Zathura: A Space Adventure (2005)

2018 #67
Jon Favreau | 97 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Zathura

Before Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle there was Zathura, which is sort of a sequel to Jumanji… but more of a spin-off, I guess… well, really it’s a completely unrelated movie with the exact same plot. Inspired by another book by the same author, it sees two kids (Jonah Bobo and a very baby-faced Josh Hutcherson) discover an old board game that comes to life with terrifying consequences, and the only way to make it stop is to finish the game. But this game is about space, so it’s completely different, obviously.

Unsurprisingly, it’s difficult to avoid assessing the film’s quality in comparison it to its predecessor. The thing that struck me most was it feels less consequential than Jumanji, somehow. In the previous film the stakes feel high — you worry they won’t beat the game or make it out alive. Perhaps that’s because of Robin Williams’ character getting trapped in the game at the start, which makes you believe things can go wrong. Whereas here, it just feels like crazy shit will keep happening until they finish. It may also be because you can infer ‘rules’ in Jumanji — we know monkeys are going to be mischievous, tigers might eat you, etc — whereas in Zathura, because it’s sci-fi, it’s all made up. And it feels made up as it goes along, too — because it’s not based on real life or an existing brand, we don’t know the characters, the monsters, etc.

Similarly, the characters benefit from way too much luck. The kids keep not reacting fast enough to stop or save things, but then something fortunate happens so things go their way. Maybe you could sell this as a deliberate thing — like, the game wants to be finished — but that’s not how it plays out. They just keep getting lucky, in a not-great-screenwriting way. Perhaps I’m projecting problems where there are none in these observations, but it’s just another factor towards not feeling jeopardy like I did in Jumanji. Overall, Zathura was just more… pleasant.

Play the game

That said, I had some more specific niggles. For a film that should’ve been trying to avoid accusations of being a rip-off, they invite it further by (spoiler alert!) giving one character a backstory that’s a riff on Robin Williams’ from the first movie. Zathura comes at it from a different angle, at least, but that’s a mixed blessing: it doesn’t have the same emotional effect because we only learn about it belatedly, but at least that means it isn’t ripping off Jumanji’s entire narrative structure, and also allows for a neat twist later on. There’s some time travel stuff that doesn’t wholly hang together, but then does it ever?

Equally, you can clearly tell they weren’t paying enough attention to every aspect of the screenplay: the older sister (played by a pre-fame Kristen Stewart, by-the-by) gets put in hibernation for five turns, but it takes eight turns before she wakes up. How no one noticed that is baffling — did they not think to just count it in the script? Even if they somehow missed it until post-production, all it would’ve taken is a dubbed line or two. “Five turns” sounds like a lot of gameplay to miss, so maybe they just thought “eight turns” would sound too ridiculous, but did they not think someone would spot it?!

Plot logic aside, at least the film has some great effects and design work. Jumanji has aged badly in that respect (the CGI is pretty ropey), whereas Zathura still looks great, in part because there’s actually a lot of props and models involved. The performances are pretty decent, too. Director Jon Favreau clearly has a talent for working with kids — the pair here; Mowgli in his Jungle Book; Robert Downey Jr… But in all seriousness, he gets really good performances out of these children.

Holy meteors!

Also worth noting is that the UK version was originally cut to get a PG… and remains cut, because the uncut rating wouldn’t just be a 12, it’d be a 15! That’s because of “imitable techniques”, which in this case means using an aerosol as a blowtorch to set fire to a sofa. The main thing I find interesting about this is that presumably the original cut shows the Astronaut setting fire to the sofa, whereas in the UK version it just suddenly cuts to him stood beside a sofa on fire, which is so much funnier. Hurrah for censorship, I guess.

And so we come to the score. Zathura is one of those films I find a little awkward to rate, because I did enjoy it — in some respects, more than I enjoyed Jumanji when I rewatched that recently — but it also doesn’t feel as polished and complete as its predecessor in terms of story and characters. Even as I had fun, I saw many things I felt could’ve been sharpened up. For that reason, I’ve erred towards a lower rating.

3 out of 5

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The Past Fortnight on TV #47

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • The Past Fortnight on TV #46

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Ice Age (2002)

    The 100 Films Guide to…

    Ice Age

    Sub-Zero Heroes

    Country: USA
    Language: English
    Runtime: 81 minutes
    BBFC: U
    MPAA: PG

    Original Release: 14th March 2002 (Indonesia & Mexico)
    US Release: 15th March 2002
    UK Release: 22nd March 2002
    Budget: $59 million
    Worldwide Gross: $383.26 million

    Stars
    Ray Romano (Welcome to Mooseport, Paddleton)
    John Leguizamo (Romeo + Juliet, Land of the Dead)
    Denis Leary (The Thomas Crown Affair, The Amazing Spider-Man)
    Goran Visnjic (Practical Magic, Elektra)

    Director
    Chris Wedge (Robots, Epic)

    Co-Director
    Carlos Saldanha (Ice Age: The Meltdown, Ferdinand)

    Screenwriters
    Peter Ackerman (Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, eight episodes of The Americans)
    Michael Berg (New Jersey Turnpikes, Ice Age: Continental Drift)
    Michael J. Wilson (Shark Tale, Ice Age: Collision Course)

    Story by
    Michael J. Wilson (Alyce in Wonderland, The Tuxedo)


    The Story
    A trio of mismatched prehistoric animals endeavour to return a baby human to its tribe before the oncoming ice age cuts off the path to their camp.

    Our Heroes
    The aforementioned trio are overenthusiastic Sid the sloth, wannabe-loner Manny the mammoth, and Diego the sabre-tooth tiger, who has ulterior motives…

    Our Villains
    A group of bloodthirsty sabre-tooth tigers who want to kill the baby human in revenge for… something. I forget. Diego is their inside man.

    Best Supporting Character
    Weird squirrel-like creature Scrat — he was all over the marketing and is consistently associated with the franchise, so you’re probably vaguely familiar with him. He’s got nothing to do with the main story, instead popping up for asides of silent comedy. His opening scene was only added to the film because otherwise the first sequence featuring snow and ice wasn’t until over half-an-hour in, but he was so popular with test audiences that he was given more throughout the rest of the movie.

    Memorable Quote
    Sid: “For a second there I actually thought you were gonna eat me.”
    Diego: “I don’t eat junk food.”

    Memorable Scene
    Walking through an ice-cave shortcut, Sid sees various other prehistoric creatures frozen in the ice: an ugly fish, a dinosaur, an evolutionary series that ends with him… and a flying saucer. (See also: Next Time.)

    Letting the Side Down
    Most of the time the deliberately stylised designs help the film get away with the early-’00s quality of its CG animation (and some flourishes, like fur, actually look rather good), but the tribe of humans move rather stiffly, and consequently look a bit like a computer game from the same era.

    Making of
    Believe it or not, Ice Age was originally pitched as a drama. Fox insisted that if it was animated it had to be a children’s comedy (because that’s what all major Western animation is, right? And when it isn’t, it flops, like Fox’s previous animated movie, Titan A.E. Incidentally, that failure is also why they abandoned plans to make Ice Age in 2D cel animation). The original dramatic concept is presumably why some slightly-too-serious stuff remains in the storyline.

    Next time…
    Four true sequels, plus the usual wealth of connected short films and TV specials that accompany popular kids’ animation franchises nowadays. A sixth film and/or TV series may be in development. Interestingly, each of the things Sid sees preserved in the ice (see Memorable Scene) is connected to one of the sequels. I’ve no idea if that was deliberate or a huge coincidence; though, either way, I’m sure it can’t’ve been planned from the outset.

    Awards
    1 Oscar nomination (Animated Feature)
    7 Annie nominations (Animated Theatrical Feature, Directing in an Animated Feature, Writing in an Animated Feature, Character Animation, Character Design in an Animated Feature, Production Design in an Animated Feature, Music in an Animated Feature)
    1 Saturn nomination (Animated Film)

    Verdict

    Ice Age was one of the first computer-animated franchises, though it doesn’t seem to have stuck in the collective consciousness as well as, say, Toy Story or Shrek. Personally, I first and last saw it sometime shortly after its original release, but all I could remember was enjoying it well enough. Well, all that is probably because it’s not as good as the best of Pixar or DreamWorks. It’s amenable enough, but it lacks the sharpness of concept, dialogue, character, and story that makes those movies truly memorable. I can see why I remember liking it but couldn’t recall much else. So, I’m not sure it deserves to be better-remembered than it already is, but it’s not at all bad for anyone who chooses to seek it out.

    Avengers: Endgame (2019)

    2019 #67
    Anthony & Joe Russo | 181 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | USA / English & Japanese | 12A / PG-13

    Avengers: Endgame

    A trilogy each of Iron Mans, Captain Americas, and Thors; a pair of Ant-Mans and two volumes of Guardians of the Galaxy; an Incredible Hulk, a Doctor Strange, a Black Panther, a Spider-Man, and a Captain Marvel; plus, of course, a trio of previous Avengers — they’ve all been leading us here, the culmination of 11 years and 22 movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s an unparalleled achievement in moviemaking; a combination of blockbuster scope with TV-esque serial storytelling that is so 21st century. Within its three hours and one minute running time, Endgame encompasses and represents almost all of the tendencies of other MCU movies — for both good and ill. This is not a perfect movie, and this will not be a 5-star review, which I’m saying upfront because massive spoilers may follow. There’s not much to discuss about the film if we limit ourselves to what’s been revealed in trailers and promos, because they’ve purposely kept almost the entire movie a secret, so I’m just going to talk freely.

    If you’ve seen the movie then a plot recap is unnecessary. But in case you just don’t care and have decided to read on regardless: Endgame picks up days/weeks after the cliffhanger ending of Infinity War (maybe I missed or misunderstood something, but I swear one character said it had been 23 days then later someone said it had been two days). The surviving Avengers, plus newly-summoned addition Captain Marvel, manage to track down super-villain Thanos and set off to retrieve the Infinity Stones and use them to bring back the 50% of the universe’s population he turned to dust. Unfortunately, Thanos has destroyed the stones. All hope is lost. Cue title card: five years later.

    Thanos no more

    Okay, we’ll return to the plot in a minute, because this is the first structural oddity of the film. This opening salvo — made up of a pre-Marvel logo sequence in which we learn what happened to Hawkeye and his family, a pre-titles sequence which sets up the plan to beat Thanos, and the pre-timejump action I just described — is almost a self-contained unit dealing with the hangover from the last film. It wouldn’t fit as a closing act to Infinity War — that movie ended at the perfect point in the story — but nor does it really belong at the start of Endgame, which begins properly after the “five years later” card. I have mixed feelings about it, because I like that we see both the heroes’ immediate attempts to rectify the situation, but also that they can’t, so we get to see how they’ve coped (or failed to) over the ensuing years. But, structurally, it felt a little clunky to me; a bit of business from the previous movie that has to be wrapped up before this one can start. I’m not sure what the solution is. If movies still bothered with opening credits, something as simple as separating it all off as a pre-titles sequence might’ve been the answer.

    Anyway, back to the plot. It’s five years later and the world is still coming to terms with the snap. There are too many characters in too many different places to recap what everyone’s up to — that’s part of why this film has a three-hour running time, because there’s simply so much to tackle. But in many ways this is the best part of the movie, especially if you’re invested in these characters rather than just here for action or spectacle. It’s a bit grim, obviously — no one’s going to be cheery about half the world being wiped out — but it digs into the differing reactions this would provoke in ways that are character-specific and mostly plausible. I say “mostly” because, when Hulk (or whatever he is now) turns up, I didn’t quite follow the logic of why he’d turned himself into this Banner/Hulk hybrid. Still, seeing how the characters come to terms with their new reality is an effectively thoughtful way to start off.

    Crying Cap

    But that’s not going to fuel a superhero blockbuster, is it? Here the little mid-credit scene from Ant-Man and the Wasp comes into play. Marvel have always used their credit stings to connect up the films, but has it ever been so vital as this? They’re normally little teases, basically trailers to remind you which film is next, but what happens in that Ant-Man 2 scene is vital to the plot of Endgame. Basically, Scott has been stuck in the Quantum Realm for the past five years, but this provides them with an opportunity: it might be possible to use it for time travel, allowing them to go back in time and undo Thanos’ actions. Or something. Endgame’s relationship with time travel is… variable. Time travel movies are always complicated, and because it’s not a thing that’s really possible they get to set their own rules for how it works. The problem is, Endgame isn’t very clear what those rules are. It makes a great show of saying “it’s not like in the movies” and reeling off a slew of pop culture references (Back to the Future is mentioned more than once), but then it struggles to clearly define how it does work in this movie. And once the characters set off into the past, any explanations it did give seem to go out the window.

    It’s in this long middle act that Endgame was most often problematic for me. Act one is largely committed to being solemn, and act three is largely committed to being Epic, so it’s in the middle that the film shoots for the MCU’s trademark “light and breezy” tone. Unfortunately, sometimes this is so shoehorned in that it rubs against the serious stuff, resulting in a tonal mishmash. I’ve frequently advocated for movies that mix seriousness and comedy side-by-side, because real life often does the same, but there are points where Endgame undercuts its own stakes or undermines its characters for the sake of a one-liner or a comedy bit, rather than embracing the seriousness of the situation and letting comedy evolve naturally when it’s warranted.

    There can be only one...

    Conversely, some of the humour is accidental. One of the more egregious examples for me is when Black Widow and Hawkeye are faced with the Soul Stone dilemma: one of them has to die as a sacrifice for the stone to be released to the other. They both decide to sacrifice themselves, which leads to a protracted series of attempts to stop the other from committing suicide first. The constant back and forth of who had the upper hand gets almost to the point where it’s comical — I began to wonder if it was meant to be a comedy bit. But then, just as it was reaching the height of absurdity where I was about to conclude I should be laughing rather than just thinking “this is silly now”, it abruptly stops when one of them ‘wins’ and we get a Tragic Death Scene. It’s clearly meant to be a shocking, affecting moment of heroic sacrifice; instead, I found it a jumble of intentions that neutered any genuine feelings.

    Another moment that’s well-meaning but fumbled comes during the big climax, when all the Lady Superheroes unite to do something. It’s a moment of such brazen, uncalled-for “feminism” that it feels like pandering, and that’s a bad thing. I’m searching for a better word to use in that last sentence, because overall feminism is a good thing, but this particular moment is so out-of-nowhere, so fundamentally meaningless (there’s no need for it to be just the women involved), that it’s egregious. When crybaby fanboy trolls scream about unnecessarily forcing political correctness onto genre movies, they’re unerringly wrong… except this time they’ll be right, because that’s exactly how this plays. There’s a broadly similar moment in Infinity War, when a couple of the female heroes defeat whichever of Thanos’ sidekicks is the female one, and I thought that worked, partly because no one made a big deal of it. Here, it’s clear they’re making a point. I’m not sure what the exact goal of it was — to say “women are as capable as men”; to say “look how many female heroes we have now”; or something else — but there are better, subtler ways to make that same point.

    Nebulous plotting

    Where Infinity War found room for almost all of the MCU’s ongoing franchises and characters (an impressive feat), Endgame cements its finale status by re-centring us on the original lineup from the initial Avengers team-up… er, plus a couple of other characters, who are important to varying degrees for various reasons. It’s that kind of “it’s almost this… but not quite” construction of content and/or theme that belies a certain lack of focus or forethought. If this is a last hurrah for the original team, why is Ant-Man vital to the story even being possible? Why does Nebula get one of the most significant subplots, intimately connected to her character arc from Guardians Vol.1 and 2? Why is brand-new (to the movies) character Captain Marvel repeatedly required to come in and save the day?

    This extends to the time travel too: when they go back, it’s into the timelines of specific movies, but why those movies were chosen isn’t always clear. Avengers Assemble? Makes sense — it was where the crazy project of the MCU proved it was working, making that film both the end of the beginning and a beginning in itself. Guardians of the Galaxy? I mean, I guess — it’s where Marvel proved they could turn even the most obscure property into a massive, popular hit; plus it’s where a lot of the Thanos storyline really got going. Thor: The Dark World? …wait, what? Seriously?! Yes, perhaps the greatest trick Marvel have ever pulled is making Thor 2 — one of their least well regarded films — a moderately essential component of this finale. You need to have seen that movie to fully understand what’s going on here, and now you can’t really skip it in your rewatches either.

    Thor after being told which movie he had to revisit

    Talking of connectivity, Infinity War surprised by being a standalone movie, not just a Part 1. Okay, it was a standalone movie which ended with our heroes losing, which you could call a cliffhanger, but if you look at it from the other side — i.e. with Thanos as the main character — it’s a whole, completed, no-more-story-to-tell tale. Therefore it’s a fresh surprise (kinda) that Endgame is very much a Part 2 — and also, in fact, a Part 22 — freely nodding to and paying off stuff from previous movies on the assumption you’ll know what it’s referencing, more like the last instalment of a serial than a standalone film. Anyone who’s skipped a film or two (or three or four, etc) on the way to Endgame is likely to miss all the nuances, at the very least, and perhaps be left with more serious questions too. Newcomers definitely need not apply. But if there’s anyone who’s a fan of part of the MCU but not all of it, they’ll need to find their way into and through Endgame one way or another, because a whole bunch of stuff is wrapped up for good here; some heroes won’t be getting another standalone movie to put a button on their story.

    I feel like this review has focused on the negatives and debatable drawbacks of Endgame, but that’s partly because a lot of the discussion right now seems unrelentingly praiseful. I mean, as I type this the film is ranked as the 5th best of all time on IMDb, a position it’s actually risen to over the past 24 hours (it debuted around 19th). I didn’t think it was perfect, or quite as good as that (for comparison: I thought Infinity War was more consistent and successful as a movie, and IMDb raters have currently ranked that 61st), but I did enjoy it overall. I don’t think it needed to be as long as it is (at times it meanders through scenes or comedic bits rather than getting on with things), but it doesn’t drag or bore. It’s a bit of an irreconcilable dichotomy that I think both it didn’t feel excruciatingly long and also that they should’ve tightened it up and brought the running time down.

    The end for Tony?

    Still, that runtime means they felt there was space for more than just action sequences. Allowing the film to focus on the emotions of the characters (at least some of the time) is suitable payoff for the investment people have in them. Indeed, as I said earlier, in many ways the first act is the film’s best stuff. This isn’t just an empty effects spectacle. But when it is a spectacle, it can be spectacular. Okay, the climax, where two sizeable armies rush at each other on a brown battlefield under a grey sky, degenerates into a massive free-for-all of whooshing pixels where it’s frequently hard to discern exactly what’s going on and who’s doing what to who (it actually reminded me of Aquaman, only with less colour. I’m sure such a comparison to a DC movie will be sacrilege to some Marvel fans, but it’s the truth). But within and around that there are still things that are a thrill, not least the big moment when the previously-dusted heroes turn up en masse in the nick of time. And when all is said and done, the end credits offer a special acknowledgement of the main Avengers who started it all, which was quite possibly my favourite bit of the whole movie.

    There are no mid- or post-credit scenes, making this only the second MCU movie without them. (The first was The Incredible Hulk, which basically had its post-credit scene before the credits started. I’m sure they’d’ve placed that scene differently if they’d known it would become a trademark of the franchise.) It’s an appropriate decision: we know this isn’t the end (the next Spider-Man movie is out in a couple of months; many more officially-unannounced Marvel films are on the horizon after that), but this is supposed to serve as an ending nonetheless, and so letting it actually end, rather than attaching a tease for the future, is welcome. Though, really, how much of an ending is it? Yeah, it officially closes off the first era of MCU films, but a bunch of those characters are continuing into the future, and even some of the ones primarily associated with the first era — characters who died here — are coming back in prequels and the like.

    Goodbye to MCU

    However, the lack of credits scenes did allow me to enjoy some schadenfreude: I knew going in there were no scenes, but that there was a “meaningful sound effect” at the end of the credits. I had nowhere else to be, so I stayed to see what it was. Everyone else who stayed, however, was chattering about what the end credits scene might show. The credit roll came to an end, everyone went quiet in anticipation, that “meaningful sound effect” played, and I started getting ready to leave while all around me stared at a black screen while the cinema’s filler muzak played, thinking they were witnessing the beginning of another scene. It took them a good 30 seconds to twig. (Maybe I should’ve said something… maybe the usher stood at the front of the auditorium should’ve said something… maybe he and I are both just horrible people…)

    That literally brings me to the end of Endgame. There’s much more that could be said about it, and will be said about it. For me, an interesting thing now will be to see what is its long-term reception. As I said, right now it’s riding high on a wave of audience euphoria, but it’s only just come out: most of the people who’ve seen it already are the really keen ones; the diehard fans. What will wider audiences think? What will the diehards think when they get a chance to revisit it, removed from the heat of initial emotion? Will the consensus remain that Avengers: Endgame ranks in the echelons of the very greatest movies of all time, or will cooler heads prevail?

    4 out of 5

    Avengers: Endgame is in cinemas everywhere (except Russia) now.

    The Past Month on TV #45

    The past weekend may’ve been the hottest of the year so far (at least here in the UK), but you and I know the truth: winter is here. With any dreams of spring still a few weeks away, let’s revel in the final moments we’ll be spending with our favourite inhabitants of Westeros — the first two episodes certainly did.

    Also this month: Sky Atlantic’s Thrones companion shows, the third and final season of Deadwood, and more of the best of The Twilight Zone.

    Game of Thrones  Season 8 Episodes 1-2
    Game of Thrones season 8The final season of HBO’s fantasy epic began with its last two regular-length episodes (the remainder are each a feature-length 80 minutes, give or take), but they stand alongside the epics still to come as a kind of two-parter. Both episodes are set in the quiet before the storm(s) to come, with pieces being moved into place and everyone preparing themselves for what they assume is the endgame: a battle with the army of the dead. Of course, as outside observers we know the battle can’t be the end — there are whole characters and plot threads that will be left unresolved, whatever the outcome of the battle, and up to three (extra long) episodes to resolve them in. But such considerations are for future episodes; I mean, for one thing, next week’s big battle episode is likely to have a huge impact on who’s left standing, which will in itself indicate what ways forward remain possible.

    Anyway, back to the episodes we’ve already seen. The first, Winterfell, does the usual Game of Thrones season premiere thing of setting the scene: reminding us where everyone stands, and moving pieces into place ready for the season to come. But this is more than just a glorified “previously on”, with some important plot developments of its own, not to mention long-awaited reunions. In the former camp, the big’un is obviously Jon Snow finding out his true parentage. Well, to an extent: this isn’t news to the audience (even if you didn’t deduce it years ago, we were explicitly told about it last season… which aired, er, years ago), and while it clearly has an impact on Jon’s feelings about himself and his family, its effects on the plot won’t happen until more people hear about it.

    More exciting were the reunions. Jon and Arya may’ve been the objective headliner, but my personal favourite was Sansa and Tyrion. With everything else that’s gone down since, I’d practically forgotten that they were once married, but the facts of their relationship and what’s happened to them since, particularly Sansa, made for an electric scene. Indeed, Sansa interacting with anyone is pretty fantastic at this point. She was such a damp squib in early seasons, and, frankly, I wasn’t convinced by Sophie Turner’s acting chops back then either, but recently she’s become a decided force to be reckoned with. Her scenes facing down with Dany are a case in point, not least their heart-to-heart in episode two. Another reunion highlight was Arya and the Hound, another unlikely but memorable pairing who get the short but sweet scene they deserve. Arya reunited with Gendry too, of course, and in the second episode she really united with him. Well, I’ll leave the furore around that to Twitter (but if you want to know what I think, this thread is pretty on the money).

    A Knight of the Seven KingdomsI’ve already slipped into discussing A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms, perhaps supporting my point that this is a two-parter in separate episodes’ clothing. Here we get more reunions, rehashes, and revelations. I mean, sure, Jaime arrives in Winterfell at the end of the previous episode, but it’s here that the meaning of that really plays out, with his trial-like scene before people he has wronged — and one he saved — before his one-on-one with the boy he pushed out of a tower all those years ago. In fact, if there’s one thing that does keep these two episodes distinct, it’s how much the season premiere mirrors the series premiere (i.e. season one episode one, Winter is Coming) — check out the image in this tweet for some of them.

    What the second episode really represented was some kind of… not reward, exactly, but certainly benefit, or acknowledgement, for those who’ve become invested in these characters over the many years we’ve spent with them (or, if you’ve only caught up recently, many bingeing hours). It was a chance to just hang out with some favourites, and for some of them to achieve long-awaited dreams. Yes, obviously I’m talking about Jaime knighting Brienne. I guess if you’re not invested in these characters then some of these scenes feel like so much padding (“get on with the fighting!”), but for most fans this is a possibly final chance to revel in their favourites — after all, surely a significant number are for the chop when the fighting begins…

    Thronecast  Specials + Series 8 Episodes 1-2
    Gameshow of ThronesIf you live outside the UK or watch Thrones via, er, other means, I guess you won’t know this: it’s UK broadcaster Sky Atlantic’s Game of Thrones aftershow — you know, one of those things where people connected to the show and sundry minor celebrities sit on a sofa and chat about the episode we’ve just seen. I’ve never watched it before because I’m normally one of those people who watches Thrones via, er, other means, and it rarely crops up on those, but I’ve had access for the first couple of episodes and, well, so far I’m not impressed. In the first episode, host Sue Perkins gamely struggled with guests seemingly dead set on chatting about anything other than what her questions asked, while the second felt like she was trying to get blood from three particularly reticent stones. The format’s not really at fault, but the guest booker might be… The Twitter reaction to these episodes suggests the show used to be better, so maybe they’ll re-find their mojo for the coming four episodes.

    More successful by far were two Thronecast-related specials that aired before season eight began (and these you can track down via the aforementioned euphemistic “other means”, if you’re interested). The first, Gameshow of Thrones, saw Perkins quizzing two teams made up of former cast members and celebrity fans in a panel show format. If you’re in the middle of a Venn diagram that covers “fans of Game of Thrones” and “enjoys comedy panel shows”, it’s a convivial 90 minutes. The other, The Story So Far, managed to recap the essential points of the parent show’s first seven seasons in another 90 minutes, with a mix of clips, narration, and cast and fan interviews — all very useful when we’re heading into the concluding hours of the story, especially when it’s been a couple of years since it was last on. Certainly quicker than a 67-hour full re-watch, anyway.

    Deadwood  Season 3
    Deadwood season 3It’s quite a well-known piece of trivia that creator David Milch’s original pitch to HBO was for a series about two lawmen in the early days of Rome, thematically concerned with how we establish the rules and agreements of a society. With the series Rome already in development, HBO encouraged Milch to take the interesting theme but relocate it, and so he landed upon a frontier town in the old West butting up against the ever-widening reach of civilisation. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the show’s third season, with local elections looming and outside forces attempting to exert their influence over the town. The latter is represented by the arrival of mining magnate George Hearst (Gerald McRaney), who becomes a thorn in the side of both previously-dominant saloon owner-cum-gangster Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) and honourable but short-tempered sheriff Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant). Those two, once enemies, must join forces (along with most of the other regular characters) to attempt to counter Hearst’s moves. Where once Al could’ve just had the guy killed and fed to Wu’s pigs, his outside connections make that impossible — stakeholders would come looking, bringing even more attention and seeking justice. Civilisation, eh?

    In my review last month, I mentioned the season two storyline that saw Al taken out by illness, as a way to reduce his influence over the rest of the characters and events. Season three does something similar, but ‘depowers’ him in a more interesting way: against Hearst, Al is at a disadvantage, certainly in terms of brawn and, possibly, in terms of scheming brainpower too. The way one particular show of strength from the businessman emasculates Al leads to some great introspection, leading the barman to doubt himself and his skills, possibly for the first time ever, certainly that we’ve seen. It serves to further deepen and strengthen the quality of an already great character. At the start of season one he’s clearly a villain, but he quickly becomes more, so that by this point he’s really an anti-hero. That’s partly because he’s the lesser of two evils next to Hearst’s ruthlessness, but also because we’ve had time to get the true measure of his character — as much as he tries to hide it, Al has a bit of a heart, and he certainly operates according to codes of honour and loyalty. It might not always be the same as that of the rest of society, but it’s strongly held. He still does despicable stuff, but there are many shades of grey there; and while Al is the marquee example, you find those shades in all the other major characters too — it’s part of why every performance is so great, because this quality cast are given such excellent material to work with. When most of the characters who’ve been regulars since the start begin to come together in the face of the threat from Hearst, it’s immensely satisfying, even as the threat they face seems insurmountable. The final few episodes are exciting, powerful stuff.

    Unhappy happeningsNot that the third season passes without fault, mind. By the middle of the season, episodes were being written so on the fly that they could only use standing sets and regular locations, because there wasn’t enough lead time to build anything new or travel to other locations. Later, outdoor scenes had to be cut back, as a tightening budget left no room for all the extras and horses needed to convey the town’s bustling streets. While these production issues are mostly covered for well enough, some storylines are also affected. For example, Wyatt Earp and his brother arrive in town, apparently with some big secret scheme in the offing, but in the very next episode that’s completely forgotten as they’re hastily written back out. Plus, considering the already sizeable regular and recurring cast, it’s mad that Milch decided to (a) add even more characters, and (b) devote an unwarranted amount of time to meandering subplots starring minor characters. It doesn’t ruin the show, but it means some good actors and characters go to waste as we while away time on things no one would miss if they‘d been ditched. The worst offender for me is Steve the Drunk and the never-ending kerfuffle around the livery, which starts out as an adequate and pointed subplot but eventually just drags on and on. Someone in the writers’ room must’ve loved that character and his (increasingly tiresome) verbal diarrhoea.

    Similarly, many fans object to the acting troupe who turn up to establish a theatre in the town, their antics again seeming like an aside from the main thrust of the series. I have more sympathy for them, however. For starters, they’re led by the reliably excellent Brian Cox. His presence and interactions with the regulars is definitely worthwhile, especially in his position as an old friend of Swearengen’s, becoming a different kind of sounding board for Al, particularly valuable when he’s on the back foot for so much of the season. Secondly, I think it can be easy to forget that season three wasn’t meant to be the end — the theatre troupe may feel like time-wasters when we’ve got such limited time in this world, but the show was meant to carry on for several seasons after this, and their deeper merit was yet to come (plus there would’ve been plenty more time for everyone else, as well). Thirdly, Deadwood is the story of the titular town, and so the actors’ presence and effect on the town as a whole is the very point — Deadwood itself is the true main character, and its development is the primary “character arc” of the show.

    Guess which one's Milch and which one's HBO...Sadly, that arc was never completed. Milch knew the writing was on the wall before the season was completed, and there’s a very plausible theory that the second half of the season is actually an allegory for the conflict between Milch and the executives at HBO (you can read about that in W. Earl Brown’s comment on this article at Uproxx), and it seems he used the little notice he had to attempt some kind of conclusion. It’s an odd old ending, though. You can see Milch knew it was going to be a de facto finale — it kinda serves as such — but, at the same time, it’s clearly not the final end he would’ve had if he could’ve. According to Milch, the final line of dialogue (which also gives the episode its title) was aimed at the audience. “Wants me to tell him something pretty” — meaning: the show’s refusal to wrap things up in a bow was not a failure to conclude; rather, it’s not a neat and tidy resolution because Milch was not just “telling us something pretty”.

    The disappointment of the series being cut down before its time is compounded by the fact this early cancellation seems to have stalled the show’s reputation in the minds of some. As a commenter observed on Uproxx review’s of the finale, it’s like people go, “ah, Deadwood — shame it got cancelled after only three seasons”, and leave it at that, while shows that come to a ‘proper’ ending (like The Sopranos or The Wire or Breaking Bad or whatever) get all the focus. Maybe it’s something sharpened by the very act of ending: people sit up and notice The End of an acclaimed show, even those who’ve never even watched it, but when a show just peters off or fades away because it was cancelled prematurely, it doesn’t get that moment of focusing. Maybe Deadwood will finally earn that recognition next month, when HBO airs the long-anticipated follow-up movie. It’s a great series — imperfect, I’d argue, but at its best the equal of any other — and it’s not mentioned as often as it should be.

    The Twilight Zone  ‘Best Of’
    Time Enough at LastThe new Jordan Peele-hosted iteration of Twilight Zone still doesn’t have a UK broadcaster, so I’m continuing last month’s theme of cherrypicking the very best episodes from the original 1959-64 series.

    One observation I made last time was that the series seems to be a victim of its own success, in that its influence has been so widespread over the past six decades that the original episodes sometimes seem already familiar or simplistic. Season one’s Walking Distance is another where this rears its head, because it takes the lead character half the episode to begin to realise something that’s obvious to a modern viewer much sooner. It’s the unavoidable side effect of being more widely exposed to these kind of stories; of being a more experienced and savvy viewer than people would’ve had the chance to be in 1959. So, any merits have to be found beyond the basic concept and/or twist to make it worthwhile viewing today, and in this case it’s a simple but effective overall message: you can’t go home again, even though you’ll wish to, but that’s ok. It’s a theme I have great fondness for (it’s intensely melancholic, a feeling I always value), so the episode still has its rewards.

    Also from season one is Time Enough at Last, one of the series’ best-known episodes, but famous entirely for its ironic ending — something else that makes you worry it’ll be a pointless viewing exercise now, as you just wait for that final moment to come along. In fact, there’s slightly more to the episode than just a note of cosmic irony. And if you’re fortunate enough not to know the twist, even better — just watch it unencumbered and enjoy it all the more. One with a twist I didn’t know was season two’s Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up? It has a little bit of the paranoia of The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street, but plays more like a murder mystery, with a group of suspects gathered in a remote location. It doesn’t seem to quite know where to go with its own story after the setup, so kind of abandons it (the police just let everyone go!), but then it does have a couple of fun twists in the tail.

    Nightmare at 20,000 FeetFinally for now, two episodes that were remade in the 1983 film. Season three’s It’s a Good Life suggests that the worst monster imaginable is a six-year-old boy with unlimited power. Yeah, I buy that. This inspired my least-favourite segment of the film, but the original is so much better — more genuinely terrifying, whereas Joe Dante’s remake was just freakish and bizarre. Lastly, perhaps the series’ most famous episode of all (even though it didn’t come until the final season): Nightmare at 20,000 Feet. This is the one with William Shatner as a nervous airplane passenger who thinks he sees a gremlin on the wing. It’s written by Richard Matheson and directed by Richard Donner — you don’t get much higher calibre than that. It really is a perfect half-hour of TV, precisely paced and performed, keeping you riveted for every second, and unsure about whether Bob’s mind is fractured or the whole flight is in very real danger. The realisation of the gremlin is hokey, but other than that this is superb.

    To close, one general observation about all the episodes I’ve watched: Rod Serling is an absolutely fantastic host. When they’re on form (which they usually are), his opening and closing monologues are absolute magic. I don’t envy any other host the challenge of having to live up to him.

    Things to Catch Up On
    Line of Duty series 5This month, I have mostly been missing the new series of Line of Duty, BBC One’s ever-twisty police corruption drama. Given that it’s been trending on Twitter every week, it’s a wonder I’ve not had it spoiled… yet. It’s now two-thirds of the way through, so I’ll watch it intensively once it’s over. I’d promise a review next month, but last month I said that about Hanna and I’ve yet to make time for that. Maybe they’ll both be here next month. Also: Ghosts, the new comedy from the cast behind Horrible Histories and Yonderland, which looks promising but, again, is a couple of episodes in and I’ve yet to start.

    Next month… the Battle of Winterfell.

    Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (2018)

    2019 #30
    David Yates | 134 mins | download (HD) | 2.39:1 | UK & USA / English & French | 12 / PG-13

    Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

    The first Fantastic Beasts movie felt like a standalone adventure, even though it was promoted as a five-movie series from the get-go. Not everyone liked it, but I thought it was an enjoyable adventure that also served to expand the world of the Harry Potter universe — or the Wizarding World, as we’re now to call it. Unfortunately, this first sequel can’t keep that up. Here’s where the five-movie arc really kicks in, and the film suffers for it.

    Normally I’d explain the plot round about now, but, frankly, I can’t be bothered. It entirely spins out of what transpired in the first movie; having not seen that since it was in cinemas over two years ago, I frequently struggled to keep up, scrounging around in my memory for the ins and outs of a story I didn’t realise I needed to thoroughly revise. That’s to say nothing of all the other stuff it dregs up from the depths of Harry Potter mythology. As a fan of that series, who’s seen the films multiple times and what have you, I have a fair idea what it’s all about, but even I was frequently left feeling confused. I pity casual viewers.

    Further plot details and where to find them

    Sometimes movies can gloss over this kind of stuff — the mythology and backstory enriches it, but there’s still an adventure to be going on with — but The Crimes of Grindelwald doesn’t seem to work that way. The adventure is tied up in the previous film and the overall backstory, and that generates a lot of tedious exposition to explain how things are connected. But that exposition is sometimes rushed over, apparently to allow time for some empty spectacle — there’s still plenty of CGI-fuelled magic action here, it just doesn’t seem to have any weight in the story, or what weight it should have is unclear.

    It doesn’t help that the film feels jumpy, like loads of little bits and pieces have been chopped out. I’m not surprised there’s an extended cut, which hopefully will smooth some of that out. It probably stems from the film having so many characters and stories to juggle. The downside of making the previous film feel standalone is that most of its characters need to be reintroduced and reconnected to each other; at the same time, there are new characters and storylines being introduced and set in motion; all while also trying to deliver an action-adventure movie.

    Wizard Hitler

    There’s stuff to appreciate here nonetheless, including likeable returning characters, some appreciable additions (Jude Law is good as a young Dumbledore), and some impressive effects (the spectacle may be empty, but sometimes it’s still spectacular). Fans of the world J.K. Rowling has created will appreciate getting to see more of it, too — in this case, it’s wizarding Paris, albeit briefly — although there are also some additions to the mythology that are of questionable value. Well, there are three more films yet to come that may reveal that Rowling has somewhere to go with them.

    Indeed, I wonder if Crimes of Grindelwald will ultimately play better once it’s placed in context with the following instalments. Or maybe it really is a bit of a mess, with too much going on and not enough time or space to do it, which sometimes makes it hard to understand the significance or value of what we’re watching. I hope that it’s at least put all the pieces in place now, so the next three films can move forward with fewer problems.

    3 out of 5

    Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is released in the UK today on DVD, Blu-ray, 3D Blu-ray, 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray, and as an extended cut.

    Mandy (2018)

    2019 #34
    Panos Cosmatos | 121 mins | download (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA, UK & Belgium / English | 18

    Mandy

    Words feel inadequate to describe Mandy, the sophomore feature from writer-director Panos Cosmatos, the son of George P. Cosmatos, who directed the likes of Rambo: First Blood Part II and Tombstone — films which are not helpful comparisons here, I hasten to add. You could call Mandy an action movie, of a sort, but it’s unlike either of those. It’s not like a whole lot else, really.

    Let’s start with the plot. I’m not sure Cosmatos did, but we will. Set in the mid ’80s, it centres around Red Miller (Nicolas Cage) and his girlfriend Mandy Bloom (Andrea Riseborough), who live happily in the back of beyond somewhere in the United States. One day a group of Christian cultists happen to drive past Mandy, and their leader, Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache), takes a shine to her. With the aid of a demonic biker gang, Sand and co accost Red and Mandy for some nefarious cult-ish purpose. Naturally it does not end well, sending Red on a nightmarishly surreal journey of revenge.

    I said Mandy could be considered an action movie, which is true: Red’s revenge naturally leads to some violence, which in this case often come at the end of fights. But if you come just for the action you’re liable to leave unsatisfied, because Cosmatos definitely makes you wait for it. Some of it does satisfy on a visceral, B-movie level (there’s a showdown in a quarry I shan’t spoil by detailing), but its purpose is not to revel in combat.

    Nic Cage gripping his huge weapon

    Rather, it is very much a horror movie. Not in terms of the obvious connotations of the genre — there’s no supernaturally-powered serial killer, no vampires or werewolves, no jump scares — but in the unnerving atmosphere the film sets out to create. This is what I meant when I said I’m not sure Cosmatos started with the plot: there’s a definite story here, and characters and emotional arcs within that too, but the primary goal seems to be the mood that’s generated and the feelings that instills in the viewer. It’s possible Cosmatos may have bigger ideas on his mind beyond that — some reviewers seem obsessed with the notion that the film wants to explore philosophical concepts but doesn’t do it very well. Perhaps they’re right. I didn’t see it that way, however, taking the whole affair as simply an inescapable dive into a fever dream nightmare experience, where the aesthetics and the sensations they create are the point.

    Certainly, a good many elements are on board with this twisted perspective. The performances are certainly in the right space, with Nic Cage going full Nic Cage as he travels deeper into the nightmare, the impact of his barminess emphasised by him being fairly normal at the start. As the cult-leading big bad, Roache steps up to the plate of trying to equal Cage’s insanity, and I’d say he gets there — an impressive feat. Around them, Cosmatos lets thing unfurl at a leisurely, dreamlike pace. Some will say it’s too slow and succumb to boredom, but I think it’s very deliberate — though I will certainly allow that it does go too far in this regard at some points.

    Crazy cultists, crazy colours

    Further to that, he blends in a lot of surreal and fantasy-inspired imagery and visual flourishes, with Benjamin Loeb’s photography often pushing into extremes of colour (lots and lots of red), lens flare (so much more effectively than anything J.J. Abrams has ever been responsible for), and a deliberately-created haziness that, once again, the best descriptor for is “dreamlike”. That said, the shot-on-film, pushed-to-extreme aesthetic also helps evoke low-budget ’80s fantasy/horror films, in a kind of race-memory way — I couldn’t give you specific examples of what films I feel its emulating, but there’s something about the overall style that gives that vibe. Jóhann Jóhannsson’s eerie score also hits those same beats, in terms of both the era recreated and the film’s own unsettled atmosphere.

    Mandy is today’s premiere on Sky Cinema, which feels like an ill fit to me. Maybe I’m being unfair, but I always feel like Sky Cinema (and by extension its viewer base) is much more focused around mainstream blockbuster kind of movies, especially for a Saturday premiere. Instead, it feels like Mandy should be making its TV debut on Film4 at about 11pm in the middle of the week (I won’t be surprised if that’s where it ends up getting its first network TV airing). I can see some tuning in expecting a violent revenge action-thriller and giving up after a few minutes of its particular weirdness. For those on its wavelength, however, it’s an experience (and it’s definitely an experience) that’s thrilling in very a different way.

    5 out of 5

    Mandy is available on Sky Cinema from today.

    Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

    aka Kaze no tani no Naushika

    2018 #130
    Hayao Miyazaki | 117 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | Japan / English | PG / PG

    Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind

    I watched Princess Mononoke before Nausicaä, and also checked out the Blu-ray’s special features. Those include the film’s original Japanese trailers, which emphasise that it’s “13 years after Nausicaä”, which intrigued me, because director Hayao Miyazaki had made plenty of other films in between. But, having watched the earlier movie, the connection and similarities become clear: Nausicaä features an ecological message, a threat from nature that isn’t, industrial humans (with a female general) being the actual villains, innocent townsfolk that need saving, a princess who’s the only one who understands, and a boy from a different kingdom who helps her. They’re not identical, of course, but there’s a lot of overlap…

    The animation is nice without being quite as mindblowingly good as later Ghibli productions — they certainly hit the ground running, but they would improve too. The full-length English dub was created in 2005 (the original US release was drastically cut and rewritten) and boasts a helluva cast: Uma Thurman, Patrick Stewart, Mark Hamill, Edward James Olmos, plus Alison Lohman as the lead and a young Shia LaBeouf. I don’t mean to disparage those actors who primarily ply their trade dubbing anime, but these starry Disney-funded dubs do add a certain extra oomph to the vocals.

    Nausicaä was only Miyazaki’s second feature, but already shows a lot of the themes and concerns that would go on to characterise his later movies. I feel like maturity and/or experience make some of those later films better, but this is still a powerful demonstration of his talents.

    4 out of 5

    Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind was viewed as part of my Blindspot 2018 project, which you can read more about here.

    Princess Mononoke (1997)

    aka Mononoke-hime

    2018 #73
    Hayao Miyazaki | 134 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | Japan / English | PG / PG-13

    Princess Mononoke

    When I was first becoming aware of anime in the late ’90s, Princess Mononoke was one of the titles that everyone seemed to talk about (alongside the likes of Akira, and TV series like Cowboy Bebop and Neon Genesis Evangelion). This may be in part due to it being the first Studio Ghibli film afforded a US release since Nausicaä (that was a bad experience for director Hayao Miyazaki — the film was cut by 25 minutes and the dialogue was drastically changed — hence the moratorium until Miramax persuaded him otherwise. Still, Miyazaki refused to sell the rights until Miramax agreed to make no cuts, which, considering Harvey Weinstein’s scissor-happy reputation, was a wise move). But it’s also because it’s a stunning film in its own right.

    Set in medieval Japan, it’s a fantasy epic about the conflict between industrialising humans and the gods of the forest they’re destroying. Our hero is Ashitaka, a young prince who kills a demon but is infected by it. Travelling to find a cure, he encounters the aforementioned war and finds himself torn between the two sides. On one is Lady Eboshi, who razed the forest to produce iron in Irontown (imaginative naming), which has become a refuge for social outcasts. On the side of the gods is San, the titular princess (“mononoke” is not a name but an untranslated word, meaning an angry or vengeful spirit), a human girl raised by wolves who intends to kill Eboshi.

    There’s more to it than that, because Miyazaki has imagined a very lyrical and meaningful story, about nature vs industry, and their possible coexistence. The theme isn’t exactly subtle in the film, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t well portrayed. He’s populated the narrative with interesting characters, too. There’s little easy right or wrong here, with those on all sides coming across as nuanced individuals, with complicated relationships. Naturally, it’s beautifully animated, both the natural splendour and the physicality of the world, including some superb action sequences. Some of the violence is exceptionally gory, though — I can’t believe this only got a PG (if it was live action it’d be a 15 easily, if not an 18).

    Bloody princess

    However, while I really enjoyed the earlier parts, it begins to go on a bit towards the end. The last hour-ish felt like it needed streamlining, with too much running back and forth all over the place. When introducing the film’s Western premiere at TIFF, Miyazaki concluded by saying “I hope you will enjoy all of the ridiculously long 2 hours and 13 minutes,” and I tend to agree with him — you can have too much of a good thing.

    I always feel like I should watch anime in its original language with subtitles, and sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t. With Princess Mononoke, I was swayed towards the English dub because it was written by the great Neil Gaiman. There’s also a quality cast including the likes of Billy Crudup, Claire Danes, Minnie Driver, Billy Bob Thornton, Gillian Anderson, and Keith David. It’s definitely superior to an average dub, both in how it’s written (sounding more naturalistic than the “literal translation” feel some have) and performed (more understated and less histrionic than they can be). Out of curiosity I turned the subtitles on at one point, and they were completely different to what was being said in the dub. No wonder fans hate it when a disc only includes “dubtitles”.

    Even if I have some reservations about the film’s pace and length, primarily in its second half, it’s a beautifully-produced film throughout, and the good stuff is so good that I can’t but give it full marks.

    5 out of 5

    Princess Mononoke was meant to be viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2015 project… just three years late.