The 100-Week Roundup XXII

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The 100-Week Roundup covers films I still haven’t reviewed 100 weeks after watching them. Sometimes these are short ‘proper’ reviews; sometimes they’re only quick thoughts, or even just the notes I made while viewing. This week’s collection includes three more feature films and one short from February 2019

  • Hacksaw Ridge (2016)
  • Leave No Trace (2018)
  • Inception: The Cobol Job (2010)
  • Fences (2016)


    Hacksaw Ridge
    (2016)

    2019 #17
    Mel Gibson | 139 mins | digital (HD) | 2.35:1 | Australia & USA / English | 15 / R

    Hacksaw Ridge

    Hacksaw Ridge tells the true story of Desmond T. Doss (Andrew Garfield), an American who believed that World War II was justified — so he joined the army to serve his country — but also that killing was wrong — so he refused to carry a weapon. Serving as a combat medic, Doss ended up at the bloody Battle of Okinawa, where he saved the lives of 75 men without firing a shot, and became the first conscientious objector to earn the Medal of Honor.

    It’s an extraordinary true story — the kind of thing that would seem ludicrous if someone made it up — so it earns its place on the screen. Unfortunately, I don’t think the best way to tell it was by letting Mel Gibson carve it from a block of cheese. When the film’s not wasting time on clichéd bootcamp stuff, it’s earnestly indulging in its subject matter to an eye-rolling degree. Indulgence is also the name of the game when it comes to the war, too: for a movie about a guy who wouldn’t kill, it certainly revels in its gory depictions of combat. Handled the right way, such grotesquery could have supported the point that Desmond is right, but Gibson seems to be enjoying the slaughter too much.

    And yet for all of Gibson’s amping it up, some of the real-life stories are even more incredible than what’s in the film — there are stories in IMDb’s Trivia section (here and here, for example) that stretch credulity so far it was decided to leave them out because audiences would never believe it. Considering how OTT the stuff left in is, it seems a shame to have left out something that could be backed up as a true account.

    3 out of 5

    Leave No Trace
    (2018)

    2019 #18
    Debra Granik | 109 mins | digital (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA & Canada / English | 12 / PG

    Leave No Trace

    Traumatised military veteran Will (Ben Foster) and his teenage daughter, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie), have lived in isolation for years in a public park outside Portland, Oregon, only occasionally venturing in to the city for food and supplies. But when they’re spotted by a jogger, they’re arrested and put into social services. Tom finally gets a sense of what it might be like to integrate with society, but Will clashes with his new surroundings, and soon they set off on a harrowing journey back to the wild. — adapted from IMDb

    I don’t like summarising too much of a film’s storyline at the start of a review, but Leave No Trace is one of those films where the character work is more important than the shifts of the plot. It’s a double portrait: that of a damaged man who can’t cope with society, and his loving daughter who he’s taken on the same path, for good or ill. Will’s lifestyle and parenting methods are entirely at odds with what’s seen as acceptable by society (hence the arrest and being placed in care), but does that make him wrong? The pair’s life in the woods is a “back to nature” approach, detached from technology and the hum of modernity, which many profess to strive for — he’s just actually gone and lived it. But Tom, as just a young teenager, has had this life thrust upon her — it’s what her dad wants, but she’s never known anything else to have the choice.

    So the film rests on the two lead performances. Ben Foster is reliably superb as a father doing his best for his daughter — and, actually, not doing a bad job — but struggling with his own issues and traumas. But the star is Thomasin McKenzie, in what’s proven (rightly) to be a breakout role (she quickly followed this with another leading role in Jojo Rabbit, and will next be seen in new movies from Edgar Wright, M. Night Shyamalan, and Jane Campion). She was just 17 when the film was shot, but is entirely convincing as a 13-year-old, and yet the character also seems old for her age. It’s a weird dichotomy, that. It never crossed my mind that the actress was any older than the character — it’s not just that she looks young, it’s a quality in the performance — and yet she also conveys that sense of being “wise beyond her years”. As if that wasn’t enough, the film’s emotional crux lies with her, delivered in a single emotional gut-punch of a line that’s liable to make you choke up just remembering it.

    4 out of 5

    Inception: The Cobol Job
    (2010)

    2019 #20a
    Ian Kirby | 15 mins | Blu-ray | 16:9 | USA / English | 12

    Inception: The Cobol Job

    Remember motion comics? They were a brief fad where comic books were adapted into movies/series by simply adding movement and sound to the original artwork. (I say “brief fad”, they may still make them for all I know, but there was a rash of them about ten years ago that seems to have abated.) That’s what this animated prequel to Christopher Nolan’s Inception is: a moving version of the one-shot comic (originally published online, but also included in print with some releases of the movie), written by Jordan Goldberg with art by Long Vo, Joe Ng, and Crystal Reid of Udon.

    As motion comics go, the animation here isn’t bad. It’s still clearly derived from a comic book rather than being born into animated form, but it’s got a decent amount of movement and dynamism. But its main fault is not having any voice actors. There’s music (taken from Hans Zimmer’s score for the feature) and sound effects, which complement the atmosphere and help connect it to the film proper, but having to read speech and thought bubbles really keeps it in “motion comic” rather than “animated short” territory. Were the producers at Warner really so cheap that they couldn’t’ve afforded a couple of voice actors for an afternoon’s work?

    As for the story, it’s a nice little prequel to Inception, more-or-less tonally in-keeping with Nolan’s work. It sets up the backstory behind the film’s opening heist and some of its subplots… though, kinda ironically, The Cobol Job also begins in media res, so you could do a prequel to the prequel to explain how they got there. Stories within stories within stories? How very Inception.

    3 out of 5

    Fences
    (2016)

    2019 #21
    Denzel Washington | 139 mins | digital (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA & Canada / English | 12 / PG-13

    Fences

    Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) is a working-class African-American in 1950s Pittsburgh, doing his best to provide for his family: wife Rose (Viola Davis), teenage son Cory (Jovan Adepo), his son from a previous relationship (Russell Hornsby), and Troy’s mentally impaired brother, Gabe (Mykelti Williamson). But this seemingly-happy dynamic is tried when Troy’s secrets are forced to come to light, and his bitterness at the hand life dealt him threatens his family’s dreams. — adapted from IMDb

    Fences is adapted from a 1985 play by August Wilson, which was revived on Broadway in 2010, and many of the lead cast members from that award-winning production transfer to this film version, not least star (and now director, too) Denzel Washington. Perhaps that’s why the end result is so very stagey.

    It’s not just the limited locations or talky screenplay that give that away — there’s no reason you can’t make a film that’s set in limited locations or heavily based around dialogue, so it goes beyond that. The stage roots show through partly in that so much important stuff is kept offscreen and we’re only told about it through dialogue — I don’t think you’d tell this story this way if it originated for the screen, or indeed as a novel. Then there’s the way the actors move around, the way they come and go from the ‘stage’, the way scenes are blocked — it feels like it’s been lifted off a stage set, plonked on an equivalent real location, then filmed. Then there’s the style of the dialogue — it has a certain kind of familiar theatricality, which I can’t quite define but I always know when I hear it.

    All of which serves as a distraction from whatever Fences is meant to be about. And, frankly, it goes on a bit, with many scenes feeling in need of a massive tighten. It’s not that it’s bad, but it feels very worthy; very self consciously important. Perhaps for some people it is.

    3 out of 5

  • The 100-Week Roundup XXI

    I’m sure regular readers — who hungrily consume every word I publish with a near-religious commitment, right? — are well aware of the purpose of these 100-week roundups; but for the sake of newcomers discovering them for the first time, perhaps stumbling here wearily via an IMDb link, I feel it’s overdue that I come up with some kind of generic introduction to stick on each one. Maybe something like this:

    The 100-Week Roundup covers films I still haven’t reviewed 100 weeks after watching them. Sometimes these are short ‘proper’ reviews; sometimes they’re only quick thoughts, or even just the notes I made while viewing. This week’s collection includes the final film leftover from January 2019 and the first few to be rounded up from that February

  • The Player (1992)
  • The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2018)
  • First Reformed (2017)
  • Gods and Monsters (1998)


    The Player
    (1992)

    2019 #8
    Robert Altman | 124 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    The Player

    Robert Altman’s satirical look at the world of Hollywood filmmaking stars Tim Robbins as a studio executive who rejects tens of thousands of prospective screenplays a year. When he begins to receive threatening postcards from an anonymous rejected writer, at the same time as his job seems under threat from a new employee, he’s led down a rabbit hole of suspicion and paranoia that may ruin more than just his career…

    You don’t get movies that are much more “insider Hollywood” than The Player, concerned as it is with the workings of the studio system, and packed to the rafters with cameos, both famous (big-name actors) and not (several of the guys who pitch in the film are real screenwriters). Such a focus would seemed primed to make a film inaccessible — witty and clever to those in the know, but leaving the rest of us shut out. That’s not the case here. While there’s no doubting the truthfulness (at least, in a satirical sense) of Altman’s depiction of Hollywood’s inner workings, he’s taking general aim at the entire world of it. Plus, there’s always the mystery/thriller storyline to keep us hooked.

    And in its insightfulness, the film is ahead of its time. As observed by Sam Wasson in his essay for the film’s Criterion release — written in 2016, but only more accurate five years further on — “today, when it’s the IP and not the script, or the director, or even the actor, that gets the movie made, when films are green-lit before they are written, and studios, I keep hearing, hire weaker directors because they’re easier to control, I think of that meeting, midway into The Player… when [Robbins] muses aloud to a roomful of colleagues, ‘I was just thinking what an interesting concept it is to eliminate the writer from the artistic process. If we can just get rid of these actors and directors, maybe we’ve got something here.’” I guess someone was taking notes…

    5 out of 5

    The Player was viewed as part of Blindspot 2019.

    The Guernsey Literary and
    Potato Peel Pie Society

    (2018)

    2019 #12
    Mike Newell | 123 mins | digital (HD) | 1.85:1 | UK, France & USA / English | 12

    The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

    In the aftermath of World War II, a writer (Lily James) forms an unexpected bond with the residents of Guernsey when she decides to write about the book club they formed during the island’s Nazi occupation. — adapted from IMDb

    Here we have a film that seemed to come in for a fair bit of flack in critical circles, and I can’t help but wonder if it a large part of it is simply down to the title. As I wrote in the February 2019 Arbies, it’s self-consciously whimsical, but “I can kind of see what they were going for… but they took it too far and now it’s a more horrible mouthful than the pie itself.”

    In fairness to the film’s detractors, that wasn’t their only nitpick. Another is that, although she’s ostensibly the protagonist and therefore a proactive character, James’s role is basically to keep asking the other characters what happened in the past until they explain the plot to her. That’s not an entirely inaccurate assessment of how the story unfolds. Virtually the only dramatic tension comes from the fact the other characters, all of whom know what went on, won’t reveal it until they (or, rather, the plot) decide it’s time to. Then again, stuff like having an active protagonist is one of those rules of drama that I sometimes feel is a rule just because it’s a rule — if your story is engrossing and entertaining anyway, why not have the ‘hero’ be little more than a narrator to guide us through what went on? Anyway, I’m not sure Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society was built to support such technical debates.

    Naturally, there’s a romance storyline too. That’s all very twee, of course, but the flashbacks to life under occupation give the film more grit than some gave it credit for. This isn’t a hard-hitting war movie, but nor is it simply an airy-fairy romance in pretty locations with an overdose of the sugary quirkiness that the title implies. Taken as a whole, it’s a perfectly decent melodrama-ish movie, that delivers on both a “chick flick”-ish romantic level and as some kind of recognition for the efforts of ordinary people during the war.

    4 out of 5

    First Reformed
    (2017)

    2019 #13
    Paul Schrader | 113 mins | digital (HD) | 1.37:1 | USA, UK & Australia / English | 15 / R

    First Reformed

    The pastor (Ethan Hawke) of a small church in upstate New York is asked for help by a pregnant parishioner (Amanda Seyfried) whose husband is a radical environmentalist. When the situation takes a tragic turn, the pastor must cope with mounting despair brought on by tragedy, worldly concerns, and his tormented past. — adapted from IMDb

    My first note about First Reformed is: I’m glad I didn’t watch the trailer first — it gives away almost all the salient details of the climax. So there’s a warning to you, too. (Naturally, the above plot description is written to not give too much away.)

    Continuing in that non-spoiler-y vein, then, all I can share from my notes about the ending is that it definitely seems designed to provoke debate — about the rights and wrongs of what does and doesn’t happen; about the choices made; about the way it chooses to conclude. The problem (or, some might feel, advantage) of being vague about this is that there’s no meaningful way to engage with said debate. Oh well.

    Before we get to the contentious conclusion, First Reformed appears to be a quiet little drama about personal despair and grief. It sort of morphs into something very different — almost a polemic about climax change. I say “sort of” because it also retains its smaller character-specific focus by using such big world-affecting things as a metaphor or mirror for individual dejection and hope. The character in question is Ethan Hawke’s pastor, and it’s very much a character study of him (Amanda Seyfried, a big name given co-billing on posters, etc, doesn’t have a huge amount to do — even when her character is involved in several exceptionally emotional situations, she remains very calm). With the whole film on his shoulders, Hawke is excellent, navigating us through his character’s rather internal conflicts with an assured performance.

    It was a good enough turn to put him in the awards conversation, as I remember, but not to secure any major nominations. The film did get an Oscar nod for its screenplay, written by director Paul Schrader, but it lost to Green Book. The less said about that the better, maybe.

    4 out of 5

    Gods and Monsters
    (1998)

    2019 #16
    Bill Condon | 105 mins | digital (HD) | 16:9 | USA & UK / English | 15 / R

    Gods and Monsters

    James Whale (played here by Ian McKellen) was the director of such acclaimed classics of the 1930s as Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, and Show Boat. By 1957, he was long since retired, and when he suffers a stroke it causes him to reflect on his memories — of his earlier life in England; of his movie career; and of his time in the trenches during World War I. He recounts these experiences to his new gardener, Clay (Brendan Fraser), a strapping ex-Marine who Whale persuades to model for him. Their friendship grows, even as Clay is wary of Whale’s homosexuality, and Whale’s health deteriorates.

    Viewed now, there are definitely parallels between this and another film starring Ian McKellen and directed by Bill Condon, Mr. Holmes. Both concern a dying old man (McKellen), cared for by a characterful housekeeper (here, Lynn Redgrave), who connects with a younger male while reflecting on former glories. No offence meant to Condon, but if he were a more noted director then I guess more people would have discussed the similarities between the two works, for good or ill (are they mirrored explorations of a similar theme, or just self plagiarism?) Of the two, Gods and Monsters is probably the more effective, benefitting from being based on a real person and true events in its exploration of who this person was.

    4 out of 5

  • The 100-Week Roundup XX

    Maybe I should’ve gone out of sequence and numbered this one XXX, given the pornographic content of a couple of these films from January 2019

  • The Stewardesses 3D (1969)
  • Experiments in Love 3D (1977)
  • La jetée (1962)


    The Stewardesses 3D
    (1969)

    2019 #6
    Alf Silliman Jr. | 93 mins | Blu-ray | 1.33:1 | USA / English | X* / R

    The Stewardesses in 3D

    If I asked you to guess the most profitable 3D movie ever made, what would you say? Avatar, probably. And, er, you’d be right (in terms of pure dollars earned, anyway). But what about before Avatar came along? You might opt for Jaws 3-D, or one of those ‘80s horror franchise entries, like Friday the 13th Part III or Amityville 3-D. Or you might try Alfred Hitchcock’s shot at the format, Dial M for Murder; or perhaps the Universal horror classic Creature from the Black Lagoon. Well, all of those answers would be wrong. The correct answer — as you’ve no doubt guessed by now, because you’re not stupid — is The Stewardesses. Why?

    Boooobs.

    And, er, the rest of the female anatomy, quite frankly, because, yes, The Stewardesses is fundamentally a porno. Bow-chicka-wow-wow! Oh, but not, it would seem, one exclusively for the dirty mac brigade, as it had enough of a mainstream claim (it was advertised as being based on a novel. There was no novel) to be booked into regular cinemas as well as onto the grungy grindhouse and drive-in circuits. It ran repeatedly for decades, and was made for a pittance, so its cost-to-profit ratio just kept on going up. To be precise, off a budget of just $100,000 it’s reported to have grossed up to $30 million, a 30,000% return. (For comparison’s sake, Avatar’s return was 1,176%.) It was also technologically innovative: the director helped develop a simple and economical single-camera 3D system (the 3D films of the ’50s had been shot with two cameras and projected with two projectors), which was later used by major movies during the ’80s 3D boom, such as Jaws 3-D.

    But what of the film itself? It’s an odd mashup of porno and arthouse, with gratuitous sex and nudity bumping against mundane drama, sequences that seem more like an observational lifestyle documentary, and occasional experimental scenes. It’s hard to tell how much the film is aiming for realism and how much is just amateurish: there’s dodgy framing, weak performances, and Filmmaking 101 goofs (spot the mic), but something about the editing patterns, shot choices, and day-in-the-life subject matter feels influenced by cinéma vérité. But there are also random showcases of the 3D effect, including a game of pool and a fairground sequence, which includes point-of-view rides on a rollercoaster ride and ghost train.

    Sexy lamp

    The sex stuff is dropped in here and there around this. There’s a bit of fooling around in a cockpit at the start, although this is again played more for the 3D gimmick (some legs-akimbo feet protruding from the screen) and laughs (the old “someone left the mic on and everyone can hear” bit). But then it’s almost quarter-of-an-hour before there’s anything that could be genuinely described as pornographic (full frontal yoga); after that, it’s back to watching some of the girls go to a bar and another go on a dinner date. A surprising amount of time is spent watching girls brush their hair — sometimes topless, which makes sense in a laughably gratuitous way, but other times… not.

    The first truly explicit scene depicts a girl on an acid trip having sex with a lamp shaped like a classical bust, while superimposed inverted images show the body she’s imagining it has. I mean… you couldn’t make that shit up, right? It’s more like an experimental movie than a porno. Later sequences are more straightforward porn, not least a lengthy lesbian scene; but the final sex scene is far from titillating, returning to that odd artiness with shots of vases and statues, closeups of appendages and limbs, unhappy faces, and a disquieting score. It ends by taking an exceptionally dark turn, with a murder-suicide that seems almost entirely unmotivated by anything that’s come before. It’s certainly not how you expect them to wrap up a film aimed at titillation.

    It would seem The Stewardesses was is a film of very mixed ambitions. The end result is objectively terrible, and yet also kind of fascinatingly enjoyable and thought-provoking. It’s certainly not dull, I’ll give it that.

    2 out of 5

    * It hasn’t been rated by the BBFC since a cut version received an X in 1973. ^

    Experiments in Love 3D
    (1977)

    2019 #6a
    Darrell Smith | 28 mins | Blu-ray | 1.20:1 | USA / English

    Experiments in Love

    Where The Stewardesses makes you wonder “is it porn or is it a drama with gratuitous sex?”, Experiments in Love prompts no such quandaries: it’s porn. And yet…

    A sci-fi comedy porno short, the plot (yes, there is a plot) sees a pair of “sexy scientists” experimenting with 3D cameras under instruction from a room-sized computer that speaks with a dodgy Japanese accent, so that they can use the cameras for a university project on human sexuality. In practice, it’s a bunch of 3D trick shots performed by a pair of women in very, very little clothing. Eventually, their sexy experiments overheat the system, which attracts the attention of a nearby handyman, and… well, I’m sure you can guess what goes on from there.

    While there’s no doubting the primary purpose of Experiments of Love, it has a knowing irreverence that makes it pretty funny, plus a cornucopia lot of great-looking 3D stunts, that make it worth watching for more than just the relatively explicit softcore sex and nudity. Whatever you want from it (based on reasonable expectations), you’re likely to get.

    3 out of 5

    La jetée
    (1962)

    2019 #6b
    Chris Marker | 28 mins | digital (HD) | 1.66:1 | France / French | PG

    La jetée

    And now for something completely different…

    Told via a series of still photos with voiceover narration, this is the story of a man in a post-World War III future who is subjected to a time travel experiment. While others have been unable to withstand the mental strain, scientists believe that the man’s obsession with a childhood memory will work in his favour if they send him back to near that moment. With the experiment a success, the man begins to develop a relationship with a woman in the past; but the scientists want him to find a solution for their post-apocalyptic woes…

    Probably most widely known as the work that inspired Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys, La jetée is a seminal piece of science fiction filmmaking in its own right. By limiting the visuals to photographs, writer-director Chris Marker creates an eerie, discomfiting atmosphere, wholly appropriate to a post-apocalyptic future of enforced experimentation. But it also fits thematically: this is a film very much about memory, and what is one of our primary prompters of memory if not photographs? “Nothing distinguishes memories from ordinary moments,” says the narrator at one point. “Only later do they become memorable by the scars they leave.” Genuinely, a pretty profound thought to chew over.

    La jetée is a film I definitely need to revisit: it’s one of those films that is preceded by such a reputation that one struggles to judge it fairly on a first viewing, when expectations are too high. Put another way: although I’m not giving it full marks, that is not to dispute its standing as a classic.

    4 out of 5

  • The 100-Week Roundup XIX

    Although I managed to get caught up on my reviews to the end of 2018 by the end of 2020, these 100-week catch-ups are still behind schedule — after all, 100 weeks is slightly less than two years, so I should be into February 2019 by now. But we are where we are, and so here’s the first batch from January 2019. At least the first one’s more appropriate now than it would’ve been in December…

  • Happy New Year, Colin Burstead (2018)
  • Cool Hand Luke (1967)
  • 1941 (1979)
  • Rambo (2008)


    Happy New Year, Colin Burstead
    (2018)

    2019 #1
    Ben Wheatley | 89 mins | digital (HD) | 2.39:1 | UK / English | 15

    Happy New Year, Colin Burstead

    Writer-director Ben Wheatley leaves behind the murderous themes that have characterised his feature output to instead portray a family drama that plays like an art house EastEnders. Put another way, it’s about an extended family spending most of their time arguing about things they have or haven’t done to each other, but it’s really slow and frequently abstruse.

    I guess Wheatley has his fans, and I know he has his detractors, but I find every one of his movies a crapshoot: sometimes I think they’re pretty great, sometimes interminable, sometimes floating somewhere in between. Colin Burstead is definitely at the negative end of the spectrum — way down that end, in fact. Unlike other Wheatley films I’ve not liked, this has little to commend it: none of the pretty cinematography or nods to social satire of High-Rise; none of the mood or editing trickery of A Field in England. The visuals are little better than a home movie; the editing is… random. And I mean that literally: sometimes shots from other scenes drop in for no apparent reason, never mind the senseless intercutting that goes on regularly.

    I guess Wheatley was going for some kind of Robert Altman thing, with all the characters and their own storylines and the way they’re intercut and the dialogue overlaps. But there’s no mastery of that form apparent here, and certainly no story worth applying it too. Even at under 90 minutes, it feels like it goes on forever. It’s that most damnable of things: boring.

    1 out of 5

    Happy New Year, Colin Burstead featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2018.

    Cool Hand Luke
    (1967)

    2019 #2
    Stuart Rosenberg | 122 mins | digital (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 15

    Cool Hand Luke

    When petty criminal Luke Jackson is sentenced to two years in a Florida chain gang, he doesn’t play by the rules of either the sadistic warden or the resident heavy, Dragline. As he becomes a rebel hero to his fellow convicts and a thorn in the side of the prison officers, the latter actively work to crush Luke until he finally breaks… — adapted from IMDb

    The thing that most surprised me — or, at least, struck me — about Cool Hand Luke was how similar it felt to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (of course, that film came out eight years after this one, so if there is a chain of influence it flows in the other direction). They’re about different kinds of institution, but the vibe of the piece — a new against-the-grain inmate riling up the others to provoke the oppressive authority figures who control them — is very similar. They also have a similar comedic/dramatic mix of tones for most of the runtime, before both ending with a calamitous finale.

    If Cool Hand Luke feels a bit less dark overall, it’s probably because its leading man is the immensely charming Paul Newman, versus Jack Nicholson in Cuckoo’s Nest — he’s charming in his own way, but it’s definitely a cockeyed kinda likeability, with an undercurrent that things might go bad at any moment. Not that Cool Hand Luke is lacking in threatening atmosphere, with the abusive ills of the chain gang system ever-present.

    4 out of 5

    Cool Hand Luke was viewed as part of What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2019.

    1941
    (1979)

    2019 #4
    Steven Spielberg | 119 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English, Japanese & German | 12 / PG

    1941

    From 1975 until the end of the ’80s, director Steven Spielberg had a truly extraordinary run of movies: Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun, Indiana Jones and the last Crusade — every one of them an era-defining box office hit and/or a multi-Oscar-nominee. Except that list overlooks one dud: 1941. That’s how the majority see it, anyway, but it does have something of a cult following (and apparently “the Europeans love it”, or so Spielberg claims in an accompanying documentary).

    Personally, as is so often the case, I fall somewhere between these two stools. Spielberg signals his tonal intention from the off, beginning with an outright spoof of the famous opening to Jaws, the film that had made his name just a few years earlier. After that, 1941 unfolds almost like a sketch show, through a series of comedic vignettes; though it’s more like binge-watching a whole series of a sketch show, because there’s also a series of running plot lines. And just like a sketch show, the quality varies wildly from bit to bit. I felt like it took a long time to really get going, and then it felt like it was going on forever, but I actually warmed to its barminess in the end. Even if it’s weak overall, there are some very good sequences — the dance competition-cum-chase is a particular highlight. There’s a ton of special effects at the climax which look spectacular, too — you can always rely on Spielberg to pull off a good-looking, technically-excellent movie.

    In later years, Spielberg has admitted his hubris and arrogance (coming off the massive double success of Jaws and Close Encounters) hindered the film, which he thinks should’ve been funnier. Nonetheless, he’s still proud of it — indeed, when he was given the chance to restore his original two-and-a-half-hour director’s cut (Columbia and Universal had cut the original release against his wishes, fearing for its commercial potential), he took that opportunity. Some day, I’ll have to give the longer cut a go. I presume it can’t be any more consistent, but maybe there are some extra laughs…

    3 out of 5

    Rambo
    (2008)

    2019 #5
    Sylvester Stallone | 92 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA & Germany / English, Burmese & Thai | 18 / R

    Rambo

    In Thailand, John Rambo joins a group of mercenaries to venture into war-torn Burma and rescue a group of Christian aid workers who were kidnapped by a ruthless local infantry unit.IMDb

    Despite the blunt title, Rambo is not a reboot of the Rambo series. Nor is it quite a Jason Bourne-style “let’s just use his name this time”, because there’s already kinda been a film called Rambo — it was the second one. And, of course, people tend to just call the first one Rambo, despite that not being its title at all. So maybe let’s not get hung up on the naming of Rambo movies (though if anyone ever says “I really enjoyed that one movie, Rambo,” you’re probably going to have to ask for clarification).

    Despite being an OTT action series, Rambo has a habit of getting involved in real-life conflicts: the first one spun out of Vietnam; the second was concerned with an issue from that conflict’s fallout; and the third saw him stick his oar into Afghanistan. Using real-world geopolitics as an excuse for a brutal action movie is the kind of thing some people will always find distasteful, but at least Rambo seems to have its heart more in the right place than First Blood Part II or Rambo III did. In fact, the film was banned by the rulers in Burma, but was widely bootlegged by resistance fighters, who loved it and adopted phrases from it as mantras. So you can say it was distasteful to the real political situation if you like, but the people actually embroiled in it clearly felt differently. And David Morrell, the author of the original First Blood novel (who has proven quite happy to criticise a Rambo movie), was “pleased” with this one: “the level of violence might not be for everyone, but it has a serious intent. This is the first time that the tone of my novel First Blood has been used in any of the movies. It’s spot-on in terms of how I imagined the character — angry, burned-out, and filled with self-disgust because Rambo hates what he is and yet knows it’s the only thing he does well.”

    Big fucking gun

    Oh yes, “the violence may not be for everyone”, because, oh boy, it really is brutal! Blood and body parts explode all over the damn place. But the film invests a lot of effort in making sure you know these bad guys really, really deserve it — mainly by showing them to be brutal bastards themselves, committing nasty war crimes in the film’s first half. At one point during the bloodbath climax, they employ artillery so heavy it takes off heads with a single shot. That’s used to kill every bad guy on a gunboat… and then they blow the boat up with a rocket launcher, for good measure. It’s not quite as ridiculous as that time Rambo used an explosive-tipped arrow to kill one man, but it’s getting there.

    A couple of years after the film’s release, Stallone put together a Director’s Cut that reportedly pulls back on some of the violence and adds more character-centric scenes. I don’t know if that would make the film better — I feel like the balance is pretty good right now. Maybe a little heavy on the brutality, sure, but I can’t see how a movie like this needs much more character stuff than it already has. It’s really well paced as it stands: it manages to not feel in a rush, while also not feeling slow; and once the men are properly on their mission, it’s almost relentless without being breathless. It makes for a very smooth, fast 90 minutes.

    4 out of 5

  • Death to 2020 (2020)

    2020 #264
    Al Campbell & Alice Mathias | 71 mins | digital (UHD) | 2:1 | USA & UK / English | 15

    Death to 2020

    As if the line between film and TV wasn’t becoming blurred enough already, 2020 has torn it to shreds. It’s now basically up to streamers whether they brand something as “a film” or a “special” or whatever (some individual websites might insist on labelling any Netflix original movie as “TV”, but I’m not sure anyone’s listening). This feature-length one-off from the makers of Black Mirror is, officially, “a Netflix Original Comedy Event” — so it’s a TV special, really, isn’t it? I probably shouldn’t be counting it as a film. Oh, but who cares?

    Despite the lack of familiar title format, Death to 2020 very much follows in the footsteps of the Wipe series of year-in-reviews specials Charlie Brooker used to make for the BBC. It’s both documentary and mockumentary: it recaps the real-life events of the year, with minimal diversion into satirical fantasy, but archly commented on by an array of actors portraying fake experts. The Netflix budget means some properly big names are involved: Samuel L. Jackson, Hugh Grant, Lisa Kudrow… the list goes on. The prime absentee is Brooker himself, only piping up occasionally as an offscreen interviewer.

    Perhaps unsurprisingly, it focuses on the major events of the year from a UK/US perspective — other countries (like Australia, China, and… um… I think that’s it) only enter the equation when events there affect everyone else (like, y’know, starting a global pandemic). That makes sense given who made it, but maybe less so for Netflix as a global company. But then, not everything needs to appeal to everyone. I’m sure if they had a French satirist on the books, they’d be producing a Franco-centric special.

    A cast of dozens!

    It’s to Death to 2020’s disadvantage that, this year, we’ve all been paying more attention to the news than ever. That might seem like a benefit — a knowledgeable, informed audience means you can cut straight to the jokes with minimal prompting — but I think instead it means we’ve already heard most of the humour. We’ve spent all year making these gags ourselves, trying to alleviate the doom-laden (inter)national mood. The other, related, problem lies in trying to appeal to an international audience. In trying to keep things accessible for both sides of the pond, Brooker and co avoid getting into the weeds of local politics. Brexit is briefly mentioned rather than deconstructed; US politics is limited to the election. Specificities of lockdown life are dodged almost entirely. Trying to stick to broad, globally-familiar topics seems to keep the humour similarly generalised.

    Nonetheless, it starts out quite funny, even if they’re mostly riffs we’ve heard before. But around the time it hits the killing of George Floyd, the jokes dry up. If you’re not a racist dickhead, there’s little funny about the organisations that supposedly protect us instead arbitrarily murdering people. Death to 2020 knows this and picks its targets carefully, but it seems to kill the humour nonetheless — the jokes continue, but the humour in them dries up.

    It turns out the biggest problem isn’t unoriginality or too broad a target audience, but rather that 2020 was such a shitshow that it’s just no fun to be reminded of it, even in an intentionally comedic context. It doesn’t help that we’re facing a 2021 that promises at least several months of being equally as bad. Maybe one day we’ll be able to look back on all this and laugh, but just as likely we’ll prefer to forget.

    2 out of 5

    Happy New Year, dear readers! It can’t actually be any worse… right?

    The 100-Week Roundup XVIII

    Here we are, then: the final reviews from December 2018, which are also therefore the final reviews from 2018 (er, aside from that one I’m keeping for another time).

    Also worthy of note: buried in the middle of this selection is the 2,000th feature film review I’ve published on this blog. It was way back in August 2019, 16 months ago, that I reached 2,000 films listed for review, so it’s taken me quite a while to catch up.

    So, reviews number 1999, 2000, and 2001 are…

  • Torment (1944)
  • Music in Darkness (1948)
  • Hachi: A Dog’s Tale (2009)


    Torment
    (1944)

    aka Hets

    2018 #249
    Alf Sjöberg | 97 mins | DVD | 4:3 | Sweden / Swedish | 12

    Torment

    Torment won a prize at Cannes and was nominated at Venice, but it’s most noteworthy for being the first film in the career of Ingmar Bergman: he was the screenwriter, and also served as assistant director — in which capacity he directed the film’s very final scene, meaning this film technically contains his first work as a director.

    Initially it seems like just a classroom drama — students vs a demanding teacher — but it takes a very different turn once one of the boys becomes involved with a girl of ill repute. She’s being tormented by a sadistic stalker — guess who that might turn out to be.

    With its realistic location photography and attitudes about schoolboys (disrespectful of schoolmasters; smoking; talking about getting girls pregnant; expressing opinions like “all women are tramps, and if they’re not they want to be”; and a lead female character who demonstrates they might be right), Torment feels more like a film from the ’60s film than the ’40s. But perhaps that’s just because it took Puritan America a while to catch up.

    The film is also critical of the strictures and pressures of the education system, which is still an accurate observation over seven decades later. In particular, a speech by a doctor about how schoolboys are overworked, and so they’re justified in trying to dodge some of that work, could be repeated word for word in a modern setting. There’s another scene where a kindly teacher berates a harsh one about his methods that, hopefully, we’ve moved slightly past, although I imagine every school still has teachers that are thought of as bastard taskmasters.

    Outside of its social views, the film does seem more of its time in its shot choices and production style, though not in a bad way — there’s some very effective stuff, like a bit of misdirection into a dream sequence, or its use of shadows. There’s one moment on a staircase that’s worthy of a horror movie — it’s almost a jump scare — and a chilling sequence follows which, again, feels like it’s from a different genre entirely.

    I liked a lot of Torment, not least the way it went beyond a tragic plot twist to explore the fallout in a fairly realistic manner — the lack of justice, the lack of revenge — but, unfortunately, the ending didn’t quite land for me. There’s a kind of justice for one character, but another ends up seemingly positive and optimistic, getting over events a mite too quickly. That said, it’s a quality production overall. It’s a shame it seems destined to relegation as a minor work (it’s not even in Criterion’s “comprehensive” Bergman box set), because I think it merits a wider rediscovery.

    4 out of 5

    Music in Darkness
    (1948)

    aka Musik i mörker / Night is My Future

    2018 #255
    Ingmar Bergman | 84 mins | DVD | 4:3 | Sweden / Swedish | PG

    Music in Darkness

    This is an early film by Ingmar Bergman — his fourth as director, from an era when someone’s fourth movie was an early one rather than their second or third studio blockbuster. That said, what Music in Darkness most feels like is a Hollywood romantic drama of the era, albeit with a couple of artistic flourishes and a flash of nudity, just so you know it’s definitely European.

    The film begins when master pianist Bengt Vyldeke suffers an accident that leaves him blind. Not a terrible inciting incident on paper, but on screen it’s so implausible it’s like a spoof: he’s injured while trying to save a puppy on a military shooting range. Where did that puppy come from?! Then there’s a kinda-experimental dream sequence, before we’re finally off to the races with a fairly standard romantic melodrama.

    Bengt may‘ve saved the life of a puppy, but he turns out to be a bit of a git. At first it seems his grumpiness stems from despair at his new situation, but then he begins to soften as he spends time with Ingrid, a maid who’s helping him. Sweet-natured, romantically-minded Ingrid is played by the ‘loose woman’ from Torment, Mai Zetterling; a remarkably different kind of role. So far, all so standard. But maybe Bengt saw Torment before he was blinded, because he starts calling Ingrid a wench and a last-resort marriage prospect behind her back. Yeah, maybe he’s not such a reformed character after all.

    Anyway, more tribulations follow, but eventually they overcome what was separating them to get together — hooray, and all that. But that’s not the end: next, there’s some minor palaver over getting married, the organising of the wedding, etc… but then that’s solved and they leave together, newlyweds… the end. All of which seems thoroughly extraneous — the story ends when they (suddenly, out of nowhere, without either really saying anything to the other) finally get together, not after some faffing about with wedding planning.

    Perhaps this is the European sensibility again, lacking the strict formal awareness of a Hollywood studio production. I don’t make that comparison as a criticism, incidentally. Like many a solid studio programmer, Music in Darkness is perfectly fine for what it is; but little about it truly stands out, either.

    3 out of 5

    Hachi: A Dog’s Tale
    (2009)

    2018 #259
    Lasse Hallström | 89 mins | TV (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA & UK / English & Japanese | U / G

    Hachi: A Dog's Tale

    Inspired by the true story of Hachikō, a dog in 1920s Japan who every day would wait at the train station for his owner to return — and continued to do so for almost ten years after the owner died. The tale was made into a Japanese film in 1987, which clearly caught the attention of someone in Hollywood, with this remake relocating the action to modern-day USA.

    This is really a film for people who like dogs. Without the pooch, it would be a terribly twee Hallmark TV movie — any scene where Hachi is absent is excruciating. In other words, if you don’t care for dogs, give it a miss. For the rest of us, fortunately, the pup’s is in most of it. The story takes us on an emotional rollercoaster, its impact only emphasised by the fact it’s (fundamentally) a true story. Of course, the dog dies — he wouldn’t have stopped waiting at the train station if he didn’t, would he, because he’s a very good boy.

    Yeah, if you hadn’t already guessed, this is an unabashed tearjerker for any dog lover.

    4 out of 5

  • The 100-Week Roundup XVII

    Continuing my push to wrap up leftover reviews from 2018, here are three more to finish off that November

  • Danger: Diabolik (1968)
  • Boy (2010)
  • Dad’s Army (2016)


    Danger: Diabolik
    (1968)

    aka Diabolik

    2018 #243
    Mario Bava | 96 mins | TV (HD) | 16:9 | Italy & France / English | 12 / PG-13

    Danger: Diabolik

    This starts off like a normal-looking crime thriller, with cops transporting millions of dollars in fake money while the real cash goes in a decoy… but then the decoy is ambushed by supercriminal Diabolik using multi-coloured smoke, and suddenly everything takes an abrupt turn into trippy ‘60s-ness. After escaping with the loot, Diabolik and his girl risk some nasty paper cuts by rolling around in the cash naked… on a giant rotating circular bed. Ah, the ’60s. And that, really, is the best summation of Danger: Diabolik: it looks and feels just like a Euro-comic of the era. If you made it today, with the benefits of hindsight and every cultural touchstone under the sun, you could barely make it more “60s”. For example, there’s a long-ish sequence in a swinging nightclub for virtually no reason — exactly the sort of thing you’d expect from an Austin Powers movie.

    On the downside, the storyline is a bit episodic. It’s also clear that it was cheaply made in places, and yet other parts look great, like Diabolik’s underground lair set. Apparently director Mario Bava had a budget of $3 million but brought it in for just $400,000, which I guess explains that. But that inconsistency extends to the overall imagery and style of the film: some of it is striking and memorable, but even more is just… fine; adequate; could be taken from anything made by anyone.

    Ultimately, I like the idea of Diabolik a lot more than the actual execution, which didn’t seem nearly as wild and idiosyncratic as many of the positive reviews make out. When it works, it’s got a comic-book, campy, Saturday-morning-adventure-serial charm, with a mildly raunchy edge (there are skimpy outfits and some kissing, and a naked woman covered up by banknotes, but that’s your lot), and it certainly operates by its own crazy-fun logic rather than the rules of real life. But, even with that going on, it doesn’t all come together as thrillingly and entertainingly as it could or should. I can well imagine a right-minded kind of director remaking it and transforming it into something that really nailed those influences and made for a much more striking, exciting ride. Well, there’s a new version due in 2021, so we can but hope.

    3 out of 5

    Boy
    (2010)

    2018 #244
    Taika Waititi | 84 mins | TV (HD) | 1.85:1 | New Zealand / English | 15

    Boy

    The second film directed by Taika Waititi (after Eagle vs Shark) feels somewhat like a semi-autobiographical dry run for his later work. It’s a whimsical comedy that hides depths of very real drama, just like Hunt for the Wilderpeople or Jojo Rabbit, but it lacks their polish and refinement — it’s not as funny, and it doesn’t fully tap into what that drama ultimately means. It plays like a strong calling card: indicative of what the writer-director is capable of and intends to shoot for, but clearly not yet at their full potential. Mind you, the heights Waititi later reached are so high that this “not there yet” effort is still very good.

    4 out of 5

    Dad’s Army
    (2016)

    2018 #245
    Oliver Parker | 96 mins | TV (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English & German | PG

    Dad's Army

    1960s/70s World War II sitcom Dad’s Army is enduringly popular — repeats on BBC Two (one of the UK’s main TV networks, for those that don’t know) regularly garner viewing figures that eclipse new programming. So it’s no surprise that someone decided it would be a good idea to give it a big-screen reboot… and it’s equally as unsurprising that it was largely a failure. Making a successful sitcom is a large part down to luck. You don’t just need funny scripts, but also to cast it well so that the characters really come alive; and getting the lead bang-on isn’t enough: for a comedy to really work, everyone needs to be great in their own role and to blend perfectly as an ensemble. Capturing that “lightning in a bottle” factor once is hard enough, but to repeat it? Who do you think you are kidding, Mr Filmmaker?

    You can see how they tried. The premise is obviously solid gold, so that box is already ticked. Then the new cast is stuffed with names: Toby Jones, Bill Nighy, Michael Gambon, Tom Courtenay, Bill Paterson, Daniel Mays… If anything, they’re over-qualified for this kind of project. Indeed, if you stop and think about it, you do wonder: how many of them are comedians, really? And maybe that was the problem. If you were casting a biopic about the making of the show, this would be a top-drawer ensemble; but to recreate its comedic magic? That said, it’s not impossible: when they remade the series’ missing episodes with a new cast, it worked very well.

    So maybe the secret is the script, after all. It’s definitely a weak link here. The humour is so gentle, it’s not even bothering to be very funny. There are lots of double entendres, though to say they have more than one meaning is generous. There are plenty of nods and winks to the original in an attempt to keep fans happy, including trotting out all the familiar catchphrases, but usually they’re shoved in rather than occurring naturally in dialogue. The female characters largely fare better than the men, though perhaps that’s just because they’re more original creations. Some might argue such a shift is a necessary correction to the male-orientated series, but it also isn’t really the point. Worst of all, at times it feels like the film wants to be some kind of thriller. It even ends with a big action sequence shootout! I can’t think of much that’d be less Dad’s Army than that.

    2 out of 5

  • The 100-Week Roundup XVI

    Right: after a bit of a Christmas break, it’s time to get stuck back in to what I said I was going to do — specifically, wrap up my reviews from 2018 before the end of 2020.* So, that means I’ve got nine reviews to cram into the next 3 days, starting with this handful from November 2018

  • The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
  • The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)
  • Redline (2009)


    The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
    (2018)

    2018 #238
    Joel & Ethan Coen | 133 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

    Nowadays, almost everyone who’s anyone has made a movie for Netflix; but, back in November 2018, the latest big-name directors to take the streaming plunge were cinephile favourites the Coen brothers. Their contribution was a Western full of whimsy and violence — Coens gotta Coen, I guess.

    The film is really a collection of shorts, coming in six segments: first, the one that also gives the feature its overall title, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs; followed by Near Algodones, Meal Ticket, All Gold Canyon (based on a story by Jack London), The Gal Who Got Rattled (inspired by a story by Stewart Edward White), and finishing up with The Mortal Remains. The connection between these disparate narratives? Um… And why is the whole collection named after the first one? Err…

    To expand on my ums and errs, in reverse order, I can see no reason at all why Buster Scruggs was chosen as the umbrella title. If anything, it’s misleading: you expect the character to come back somehow later on (he doesn’t). It’s not even that the segment is typical or representative of the other five that follow. Maybe they thought it was the most evocative moniker? Maybe they thought it was the best of the six? Personally, I’d’ve come up with something else.

    As for why these six tales are bundled together, I couldn’t tell you that, either. There’s little discernible connection between them, not even stylistically: the first is almost a musical cartoon, with a hyper-skilled gunslinger prone to warbling a tune and breaking the fourth wall — elements that don’t even vaguely factor into the next two shorts, the first of which is concerned with a kind of cosmic irony, the second with brutal reality (of the entertainment business — you could almost class it as an allegorical satire). The only common thread I could ascertain is that (spoiler alert!) they all end in death. Hardly a remarkable feature in a Western, though, is it?

    Comments that have stood out to me from other reviews include the likes of “Coen Brothers 101”, or “a great introduction to their world for the uninitiated”, and that “each vignette showcases their different different talents” — that’s not bad as a kind of summary. But also, “the whole isn’t more than the sum of its parts”, with which I’d agree — I’m not really sure what these six short films gain from being watched together (other than wider distribution and attention than shorts, even by renowned directors, normally achieve).

    4 out of 5

    The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
    (2013)

    aka Kaguyahime no monogatari

    2018 #239
    Isao Takahata | 131 mins | TV (HD) | 1.85:1 | Japan / English | U / PG

    The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

    This film from the other Ghibli director, Isao Takahata, is perhaps the studio’s biggest breakout success that wasn’t directed by its most famous name (i.e. Hayao Miyazaki). Based on a story from 10th-century Japanese folklore, it tells of a bamboo cutter who finds a tiny girl inside a bamboo shoot, who he takes to raise with his wife. The cutter also finds riches in the same bamboo grove and, as the girl quickly grows into a young lady, he sets about transforming her into a princess.

    The most obvious thing to say about Princess Kaguya is that it has beautiful animation — but it really does; a sketchy-but-precise, watercolour-ish style, quite unlike anything else we’re used to seeing from any kind of animation. But “ooh, isn’t it pretty?” won’t sustain a film with a running time of over two hours; and, indeed, I felt Kaguya was a bit overlong — not excessively slow (though it certainly isn’t a fast-paced tale), but a couple of bits do go round in circles over the same points. It’s clearly a parable, possibly about not controlling others, although I didn’t think the ending really married up to that. It does have a point about happiness in freedom vs the restrictions of class and so-called “good people”, although there’s also an element of romanticising peasant life, which is always an iffy position to take (it’s easy to long for simpler time and ways when you don’t have to actually struggle with them).

    Perhaps I’m just overthinking it. As a gorgeously-realised fairytale, Princess Kaguya is more than equal to the many (many) examples of the same from the Western animation canon.

    4 out of 5

    Redline
    (2009)

    2018 #240
    Takeshi Koike | 98 mins | TV | 16:9 | Japan / English | 15

    Redline

    Redline stands in stark contrast to Kaguya‘s delicate lyricism. It’s a senseless cacophony of unfollowable action — visual diarrhoea.

    It’s billed as a sports movie, but there’s so much other crap going on that the fact it’s a race (or supposedly a race) is barely relevant. It’s not like you can actually follow who’s in the lead or who’s in competition or what tactics anyone’s using or any of the other things you’d expect from a proper sports film. There’s a meaningless flashback-driven romance subplot, just to make things more annoying, and some gratuitous nudity to boot. Well, pretty much everything about the film is gratuitous — the designs, the story, the villains… you name it, it’s OTT and/or uncalled for.

    Apparently it used over 100,000 hand-made drawings and no CGI whatsoever, so at least it looks good… in its own way. I wasn’t a huge fan of the overall style — it looks like an extreme 2000 AD strip brought to life (albeit one crossed with manga, natch) — but 3D CGI in otherwise-2D anime often sticks out like a sore thumb, so it avoids that pitfall, at least.

    2 out of 5

    * There’s actually one 2018 review that’s going to remain hanging, because it’s part of a trilogy I’ll bundle together someday. But if I can get the other nine reviews ticked off, I’ll be happy. ^

  • The Past Month on TV #64

    Christmas TV is already underway in the UK (I believe the first things that were explicitly a “Christmas special” aired over the weekend) — so, before my usual Christmassy roundup, here’s one final regular TV column for 2020.

    His Dark Materials  Series 2
    His Dark Materials series 2

    In a world where innumerable film and TV productions have been affected by Covid and its associated lockdowns, His Dark Materials got lucky: by hurrying on to produce their second series before the young cast aged too much, they’d virtually wrapped filming before the first UK lockdown hit. The only casualty: a standalone episode detailing what one character was up to during the rest of the season. That’s frustrating for fans (as I understand it, the events intended for that episode aren’t actually in the original novel, but were dreamt up afresh by the show’s writers in collaboration with original author Philip Pullman), and if you know there’s an episode missing then you can spot its absence (there are some scenes and references in the season finale that I wager would make more sense had we seen the missing episode), but the series mostly survives without it.

    So, picking up from series one’s massive cliffhanger, this second run adapts the trilogy’s second novel, The Subtle Knife — a mysterious item of arguably even greater value than the Golden Compass that (sort of) lends its name to (the US version of) book one. Despite tackling a whole novel, I’ve seen some describe this season as boring, with too little incident. I guess that’s the advantage of waiting until the end and watching it all in just six days: I was suitably engrossed, and it moved, if not at a fair old lick, then certainly at a reasonable pace. But it’s not a show that’s always big on action — instead, it’s big on ideas, with underpinning concepts on the boundaries of science and fantasy that have to be explained and understood by the viewer. Nonetheless, there’s still plenty of conflict between our heroes and villains; and while it may seem clear who’s on which side, there are enough shades of grey, and emerging uncertainties about who’s really got the right motives, to keep it pleasantly complicated, engrossing, and believable.

    I’m sure I once read that the original plan was to adapt the trilogy of novels over five seasons — one for book one, two each for books two and three. Now, they’ve reached the point where book two has been done in a single season, and now book three is plotted out to be completed in one more run of eight episodes too. But, shockingly, it hasn’t been commissioned yet. I bloody hope the BBC (and HBO) do the right thing, because I think overall this is an excellent show, with still-timely issues of freedom and control, that merits completion on screen. And, simply, I’m excitedly looking forward to the next (final) series already.

    Update: This afternoon, while I was too busy writing this post to notice the news, the BBC and HBO officially recommissioned His Dark Materials for its third and final series. Hurrah!

    The Good Place  Season 4
    The Good Place season 4The Good Place ended forever ago, right? Well, the series finale originally aired back in January, so… this year, yeah, forever ago.

    As with every previous season of the show, this one noodles around in a new setup for the first half-dozen-or-so episodes, before swinging into one long multi-part story through to the end of the season — and, in this case, the end of the series. In that respect, it’s always been kind of an odd show, structurally, and season four is no different. Most of the jeopardy and drama is resolved a couple of episodes before the end, leaving us to watch events play out for these characters we’ve come to love, rather than trying to keep us hooked primarily by plot, unlike pretty much every other programme ever. To be clear, this is not a criticism: it absolutely works. Rather than shooting for a series finale that has the big climax of the plot plus a bunch of rushed wrap-ups, here the more-than-double-length finale is like a coda to the entire show. It’s the series’ highest rated episode on IMDb, so I’m not alone in liking this approach.

    The Good Place did, actually, start out as a show that seemed to be primarily about its plot — it’s name was mostly made off the back of one plot point in season one — but along the way it’s really developed a care for its ragtag gang of heroes, and taken us along for a once-in-an-afterlifetime ride with them, to the point where I’m actually kinda sad to see them go… but I loved watching them leave.

    Baptiste  Series 1
    BaptisteThe breakout star of BBC drama The Missing here gets his own spinoff series. Julien Baptiste is a retired police detective who specialises in finding missing people, which is exactly what he did across two series of The Missing (I reviewed the second here). But instead of a third series, he gets a spinoff, in which he… has to search for a missing person. Hm. But that’s just the inciting incident: before long, Julien finds himself embroiled in the affairs of an Eastern European criminal empire, with his family under threat. Okay, fair enough. Unfortunately, although Baptiste shares the same main creatives as its parent show — sibling screenwriters Harry and Jack Williams — what they’ve cooked up here just isn’t as inventive or captivating as their two seasons of The Missing, both of which were fantastic. Sure, they still conjure up plenty of unexpected twists and developments, but it lacks the same spark that was there before. But let’s not get carried away: it’s not a bad serial, just not as high-quality as the two seasons that preceded it. It’s been recommissioned, so perhaps next time they’ll recapture the magic.

    Smiley’s People
    Smiley's PeopleJohn le Carré’s spy mystery Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is one of the most acclaimed works of the genre, and the 1979 TV adaptation is justly fêted as one of the great miniseries. But Tinker Tailor is actually the first book in a loose trilogy, and in 1982 they also adapted the third book (they skipped the second because its overseas settings were deemed too expensive; as I understand it, the plot also doesn’t have that much bearing on the overall events — this isn’t “one story in three parts” like many a trilogy). Smiley’s People doesn’t enjoy quite the same reputation as its forebear, and I’m afraid I’m not going to challenge that position. Like Baptiste, it’s not bad, it just lacks that je ne sais quoi that makes its predecessor a solid-gold classic. One thing they do share is a damnably complicated plot — I struggled to follow the narrative watching it one episode per day back to back, so goodness knows how anyone kept up with it once a week over a month and a half back in the ’80s.

    I watched it on the BBC’s recently-released Blu-ray, which is a tough one to recommend it. It’s clearly been mastered from the original film (where possible — some negatives were missing so they had to resort to less-good elements), but then it’s been slathered in digital noise reduction (DNR) as if in some misguided attempt to hide that it was actually shot on grainy film stock as opposed to weirdly-soft HD video. It’s so rare for things to be over-DNRed these days that you’d think we were finally past it, but obviously not. And yet, while the series never looks as good as it could, the fact it has been restored means it’s a lot better than the old DVDs, and the chances of anyone ever doing it again and getting it right are basically non-existent. Sometimes, we just have to settle for what we can get. That certainly sounds like a le Carré moral, doesn’t it?

    Elementary  Season 7 Episodes 9-13
    Elementary season 7The other “Sherlock Holmes in the modern day” show finally came to an end last year, though I suspect its finishing shall remain more final: whereas Sherlock always had a stop-start “we could make more anytime” production, accompanied with cast & crew chatter about wanting to sporadically do make new episodes forever, Elementary is much more traditional US network TV show — and the diminishing episode orders of the final couple of seasons and summertime broadcasts of the last couple of seasons don’t suggest an enduring hit poised for a revival.

    Despite that, the finale itself left things open for more, imitating Sherlock’s “Holmes and Watson continue” final beat. This kind of open-ended ‘ending’ fits a show like Sherlock, where there’s a realistic chance it will return someday. For a show like Elementary, where the chance it might ever return is infinitesimally small, it just feels inconclusive. Like, if you want it to be a true finale, you need to give some closure; an actual ending. As it is, despite a narrative that condenses several years and major life events (Joan gets cancer then goes into remission across a single cut), the episode fails to truly answer why this is the point at which we stop following Sherlock and Joan’s adventures.

    There are some people who’ll tell you Elementary is better than Sherlock. I’m not one of them. I’ve warmed to it down the years, but I’ve never thought it was a particularly good realisation of Holmes and Watson — whatever its faults, Sherlock feels like it’s an attempt to adapt Arthur Conan Doyle’s work, whereas Elementary has taken a few names and basic character points and then gone its own way. I’ll concede that there are some things Elementary has done better, although that’s an almost-inevitable side effect of having c.22 episodes a year to play with instead of Sherlock’s three TV movies every couple of years. But it’s also an almost-standard US network procedural — I can remember every single episode of Sherlock, for good or ill, whereas very few of Elementary’s 154 instalments stick in my memory.

    Also watched…
  • Ghosts Series 2 — The second series of the supernatural sitcom digs more into the backstory of its various titular spooks, which seems to be a deep well for plot ideas and humour — one episode, for example, Rashomons it up by recounting one ghost’s death from the various perspectives of others who were already there to witness it. A Christmas special is imminent, and a third series is already commissioned.
  • Leverage Season 1 Episodes 1-3 — Now that I’m done with Elementary, this is my new pick for a “bung it on anytime”, “easy to watch”, US procedural. So far, it’s filling that void nicely. It’s a minor-network production from the late ‘00s, so it already feels a bit dated (it doesn’t quite have the cinematic swagger we expect from top-drawer TV now; the score, in particular, sounds like it was dropped in from a royalty-free library CD), but if you can let the production values slide, it’s good fun in a “bit of a romp” way. That’s how I like my heist movies/shows, so it ticks the right boxes for me.
  • Neil Brand’s Sound of TV — The music maestro follows up his series on the sound of movies from a few years ago (shamefully, I never got round to it) with a trio of episodes covering TV themes, advertising jingles, and TV scores. Very informative and entertaining, but you feel like the topic is so big (particularly the last one) that it could’ve withstood a few more episodes.
  • Richard Osman’s House of Games Night Series 1 — This daytime quiz show has been running for a while, but apparently became quite the success during lockdown, leading to a primetime evening spin-off — which, as I understand it, is just the exact same show but in a different time slot. It’s quite fun: there’s a good “play along at home” quality, and having the same contestants compete across the series means you end up rooting for your favourites.
  • Staged Series 1 Extended — If you didn’t know, Netflix has an extended version of this BBC lockdown hit — there’s about 29 minutes of new material spread across the six episodes, which is a fair old chunk (equivalent to almost two whole extra episodes). And that’s why I rewatched it: because it was good and I’d like to see the extra stuff. Plus, there are new episodes coming in January, so it’s a good time to recap.
  • The Vicar of Dibley in Lockdown — The clergywoman returns for a trio of bitesize Zoom sermons, which together form a kind of comedic “review of the year” (and if you’re prepared to wait for the compilation version airing in a day or two, it’s apparently got some extra material). Many of Dibley’s supporting cast are sadly no longer with us, so I doubt we’ll ever get a proper return for the show, but this is a pleasant little sliver of nostalgia mixed with current events.

    Things to Catch Up On
    The Mandalorian season 2This month, I have mostly been missing The Mandalorian season 2. Well, as regular readers will know, I never even got round to season 1. Naturally, it’s been basically impossible to avoid spoilers — though as those amount to “look which legacy character has turned up this week” rather than actual plot stuff, perhaps it will be okay. Or maybe the series doesn’t really have any plot to spoil, it’s just endless fan service — that would certainly seem to tally with some people’s view of the show. Others love it though, so I’ll see for myself… someday…

    Next month… will come after my regular Christmas TV roundup, which will likely include a bunch of seasonal sitcom specials, plus the New Year’s Day Doctor Who.

  • A Christmas 100-Week Roundup

    Breaking the precise order of 100-week reviews, here are a handful of Christmas films I watched back in December 2018. One of them has its UK network TV premiere today, so it seemed like a good time to share them.

  • The Christmas Chronicles (2018)
  • The Man Who Invented Christmas (2017)
  • A Christmas Carol (2018)


    The Christmas Chronicles
    (2018)

    2018 #248
    Clay Kaytis | 104 mins | digital (UHD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG

    The Christmas Chronicles

    Netflix’s big-budget Christmas adventure got a sequel this year, which shows this first one must’ve been a hit (by whatever secret metric Netflix use nowadays) — and it’s well deserved, because The Christmas Chronicles is a lot of fun.

    The setup is two home-alone siblings set out to catch Santa on video (thank goodness they didn’t use that inciting incident to launch a found-footage Christmas movie), but things go awry and the pair end up having to help the man in red save Christmas.

    Like many a live-action American kids’ movie, The Christmas Chronicles is a bit cheesy to begin with, but it has an ace up its sleeve: Kurt Russell as Santa. Once he turns up, with a perfectly-pitched performances, the film really takes off — figuratively and literally, thanks to his flying sleigh. From there, the film develops a spot-on streak of irreverence. A chainsaw-wielding elf! Fist-bumping Santa! A jailhouse song performance! Santa snowboarding out of the sky! There are lots of funny little gags too — not big clever “jokes” per se, just well-played moments.

    Sure, there’s an element of comfort and cliché to the “sad kids who need to recapture Christmas spirit” stuff, but Russell’s cool Santa, and the tone he brings with him, enliven proceedings no end. The film manages to dodge the traps of being cloying or overly cheesy, without disappearing into a well of grim cynicism. It works so well that some of the final few minutes might just bring a little tear to the eye.

    Any criticisms (I had a whole paragraph about the kids’ limp family motto and its predictable use) just feel like nitpicking. This is designed to be a frothy, easy Christmas treat, and as that it would be perfectly adequate; but when you add Russell’s superb incarnation of Santa into the mix, it’s elevated to something very good indeed. A great movie? Not particularly. A great movie to watch at Christmas? Oh yes.

    4 out of 5

    (That is the UK poster I’ve used above, despite the fact it’s got the title of Harry Potter 1 wrong.)

    The Man Who Invented Christmas
    (2017)

    2018 #258
    Bharat Nalluri | 104 mins | digital (HD) | 2.35:1 | Ireland & Canada / English | PG / PG

    The Man Who Invented Christmas

    “Charles Dickens writes A Christmas Carol” is the simplified plot of this film. Well, it’s not even that simplified: it’s the plot. In this telling, various parts of Dickens’s story are inspired by characters and situations he encounters in real life — how convenient. It’s all thoroughly far-fetched, of course, but not without a certain Christmas charm and amusement for those feeling forgiving in the festive season.

    Dickens is played by the dashing Dan Stevens. It’s another thing that seems like artifice — making the author young and handsome so he can be the main character in a movie — until you learn Dickens was actually only 31 when he wrote the book. And he’d already written works including Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby by this point!

    But don’t dwell on that too much, because it’s liable to make your life feel crushingly inadequate; and this is a lightweight film — a bit of festive froth — designed to brighten your days with a bit of seasonal cheer, not darken them with realisations of your own shortcomings.

    3 out of 5

    The UK network TV premiere of The Man Who Invented Christmas is on Channel 4 today at 4:55pm.

    A Christmas Carol
    (2018)

    2018 #260
    Tom Cairns | 72 mins | digital (HD) | 16:9 | UK / English | PG

    A Christmas Carol

    Simon Callow has carved out a little niche playing Charles Dickens in various settings — the highest profile is probably in a 2005 episode of Doctor Who, but he was cast in that due to already being renowned for his recreations of Dickens’s public readings. This film is, effectively, one of those: based on Dickens’s own performance adaptation of A Christmas Carol, Callow reads the story and… that’s about it.

    A couple of things make it screen worthy. Director Tom Cairns stages proceedings in inventive and enlivening ways, using different rooms, lighting, props, and practical effects, some almost magical, plus music and sound effects mixed in a suitably evocative way, to lend an appropriate atmosphere to every scene and event. A lot of it is shot in long takes, which underline the impressiveness of both the staging (it’s often modified and varied within a single shot) and Callow’s performance, which is enhanced and complemented by Cairns’s work.

    And it is a performance, not just a reading. Callow inhabits all the characters, thereby bringing a sense of life to take the words beyond mere narration; but he executes it in a subtle-enough way that his turn doesn’t descend into some overripe actorly ‘showcase’. It’s very well judged. Indeed, it feels like the kind of thing that should become a staple of Christmas Eve evenings on the BBC.

    4 out of 5