Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

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Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

If adventure has a name,
it must be Indiana Jones.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 118 minutes
BBFC: PG (cut, 1984) | 12 (uncut, 2012)
MPAA: PG

Original Release: 23rd May 1984 (USA)
UK Release: 15th June 1984
Budget: $28 million
Worldwide Gross: $333.1 million

Stars
Harrison Ford (The Conversation, Cowboys & Aliens)
Kate Capshaw (A Little Sex, Black Rain)
Ke Huy Quan (The Goonies, Finding ‘Ohana)

Director
Steven Spielberg (1941, Hook)

Screenwriters
Willard Huyck (American Graffiti, Radioland Murders)
Gloria Katz (Messiah of Evil, Howard the Duck)

Story by
George Lucas (American Graffiti, Willow)


The Story
Escaping the evil machinations of a Chinese gangster, Indiana Jones, his child sidekick Short Round, and nightclub singer Willie Scott crash-land in India, where the fate of a blighted village points them towards an ancient palace, wherein hides a secret cult practising ritual human sacrifice…

Our Hero
Boldly billed as the definitive article ‘Hero’ in some of the film’s advertising, the man in question is archaeologist and adventurer — and, indeed, archetypical movie hero — Indiana Jones.

Our Villains
The Thuggees, an ancient Indian cult still active at the remote Pankot Palace, where they’ve kidnapped and enslaved children to work in mines, and execute elaborate ceremonies of human sacrifice.

Best Supporting Character
Indy’s pint-sized Chinese sidekick, Short Round. A child sidekick sounds like a recipe for disaster, but Short Round is actually pretty fun. Spielberg liked actor Ke Huy Quan’s personality so much that he had the boy and Harrison Ford improves scenes, such as the one when Short Round accuse Indy of cheating at cards.

Memorable Quote
“We are going to die!” — Indiana Jones
(This isn’t a particularly memorable line in isolation, but it’s all in the delivery — and the sad face Ford pulls at the end.)

Memorable Scene
The film’s opening 20 minutes are an extended action sequence — more of a mini-adventure, really (there’s an entire musical number!) — that kick off the movie perfectly. Indeed, some fans even say it’s the greatest action scene in the entire series (I say it’s a contender, but the competition is stiff). I suspect Spielberg was using it to get a few things out of his system: as well as the song-and-dance, there’s a distinct James Bond vibe to the whole thing (Spielberg had put himself forward to direct a Bond film but was rebuffed).

Memorable Music
Oh, John Williams’ main theme… Okay, it’s not new — it’s from Raiders, obviously — but by God it’s good. Did you know: Williams was Oscar nominated for each of the first three Indiana Jones films, but lost every time. Raiders was beaten by Vangelis’ music for Chariots of Fire, Temple of Doom by Maurice Jarre’s score for A Passage to India, and Last Crusade by Alan Menken’s work on Disney’s The Little Mermaid. Mad, really.

Technical Wizardry
The mine cart chase is not just another fantastic action scene, but it’s also a real showcase of filmmaking tricks. It was created with a mix of footage of the star actors, stunt people, miniatures, and stop-motion animation, but it never shows off about it — it’s cut together so well and so fast that you almost don’t notice all the different techniques that have been employed to create a wholly thrilling sequence.

Letting the Side Down
Willie Scott, the nightclub singer who’s forced to tag along on Indy’s adventure, but would rather be anywhere else. She’s not a wholly terrible character, but the only time the movie really threatens to slow down is when it indulges in her screechy, squeamish side. That said, at her best, her hot-and-cold relationship with Indy generates some classic screwball-esque scenes that really help to underscore the 1935 setting.

Making of
The dinner scene, infamous for its array of disgusting food like chilled monkey brains, came about because Spielberg, Lucas, and screenwriters Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck were concerned about keeping the audience’s attention during the expository dialogue about the Thuggee cult. Ideas such as a tiger hunt were rejected before they settled on the dinner sequence. Said Katz, “Steve and George both still react like children, so their idea was to make it as gross as possible.”

Previously on…
Indy made his debut in Raiders of the Lost Ark, although Temple of Doom is actually a prequel, set a year earlier.

Next time…
The Indiana Jones trilogy was completed in 1989 with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, but that was far from the end for the character. On screen, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles traced the character’s adventures in childhood across three seasons and 32 episodes, originally released between 1992 and 1996. Over a decade later, in 2008, an older Indy returned to the big screen in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and production has just begun for an adventure starring an even older Indy, with the currently-untitled fifth film due for release next year. Away from TV and cinema screens, Indy has featured in dozens of novels, comic books, computer games, and so on, including a live stunt show at Disney World that’s now been running for over 30 years.

Awards
1 Oscar (Visual Effects)
1 Oscar nomination (Original Score)
1 BAFTA (Special Visual Effects)
3 BAFTA nominations (Cinematography, Editing, Sound)
7 Saturn Award nominations (Fantasy Film, Actor (Harrison Ford), Younger Actor (Ke Huy Quan), Director, Writing, Costumes, Make-Up)

Verdict

Whereas Raiders was balanced to perfection, Temple of Doom pushes everything that worked up to maximum: it’s more playful and it’s sillier, but it’s also more gruesome and more overtly an action movie. When it’s firing on all cylinders, it’s as good as anything else in the franchise, including scenes that stylistically evoke many a genre from classic Hollywood (there’s a hefty dash of screwball comedy in some of the relationship between Indy and Willie). Even at its worst, it’s not bad — it moves like the clappers and is committed to being almost relentlessly entertaining. Perhaps it’s a little hardcore for younger fans (and even that aspect has lessened with age, with the chest-ripping special effects looking a little ropey nowadays), but otherwise, what’s there to complain about?

The 100-Week Roundup XXIX

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.

I’m cheating slightly in this roundup, because these are the final reviews from April 2019, a period that means I should also be reviewing Captain Marvel and Resident Evil: Apocalypse. The former I don’t have many notes on, so I’d like to make time for a rewatch and do it properly. The latter, well, as I’m in the middle of watching the whole RE series, I’ll either round it up with some of the other sequels or give it a standalone post. It wouldn’t have been the first time I included a mid-franchise instalment in a roundup, but it always feels a bit ‘ugly’ to do that.

Anyway, enough about what isn’t here — here’s what is…

  • Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)
  • Click (2006)
  • Mortal Engines (2018)
  • The Help (2011)


    Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
    (2010)

    2019 #63
    Edgar Wright | 112 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA, UK, Canada & Japan / English | 12 / PG-13

    Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

    Well, this is embarrassing: a film I ranked in my top five of the year, but I don’t have any notes to write up a full review — just like Heathers back in Roundup XI. Oh dear, again.

    In Scott Pilgrim’s case, it’s just about to be re-released in a restored/jazzed-up version (first in Dolby Cinemas, then on 4K disc), so I’ll surely rewatch it that way and hopefully try this again properly, maybe later this year. For now, in the spirit of these roundups (i.e. to clear old unreviewed films), here’s the paragraph I wrote when it ranked 4th on my list of The 15 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2019

    If I’m honest, I was prepared to dislike Scott Pilgrim — I mean, there’s a reason it took me almost a decade to get round to it. It always looked Too Cool; kind of too hipster-ish, though I guess in a geeky way. (Well, “hipster” and “geek” have been more closely linked than ever this decade, haven’t they?) I remember distinctly when it went down a storm at Comic-Con and so everyone believed it was The Next Big Thing, only for it to flop hard at the box office (providing a much-needed course correction on everyone’s view of the power of Comic-Con).

    But here’s the thing: it’s directed by Edgar Wright, and I should have trusted that. And so the film is everything you’d expect from the director of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz and Baby Driver — deep-cut references (this time to video games), piles of humour, but also a dose of genuine emotion. Best of all is how it’s ceaselessly, fearlessly, creatively inventive with its cinematic tricks. No other film on this list is so overtly Directed, but in a good way.

    5 out of 5

    Scott Pilgrim vs. the World was viewed as part of Blindspot 2019.

    Click
    (2006)

    2019 #64
    Frank Coraci | 107 mins | digital (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    Click

    I am not, by an stretch of the imagination, an Adam Sandler aficionado. Besides this, the only films of his I’ve seen are Murder Mystery (which I watched in spite of him because I like murder mysteries), and Punch-Drunk Love and Uncut Gems, neither of which are “Adam Sandler films” in the widely-understood sense (and I didn’t much like either of them anyway). Indeed, the only reason I watched Click is because it’s on “most-watched movies ever”-type lists and I wanted to check it off.

    Sandler plays a workaholic family man, who’s missing out on time with his wife (Kate Beckinsale) and two kids while he strives for a promotion at work. But then he comes across a magic remote control that works on the world: he can mute arguments, rewind to the good bits, fast-forward to when he gets his promotion… He thinks it’s great — until, of course, it isn’t.

    From the very start, it’s clear Click isn’t running high on originality, with “gags” about having lots of remote controls and about a dog humping a soft toy. The former was surely already old-hat observational comedy by 2006, while the latter has always been on about the same level as fart gags. As Sandler watches the dog’s actions, he comments that it’s something his young kids shouldn’t “know about” for 10 years for the boy and 30 years for the girl. Within the first few minutes, Click has managed to be overfamiliar, underdeveloped, crude, and socially regressive, all at the same time. And then it throws some racism in for good measure, with a foreign prince whose name the characters mispronounce as things like “Ha-booby” and “Hubba-bubba”. This is all before the ten-minute mark. Never mind a magic remote control — you might be contented reaching for the real one.

    The film’s a Fantasy because it’s about a magic remote control, but the wish fulfilment definitely extends beyond that. I mean, Kate Beckinsale as Adam Sandler’s wife? Pull the other one. Plus, all the young attractive women in his office seem to fancy him, too. Someone’s ego was getting stroked here.

    The comedy continues in its thoroughly predictable vein until things inevitably start to go wrong, at which point they really pile on the tortuous misery. It’s such a sharp and drastic change in the second half that it’s liable to give you tonal whiplash. Plus, the film already felt like it was running too long, and this new avenue just piles on the minutes. They should’ve cut at least quarter-of-an-hour out of the whole thing. When it eventually drags itself to the end, that’s a terrible cliché too.

    Click does have its moments, although not too many of them, and they’re of the “this is adequate to lounge in front of” variety rather than anything fresh or invigorating. Fortunately, you don’t need a magic life-control to skip it.

    2 out of 5

    Mortal Engines
    (2018)

    2019 #69
    Christian Rivers | 128 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 2.39:1 | USA & New Zealand / English | 12 / PG-13

    Mortal Engines

    Based on the first book in a series of beloved young adult novels by Philip Reeve, Mortal Engines is set in a post-apocalyptic future where towns and cities have been transformed into gigantic vehicles that roam the world consuming each other for scarce resources. On London, a young fugitive out for revenge, Hester (Hera Hilmar), ends up thrown in with an outcast (Robert Sheehan) as they uncover a world-changing conspiracy.

    Billed as being “from the filmmakers of The Lord of the Rings”, Mortal Engines is one of many would-be PG-13 fantasy franchises that have sprung up in the couple of decades since Rings and Harry Potter’s dual-pronged success at the end of 2001. And, like so many of them, it failed to find a theatrical audience and so stalled out after just one film. Fortunately, when Reeve wrote the original novel it wasn’t intended as a series, so while there was clearly opportunity for sequels, this nonetheless tells a contained story.

    In practice, “from the makers of Lord of the Rings” means it was adapted by that trilogy’s screenwriting team (Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson), was filmed in New Zealand with Weta on design and effects work, and is the feature directorial debut of Christian Rivers, who previously served various art, effects, and second-unit roles on Jackson’s films as far back as Braindead. All of which means you can be assured the film looks fantastic — the production design, and the epic visuals that show it off, are consistently magnificent. Equally, the story has some bold and original ideas that are equally as exciting. So it’s a massive shame about the sometimes awkward dialogue and narrative choices, as well as the variable quality of the acting, and at least one subplot that was obviously butchered in post (what we see on screen is jumpy and clearly incomplete). By falling short in such fundamentals, it lets down the imagination on display elsewhere.

    Nonetheless, there’s enough to appreciate it in Mortal Engines that I enjoyed it a lot. Perhaps it’s a shame we won’t get to see the other books adapted, but at least the fact it works as a standalone movie means that, unlike some other failed franchises, it can still be watched and enjoyed as is. Maybe it’ll find an audience belatedly and, like other aborted film adaptations before it (A Series of Unfortunate Events; His Dark Materials), we’ll be treated to a TV do-over later this decade.

    4 out of 5

    The Help
    (2011)

    2019 #70
    Tate Taylor | 137 mins | TV (HD) | 16:9 | USA, India & UAE / English | 12 / PG-13

    The Help

    Jackson, Mississippi, the 1960s: society girl Skeeter (Emma Stone) returns from college determined to become a writer, so she decides to interview the black women who have spent their lives taking care of southern white families, to capture their view of the hardships they go through on a daily basis, starting with her best friend’s housekeeper (Viola Davis). Initially controversial in both white and black communities, as more maids come forward to tell their stories, everyone in town finds themselves unwittingly and unwillingly caught up in the changing times. — adapted from IMDb

    For some reason I thought The Help was based on a true story, but it’s actually just adapted from a novel. That makes accusations of it being a “white saviour” narrative worse, because it loses any defence of “well, this is what really happened” — it’s a creative choice. Instead, what if the maids had decided they needed to tell their own story, but had to use a sympathetic white woman as a front to get it published? Same general point, but it gives more agency to the black women in controlling their own story.

    Anyway, while there is plenty wrong here (too much focus on the white characters; aimless subplots, like a romantic one; the overt air of Worthiness), it’s still watchable and engaging, there are some very good performances, and it’s not as if the message isn’t an important one — and, sadly, still relevant.

    4 out of 5

  • Palm Springs (2020)

    2020 #163
    Max Barbakow | 90 mins | digital (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Palm Springs

    For a couple of decades, Groundhog Day stood alone in a genre of one. But no good idea is allowed to rest in the Hollywood machine, and so the last few years have seen a veritable explosion in time loop stories, like sci-fi-actioner Edge of Tomorrow; or a slasher variant in Happy Death Day; or darkly comic Netflix mystery Russian Doll; or, most recently, teen romance The Map of Tiny Perfect Things. But just as you begin to think that maybe time loop comedies are becoming repetitiously overdone (irony), along comes one of the most acclaimed entries in this newly-abundant subgenre: Palm Springs, which debuted on Hulu in the US in the middle of last year and is now finally coming to the UK via Amazon Prime Video.

    In this instance, the scene is set at a wedding, where two disconnected guests — Nyles (Andy Samberg), the boyfriend of the maid of honour, and Sarah (Cristin Milioti), the sister of the bride — end up stuck in a loop together, reliving the day of the wedding over and over. And I’ll say no more on that, because even giving away that it’s time loop comedy spoils what would otherwise be a first-act twist. (I don’t know if they ever thought they’d get away with keeping that a secret, what with it being a foundational conceit of the entire film, but some official blurbs do try to keep it hush-hush. Not many reviews, or even news articles, have been similarly circumspect, so I feel at this point trying to pretend you, dear reader, don’t already know (or wouldn’t accidentally find out some other way) is a fool’s errand.)

    While the premise may be more-or-less familiar, one thing Palm Springs has in its favour is it upends numerous tropes that the subgenre has already acquired, even in its short lifespan. Some of these variations have already been explored in other examples listed in my opening paragraph, but Springs has one or two more up its sleeve, and its own way of tackling them. It can also boast its own tone and style of humour, which will be broadly familiar if you’ve seen any other Samberg vehicle (Brooklyn Nine-Nine, say, or Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping). For the uninitiated, it’s kinda silly without going to Pythonesque extremes, and kinda earthy without being vulgar (that the BBFC classification says the film contains “strong sex” is ridiculous).

    Let's do the time loop again

    Notably, when Palm Springs was sold at Sundance it went for the highest price ever paid for an acquisition at the festival: $17.5 million… and 69 cents, those few cents adds in order to beat the previous record. That they chose that additional figure gives you some insight into the film’s level of humour. But it also says something about how positively the film was received, which led to a degree of buzz that, personally, I found crippled the final film somewhat. To be clear, I still really enjoyed it, but, from reading reviews and watching the trailer, I was half expecting to be blown away by a new comedy masterpiece. Such is the danger of letting yourself get hyped up — if I’d seen it with no prior knowledge, I might’ve enjoyed it even more. The one benefit from the ludicrous delay in it crossing the pond is that hype has cooled to an appropriate background level; from a “OMG watch this new innovative groundbreaking amazing best comedy ever!” to more of a “that’s good, you should see it”.

    All of which said, you should see it. I don’t want to accidentally undersell the movie by citing my own misapprehensions, because it’s definitely a funny, likeable, surprisingly romantic (but not twee) film. Indeed, even without the time loop USP, Palm Springs would be welcomed because it hits a really good tone on the romance angle. It doesn’t dive into full romcom cheesiness, but it’s also not that kind of “tacked on love story that the filmmakers clearly wish they didn’t have to bother with” that you normally find in these sorts of (for want of a better word) edgier comedies. Rather than rolling your eyes as the inevitable plays out, you might actually be rooting for these crazy kids.

    4 out of 5

    Palm Springs will be available on Amazon Prime Video in the UK from tomorrow.

    King Kong (1933)

    The 100 Films Guide to…

    King Kong

    A Monster of Creation’s Dawn
    Breaks Loose in Our World Today!

    Country: USA
    Language: English
    Runtime: 100 minutes
    BBFC: A (1933) | PG (1985)

    Original Release: 2nd March 1933 (New York City, USA)
    UK Release: 17th April 1933 (London)
    Budget: $672,254.75
    Worldwide Gross: $5.3 million

    Stars
    Fay Wray (Doctor X, Mystery of the Wax Museum)
    Robert Armstrong (The Most Dangerous Game, Mighty Joe Young)
    Bruce Cabot (Fallen Angel, Diamonds Are Forever)

    Directors
    Merian C. Cooper (The Four Feathers, The Last Days of Pompeii)
    Ernest B. Schoedsack (The Most Dangerous Game, Mighty Joe Young)

    Screenwriters
    James Creelman (The Most Dangerous Game, The Last Days of Pompeii)
    Ruth Rose (She, Mighty Joe Young)

    From an idea by
    Merian C. Cooper (Roar of the Dragon, Mighty Joe Young)
    Edgar Wallace (The Squeaker, The Hound of the Baskervilles)


    The Story
    Adventurous filmmaker Carl Denham and crew travel to an uncharted tropical island in search of the subject for his next picture. There, they encounter a gigantic ape — Kong — who takes a shine to the movie’s pretty young star…

    Our Hero
    Ann Darrow is a down-on-her-luck gal in New York City, when successful movie producer Carl Denham plucks her to star in his next movie — which involves going on a long boat voyage to a mysterious uncharted island, where she’ll make a big new friend…

    Our Villain
    People might point to Kong — he is a giant monster who kidnaps the heroine and kills a bunch of people, after all — but I think we all know the real villain is Carl Denham, the risk-taking heath-and-safety-averse movie producer turned theatrical impresario, whose exploitative whims ultimately lead to death and destruction.

    Best Supporting Character
    He may be a stop-motion puppet made of metal and rubber and fur, but animator Willis O’Brien injects so much life and personality into Kong that he is, unquestionably, the real star of the show.

    Memorable Quote
    “It wasn’t the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast.” — Carl Denham

    Memorable Scene
    King Kong is full of great moments, but the most famous has to be the climax: having wreaked havoc across New York City, Kong scales the Empire State Building with Ann in hand, deposits her at the top, and fights for his life as a fleet of biplanes swarm around. It’s not going to end well…

    Truly Special Effect
    I’ve already mentioned Willis O’Brien’s animation of Kong, but his skill goes far beyond that: there are all manner of beasties on Kong’s island, brought thrillingly to life by O’Brien and his team. These stop-motion effects are obviously of their time, but the way they’re integrated with the live action is frequently impressive, and any technical limitations certainly didn’t lead them to skimp on the action — you might think Kong would only appear sparingly, but the big guy gets tonnes of screen time.

    Making of
    King Kong was made before the enforcement of the Production Code, but its 1938 re-release was after. To comply, multiple scenes were removed (perhaps most famously, one where Kong peels off Ann’s clothes). They weren’t restored until the ’70s. But one scene was deleted even earlier: the so-called “spider pit” sequence, in which the sailors Kong tips off a log are attacked and killed by a bunch of creatures. When included in a preview screening, audience members were so disturbed that they either left or were so focused on what they’d just seen it disrupted the rest of the film. Consequently, the sequence was removed before the film’s general release, and is probably lost forever. But it remains a kind of Holy Grail of deleted scenes, and so during production of the 2005 remake, Peter Jackson and Weta set about recreating the original spider pit scene, just as a fun side project. The end result (included on subsequent Blu-ray releases of the ’33 film) is nice ‘n’ all, but what’s really incredible is the half-hour making-of devoted to its creation. The amount of time, effort, and skill that Jackson & co put into creating such a short sequence — something they themselves describe as “just a bit of fun” — is phenomenal.

    Next time…
    King Kong was such a hit that a sequel was raced out the same year. Produced on a vastly reduced budget and in just six months to get it into theatres for Christmas, The Son of Kong was not a success. But the iconicity of Kong has ensured he’s survived long-term. In the ’60s, he was licensed to Japanese studio Toho so they could pit him against their own giant monster in King Kong vs. Godzilla, and in 1967 they produced a Kong-only followup, King Kong Escapes. In 1976, a big Hollywood remake of the original updated events to a contemporary setting. Although it wasn’t a success, sequel King Kong Lives eventually followed ten years later. There was another remake in 1998: a direct-to-video animated musical titled The Mighty Kong (no, really). Also in the late ’90s, a small-time horror director from New Zealand nearly produced another remake, but the project didn’t come together. One billion-dollar-grossing, Oscar-winning, genre-defining, medium-revolutionising fantasy trilogy later, Peter Jackson was finally allowed to realise his dream, helming an epic reimagining that this time retained the original film’s 1930s setting. Various other animated films, TV series, comic books, games, theme park rides, and the like have featured Kong down the decades. Most recently, he’s once again been inducted into a shared universe with Godzilla, getting a wholly rebooted origin in Kong: Skull Island before facing off against the giant lizard in Godzilla vs. Kong. Given the latter’s current box office success, more films will surely follow.

    Verdict

    Beauty and the Beast is reimagined as a monster movie in this iconic classic. Obviously some of it has aged (not just the effects, but some broadly racist attitudes around Pacific islanders and the ship’s Chinese cook), although its pre-Code roots allow it some unexpected liberties (from gruesome deaths to an unmistakable sexuality around Fay Wray — all within PG levels, but still). Take all that in your stride, and King Kong absolutely holds up as an adrenaline-fuelled spectacle.

    Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019)

    2020 #38
    Michael Dougherty | 132 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 2.40:1 | USA, Japan, Canada & Mexico / English | 12 / PG-13

    Godzilla: King of the Monsters

    Five years on from the events of Godzilla, the world is very much aware of the existence of Titans, gigantic prehistoric creatures — or, if you prefer, monsters. These creatures are studied and, where possible, contained by the secretive organisation known as Monarch, and one of their scientists, Dr. Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga), has developed a device capable of attracting Titans and altering their behaviour. When Emma and her daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) are kidnapped by a group of terrorists, Madison’s father and former Monarch employee Mark (Kyle Chandler) is re-recruited by Monarch to help track them, before the terrorists can unleash the Titans to wreak havoc on mankind.

    As well as a direct followup to the 2014 reboot of the Godzilla franchise, King of the Monsters is the third film in Legendary’s “MonsterVerse”. The in-between entry was 2017’s Kong: Skull Island, whose 1970s setting kinda leaves it adrift and standalone from the rest of the present-day-set films in this shared universe (although, following the Marvel template, Kong did have a post-credit scene designed to vaguely tee-up King of the Monsters). That said, it does have a role to play tonally. Whereas Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla was a fairly strait-laced, serious take on the concept of a giant lizard attacking mankind, Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ Skull Island took a more pulpy approach to the movie, playing like a monster B-movie with a modern spectacular effects budget.

    Here, Michael Dougherty’s offering feels like a combination of those two previous MonsterVerse films. As a direct sequel to Godzilla, it brings in plot threads and a couple of supporting characters from that movie (namely Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins as a pair of Monarch scientists, given more prominent roles here). It also adopts the dark visual style of Edwards’ movie, eschewing the colourfulness that was part of Vogt-Roberts’ contribution. But what Dougherty does retain is that pulpiness in the storyline. I mean, Godzilla showed us a world where the real-life (more or less) military had to scramble to find a way to respond to a giant lizard suddenly appearing.

    Puny humans

    Conversely, in King of the Monsters we find a government organisation that maintains multiple huge facilities around the world to research and contain a variety of giant beasties (one of whom is an alien, by-the-way), and a terrorist organisation that’s well organised and financed enough to break into several of those facilities and set about freeing the Titans. And that’s without mentioning a side quest into a vast sunken kingdom. If you wanted more of the real world Edwards gave us in the first film, sorry, you’re shit out of luck; but if you’re into some of the craziness that other kaiju movies have doled out down the decades, here we go!

    And, in some respects, that makes this the first MonsterVerse movie that truly feels like it’s in a shared universe of monsters. Sure, the previous films had monster antagonists — MUTOs in Godzilla, Scullcrawlers in Kong — but, frankly, they were kinda generic nasties to give our hero-monsters something to fight. In King of the Monsters, we finally get to see some of the big-name stars from Godzilla’s rogue gallery; namely: inventively-named giant moth Mothra, pterodactyl-like Rodan, and the baddest of them all, three-headed dragon Ghidorah. Okay, we haven’t been introduced to these creatures in previous movies, so it’s not technically a team-up / versus movie in that sense, but you can still feel these are headline-bout-worthy characters in a way the franchise’s previous villains just weren’t. Obviously there’s still no doubt about who the ultimate victor of these monster punch-ups is going to be (clue’s in the title), but the brawls are meatier and more impactful.

    I imagine that’s even more true for long-time kaiju fans, who’ll have a much greater familiarity with the ‘supporting’ monsters. Indeed, there’s a sense in which King of the Monsters has been made expressly for those fans, because it’s absolutely loaded with nods and references to the older films. I’ve not seen many classic Godzilla movies, so my knowledge of what was being referenced was second-hand at best — though one I’ll make room to highlight is composer Bear McCreary’s new realisation of Akira Ifukube’s classic Godzilla theme. It’s epic and awesome; a real hair-raiser when it kicks in.

    There can be only one

    Unfortunately, the parade of callbacks seems to have been a major problem for some viewers. Fans who got the references regard them as either hollow fan service or a pointless remix of past glories, while normal folk found it all a bit confusing and weird — because God forbid any blockbuster try to do stuff from outside your normal well-worn expectations. Clearly, these monster flicks aren’t for everyone. Even among those who like them, you don’t have to read many viewer’s rankings before you’ll have seen every possible iteration of which film is better than which, often accompanied by bafflement that anyone could hold an opposing view. It’s like an inadvertent case study for the fact that different people want different things. So it seems none of these movies please everyone, although personally I like the idea that each film is its own thing to some degree; that you might not love every film in the MonsterVerse, but hopefully one of them will hit the sweet spot for you. The MCU cookie-cutter format may be reassuring, but there’s delight in variety too.

    There’s certainly plenty of variety here. The MonsterVerse could’ve gone down the route of wheeling out these storied foes one by one, eking the franchise out across Godzilla vs. Mothra, Godzilla vs. Rodan, Godzilla vs. Ghidorah… Instead, we get them in one Titan-sized hit. If you’re in the mood for gigantic creatures thwacking each other, there’s something wholly satisfying about that.

    4 out of 5

    The 100-Week Roundup XXVIII

    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 selection includes a few more films from April 2019

  • Early Man (2018)
  • Amour (2012)
  • Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018)


    Early Man
    (2018)

    2019 #56
    Nick Park | 89 mins | digital (HD) | 1.85:1 | UK, France & USA / English | PG / PG

    Early Man

    Only the third feature film directed by Wallace & Gromit creator Nick Park, Early Man is about a prehistoric tribe who invented football (aka soccer) and must defend their home from a more advanced civilisation by playing a winner-takes-all footie match.

    So, despite the Stone/Bronze Age setting, this is a sports movie — and with that in mind, the plot is as rote as they come. And, if you hadn’t guessed yet, the period setting is less historically accurate than Game of Thrones (at least Thrones is inspired by things that really happened). Plus, there are plenty of bizarre choices — like, if the story’s set in Britain, why is Tom Hiddleston doing a weird Generic European accent? But, for all that, this is an Aardman production, and so there’s tonnes of pleasure to be found in incidental details; the asides and background jokes and grace notes that frequently raise a full-blown laugh, or at the very least a warm smile.

    There’s also something to be said for the film being quite delightfully Brit-centric. When so many productions aim to be bland enough to appeal to a global audience, Park and co haven’t shied away from including an array of gags that are like to only be caught by Brits and/or footie fans. For example, there’s a reveal of the backstory of the tribe and their relationship to the sport that’s an obvious riff on England’s relationship to international football, and I don’t know how apparent that would be to overseas viewers; or characters with names like Goona and Asbo. Not that such things should turn off the uninitiated, however. For pun lovers alone there’s plenty of material, not to mention general quirkiness. I could try to explain what goes on with the duck, but it’s better I leave it for you to discover.

    Early Man isn’t Aardman’s strongest production, but their productions have a base-level charm that’s high enough to keep it ticking over, with the occasional inspired flourish to boot.

    3 out of 5

    Amour
    (2012)

    2019 #59
    Michael Haneke | 127 mins | digital (HD) | 1.85:1 | Austria, France & Germany / French & English | 12 / PG-13

    Amour

    German director Michaell Haneke may be much acclaimed by the arthouse crowd, but I’m not a huge fan of his previous works that I’ve seen (1997’s Funny Games and 2005’s Hidden — it seems I gave the latter four stars, which is not how I remember it). Palme d’Or, Oscar, and BAFTA winner Amour is the exception, however, even while some of its more arty asides hold it back somewhat.

    It’s the story of an ageing couple, Georges and Anne. When Anne has a stroke, Georges is left caring for her as her health continues to decline. In its depiction of this relationship — the strains placed on it and how it survives them — Amour is a truthful, affecting, and deeply moving character drama. Most of the major events (diagnoses, tests, a second stroke) happen off screen, with the film more concerned with day-to-day realities, but that’s part of where its power lies. It’s not so much about the big drama, more the reality of coping.

    But in between this powerful material, there’s random art house shenanigans, like a pigeon wandering into the apartment before Georges shoos it out, or a montage of impressionist paintings. Why do we see these things? I’ve not the foggiest. I guess Haneke had a purpose in mind, but goodness knows what it was — although, as he said in one interview, “consider the pigeon just a pigeon. You can interpret it any way you want. I wouldn’t describe it as a symbol. I have problems with symbols, because they always mean something specific. I don’t know what the pigeon means,” so maybe not. When combined with an overall slow pace, this resulted in the film becoming a bit of a slog for me, which was a real shame. The bits that are good — that are insightful and impactful and emotional — are so good, but, for me, those longueurs get in the way.

    4 out of 5

    Ralph Breaks the Internet
    (2018)

    2019 #62
    Rich Moore & Phil Johnston | 112 mins | digital (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

    Ralph Breaks the Internet

    The sequel to Wreck-It Ralph is indeed called Ralph Breaks the Internet, when Ralph Wrecks the Internet was right there. Although, if they wanted to be truly accurate, a better titled would’ve been Corporate Synergy: The Movie.

    The plot sees Ralph and his chum Vanellope heading out into the internet to fix the arcade game they live in. That includes an extended sequence set ‘inside’ the Oh My Disney website — originally the Disney Infinity game, but that got cancelled during production so had to be changed. I think that rather indicates the mindset and motives behind this movie: $ advertising $ . Most famously, it includes a sequence where Vanellope encounters the Disney princesses. It’s quite a funny sequence, somewhat undermined by the “no one can understand Merida (because she speaks Scottish)” gag. Imagine if they’d tried that with Tiana or Pocahontas or Moana and their accent/dialect…

    When it’s not being a big advert for its production company, Ralph Breaks the Internet seems to think it’s a clever satire of the online world. It does references and stuff, but doesn’t develop them enough to be genuine commentary — for example, Ralph finds ‘the comment section’ and it’s depressing, and then someone tells him “the first rule of the internet is never read the comments”, and… that’s it. It’s stating a widely-accepted truism as if it’s some kind of revelation or point unto itself. This extends right to the climax, which sees our heroes fighting with a giant virus born of toxic masculinity, an idea that’s somewhere between timely and fucking ridiculous (how does toxic masculinity inherently create a computer virus?)

    Other problems include a pile of plot holes and inconsistencies (such as when Vanellope does or doesn’t use her glitching ability, among others); that it’s a structural mess (the plot bounces from place to place just so it can even get started, then major motivating goals are dismissed and moved on from), which leads to it being needlessly long (surely kids’ animations are best around the 90-minute mark). Also, frankly, I don’t particularly like the characters or the style of humour they create. That’s only worsened when you shoehorn in blatant advertising, half-witted satire, and muddled messages.

    The best Disney canon movies are timeless. Heck, some of the worst ones are, too. But Ralph 2 is so about the ‘right now’ of when it was made, it’s probably already dated today, just a couple of years later, never mind how it’ll hold up in a couple of decades.

    2 out of 5

  • The 100-Week Roundup XXIV

    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 selection includes three films from March 2019

  • Bruce Almighty (2003)
  • Isle of Dogs (2018)
  • Life Is Beautiful (1997)


    Bruce Almighty
    (2003)

    2019 #31
    Tom Shadyac | 97 mins | digital (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    Bruce Almighty

    Television reporter Bruce Nolan (Jim Carrey) doesn’t think the world is treating him fairly, but when he angrily rages against God, he actually gets a response. God (Morgan Freeman) decides to take a holiday, leaving Bruce in charge with His divine powers. As Burce puts his omnipotent powers to the test, he comes to realise that with great power comes… yeah. — liberally adapted from IMDb

    I mean, in fairness to Bruce, Spider-Man only came out the year before — maybe he just hadn’t seen it yet.

    Anyway, Bruce Almighty is almost entirely fuelled by Carrey’s antics — if you enjoy his zany style, you’ll lap it up; if you hate it, there are no redeeming qualities that haven’t been done better in other broadly-similarly-themed films (see Groundhog Day, for example). I say “almost entirely” because there are brief asides where Morgan Freeman or Steve Carrell get to steal a scene. Indeed, Freeman earned the film’s only out-loud laugh from me when he casually throws in one of Carrey’s best-known catchphrases.

    Personally, I’m in between on comedy-mode Carrey, and so that’s where I landed on Bruce Almighty. He doesn’t push his schtick so far that it becomes irritating to me, as in the Ace Ventura films (I quite liked them as a kid but feel I’d hate them now), but nor is it inspired enough to really transcend being just what it is.

    3 out of 5

    Isle of Dogs
    (2018)

    2019 #32
    Wes Anderson | 97 mins | digital (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & Germany / English & Japanese | PG / PG-13

    Isle of Dogs

    Wes Anderson has a weird proclivity for killing dogs in his movies, so it seems almost like some kind of atonement that he’d turn around and make a movie whose title is a homophone for “I love dogs”.

    This animated adventure is set in a near-future Japan, where a canine flu is spreading through the city of Megasaki. To stop it, the mayor orders all dogs be banished to Trash Island — starting with Spots, the pet of his orphaned 12-year-old nephew, Atari. So Atari steals a plane and flies to Trash Island, where he teams up with five stray dogs to search for his exiled pal.

    Isle of Dogs attracted a certain amount of criticism when it was released for its treatment of the Japanese characters and, especially, language; primarily, that the Japanese dialogue is not subtitled, thereby ‘othering’ those characters because we’re prevented from engaging with them. When watching the film, my first thought was those complaints were being a bit daft: the dogs speak English, the humans speak Japanese, and we’re clearly being placed with the dogs — the humans are ‘other’ because they’re human, not because they’re Japanese. But then the film keeps jumping through hoops to get around this, for example with translators on TV to re-speak the Japanese in English; or an American exchange student to speak for another group with English dialogue. This is where it does tip into being problematic; where it can feel like a Western director playing around with another culture.

    All of which said, I still very much enjoyed the film. As a fellow Anglophone admirer of Japanese culture, that aspect broadly worked for me. Setting aside the controversy, it’s still amusing, in Anderson’s normal mode, with a suitably exciting and action-packed quest narrative.

    5 out of 5

    Life Is Beautiful
    (1997)

    aka La vita è bella

    2019 #33
    Roberto Benigni | 116 mins | digital (HD) | 1.85:1 | Italy / Italian, English & German | PG / PG-13

    Life is Beautiful

    In 1930s Italy, a carefree Jewish librarian named Guido starts a fairytale life by courting and marrying a woman from a nearby city. They have a son and live happily together until the occupation of Italy by German forces, when they’re separated and sent to concentration camps. Determined to shelter his son from the horrors of his surroundings, Guido pretends that their time in the camp is merely a game. — adapted from IMDb

    Every summary of Life is Beautiful concentrates on the “they end up in the Holocaust” bit — which is fair enough, it’s rather a major thing. But this is really a film of two halves. The first is a broad, sketch-like comedy, in which Guido (played by cowriter-director Roberto Benigni) bumbles around, woos his wife, and starts a lovely life. It’s the kind of comedy in which there’s a single sequence where a bunch of sketches all pay off at once, in a series of coincidences that’s somewhere between artful and ludicrous. The second half is a kind of concentration camp comedy, which is just as unwieldy as that sounds. The almost farcical humour of the first half attempts to linger on, but it buts awkwardly against the unspeakable horrors that occur.

    Eventually it comes to an ending that I was similarly divided about. It’s clearly designed to be hyper-emotional, and it pulls at some very obvious strings to get there quickly, which seems to work for many viewers, but I didn’t feel it. Why? Well, it’s based in the relationship between father and son, and I don’t think the rest of the film really is. The first half of the film is all about investing us in the relationship between Guido and his wife — we follow their relationship from the very beginning, and the film charms us and connects us to their coupling. But then the second half virtually tosses that aside to make the important relationship the one between Guido and his son. We get two or three quick scenes that incidentally suggest a good father/son bond, then it’s off to the camp, which is a whole other kettle of fish. We’re not given the time to properly buy into this father/son relationship. That’s not to say I don’t believe it, just that we’re only learning about it at the same time as we’re supposed to be affected by its endurance. Doing both at once doesn’t work, in my opinion. Now, if the first half (or even just the first act) had been about Guido and his son’s wonderful relationship before the occupation, it would have established that well and connected us to it; then, if the rest of the film unfolded as-is, I think it would have made for a much more powerful ending, because it would have had the full weight of their entire relationship behind it. Instead, as well as being a film of two halves, Life is Beautiful ends up a film of two relationships, one in each half.

    Despite the film winning awards at Cannes and the Oscars, and being in the top 10% of IMDb’s Top 250, etc, this “two halves” thing — the awkward balancing act between comedy and tragedy — has been noted by critics ever since its initial release. It makes for a wavering viewing experience. It’s kind of inappropriate, but kind of isn’t; it kind of celebrates the ingenuity of the human spirit, but kind of belittles the real tragedy in the process; it’s kind of a success, but kind of a well-meaning misguided effort. It’s this sense that the film’s heart is in the right place that sees my score err upwards.

    4 out of 5

    Life is Beautiful was viewed as part of What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2019.

  • The 100-Week Roundup XXIII

    Regular readers will remember that I started 2021 on the back foot with these 100-week roundups, being about a month behind. Well, after some effort the past few weeks, I’m pleased to report I’ve now caught up — which, if you think about it, only means I’ve caught up to being just 100 weeks behind. Hurrah?

    Anyway, as always, this roundup covers films I still hadn’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 from February and the first from March 2019

  • Sherlock Gnomes (2018)
  • Swimming with Men (2018)


    Sherlock Gnomes
    (2018)

    2019 #22
    John Stevenson | 86 mins | digital (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English | U / PG

    Sherlock Gnomes

    As if the idea of making a children’s animated movie based on Romeo & Juliet but starring garden gnomes and the music of Elton John wasn’t barmy enough, here we have a sequel that riffs off another classic of English literature, Sherlock Holmes.

    The plot naturally takes the form of a whodunnit, with Gnomeo (voiced by James McAvoy) and Juliet (Emily Blunt) recruiting Sherlock Gnomes (Johnny Depp, for some reason) and his assistant, Dr Gnome Watson (what creative renaming), to investigate the disappearance of their garden ornament friends. Don’t worry too much about the plot, though: I guessed the twist in the very first scene. (Fortunately, there is another twist beyond that.) Instead, treat it as a bright and breezy kids’ adventure. It’s not particularly clever or funny, but much of it is perfectly fine, with the occasional bit that’s quite good, like a Flushed Away-esque sewer scene or a hound of the Baskervilles gag, plus some creative use of animation to render things like Sherlock’s visions or Romeo’s escape plan.

    The Elton John songs are even more incongruously shoehorned in than they were last time — I know he’s a producer, or it’s made by his company or whatever, but, other than that, they have absolutely no reason to be here. Worst of all is a new number, written by Elton and regular collaborator Bernie Taupin but sung by Mary J. Blige. At least it makes the rest of the John back catalogue on the soundtrack seem less objectionable.

    3 out of 5

    Swimming with Men
    (2018)

    2019 #29
    Oliver Parker | 97 mins | digital (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 12

    Swimming with Men

    Here’s a sort of aquatic riff on The Full Monty, as a man suffering a midlife crisis (Rob Brydon) joins an all-male amateur synchronised swimming team, mostly made up of other mostly-middle-aged British character actors: Rupert Graves, Jim Carter, Daniel Mays, Adeel Akhtar, and Thomas Turgoose. It seems like your typical Britcom setup, but it’s actually based on a true story — the Swedish team it’s about play themselves in the film — which has been filmed several other times now: in Sweden as The Swimsuit Issue; in France as Sink or Swim; plus a documentary about the real team, Men Who Swim. I haven’t seen any of those to compare, but the British variant holds up pretty well by itself, with enough gentle amusement and heartwarming camaraderie to make for a pleasant watch.

    3 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.