’30s as being about the American genres vs. innovation in European cinema, before taking us to London to meet a man who was both a great genre filmmaker and great innovator: Alfred Hitchcock. Britain bridging the gap between Europe and the US? Twas ever thus.

    Part Five: Post-War Cinema (1940s)

    Hitchcock said cinema is life with the boring bits cut out; the neo-realists said cinema is the boring bits. That probably explains why I’ve yet to enjoy anything neo-realist. Aside from that, Cousins gives us a nice big chunk on film noir and how it combined multiple influences, and covers the importance of Welles, Stagecoach, and The Third Man, which Cousins thinks encapsulates all of ’40s cinema. As you can see, this is not a documentary maker who’s ignoring established and well-known texts, but is perhaps more selective about which merit inclusion.

    From a filmmaking perspective, between the film clips the series is what you might call “artistically shot” — there are very few talking heads; it’s all narrated by Cousins; and there’s lots of metaphorical imagery, some blatant (to represent the bauble of Hollywood we have… a bauble on a tree near Hollywood), others more ephemeral. However, at this point in the series we begin to see more taking heads, because we’re reaching eras where people (or people-who-knew-people) are still alive. It feels like a consequence of that is more close readings of specific films and/or filmmakers, with the series moving away from the “film theory” feel of earlier episodes a little bit, more into the territory of being the story of what occurred.

    Part Six: Sex & Melodrama (1950s)

    Talking of filmmaking technique, Cousins chooses to frame every interview differently. You might think it amateurism, not knowing how to frame interviewees consistently, but it was a conscious choice. He was, presumably, trying to convey something with how he framed them. Whether that was a worthwhile exercise or not is another matter. It certainly comes across as highly idiosyncratic at times.

    At this point, the story of film is really increasingly global: there are great films in America, Britain, Europe, and Japan, as you might expect, but also Egypt, India, and Latin America. On the surface, the different films of these different countries are completely different. Underneath, Cousins demonstrates, they’re linked by trying to come to terms with a new, changing world, repressed emotions bursting forth, and sex. Lots of sex.

    Part Seven: European New Wave (1960s)

    Cousins begins by tackling the new waves led by four European directors: Bergman, Fellini, Bresson, Tati. There are a couple of significant directors missing from what one typically thinks of as “new wave” there, but this isn’t Cousins being deliberately controversial: after talking about the innovations of those four, he says the directors of the French New Wave came along and “carpet bombed” their revolutions, describing Godard as “the greatest movie terrorist”.

    Here, Baz Luhrmann (believe it or not) makes a nice point about changing styles: the Nouvelle Vague wasn’t “real life”, it was an artifice, but an artifice that rejected the big costumes, pretty shots, vibrant colours, and romanticism of mainstream American cinema; and eventually that artifice came back in to fashion, and eventually it will be rejected again. Everything is cyclical, which is practically a philosophy for all life. Luhrmann compares it to language: the words change but the message remains the same; people always say “I love you” or “I want to kill you”, but how they say it is just fashion.

    Part Eight: New Directors, New Form (1960s)

    As the ’60s continue, new waves and revolutions are everywhere. There’s the Eastern Bloc and the cinema of protest (“rebels with a cause”, as Cousins puts it) and even more new, radical filmmakers in Japan, Africa, Iran, even the UK: Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Kes, A Hard Day’s Night. It’s interesting to see very familiar films of British cinema put into this context — Ken Loach discusses the influence of Czech film on Kes, for instance.

    Not even America is exempt. In a world where JFK, Malcolm X, and a million civilians in Vietnam protests were all murdered, and where cinema attendance was falling as people stayed home with TV, there were radical filmmakers Stateside too — including Hitchcock! Psycho, for instance, which eschews Hollywood gloss with its plain costumes, plain locations, and plain black & white photography, which Cousins aligns with documentary-influenced independent cinema. More obviously, there was Easy Rider. It was innovative, throwing all kinds of techniques at the screen, and appealed to young people who were fed up with conservative mainstream cinema and wanted something groundbreaking, forward-thinking, revolutionary — and it was a box office hit. The series gets you in the mindset to go beyond the connections Cousins draws and begin to make links yourself. Like, if this is how film as a medium, and society as a whole, seems always to have moved forward, then what thrilling revolutions can we see young people flocking to in the modern day? Disney superhero movies. Belated sequels to childhood favourites. Adaptations of socially conservative novels aimed at teenagers. Oh. Such contrast between then and now is a bit depressing, really.

    Cousins concludes by saying this era of innovativeness wasn’t permanent — the ’70s would bring old-fashioned romantic entertaining cinema. As per Luhrmann’s theory, “what goes around comes around”, essentially. To be more positive about modern movies, I suppose this is an era we’re in now. I guess you could conflate the indie boom of the ’90s with the ’60s, or the auteur side of the ’70s; while the post-millennial special effects blockbusters are the latest incarnation of the Star Wars/Jaws/etc-driven ’80s. But then again, blockbusters also existed in the ’90s, and popular indie movies exist now — so how do you decide what’s the dominant form of an era? Is that purely the job of history — what gets remembered best. But what about when they all get remembered, as with the ’90s? I’ve diverged wildly into my own half-conceived theories here, but as if to back up my point about a time being more than one thing, the ’70s are about to get three whole episodes…

    Part Nine: American Cinema of the 70s

    In the first part on the ’70s, Cousins identifies three types of American auteurs/arthouse: mockery/satire (Buck Henry), dissident films that challenged conventional style (Charles Burnett), and assimilationist movies that told studio genre-style stories with new techniques (Robert Towne). Flying in the face of that criticism about Cousins ignoring US/Western films, in most eras he comes back to America, its story and innovations, after he’s done everywhere else. The exceptions are the birth of Hollywood in the ’20s and the radical ’70s, when he starts with America. Does Cousins want to get these famed and fêted eras in the US out of the way before he moves on to elsewhere, to avoid the nagging “but what about [major US film / director / movement]” question that many viewers would be troubled about otherwise? I doubt he’s so concerned with what you or I are pondering. Rather, these are the times when American cinema was most genuinely innovative (at least in Cousins’ opinion).

    Part Ten: Movies to Change the World (1970s)

    In the second part of the ’70s, Cousins has a particularly bold assertion: “Performance was not only the greatest ’70s film about identity. If any movie in the whole story of film should be compulsory viewing for filmmakers, maybe this is it.” I’ve not seen it, so I couldn’t say whether I agree or not, but it’s an unusual claim.

    Cousins rattles round the globe here (Germany, Japan, Italy, Australia), but the most interesting part comes in Burkina Faso. Today, tens of thousands of people there attend the opening of a film festival. Local director Gaston Kaboré argues that consuming film from other countries is interesting, but if that’s all you do then your lose your uniqueness, your own way of seeing and thinking, your identity. This is exactly what continues to happen in countries that primarily consume American movies — they are increasingly Americanised. I don’t think it would be unreasonable to argue that Britain is one of the worst hit by this. Unlike other countries, we have governments with no serious interest in supporting a national cinema, and the lack of a language barrier between us and the US (only aided by the internet, both in terms of global conversation and media piracy) has created an ever-strengthening supply-and-demand culture across both TV and film. Of course, it can go both ways: look at all the British TV series that have had relatively large US success in the past few years. Somehow I think it’s had more of an impact on our little island, though.

    Part Eleven: The Arrival of Multiplexes and Asian Mainstream (1970s)

    As Cousins closes out his three-hour overview of the ’70s, we (or I) find ourselves in much more familiar territory: first Hong Kong, for the Shaw Brothers, Bruce Lee, John Woo, Tsui Hark, A Better Tomorrow, Once Upon a Time in China, Dragon Inn, Iron Monkey… then India, for Bollywood and Sholay… then the Middle East, with films about Mohammad and recent events… and then, most recognisable of all to Western audiences, and most influential of all to the world, Hollywood — Jaws, The ExorcistStar Wars. In all instances, this is cinema that moved away from intellectual thought and hard-hitting realism, and more towards feeling, sensation, emotion, fantasy. These things come and go (Luhrmann’s point about the cyclical nature of it all being perhaps the most pertinent observation of the entire series), but it’s hard to argue against the developments of the ’70s still being an influence today.

    Part Twelve: Fight the Power: Protest in Film (1980s)

    Much of this series is about things that are important within the world of film, but here we find movies that literally changed the world — like A Short Film About Killing, which contributed to the abolition of the death penalty in Poland. Elsewhere, director John Sayles and his producer/partner Maggie Renzi give birth to the methodology of what we now know as American independent cinema. Renzi says that Hollywood doesn’t even do what Hollywood does very well anymore — that it takes nine writers to produce a screenplay no better than the first draft — and she’s probably right.

    While the list of “films that look worth seeing” continues to grow, sometimes the speed at which they pass by makes it tricky to know how worth seeing they are. For example, in this hour Cousins discusses Yeelen, describing it as “one of cinema’s most complex works of art”. Based on a Malian legend, telling of a heroic quest featuring magic and precognition, it sounds interesting, but it’s also hard to infer if it’s complex in a good, interesting way or in a frustrating, pretentious way.

    Part Thirteen: New Boundaries: World Cinema in Africa, Asia, Latin America (1990s)

    With only a couple of hours left(!), Cousins reaches modern concerns — here, it’s the last hurrah of celluloid and realism, before digital and fakery took over. Part of Cousins’ thesis seems to be that world cinema filmmakers were reacting to fantasy cinema by trying to show the real world, but that became a last gasp before fantasy cinema took over. It’s almost like a battle for the fate of cinema, between realism and fantasy; and fantasy won. So we have Dogme 95 and La Haine, but also Iranian filmmakers who played with form and reality, like making fictional versions of true stories using the real people; or Abbas Kiarostami, who made a film, then made a film about searching for the actors from that film, then made a film about an incident from the making of the second film. And fantasy and reality collide in places, like Michael Haneke and Funny Games, where the evil youths wink at the camera and rewind life like we rewind videos. That was groundbreaking, and obviously only possible in the home video era when rewinding, y’know, existed.

    Part Fourteen: New American Independents & The Digital Revolution (1990s)

    As we get closer to today, you find more and more references to the past. Is film coming full circle? Or at least becoming more self-aware; referencing itself more often. We’re talking Tarantino’s post-modern screenplays, the Coen brother’s re-appropriation of classic genres and imagery, Gus Van Sant’s film-history-aware visuals, the satire of Paul Verhoeven, Baz Luhrmann’s flamboyant romanticisation of real life, and so on. It makes you think: is this the absolutely perfect time to be making a major “history of film” documentary?

    It also reminds you that style or genre do not have to negate substance. Starship Troopers was born out of Verhoeven’s desire to make a film about young men coming into the prime of their lives at an exciting time for their country when everything was developing — that time and country being Germany in 1935, and the men being excited by Nazism. No Hollywood studio would ever make that movie, of course, but take those themes and do them as science fiction…

    Part Fifteen: Cinema Today and the Future (2000s)

    Unsurprisingly, the concluding hour feels somewhat less clear about what was particularly innovative and what exactly was going on that was most significant — it’s coming up to the present day and looking to the future, which is too recent to get a proper handle on. Nonetheless, Cousins does find genuine innovation, like the single-take Russian Ark. It’s not a film I liked, and even the analysis here incidentally alludes to why: you need to know what you’re seeing, and the context of what came next (in history) to get the point. If your knowledge of Russian history isn’t on the money, if you don’t know what you’re seeing depicted and what came after it, the film offers you no succour, and feels aimless. But innovative? Yes. Indeed, it’s a filmmaking feat that has only recently been emulated.

    Talking of emulation, it seems unlikely anyone else will make a documentary as comprehensive and insightful as what Cousins has achieved here. For anyone serious about a love of film, it is a must-see. That doesn’t mean you’ll always agree with it, or accept it as the definitive telling of the story of motion pictures, but it is nonetheless a wide-reaching and thoroughly educational overview of what is arguably modern times’ most significant artform.

    5 out of 5