The 100-Week Roundup VI

Here’s another quartet of reviews from my July 2018 viewing, with an all-star cast both behind the camera (Stanley Kubrick, Ridley Scott) and in front of it (Keanu Reeves, Leonardo DiCaprio, Russell Crowe, etc).

In this week’s roundup…

  • The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)
  • Full Metal Jacket (1987)
  • Wind River (2017)
  • Body of Lies (2008)


    The Day the Earth Stood Still
    (2008)

    2018 #163
    Scott Derrickson | 104 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA & Canada / English & Mandarin | 12 / PG-13

    The Day the Earth Stood Still

    Blockbuster remake of the 1951 sci-fi classic, starring Keanu Reeves as an alien who has come to “save the Earth”.

    The original might be best remembered for its message about mankind. The do-over doesn’t so much attempt serious “humanity are the problem” moralising as just nod in that general direction. Instead, it conforms to the Hollywood-remake stereotype of simplification, using the plot as an excuse for a CGI destructathon. Even as that it’s a bit of a damp squib, with no genuinely impressive sequences; some of the CGI is pretty crap, even, like the first appearance of the giant robot GORT.

    I know we all love him now because he seems like a genuinely wonderful guy in real life and the John Wick movies are cool, but, still, the role of an emotionally cold alien pretending to be human but struggling to understand what truly makes us ‘us’ is a perfect fit for Keanu Reeves and his usual acting style. Jaden Smith is equally perfect casting as an irritating brat of a kid. Jennifer Connelly struggles gamely to be the heart of the film, and there are small or cameo roles for the likes of Kathy Bates, Jon Hamm, and John Cleese, none of whom can really elevate the basic material they’re given.

    All in all, it’s inoffensively bland, with some light sci-fi ideas, a bit of loose moralising, and a bunch of pixels whooshing about. Perhaps with a better creative team — or without the demands of a studio blockbuster budget — it could’ve been more; something genuinely thought-provoking about the value (or otherwise) of humanity. But it isn’t.

    3 out of 5

    Full Metal Jacket
    (1987)

    2018 #165
    Stanley Kubrick | 117 mins | Blu-ray | 16:9 | UK & USA / English | 15 / R

    Full Metal Jacket

    Kubrick’s anti-war war movie, about the dehumanisation of abusive army training, the virtue and success of kindness, and how combat can erode and destroy the soul. It’s “a Vietnam movie”, but Kubrick wasn’t interested in Nam per se, rather “the phenomenon of war” and what happens to young men when you turn them into killing machines.

    It’s a film of two halves: first, the training; then, the war. The first half is the better known one, and some people will tell you it goes downhill when they leave training. That first part is indeed horrid but effective and meaningful, but I thought the second half lived up to its impact too.

    A film about war’s effect on people requires strong performances, and fortunately it has those. Most famous is R. Lee Ermey’s nasty drill instructor — an unquestionably accurate portrayal of the real thing, because Ermey used to be one. He was originally hired as a consultant, but decided he wanted the role and convinced Kubrick to cast him, then rewrote his dialogue — the obscenity-strewn insults are all Ermey’s own. But for my money the best performance in the movie comes from Vincent D’Onofrio. Apparently he got the part just because he was a friend of Matthew Modine — it was his first film role — but he’s fantastic. And nowadays best known as a gun-happy right-wing nut-job on Twitter, Adam Baldwin is very convincing as, er, a gun-happy right-wing nut-job.

    Naturally, Kubrick’s work is as on-point as ever. A climactic action scene pits the entire troop against just one sniper, which is both thrilling and horrifyingly brutal. The film’s final death is excruciatingly drawn out, to really convey its emotional toll. Douglas Milsome’s photography frequently looks stunning as well. The fire-lit final act is as visually gorgeous as it is suspenseful and gruelling.

    To paraphrase a commentator in the Between Good and Evil documentary, Kubrick “takes the sympathetic characters and breaks them down so that, by the end, there’s no one left to root for, and the sympathy you feel is not for the character, but for what they’d lost.” And another notes how much you can see Iraq in the film, as if Kubrick was predicting the future of urban warfare too. Or, another way of looking at it: how little changes; how few lessons we learn.

    5 out of 5

    Full Metal Jacket was viewed as part of What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2018.

    It placed 8th on my list of The Best Films I Saw in 2018.

    Wind River
    (2017)

    2018 #166
    Taylor Sheridan | 107 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA, UK & Canada / English | 15 / R

    Wind River

    A veteran hunter helps an FBI agent investigate the murder of a young woman on a Wyoming Native American reservation.IMDb

    What follows is a neo-Western crime thriller, written and directed by Taylor Sheridan. As a genre piece, it’s most noteworthy for how well it handles the reveal of whodunnit. Just as you think the film’s getting to the point where they find who did it, but it’s only a suspicion and they’re going to have to go off and prove it, the film takes a hard left in a different direction that’s perfectly handled. To quote from a comment on iCheckMovies, the way it goes about this “seemed truly unique to this genre. The closest comparison I can think of is from Se7en, when [Se7en spoilers!] Kevin Spacey just turns up and hands himself in, completely out of the blue. It unexpectedly shattered the cat and mouse formula that people expected it to follow.” By dispensing with narrative oneupmanship (i.e. trying really, really hard to pull a twist out of thin air, as most mystery/thrillers do), it lets “the story unfold into more of a tragedy than the standard mystery or thriller you might expect it to be.”

    Talking of other reviews, some people are heavily critical of the film having a white male lead when it’s supposed to be about the plight of Native Americans, and especially Native American women. Well, yes, to an extent that’s true, but this is where fantasy rubs up against reality: do you really think a movie with a Native American lead would find it easy to get funding, distribution, and gain attention? Sometimes these things are a necessary ‘evil’ if your goal is to reach a wider audience and thereby spread the message. Besides, the film makes a point of treating the white characters as outsiders, in various ways. It’s not pretending this is how it should be, nor that they’re welcomed like, “hooray, the white people are here to save us!” If anything it’s used to emphasise the point: the Native American cops can’t solve the case themselves because they’re underfunded and understaffed; they have no choice but to rely on white people being prepared to help. That’s an indictment in itself.

    Altogether, this is a powerful movie — arguably Taylor Sheridan’s best, most mature screenplay (which is saying something for the man who wrote Sicario and Hell or High Water), and features a superb performance from Jeremy Renner, reminding you why he was Oscar-nominated for The Hurt Locker before his attempts to be a blockbuster action star.

    4 out of 5

    Body of Lies
    (2008)

    2018 #168
    Ridley Scott | 128 mins | download (HD) | 2.40:1 | USA & UK / English & Arabic | 15 / R

    Body of Lies

    A CIA agent on the ground in Jordan hunts down a powerful terrorist leader while being caught between the unclear intentions of his American supervisors and Jordan Intelligence.IMDb

    That’s the simple version, anyhow, because I thought the film itself got a bit long-winded and complicated; but if you enjoy spy movies, it’s smattered with some good bits of tradecraft stuff. That said, I’m not sure I buy Leonardo DiCaprio as the CIA’s man in the Middle East — he stands out like a sore thumb there; not good for a spy.

    Meanwhile, Russell Crowe commands complex world-changing missions over the phone while taking his kids to school or watching a football match — a nice touch, I thought, contrasting mundanity with these high-stakes actions. (Quite why he “had” to gain 50lbs for the role is beyond me, though. Sounds like he just fancied being lazy about his diet and exercise regime.) Still, the standout from the cast is the ever-excellent Mark Strong as the head of Jordanian intelligence, a man who is urbane and always immaculately dressed, but does not suffer those who disrespect him, exhibiting a kind of calm fury-cum-disappointment when they offend him.

    For all the confusion I felt about the plot, what I presume is the intended theme (that America can’t win because it refuses to respect or understand the culture of both its enemies and allies in the Middle East; and that the supposed good guys aren’t any better than the bad guys) comes across quite effectively. It’s also about the ineffectiveness of advanced technology. The CIA, so focused on their shiny new bells and whistles, lose out in the end to old fashioned personal interaction and patient preparation.

    Body of Lies seems somewhat torn between making these points and being an entertaining action-thriller. Ultimately it straddles the two stools, not quite satisfying as either — it has its moments, for sure, but it’s less than the sum of its parts. Maybe Ridley should’ve left the spy thrillers to his brother…

    3 out of 5

  • Gemini Man (2019)

    2020 #141
    Ang Lee | 117 mins | Blu-ray (UHD) | 1.85:1 | USA & China / English | 12 / PG-13

    Gemini Man

    Gemini Man is a film that, at every point I can remember it being talked about, was discussed more for its various technical feats than anything else. Partly that’s because there are a couple of angles. Firstly, the most obvious: it stars Will Smith as an ageing assassin who must fight… a 25-years-younger Will Smith, achieved with motion capture and CGI. Secondly, director Ang Lee shot it in 3D 4K HFR — that’s High Frame Rate, if you don’t know, with the picture running at 120 frames per second rather than the 24fps we’ve been used to for the past 90-odd years (excepting The Hobbit trilogy, though only if you saw one of the relatively-limited HFR theatrical screenings). Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that Gemini Man often feels more like a tech demo with a plot grafted onto it than it does a fully functioning movie in its own right.

    Consequently, I’m going to spend more of this review writing about the film’s presentation than its content. To some degree, that speaks for itself as criticism. But if you are interested in the film and don’t give a toss about how exactly you’re seeing it (or don’t have a choice), feel free to whizz down to the last two paragraphs (just after the picture of Young Will Smith) where I finally offer some thoughts on the film itself.

    Back to the tech, then. There’s currently only one way to see Gemini Man in its intended format: at the cinema. I say “currently” — obviously such opportunities expired when its theatrical run ended, and I don’t imagine it’s likely to get a re-release. Every other option is a compromise. Want to see it in 3D? Not only will you need the appropriate home cinema setup, but you’ll have to import the disc from Germany, the only country where it was granted a 3D Blu-ray release. Want to see it in HFR? That’s easier, because the 4K disc is widely available, though obviously you still need the appropriate kit. (I presume the digital 4K versions are HFR too, but I don’t actually know that.) Mind you, even that’s something of a compromise, because tech limitations mean the home release is 60fps rather than the full 120 (to be fair, so were most HFR cinema screenings).

    Action Man

    I watched it in 4K 60fps, and, oh, it’s weird. So so weird. Distracts-you-for-the-entire-film weird. Virtually-the-only-thing-I’m-going-to-talk-about-in-this-review weird. The disc even begins with a notice/warning that it’s at 60fps rather than 24fps, so presumably they know how weird it feels. The most obvious effect of more frames per second is that motion is smoother, with reduced motion blur, but that applies on a micro level to lend an unnatural clarity to everything. The effect on motion is often called “the soap opera effect”, because such cheap drama has traditionally been shot at TV’s higher default frame rate. Of course, so is much other television, or even behind-the-scenes footage on films; so while it’s not a wholly inaccurate nickname, the effect reminded me more of TV documentaries. The film begins with a train journey in a lusciously green-looking Belgium, before travelling around the globe to other sunny locations with glamorous establishing shots. It looks less like a Hollywood action movie, more like Will Smith is the new host of Cruising with Jane McDonald.

    When it’s not playing travelogue, it looks like a tech demo. I don’t think that’s just the added smoothness, but everything about how it’s shot: it’s very bright and saturated, the kind of look you get in marketing promos, not feature films. Even paused it looks a little odd. Partly that’s the boost given to the colour palette by HDR, but at this point I’ve watched plenty of other films with HDR to be familiar with its effects, and I think this was beyond normal. The other thing the visual quality reminded me of was low-budget films by very new/amateur filmmakers, and that’s definitely to do with Ang Lee’s shot choices — lots of stuff at eye level, gentle pans and tilts, in locations so dull they might have been found around someone’s hometown. It doesn’t help any that all the fonts they’ve used for captions look like the editing software’s bland default. And further, it’s also the effect of shooting on high-resolution digital video — it’s ultra-clear, with none of the grain of real film, but, again, that’s a look more familiar from low-budget productions. Would HFR work better if it was shot on real film? You’d get back some of that tactile grit, rather than telltale digital smoothness.

    Biker Man

    What about when the film gets to its big action sequences — the kind of thing that obviously a no-budget newbie couldn’t afford. Would the change of milieu fix the mental associations? Yes and no, in that it just adds other ones: the first big sequence, the bike chase you probably saw in trailers or clips, looks like a computer game. Again, it’s a mix of elements: the digital sheen, the smooth frame rate, the shot choices (lots of POV or close following, like a game’s third-person camera), and an unnatural-seeming speed — it looks like some of the CGI has been animated too fast, though that could be HFR’s fluidity making normal motion look odd because we’re not used to it.

    The advantage of wondering all this while watching the film at home was that, afterwards, I could pop in the regular Blu-ray and compare a few scenes in 24fps 1080p SDR. Immediately, it looks a lot more like a regular movie. Is that indeed the loss of HFR’s smoothness, or is it the drop in resolution, or the loss of HDR enhancement? Without being able to view different permutations it’s hard to say which one causes the jarring effect, or if it‘s the incremental change made by each that adds up to a radically different picture when combined. That said, obviously I’ve watched 4K HDR films before, and it’s never struck me as odd-looking as much as this film (I’ve seen some strange applications of HDR, but that tends to be in individual shots/scenes, not an entire movie). The bike chase also looks more normal on the whole, though some of the bits I alluded to before still looked dodgy, so I can only conclude it’s a mix of the animation (because I’m sure it’s not a real stunt) and the HFR.

    If all that wasn’t distracting enough, there’s the fact that one of the film’s main stars is a de-aged Will Smith. We’ve seen plenty of de-ageing in films now, whether it be Marvel’s flashbacks or Scorsese’s varied eras in The Irishman. This feels more extensive, though — they’ve not just airbrushed Smith’s age-related blemishes, but recreated his youthful visage with full motion-captured CGI. The end result is both incredibly realistic animation and also not quite there. Maybe that’s just because I know it’s not real — I wonder if someone unfamiliar with the film’s setup wouldn’t register it. It looks more convincing than I remember Peter Cushing being in Rogue One, and I remember stories of kids who didn’t realise he was CGI. I guess the best praise is that, as the film went on, I realised I’d just accepted Young Will as his own character, not a second Old Will in disguise. There are scenes where he’s called on to do Proper Acting and it works. Unfortunately, it’s almost ruined by one scene at the end where the effect suddenly looks like a ten-year-old computer game. Was this a last-minute re-edit, I wonder, leaving them without enough time to do the CGI properly? It’s a shame to have dropped the ball at the last hurdle.

    Young Man

    And if you can get past all the technical distractions (which I guess most people will, as “the tech” is not why most people watch films, and on any format less than 4K the visual oddness evaporates anyway), what about the film itself? Well, it’s a passable action-thriller with a sci-fi tweak. For the level of the latter, think something like Face/Off rather than, say, Blade Runner. I’ve seen quite a few people compare it to a ’90s action movie and that’s pretty fair — subtract the fancy cameras and CGI and that’s what’s left. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, unless you’re so young that ’90s action movies are Old and consequently Bad. There are a couple of very impressive and exciting action sequences — the bike chase, primarily (which I bet looks fab in 3D). That said, the Blu-ray’s visual effects featurette reveals they faked a bunch of stunts that Tom Cruise and Chris McQuarrie would’ve done for real as a third-tier action sequence, which takes the shine off a little. (On the other hand, it also reveals that there’s some fucking incredible CGI in this movie — stuff you’d never imagine was an effect but is, including a full-on close-up of Old Will.)

    So, the reason the tech presentation remains the film’s strongest talking point is that the film underneath is decent but nothing particularly special. That said, I do think it’s been given a hard rap by critics and viewers alike — whether or not you’re interested in the experimental visuals, it’s a fine sci-fi-tinged action blockbuster, with all the attendant qualities and demerits that implies.

    3 out of 5

    Gemini Man is available on Sky Cinema and Now TV from today.

    The 100-Week Roundup III

    In this selection of films I watched back at the end of May / start of June 2018…

  • The Wild Bunch (1969)
  • The Wild Bunch: An Album in Montage (1996)
  • The Warriors (1979)
  • Power Rangers (2017)
  • Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)


    The Wild Bunch
    (1969)

    2018 #115
    Sam Peckinpah | 139 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 18 / R

    The Wild Bunch

    After a gang of ageing crooks’ “one last job” goes sideways, they agree to rob a munitions train for a Mexican general, even as they’re hunted by a militia reluctantly headed by their leader’s former partner.

    The Wild Bunch is, of course, a Western, but it’s set in 1913 — not a time we particularly associate with “the Old West”. Well, change doesn’t happen overnight. And it certainly takes that “end of an era” thing to heart as a tale of old men, whose way of life is fading away. It’s also a ‘late Western’ in terms of when it was produced: this isn’t an old-fashioned “white hats vs black hats” kinda adventure, but one full of ultra-violence with a downbeat ending. The opening sequence gets pretty bloody, and then the climax is an absolute orgy of violence. It’s still almost shocking today, so you can see how it was controversial back in 1969.

    It’s not just the presence of violence and blood that’s remarkable, though, but how it’s presented, both in terms of filmmaking and morals. To the former, the speed of the cutting was groundbreaking at the time: reportedly it contains more cuts than any other Technicolor film, with 3,643 cuts in the original print. If that’s true, it gives it an average shot length of about 2.4 seconds. For comparison, the average in the ’60s was around 6 or 7 seconds, while even Moulin Rouge, a movie made decades later that was still notorious for its fast cutting, has an average shot length of 2.01 seconds. It’s not just speed that makes the editing so noteworthy, but its effectiveness, making juxtapositions and using shots to both tell the story and create the impression of being in the thick of it.

    Bad boys

    As for the morals, the film was all about showing these violent men as unheroic and unglamorous, setting out to “demystify the Western and the genre’s heroic and cavalier characters” (to quote IMDb). That piece goes on to say that screenwriters Sam Peckinpah and Walon Green “felt that this project required a realistic look at the characters of the Old West, whose actions on screen had rarely matched the violent and dastardly reality of the men on which they were based… Both Green and Peckinpah felt it was important to not only show that the film’s protagonists were violent men, but that they achieved their violence in unheroic and horrific ways, such as using people as human shields and killing unarmed bystanders during robberies.”

    Of course, antiheroes are ten-a-penny nowadays, so the idea that “men who commit violence are bad” doesn’t play as revolutionary anymore. Indeed, The Wild Bunch can be enjoyed as an action movie — there’s the opening and closing set pieces I’ve already mentioned, plus an excellent train robbery and ensuing chase in the middle too, and a couple of other bits. That said, the film has more on its mind than just adrenaline-generating thrills, and so (based on comments I’ve read elsewhere online) if you are watching just for action it can feel like a bit of a slog. While I wouldn’t be that critical, I did find it a bit slow at times. The original distributors must’ve felt the same, as the film was cut by ten minutes for its US release. (The version widely available today is the original 145-minute director’s cut. I watched a PAL copy, hence the 4% shorter running time.)

    4 out of 5

    The Wild Bunch was viewed as part of my Blindspot 2018 project.

    The Wild Bunch:
    An Album in Montage

    (1996)

    2018 #115a
    Paul Seydor | 33 mins | DVD | 4:3 | USA / English | 15

    Behind the scenes of The Wild Bunch

    This film came to exist because someone found 72 minutes of silent black-and-white behind-the-scenes footage shot during the filming of The Wild Bunch. No one knows why it was filmed — this was a long time before the era of EPKs and DVD special features. And, indeed, if it had been discovered just a couple of years later then a DVD special feature is exactly what it would’ve become; but, being just ahead of that, it ended up as a short film — an Oscar-nominated one at that, going up for the Best Documentary Short prize in 1997. Naturally, it has since found its rightful home as a special feature on DVD and Blu-ray releases of its subject matter.

    The silent film footage is accompanied by voice over of first-hand accounts from the people involved, either taken from recorded interviews (people like screenwriter Walon Green and actors Edmond O’Brien and Ernest Borgnine represent themselves) or actors reading out comments (Ed Harris is the voice of Sam Peckinpah, for example). From this we get not only making-of trivia and tales, but also discussion of the filmmakers’ intent and the film’s meaning. More material along the lines of the latter would’ve interested me.

    As it is, An Album in Montage feels very much at home in its current situation as a DVD extra. Fans of the film will certainly get something out of it, but I don’t think it’s insightful enough to stand independently. It’s by no means a bad little featurette, but it’s not worth seeking out outside of the context of the film itself.

    3 out of 5

    The Warriors
    (1979)

    2018 #123
    Walter Hill | 89 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 18 / R

    The Warriors

    In the near future, a charismatic leader summons the street gangs of New York City in a bid to take it over. When he is killed, The Warriors are falsely blamed and now must fight their way home while every other gang is hunting them down.IMDb

    And that’s all you need to know, because The Warriors’ plot is really simple and straightforward, but that’s part of why it works. It doesn’t need dressing up; it’s got an almost an elegant directness, and it thrives off that. The action sequences feel unchoreographed, with a bruising realism in spite of their sometimes elaborate setups (duelling baseball bats!), and yet they carry an energy and impact that is wholly in keeping with something carefully designed and constructed. The characters are simply drawn, revealed through their actions rather than telegraphed Character Moments or heartfelt speeches. Similarly, the kind-of-romance between the Warriors’ leader and the girl they run into on the streets is so well handled — okay, there are some scenes where they almost talk about it directly, but mostly it’s just moments or lines that indicate a world of feeling. The way this character stuff is sketched in — subtly, sometimes in the background — is quite masterful, actually.

    Such skill extends throughout the film’s technical side. For all the film’s ’70s grit, there’s some beautiful stuff in the editing and shot choices, especially at the end on the beach. It’s not just beauty in an attractive sense, but meaningful, effective imagery, in a way that impresses without being slick or pretty. The music choices are bang-on too. The film intercuts to a radio station that functions like some kind of Greek chorus, linking the action and helping to create a heightened atmosphere — one that’s there in the whole film, incidentally, with its colourful gangs and detached police presence — without ever shattering the down-to-earth, gritty, almost-real feel the whole thing has.

    Gang wars

    I loved The Warriors, and I think that last point is a big part of why: it sits at an almost inexplicable point where it feels incredibly grounded, gritty and realistic, but at the same time a heightened fantasy kind of world. Here I’m trying to describe why I adored the film bu breaking it down into these constituent parts, but there’s something more to it than that — a kind of magic where it just… works.

    All of that said, it seems I was lucky to catch the original version (via Now TV / Sky Cinema), rather than the so-called Director’s Cut that seems to be the only version available on Blu-ray. Looking at the changes, they don’t seem particularly in keeping with the tone of the movie, smacking of decades-later revisionism. Apparently there’s also a TV version that includes 12 minutes of additional scenes, none of which are included on the film’s disc releases. I wish Paramount would license this out to someone like Arrow to do it properly…

    5 out of 5

    The Warriors placed 11th on my list of The 26 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018.

    Power Rangers
    (2017)

    2018 #126
    Dean Israelite | 124 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA, Hong Kong, Japan, Mexico, Canada & New Zealand / English & Mandarin | 12 / PG-13

    Power Rangers

    High school outcasts stumble upon an old alien ship, where they acquire superpowers and are dubbed the Power Rangers. Learning that an old enemy of the previous generation has returned to exact vengeance, the group must harness their powers and use them to work together and save the world.IMDb

    Far from the cheesy TV series of old, this Power Rangers reboot clearly wants to be a somewhat gritty, largely realistic, socially conscious take on the concept. But it’s like it was written by people behind the original, because it’s still full of clunky dialogue, earnest characters (with a thin veneer of outsider ‘cool’), and nods to serious issues without having the time or interest to actually engage with them. Like, one of the kids is the sole carer for his sick mother, or another is on the autistic spectrum, but, beyond spending a line or two to tell us these things, those issues have no bearing on the plot or the characterisation. Plus, it can’t overcome some of the fundamental cheesiness of the original. And when it tries to give in to it, like by playing the Power Rangers theme the first time the giant “dinocars” run into action, it’s too late for such shenanigans and the tones clash horrendously. It wants to escape the tackiness of the original series, but simple can’t.

    And somehow it gets worse as it goes on. The early character stuff is derivative but alright. Then you begin to realise how shallow it is. You’re waiting for the super-suits to show up and the action to start. Then you have to wait some more while it works through plot beats so stale it can’t even be bothered to play them out fully. Then, when the suits finally arrive and the action starts, turns out it’s the worst part of the movie. Almost entirely CGI, under-choreographed, a mess of nothingness with little correlation from shot to shot, no sense of rhythm or construction. When their dinocars all merge into one giant dinocar, the villain screams “how?!”, and you will feel the same.

    Bryan Cranston (yes, Bryan Cranston is in this) tries to inject some character into his role, but it’s too underwritten and his screen time too slight to let him do much with his supposed arc. Elizabeth Banks, meanwhile, is barely in it and has no arc whatsoever, but she chews scenery like a pro. She seems to be aware it’s all stupid and over the top and plays it appropriately.

    2 out of 5

    Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
    (2017)

    2018 #127
    Martin McDonagh | 115 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | UK & USA / English | 15 / R

    Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

    a darkly comic drama from Academy Award nominee Martin McDonagh. After months have passed without a culprit in her daughter’s murder case, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) makes a bold move, painting three signs leading into her town with a controversial message directed at William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), the town’s revered chief of police. When his second-in-command, Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), an immature mother’s boy with a penchant for violence, gets involved, the battle between Mildred and Ebbing’s law enforcement is only exacerbated.IMDb

    As well as being as deathly serious and sometimes horrifying as the subject matter deserves, Three Billboards is also as funny as you’d expect from the writer-director of In Bruges. Not to the extent — the subject matter is far too serious for it to be an outright comedy like that — but in subplots and interludes it’s hilarious.

    It’s got a helluva cast, and all of the performances are excellent. Frances McDormand is so fucking good that she even manages to make talking to a badly CGI’d deer incredibly emotional. Apparently some people had a massive problem with the film’s treatment of Sam Rockwell’s character, I think because he was a bad guy who got redeemed. But, really, imagine thinking people who once did bad things can never turn themselves around and be better people. What a pessimistic way to view the world. And yet I guess that’s what today’s “cancel culture” is all about.

    Two outta three ain't bad

    It’s nicely shot by DP Ben Davis (except for that deer), while Carter Burwell’s Western-esque score has some really cool bits. It really emphasises the film’s formal overtures at being a revenge Western, even if the way it goes down in the end doesn’t necessarily support such a reading.

    There was a huge backlash to the film at some point; bring it up online and you’re likely to come across people who assume everyone hates it… but it’s got 90% on Rotten Tomatoes and is still ranked the 150th best film of all time on IMDb, so I think we know where the majority stand. I’m happy to stand with them.

    5 out of 5

    Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri placed 14th on my list of The 26 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018.

  • Men in Black: International (2019)

    2020 #85
    F. Gary Gray | 115 mins | Blu-ray | 2.00:1 | USA & China / English | 12 / PG-13

    Men in Black: International

    When Men in Black: International* hit cinemas last summer, many, many, many critics used a neuralyzer-related pun prominently in their review. (Someone did a Twitter thread compiling all the near-identical jokes. It reached 120 examples.**) For those unfamiliar with the MIB franchise, the neuralyzer is a small device that can wipe people’s memories, used by the MIB to keep their activities secret. The repetitive and inevitable joke was that International is so bad you’ll want to be neuralzyed afterwards. Now, I swear the film itself is trying to get in on the gag: the only photo printed on its disc is of a neuralyzer, as if the Blu-ray itself is going to wipe your memory when you take it out of your player. If only it did…

    International is essentially a spin-off from the previous trilogy of MIB movies: whereas they followed Agents J and K (Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones) on adventures in New York, this time we follow newbie Agent M (Tessa Thompson) as she’s relocated to London and paired with hot-shot-agent-gone-off-the-boil H (Chris Hemsworth) on a globetrotting adventure to unearth a mole in MIB.

    Reinvigorating the franchise with new blood isn’t a bad idea. The third film was a marked improvement on the second, but neither recaptured the glories of the first, and K and J’s story was pretty well played out. Hemsworth and Thompson are good picks for the leads, too, given he displayed noteworthy comedic chops in the Ghostbusters reboot and the pair had clear chemistry in the well-liked Thor: Ragnarok.

    Back in black

    But clear-eyed plans alone don’t make a good movie, as Men in Black: International proves. It’s not that the movie is bad per se, it’s just mediocre; bland; uninspired. It’s devoid of wit or charm — which, considering the cast, is kind of remarkable. I mean, it’s not just Hemsworth and Thompson — two appealing, capable leads. There’s also Liam Neeson and Emma Thompson, and Rebecca Ferguson pops up (I didn’t even know she was in it ’til she did), and there’s Rafe Spall (limited by having to be a blatant red herring), and the voice of Kumail Nanjiani. Whoever’s your favourite out of that talented cast, they’re wasted. Neeson is a particular bit of miscasting. Calling the head of London branch “High T” is a perfectly adequate joke, playing on Britishness and poshness… until you cast a guy with a pronounced Northern Irish accent, which just kills the gag dead. Nanjiani fares best as the voice of a little CGI creature, who’s probably meant to be cute but errs more towards annoying, though I didn’t hate him.

    Of course I didn’t hate him — nothing in this movie is emotive enough to be hate-worthy. But by being so bland, it becomes objectionable. MIB2 wasn’t great, but at least it was kind of entertaining in its poorness. International is playing it so safe that you can’t even groan at it, or be delighted when something half-decent emerges from the mire, or be amused by it in spite of itself.

    I guess this is what happens when you hire a primarily action director to helm a movie that should primarily be a comedy. F. Gary Gray did start off his career with a comedy, Friday, but that was 25 years ago. He’s better known for the likes of The Negotiator, the Italian Job remake, Law Abiding Citizen, and The Fate of the Furious. He hasn’t turned this into a straight-up action movie — it does still try to be amusing — but it’s clear the focus is in a different place to before. It’s partly because it’s far too long and lacking in pace. It’s always stick in my mind that the director of the previous MIBs, Barry Sonnenfeld, once said he’s the only director whose Director’s Cut would be shorter than the original film because he’s always looking to strip things back. I suspect that may be part of why the previous movies worked, and it feels like International could really benefit from the same approach.

    Cute and/or annoying CGI creature? Check

    It certainly seemed to me like it was several more drafts away from completion. The twist is so obvious you can guess it just from looking at the cast list, underscored by a prologue that fades to white before it resolves and so may as well scream “what happened next is not what you’ll think”. More vitally, why is M a rookie agent? You’d think it would give an obvious and easy character arc, but that’s not really played. Instead, there are loads of times throughout the film where she Knows Stuff, so they have to explain it with “it says it in the handbook” or something similarly hand-wavy. The fact she managed to find the MIB, rather than them choosing to recruit her, is a cute origin but then has nothing to do with anything. It would’ve been better if she was a desk jockey forced out onto her first field assignment. Sure, that’s a tired characterisation too, but at least it’d be something a bit different for the franchise, and a bit more in keeping with how the movie wants to use her.

    At one point it was mooted that this would be an MIB / Jump Street crossover movie, which was a barmy idea; but with MIB in need of a fresh start and Jump Street already being pretty immune to the fourth wall, it could’ve been great. At least it would’ve been different — even if it hadn’t’ve worked, they’d’ve tried something bold. Instead, they went for the much safer option of a straightforward soft reboot, and everything about International screams “safe”. Earlier I said it wasn’t bad, but by being so dull, well, it kinda is.

    2 out of 5

    Men in Black: International is available on Sky Cinema from today.

    * Don’t get me started on that colon in the title. I could practically write an essay just about that choice. ^
    ** Most of the critics took it well, apparently. ^

    Review Roundup: Superman Sequels

    Superman: The Movie is one of the greatest superhero movies ever made, perhaps even the greatest. Its sequels… not so much.

    It took three movies to get there, but through them you’ll believe a franchise can die…

    Superman II
    (1980)

    2018 #128
    Richard Lester | 127 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA, UK & Canada / English | PG / PG

    Superman II

    I feel like I must’ve seen Superman II as a kid — I know I saw Superman and enjoyed it, so why wouldn’t I have seen the sequel? But all the things people go on about from it (“kneel before Zod!”) I only know because other people go on about them, not from any memory of my own, so maybe I never saw it? Well, sitting down to watch it now, I didn’t remember any part of it. But that doesn’t mean I definitely didn’t see it because, frankly, I didn’t find Superman II particularly worthy of being remembered. I know some people love it — heck, James Gunn even included it in a list of “sequels that are better than the original” the other day. But James Gunn is wrong.

    For me, the film breaks down into a few simple and distinct sections. First, it begins with an eight-and-a-half-minute recap of the first movie. That’s… long. And largely unnecessary. I mean, when it bothers to include the telephone booth gag but omits the turning-the-world-backwards climax of the movie, you get the impression it’s not there to get you properly up to speed on the plot.

    Next, Lois and Clark spend most of the first hour titting about at Niagara Falls investigating a honeymoon hotel scam (a what now?!), while evil Kryptonian General Zod and his gang veeery slooowly make their way to somewhere significant. Then there’s half-an-hour of Lois and Clark being too self-absorbed to notice Zod take over the world. Not-so-super, Superman. Then, finally, the all-action last half-hour actually gives us some Superman stuff. Hurrah!

    Who's kneeling now, bitch?

    The humour quotient is waaay upped from the first movie. Based on his previous work, I guess much of that was the influence of replacement director Richard Lester. He wasn’t a good choice all round: Margot Kidder disliked working with him; Gene Hackman didn’t return (all his scenes are either footage previously shot or done with a lookalike and impersonator); John Williams walked off the film after seeing Lester’s footage. He reshot a bunch of stuff original director Richard Donner had already filmed, partly to get a sole director credit, partly because he didn’t approve of the epic visual style Donner had chosen. Instead, Lester aimed for a visually flat “comic book” style. Ugh.

    25 years after Superman II’s release, Warner Bros relented and let Donner complete his original cut of the movie, released in 2006 as The Richard Donner Cut. Maybe that version’s better — I haven’t watched it yet, but it does have a much higher score on IMDb. But how anyone could genuinely love the originally-released version, I don’t understand. It’s not outright bad, it’s just mediocre, and not a patch on its predecessor.

    3 out of 5

    Superman III
    (1983)

    2018 #161
    Richard Lester | 125 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | UK & USA / English | PG / PG

    Superman III

    If you said “imagine a Superman film by a director who won the Palme d’Or”, you wouldn’t picture Superman: The Slapstick Comedy… and yet here we are.

    The director in question is Richard Lester, returning after Superman II, a movie he inherited, so I guess it’s only here that he’s really allowed to show what he thinks a comic book movie ought to be. Turns out, that’s more like Airplane or a Jacques Tati film than the David Lean influence he felt Richard Donner was aiming for on Superman: The Movie. He even lets the title card even appears over the epic superhero imagery of… three phone boxes having been knocked over dominoes-style by a hot dog cart. Wow.

    Ironically, almost all of the film is humour-focused apart from the scenes starring comedian Richard Pryor (who thought the screenplay was terrible, but did like the $5 million salary). Concurrently, the technological and scientific parts of the plot make absolutely no sense. Like, a weather monitoring satellite can be accessed from a small-town wheat firm and then be reprogrammed to control the weather. And that same satellite can then use its lasers to analyse rocks millions of miles away to find out what elements make up another element, which just… Ugh. It so doesn’t make sense that it’s too much effort to explain why it doesn’t make sense.

    With Gene Hackman presumably only too happy to be rid of this franchise, the villain is now Robert Vaughn, who has an entourage that feels like a blatant attempt to emulate Lex Luther & co from the previous films. There’s also an all-powerful supercomputer, which Superman defeats with what appears to be a bubbling-over pot of strawberry jam.

    That's Larry Lamb on the left, would you believe

    The story also involves Superman going bad — you can tell because he’s grown a five o’clock shadow, developed bags under his eyes, and started wearing a suit with a colour scheme more suited to a Zack Snyder interpretation of the character. And he begins to do really terrible things, like… straightening the leaning tower of Pisa, and… blowing out the Olympic flame. Ooh, edgy. Why does he do it? God, I don’t know. There’s no logic in this. There’s a fight between good Superman and bad Superman, which some think is brilliant; “a highlight of the series”, said one comment I read. Maybe it’s just because Evil Superman is so damn cartoonish, but I didn’t particularly care for it.

    It did inspire the original title of the movie, though, which was Superman vs. Superman, and that in turn led to a bit of trivia more batshit insane than anything in the film itself: that original title was dropped after legal action was threatened by… the producers of Kramer vs. Kramer. What in the fucking what now?! I know America is famed for spurious lawsuits, but c’mon!

    Of course, if you take the whole film at the face value of its tone, it doesn’t really matter — it’s just a daft comedy. But it shouldn’t be, should it? This isn’t the Superman the first film promised us.

    2 out of 5

    Superman IV:
    The Quest for Peace

    (1987)

    2020 #79
    Sidney J. Furie | 90 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English | PG / PG

    Superman IV: The Quest for Peace

    At one point in this movie, a young character calls Superman “the Dude of Steel”. Yeah, we’re down with the kids now! Superman (okay, Clark Kent) even does aerobics. Hip and happening!

    After Superman III tried its damnedest to turn Superman into a comedy, Superman IV swings the other way and turns it into a polemic. It’s like an 8-year-old was asked to write an anti-nuclear weapons essay and chose to do it in the form of a Superman story. It seems like a mercy that it only runs 90 minutes, although that’s part of the problem: the original final cut was 134 minutes, but the producers chopped out 45 minutes of material. No wonder it grows increasingly nonsensical as it goes on. But then so did Superman III and they had no such excuse, so there’s no saying the longer cut would’ve been better.

    Indeed, on the evidence of what’s left, I think we can assume it wouldn’t have been. Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor is back (goodness knows how they talked him into it), but his plan involves creating a physical adversary for Superman: Nuclear Man! Nuclear Man has many of Supes’ powers and strengths, but none of his brains, as he stomps around just roaring at people. He flies around the world basically just being a vandal, and Superman follows along to clean up after him, like some kind of super-powered babysitter. Then he punches Supes once and… he loses all his powers? And then Nuclear Man sees a woman on a cover of a newspaper and suddenly getting her is his only motivation; and Superman’s back, thanks to a magic crystal, and he somehow knows exactly what/who Nuclear Man is after; and so Superman defeats him by… tricking him into an elevator… which he drops off on the Moon; but not the dark side, so the sun’s rays revitalise Nuclear Man… when the sun rises. On the Moon. Jesus wept.

    The Moon isn't made of cheese, but this film...

    There are some good ideas in Superman IV. As co-writer Mark Rosenthal discusses on his audio commentary, the idea had been to explore the age-old question of “if God is all-good and all-powerful, why is there still suffering” — because, with all his powers, Superman is basically a mythological God; so why doesn’t he just get rid of all those nasty nukes? The answer, of course, is that he’s not real. And so in the fictional world of the fictional film, the fictional hero gets rid of the nukes, which is nice for the fictional people but not so much use to the rest of us.

    Because Lois Lane is in love with Superman but not so much Clark Kent, they decided to give Clark a love interest, which I’m not sure quite understands the characters or their dynamic properly, but whatever. It did inspire one fun idea, though: a double date between Superman & Lois and Clark & new-lady. The idea was for a quick-paced farce of a scene, with Clark and Supes coming and going at speed, like something out of a Cary Grant screwball romantic comedy. I guess no one told the director, because the scene as filmed lacks the quick pace needed to make it work. You can have all the great ideas in the world, but if you don’t have the skills to execute them properly, it’s worthless.

    Apparently it was really Christopher Reeve who fought to make the movie happen, and everyone involved had good intentions and didn’t want to let him down. Well, they did. The returning cast are the only people who emerge unscathed from this mess — Reeve is as wonderful as ever as Superman; just perfect. His chemistry with Margot Kidder is great, and Gene Hackman is still managing to have fun as Lex. But why suffer through the rest of this terrible movie for those scant bright spots when you could just watch the first Superman instead?

    1 out of 5

    19 years later, after a couple of decades relegated to various TV incarnations, they attempted to return the Man of Steel to the silver screen in big-budget style with Superman Returns, which was conceived as a continuation of the Christopher Reeve series. My original review of that movie is here.

    The Avengers (1998)

    The 100 Films Guide to…

    The Avengers

    Saving the World in Style.

    Also Known As:
    Chapeau melon et bottes de cuir (France — Bowler Hat and Leather Boots)
    Mit Schirm, Charme und Melone (Germany — With Umbrella, Charm and Bowler Hat)

    Country: USA
    Language: English
    Runtime: 89 minutes
    BBFC: 12
    MPAA: PG-13

    Original Release: 13th August 1998 (Israel)
    UK Release: 14th August 1998
    Budget: $60 million
    Worldwide Gross: $48.6 million

    Stars
    Ralph Fiennes (Schindler’s List, Harry Potter)
    Uma Thurman (Batman & Robin, Kill Bill: Vol. 1)
    Sean Connery (Goldfinger, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen)

    Director
    Jeremiah Chechik (National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Benny & Joon)

    Screenwriter
    Don MacPherson (Absolute Beginners, The Gunman)

    Based on
    The Avengers, a ’60s British TV series created by Sydney Newman.


    The Story
    After the UK’s weather control project is destroyed, apparently by one of its own scientists, Ministry agent John Steed is assigned to investigate. Teaming up with that scientist, Mrs Emma Peel, they uncover a plot to hold the world’s governments to ransom…

    Our Heroes
    Extraordinary crimes against the people and the state must be avenged by agents extraordinary: John Steed: traditional, stylish, reserved, lethal. Emma Peel: doctor, atomic scientist, poet, meteorologist, physicist, marksman.

    Our Villain
    A former agent of the Ministry, Sir August de Wynter is now head of BROLLY, the British Royal Organization for Lasting Liquid Years, who have developed the technology to control the weather and now seek to put it to nefarious ends.

    Best Supporting Character
    Machine-gun firing granny Alice. Eileen Atkins was offered the role of the Ministry’s deputy leader, Father, but thought the part of Alice sounded more fun, so they re-wrote to enlarge it for her.

    Memorable Quote
    “Now is the winter of your discontent!” — Sir August de Wynter

    Memorable Scene
    Instructed to meet Steed at his gentleman’s club, Mrs Peel waltzes into the place, despite the objections of the receptionist. She marches through the building, shocking the patrons, until she finds Steed in the steam room — naked but for the newspaper he’s reading. “Please, don’t get up.” “I was about to throw in the towel.”

    Memorable Music
    Michael Kamen was originally hired to score the film, but eventually quit after being constantly given revised cuts of the movie to work with. His replacement, Joel McNeely, had to turn something round in short notice, and I’ve seen his score described as clearly rushed, dull and uninspired. But at least the TV series’ classic theme is in there, and fairly well used — once right at the start (although there’s an ever-so-’90s X-Files-y number over the main credits), and then again perfectly as a farewell over the final scene. Rumour has it Kamen’s score was darker and more atmospheric, with a greater and more interesting use of the original theme. Given the general disregard for the movie, I don’t imagine it’ll ever be unearthed for us to find out for ourselves.

    Letting the Side Down
    The teddy-bear meeting, where the participants are kept anonymous by wearing giant teddy-bear costumes. It’s an attempt at emulating the whimsy of the TV series, but an empty one — as the series’ regular writer Brian Clemens once commented, if the plot’s about controlling the weather then the meeting should’ve been weather-themed somehow.

    Some people would say there’s a lot more wrong with the film than just that one scene, but there’s more to it than that…

    Making of
    When Warner Bros execs saw the first cut of the movie, it was not what they were expecting. I don’t know what they were expecting, but I guess not something so tongue-in-cheek, whimsical, and camp. Apparently the first test screening in Phoenix, Arizona, was to a “largely Spanish-speaking, working class” audience — hardly the film’s target market, and unsurprisingly they hated it. The studio forced cuts and reshoots, taking the movie from 115 minutes to a sprightly 89, sacrificing plot coherence for the sake of speed. And so a true disaster was born.

    Previously on…
    This is a reboot rather than continuation of the original TV series — it shows how Steed and Mrs Peel met for the first time. I don’t know if the TV series actually covered that (I really should watch it all one of these days), but I don’t imagine it went like this.

    Next time…
    The Avengers ultimately became a massively successful multi-film franchise under the auspices of Marvel Studios. Oh, no, wait, that’s some other thing. No, after suffering atrocious reviews (it’s sometimes cited as one of the worst movies of all time), the ’98 Avengers slinked off into relative obscurity (it’s probably better remembered here than in the US thanks to the TV series connection, but Marvel’s super-friends are gradually replacing it in the consciousness, sadly). Still, the world of the TV series lives on in occasional comic books and audio dramas.

    Awards
    1 Razzie (Worst Remake or Sequel (tied with Godzilla and Psycho))
    8 Razzie nominations (Worst Picture, Actor (Ralph Fiennes), Actress (Uma Thurman), Screen Couple (Fiennes & Thurman), Supporting Actor (Sean Connery), Director, Screenplay, Original Song (Storm by Grace Jones))

    Verdict

    I was one of the half-dozen people who actually saw The Avengers at the cinema in 1998. I don’t remember disliking it, but then I was all of 12 so what would I have known? Its poor reputation has only grown in the intervening decades, so I wasn’t expecting to think much of it as a more critically sophisticated adult. But, much to my surprise, I kind of loved it.

    I guess in ’98 people were expecting some kind of serious-minded thriller, probably in the Bond mould — this was just after GoldenEye and Tomorrow Never Dies had relaunched that series to much acclaim and box office success, of course, and The Avengers was another hallmark of ’60s British spy-fi. But The Avengers and Bond were never the same tonally, and the film embraces the mannered, quirky tone of the TV series, then turns it up to eleven. Personally I think it’s a tonne of fun, with arch performances, ripe dialogue, and a deliciously camp air.

    If it wasn’t for WB’s post-production fiddling, which has left the plot feeling a bit janky and spasmodic, I reckon this would be a cult classic by now. They really ought to have a bad reputation for that kind of fiddling at this point — Batman Forever, Suicide Squad, and Justice League come to mind. But never mind the Snyder cut, I want them to #ReleaseTheChechikCut. Sadly, it’ll never happen.

    Terminator 2: Judgment Day 3D (1991/2017)

    2018 #103
    James Cameron | 137 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & France / English | 15 / R

    Terminator 2: Judgment Day 3D

    When I’ve previously reviewed 3D versions of films I’d already seen in 2D, I haven’t given them a new number — so why did T2 3D merit one? Partly it’s a ‘feeling’ that comes from it not being the original version. Most of those other re-watches were films that had a 3D release concurrent with their 2D one, but T2’s is a years-later addition. Still, that’s a thin justification. More importantly, however, they chose to perform the 3D conversion on the film’s theatrical cut, which I’m 95% sure I’ve never seen. The extended Special Edition was first released in 1993, which is before I first saw the film, and some of the scenes that have most stuck in my memory are from the longer cut. Is it shorter enough, and therefore different enough, to warrant a new number? Not sure. But combine that with the new 3D and I thought, yeah, that’s pretty different all round.

    The film itself… well, it’s an action/sci-fi classic, isn’t it? But I needed to rewatch it to remember how good it is — I left it off my 100 Favourites a couple of years ago because I decided it was on the long-list just because you’d expect it to be there; but, rewatching it, I realise I do agree with the consensus on its greatness. The most interesting ideas in T2 aren’t what it contributes to the series’ sci-fi mythology (though a liquid metal robot is pretty neat), but how it chooses to develop its characters. The T-800 now being a good guy is the obvious one, but check out the humans: sweet innocent Sarah Connor is now a hardened military-vet-type locked up in a mental institution where she rails against the system; and her son, destined to become the great leader of humanity, isn’t a hero in waiting but instead an irritating juvenile delinquent brat. It’s these extra dimensions, not just the sci-fi and the action, that make T2 such a great film.

    “Get away from him, you bitch!” ...no, wait, wrong Cameron movie

    That said, I think there’s an argument to be made that T1 has withstood the test of time better than T2. The original film is a grounded sci-fi thriller, its low budget working in its favour to emphasise those qualities: it’s fuelled by both big SF ideas and the grittiness of its present-day setting. T2, on the other hand, is pitched as an action-and-effects blockbuster — it was the first movie to cost more than $100 million (according to some reports, anyway) — but in that respect it’s been continuously surpassed by numerous other summer spectacles in the intervening decades. As I said, there are other reasons it endures, but I think on balance I might prefer the first movie.

    And talking of preferences, I definitely prefer T2’s extended cut to the theatrical one. There are numerous nice grace notes added to the longer cut, but it really comes down to one scene: the sequence where they take the chip out of the T-800’s head and Sarah considers destroying it, which includes the famous mirror shot. For me that’s one of the most memorable scenes from the entire film. It’s both a good scene in its own right and it’s neatly mirrored in the ending, when the Terminator makes Sarah lower him into the molten steel. I’ve always found it an odd idea that it wasn’t always there, and I continue to feel that way. The film seems incomplete without it.

    Now, the 3D… As you might expect from a genuine 3D advocate like Cameron, a lot of the effect is quite subtle — it’s aiming for realistic spacing, not an in-your-face exaggeration of depth. That kind of subtlety is arguably a reason a lot of people feel 3D adds little, because its benefit isn’t obvious. Heck, sometimes you don’t even notice it’s there. Ironically, that’s sometimes amongst the best 3D, but you might need a direct comparison with 2D to notice it. Put a good subtle-3D shot against its 2D counterpart and suddenly you’re aware of the natural awareness of shape and depth the extra dimension is adding. Now, T2 3D is not a prime example of this — it’s a film that was originally shot and designed for 2D, after all — but it does have moments that I think demonstrate that kind of effect. And, at other times, the 3D is much more obvious; mostly during big action set pieces, as you’d expect.

    Oh, if he only knew how many times he'd be back...

    The big downside is that they felt they had to apply a hefty dose of DNR before doing the 3D conversion. I’m sure there are reasons why film grain would get in the way of a conversion, but sometimes the DNR is too heavy-handed. It’s never at the level of the infamous Predator Blu-ray, where everyone looked like a slightly-melted waxwork, but there are times here when people seem to have been formed from smooth plastic rather than the natural pore-covered texture of real skin. How much this matters is a case of personal preference, but there were one or two times I did find it distracting — the meeting between Sarah and Dr Silberman, for instance, where the DNR has smoothed his skin so much that it looks like he’s been de-aged. If this was just on the 3D version then, hey-ho, that’s a side effect of the process, but I believe the same scrubbed version has been put out as the film’s official 4K restoration. That’s very disappointing.

    So, this is in no way my preferred version of the movie; but it’s such a great film anyway, and this re-watch has reminded me of that, that it can be nothing but full marks.

    5 out of 5

    Spider-Man: Far from Home (2019)

    2020 #49
    Jon Watts | 129 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    Spider-Man: Far from Home

    For those not keeping track (who can blame you?), Far from Home is the third Spider-Man 2. It follows in the footsteps of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 from 2004, widely regarded as one of the topmost examples of the superhero genre, and Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 from 2014, widely regarded as one of the poorest examples of the superhero genre. (As you can see, they’ve ditched the numbers. Probably wise at this point.) Personally, while I agree with the accepted view of Raimi’s film, I actually rather enjoyed Webb’s sequel. That’s important to know when I say that I think Far from Home is my least favourite Spider-Man 2 so far.

    This one is the sequel to 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming… except Spidey’s in the MCU now, so it’s also a sequel to Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. And that’s not just a checklist of “other Spider-Man appearances”, either: the events of Endgame are absolutely vital to the storyline of this movie. It may be another Spider-Man 2, but more than that it’s Marvel Cinematic Universe: Episode XXIII.

    Some people criticised Homecoming for having too much Iron Man and going too far in making Spider-Man into Iron Man Jr. I felt they got the balance about right, all things considered — it’s not very true to comic book canon, but, as the third big-screen iteration of Spidey in the modern era, it made a reasonable change. Far from Home is where it becomes overpowering. It has to lean heavily on the overall continuity of the MCU, which means all the business of The Blip (as what we call The Snap is called in-universe) and Iron Man’s death is front-loaded into the movie. The former is waived away as quickly as they can; the latter weighs heavy on the entire rest of the plot.

    We'll always have Venice

    Meanwhile, Nick Fury is trying to get in touch with Peter Parker, who isn’t interested in the big world-saving antics that implies. He’s more concerned with going on a school summer trip around Europe. How a poor kid from Queens is supposed to afford a weeks-long vacation around Europe isn’t even one of my issues with the film, but if you’re a Spidey devotee it might be. But go on this vacation he does, only to have it interrupted in Venice by a giant water man/monster thing, which is battled by a new hero Peter’s classmates reckon is a cross between Iron Man and Thor, and name Mysterio. Turns out he’s working with Fury, and Fury wants Mysterio and Spider-Man to team up to fight the possibly world-ending threat. But Peter doesn’t want to because he’s on holiday goddammit and he has a plan to woo MJ.

    So far, so Spider-Man — the conflict between his personal and ‘professional’ life is a regular feature of the character. But it’s the way this story unspools that didn’t work for me, as it drags its heels through every storyline it’s got going at once, indulging in comedic asides from a whole range of characters. Having a comic relief character or double act is fine, but four or five of them? It just eats up screen time. The lack of focus robs the film of impetus or tension, as the characters and plot both meander around Europe and from set piece to set piece.

    At least some of those set pieces are quite good. The Venice one is a nice change of pace, because Mysterio is off doing the main fighting bit, so Spidey’s left to tidy up around him. It’s something a bit different in a blockbuster action sequence. The real highlight, though, is an illusion trap Spidey endures, which is imaginative and creatively realised. Tom Holland gives the title role his all, but Jake Gyllenhaal is the standout as Mysterio, waltzing into the film and stealing it out from under everyone else’s noses. His real-life alter ego, Quentin Beck, has a really nice relationship with Peter, pitched as a kind of mentoring, older brother type role, admiring of the kid’s ability but not blind to his flaws. Even better, if you watch the gag reel you get the impression Gyllenhaal is kinda treating Holland like Beck treats Parker, which is… amusing.

    Super friends

    Like every other MCU film, Far from Home is competently made with occasional flashes of inspiration, so manages to dodge being an outright disaster. But, speaking as someone who thinks Homecoming is pretty great and saw a lot of promise in this sequel’s trailers, I was disappointed by the end result. Future Spidey appearances in the MCU are assured (naturally there’s a post-credits tease for them), so I hope they can recapture more of that Homecoming spark next time.

    3 out of 5

    Spider-Man: Far from Home is available on Sky Cinema from this weekend.

    As Far from Home is officially the final film of the Infinity Saga (I guess it works as an epilogue; or perhaps the saga’s very own feature-length post-credit tease), here are links to my reviews of every other MCU film so far… except for one, which this has reminded me I’ve forgotten to write.

    1. Iron Man
    2. The Incredible Hulk
    3. Iron Man 2
    4. Thor
    5. Captain America: The First Avenger
    6. Avengers Assemble
    7. Iron Man 3
    8. Thor: The Dark World
    9. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
    10. Guardians of the Galaxy
    11. Avengers: Age of Ultron
    12. Ant-Man
    13. Captain America: Civil War
    14. Doctor Strange
    15. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
    16. Spider-Man: Homecoming
    17. Thor: Ragnarok
    18. Black Panther
    19. Avengers: Infinity War
    20. Ant-Man and the Wasp
    21. Captain Marvel
    22. Avengers: Endgame
    23. this one!

    I’ve also reviewed a bunch of the shorts and (sorta-)tie-in TV series, but I’ll let you track those down if you’re interested.

    …and, in keeping with the style of the MCU, here’s a surprise post-‘credits’ mini-review!

    Peter’s To-Do List
    (2019)

    2020 #49a
    Jon Watts | 3 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12

    Peter's To-Do List

    Sony chose to bill this as a short film on Far from Home‘s Blu-ray release, so I’m going to treat it like one and review it. Let’s begin with a dictionary definition (from, er, a very real dictionary, honest) of “short film”…

    short film
    noun

    1. an original motion picture that has a running time of 40 minutes or less, including all credits. “The Silent Child won the Oscar for best short film.”

    2. a deleted scene long enough that someone thought they could get away with pretending it was conceived and created as an original motion picture. “The Spider-Man: Far from Home Blu-ray includes a short film called Peter’s To-Do List.”

    That pretty much sums up my reaction to this — it’s a glorified deleted scene. To be precise, it’s several deleted scenes, so really it’s a deleted sequence — Peter running various errands before his trip to Europe. If you watched any of Far from Home‘s trailers then you’ll have seen almost all of this already because it’s footage that was used extensively to advertise the movie. I believe they also did some kind of special re-release of Far from Home with this bit cut back into the feature (an option not available on the home release).

    So, it’s not a short film, but it is a fun-enough deleted scene. It wouldn’t’ve been out of place left in the movie, but considering the first act is already too long and a trudge as it is, I see why they wanted to lose some stuff.

    3 out of 5

    The Past Month on TV #57b

    I’ve blathered on so much this month that, for the first time, I’ve split the TV post in two for ease of reading. It’s all about what’s best for you, my dear readers.

    For this month’s introduction and a bunch of Doctor Who stuff, look here. For everything else — Red Dwarf: The Promised Land; Mark Kermode’s Secrets of Cinema series 2; the worst of The Twilight Zone; odds & ends, and what I’ve missed this month — continue…

    Red Dwarf  The Promised Land
    Red Dwarf: The Promised LandThe 13th iteration of Red Dwarf eschews the normal episodic format for a single 90-minute special, in turn ditching the expected Red Dwarf XIII moniker for a subtitle. Well, the show has form in this: for its 21st anniversary revival we got Red Dwarf: Back to Earth instead of Red Dwarf IX, which wasn’t a whole series but instead a 90-minute single story (in that case split into three half-hours, but still).

    Indeed, despite the feature-length format, The Promised Land is not “Red Dwarf: The Movie” — it still very much looks and feels like the show has in its Dave era, not least because it was still shot in front of a studio audience. Fortunately, it does still justify its running time by being more than just three episodes strung together. Writer Doug Naylor probably could’ve separated ideas from the plot out into three separate storylines if he’d wanted, but as it stands it just plays like a super-sized normal episode. That’s not a criticism — everything’s on form, making this at least as good as any other episode the show has had recently (and, if you go looking through my previous reviews, you’ll see I enjoyed most of those too).

    The feature-length shape does allow for some variety in tone, including a strikingly emotional scene between Lister and Rimmer. As I saw someone say on social media, “I didn’t know this show was capable of that.” It leans on the fact these characters have an onscreen relationship lasting over 30 years — not explicitly, but you do feel the weight of that time spent together. It’s actually quite a beautiful moment, with a lovely analogy that has a part to play in the equally emotional finale.

    Talking of those 30-odd years, in so many ways this feels like an anniversary special. Not just because it’s a feature-length one-off (for which, as I mentioned earlier, the show has form), but in the way its plot calls right back to the very first episode of the programme, delivering on story elements not seen since that first series, and with a ton of nods and winks to episodes throughout the years too. It makes me wonder if it was written for the 30th anniversary (which was two years ago), but it took longer than intended to get the gang back together. Certainly, if it had been pitched as a 30th anniversary special, I don’t think anyone would’ve been disappointed.

    Indeed, they weren’t disappointed now, with the reaction on social media looking overwhelmingly positive. I don’t think that’s a given, nor newness bias — I remember Back to Earth facing a mixed-to-negative response — so I think The Promised Land can be judged a success all round. Personally, it’s made me want to dig out all the old DVDs (or perhaps upgrade them to Blu-ray) and rewatch the whole series.

    Mark Kermode’s Secrets of Cinema  Series 2
    Mark Kermode's Secrets of Cinema series 2Mark Kermode’s insightful deconstruction of cinematic genres returns for a full second series (following a few occasional specials last year). I say “full” — three episodes. Whereas the first series took on a fairly random selection of enduringly popular genres, this batch somewhat follows the example set by last year’s specials by being particularly timely. Those were themed around when they aired (Christmas movies at, obviously, Christmas; Oscar winners just in time for, obviously, the Oscars; and disaster movies ahead of, obviously, the current crisis. No, I jest, it was for Bank Holidays), whereas these episodes tackle the genres du jour: superhero movies (can’t get more top-of-the-zeitgeist than that), British history movies (including modern history movies like Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman, both recent hits), and spy movies (which would’ve coincided perfectly with the release of No Time To Die if that hadn’t had to be postponed).

    In typical BBC Four fashion, the series if both educational and entertaining. Even if you’re a well-read movie buff, Kermode (plus writer Kim Newman) are likely to draw out at least some connections or comparisons you haven’t thought of it, but are always on the money and enlightening. But as well as being information, they make for an entertaining overview of the genres in question, working both as a kind of clip show to relive each genre’s highlights, and, with their relative comprehensiveness, to suggest some films you might not have seen yet. For example, British history is such a broad catch-all kind of subject (as Kermode acknowledges in the programme, each time period is really its own subgenre) that I came away with a list of 17 films I wanted to watch or rewatch. I always think that’s a mark of a good film documentary: one that makes you want to see the movies it’s talking about.

    (Series 2 and the Oscars special are currently available on iPlayer. Kermode said on Twitter that they’ll be putting the older episodes back up too, but they haven’t yet.)

    The Twilight Zone  ‘Worst Of’
    Cavender is ComingFor the past year I’ve been working my way through episodes of The Twilight Zone that are considered to be among its very best. But if I carried on like that, my overall experience of the show would be to see its quality gradually tail off, and someday my time with it would end by watching its weakest instalments. That doesn’t seem a fitting fate for such a classic series. It’s too late for me to save some of the very best for last, but I can jump the gun a little and watch some of the most poorly-regarded episodes now. Naturally, I’ve used the lists I compiled for a consensus ranking to curate this selection. I’ve taken the last-place choice from each full-series ranking, and that also happens to include the episode with the lowest average score across all the lists.

    First up, the episode with the lowest rating according to IMDb users, Cavender is Coming. On average it comes 107th (out of 156), the highest of these five, with TV Guide even placing it in their top 50 (at #38), but clearly IMDb users have something against it. It stars Carol Burnett as a klutzy lady who keeps losing her job, so she’s assigned a guardian angel to make things better. Said angel is last-chancer Cavender — if he fails this task, he’ll be kicked out of angel school… or something. I don’t know. The Twilight Zone is notoriously bad at comedy, and this is probably the most outright sitcom-y episode of them all — it even aired with a laughter track originally. Nearly everyone reserves some praise for Burnett, which I guess is to do with her being an iconic figure of American TV or something. Not that she’s bad, but she does little to elevate a message-less episode. Even after watching the next four, I tend to agree that this may be the very worst episode of them all.

    Proceeding down the average rankings, next is ScreenCrush’s pick, Execution (135th overall). It’s an odd little story with a kinda daft premise: in the Old West, a criminal is about to be summarily hung, but he disappears into thin air… and appears in the present day, courtesy of a ‘time machine’ that randomly scoops a random individual randomly out of the past. How? Why? Who cares! No spoilers, but the unwitting time traveller finds the modern world all a bit much, and someone ends up being transported back. The point of the story is… cosmic justice? Or something? I guess? Getting into spoiler territory now, the episode almost poses an interesting moral question: “if a murderer deserves to be hanged, does the murderer of a murderer deserve to be hanged?” Unfortunately, it doesn’t actually engage with that at all. In fact, it seems to take it as read that the modern-day criminal who gets accidentally sent back to the 1880s deserves his fate. But, as far as we know, he only murdered another murderer — so, by that moral standard, don’t the rest of the “neck tie party” (as Serling repeatedly calls the group of hangmen) also deserve to be hanged? Food for thought. Unless you’re a brainless supporter of the death penalty, I guess.

    The JungleThe worst episode according to Buzzfeed is The Jungle, which comes 148th overall. It’s about an American engineer who’s just returned from a trip to Africa where his company is planning to build a hydroelectric dam, and he may’ve been cursed by natives opposed to the project. As you’ve probably guessed, the episode’s biggest problem is some old-fashioned kinda-racist stereotypes about Africa and its people. I mean, the episode doesn’t even bother to say which country he’s been to, it’s just “Africa”. It’s not overtly racist, I don’t think, but it’s certainly tone deaf. There’s a scene where our hero discusses the project with the board of directors that juxtaposes the idea of witchcraft, which they all laugh at, with the irrational superstitions they all practice (not walking under ladders, etc), which is kinda neat, basically saying that “you laugh at their beliefs because you think of them as simple folk, but it’s no worse than our superstitions,” which is truthful and borderline enlightened. But that’s about all the episode has going for it. By the time he’s travelling home through the implausibly empty nighttime streets of New York City and being haunted by jungle sounds, it all seems pretty silly; and then his cab driver just drops dead, and a tramp appears and disappears out of thin air, and you wonder what all that’s got to do with anything. The only moral the episode can offer is “maybe some superstitions are right”, which is poppycock.

    So far I’ve watched nearly a quarter of all episodes of The Twilight Zone, but I’d only seen one from its fourth season before today. That’s probably because I’ve been focusing on the show’s best episodes, and everyone seems to agree that season four is its weakest. Nonetheless, there’s only one episode from that season among this initial batch of bad episodes: I Dream of Genie, Paste’s pick for the very worst and 152nd on average. It’s about a downtrodden clerk who’s presented with the opportunity to wish for anything he wants, and considers carefully via a series of imagined alternate lives — which conspire together to pad out the episode’s running time, of course. In his first imagining he fails to conceive of a world in which he’s not being pushed around, and if that had continued through his other fantasies we might’ve been on to something here — a sad examination of how being so mistreated can seep into your very way of being. But it’s not aiming for that, because this is A Comedy One and so tragic insight is out of the question. The whole thing is half arsed in conception, and also flabby — Serling could definitely have told the same story in half the time without losing anything of value, which I think is a consistent problem with the season four episodes. I didn’t hate it — it’s probably the best of these five — but it’s far from a great episode.

    Sounds and SilencesFinally, we end as we began, with an episode voted on by the public: at the bottom of Ranker’s list, and last on average too, is Sounds and Silences. It’s about an excessively-loud, domineering blowhard who gets some measure of comeuppance when he begins to be bothered by everyday sounds like a dripping tap or ticking clock. And then it goes the other way and he can’t hear loud noises at all. It’s poorly written and terribly performed — in the lead role, John McGiver is overacting something rotten. Some criticise the undercurrent of misogyny in the storyline, but I don’t know about that. He blames his mother and his wife for all his problems, but he’s an unlikeable sod so surely any misogyny is his rather than the episode’s — we’re not being asked to agree with him. The character’s ironic fate may be some form of poetic justice, but it’s too long coming to be entertaining, and too obvious to be satisfying. Whether I disliked this or Cavender is Coming more, I’m not sure, but they both merit their places at the bottom.

    Also watched…
  • McDonald & Dodds Series 1 Episode 2 — The second episode (of two) in this (very short) series was slightly better than the first, but not by a huge amount. I’ll probably keep watching if they make more, mainly to spot filming locations that I recognise. If it weren’t for that I wouldn’t bother.
  • One Man, Two Guvnors — This isn’t really TV, but nor is it really a film (although it was released in cinemas, so I could’ve counted it if I wanted). What it is is a filmed stage production, which the National Theatre released on YouTube for free — but only for one week, so I’m afraid it’s gone now. It was really good. Sorry. Currently available is a 2015 production of Jane Eyre (their channel is here), with more to follow every Thursday (more info here.
  • The Rookie Season 1 Episodes 7-15 — Churned through a pile of this in next to no time because it’s relatively easy viewing but with enough bite to keep it interesting. One of those shows that will never be a classic or top of the zeitgeist, but is highly watchable.
  • Star Trek: Picard Season 1 Episodes 4-6 — Way behind on this because it never engages me enough to choose to put it on. That said, I’ve found these middle episodes a bit better — I quite enjoyed the silliness of episode five, Stardust City Rag. But it’s the series’ lowest-rated episode on IMDb, which suggests other Picard viewers and I may be at odds about what makes good TV…

    Things to Catch Up On
    Westworld season 3This month, I have mostly been missing Westworld season 3, which is now four or five episodes in. I’ve not seen anyone talking about it on social media, so I’ve no idea if it’s good or bad, but I am inferring that not as many people are talking about it anymore, which is its own kind of criticism. One show I have heard mentioned is Tales from the Loop, Amazon’s new anthology sci-fi series. That’s been picking up good notices, and I thought it looked interesting anyhow, so I must make time for it.

    Next month… more animated classic Doctor Who; more of the worst of The Twilight Zone; and maybe I’ll even finish Picard or watch The Mandalorian, too…

  • The Past Month on TV #57a

    I get the impression many people have been using their newfound homebound status to watch lots of TV. I’ve mostly been focusing on films, however, so this month’s TV update doesn’t actually have a whole lot of different things to cover (certainly not when compared to, say, last month). Even though I’m finally posting this about a week later than I originally intended, I still haven’t had much to add to it.

    That said, what I have been watching is the kind of stuff I write a lot about — mostly, classic Doctor Who and The Twilight Zone — so much so that I’ve actually decided to split this update into two posts, because it was getting unwieldy. Today: Doctor Who stuff. On Friday: everything else.

    Doctor Who  Rose
    Doctor Who series 1If you’re active (or looking in the right places) on social media, you may have noticed that there have been a bunch of Doctor Who watchalongs happening recently — you know, where people from around the world all watch the same thing at the same time and tweet about it. Organised by Doctor Who Magazine’s Emily Cook to provide something nice for Whovians in these trying times, they’ve been rather a big success — they’re always all over the trending topics on Twitter, and big names from the show have been persuaded to sign up and join in. The most recent one, to mark the 10th anniversary of Matt Smith’s debut episode, saw all three of its stars (Smith, Karen Gillan, and Arthur Darvill), plus writer/showrunner Steven Moffat and director Adam Smith, sharing thoughts and memories during the episode. Plus some of them have been accompanied by new fiction or stuff dug out from the archive.

    Personally, the only one I’ve joined in with was the 15th anniversary rewatch of nuWho’s first episode, Rose. I say “joined in” — I watched the episode, then went on Twitter afterwards to catch up. I mean, you can’t watch TV and tweet along, can you? I know people think they can, because they do, but they’re wrong — you can’t. Not properly, anyway. While you’re busy tweeting, you’ll inevitably miss something — lots of somethings, even. And as I hadn’t watched Rose in about 13 or 14 years, trying to read the thoughts of thousands of other people at the same time seemed a daft idea. So I didn’t. But, weirdly, even watching it alone but with the knowledge that other fans around the globe are doing the same thing, there’s an old-fashioned sense of community — a feeling you used to have every week, when watching a TV programme live was The Way We Did TV; a feeling that’s dissipated considerably in the modern streaming era, where even traditional-TV shows are on iPlayer or whatever and many people happily choose to catch up later.

    Still, the best bit was the surrounding tie-ins written by Russell T Davies, including a non-canonical prequel about the end of the Time War (I love The Day of the Doctor with all my heart, but good golly can RTD write epic mythic Time War stuff better than anyone) and a gently satirical sequel that revealed Boris Johnson is, in fact, an empty plastic clown. I do so miss the days when RTD was in charge…

    Aside from the watchalongs, I’ve personally been digging even further back into Who history…

    Doctor Who  Animated Missing Episodes
    Like silent cinema before it, early television was viewed as disposable, its value lying in the moment of its airing. The only reason to keep a TV programme after broadcast was to sell to other territories, or possibly to archive a handful of episodes as an example of what was produced. In the 1960s and ’70s, the BBC began to junk some of their archive, to reuse resources and make space for newer things. Many programmes fell victim to this destruction, but one of the highest profile has been Doctor Who. That’s what happens when there’s a dedicated fanbase who want to hang on to every second of something.

    By the time the junkings stopped, 152 episodes of Doctor Who had been lost. Over the years there have been extensive efforts to recover these missing editions. There have been many successes, but 97 episodes remain missing. (For far more detail on all this, you could do worse than this Wikipedia page.) But thanks to the efforts of a few determined fans who recorded the programme’s audio as it was broadcast, the soundtracks for every single episode survive. Over the years, these have been used to help plug the gaps in various ways — released on cassette and CD; paired with photographs to form slideshow-like visualisations; and, most recently, used as the soundtrack for animated reconstructions. I’ll spare you another potted history of those, but after a faltering start they’re turning into a regular drip feed.

    Now, during the most recent series of Doctor Who (reviewed in these three posts) I came to the realisation that I hadn’t watched any of the classic series in a long time — five years, in fact, back to when I paired up one classic serial to every new episode of Peter Capaldi’s first series. What better way to get back on the wagon than with the animated reconstructions, most of which have been released in that five year gap? So I’m beginning with the first of the current wave of animations, and more should follow.

    The Power of the Daleks

    The Power of the DaleksThe first of the current wave of animations was The Power of the Daleks — a good place to start anyhow because it’s Patrick Troughton’s debut serial in the lead role. As he was just the second (canonical) Doctor, that makes the serial significant for the ground it was breaking — it’s the first time we’re introduced to a new actor taking over the series, something that’s become a staple of the programme (to the extent that the major plot lines and revelations of the most recent series were about the Doctor’s ability to regenerate). Sensibly, the production team paired their new leading man with the thing that had ensured the series’ popularity: the Daleks. And while the Doctor is dealing with a change of face and attitude, so are his enemies: these Daleks are keen to act as subservient aids to a human colony who have discovered their long-buried space capsule. Surely the evil fiends can’t’ve turned good?! (Spoiler alert: of course they haven’t.)

    Away from such juxtaposition of temperament, it’s a good chance for the new Doctor to prove his mettle. It worked, too — obviously so in the case of ensuring the series’ longevity, but also as a story in its own right: in the last Doctor Who Magazine poll, this was voted the 19th greatest Who story ever (which, out of a list of 241 stories at the time, is no small achievement, especially for a missing black & white adventure. Indeed, if you limited the poll to just black & white stories, it came 3rd). It’s easy to overlook now, when we’re so used to regeneration, but Troughton comes in and makes the role his own, plays it his own way, isn’t even vaguely an emulation of Hartnell. It would’ve been the easiest thing in the world to cast someone like Hartnell and have them behave like Hartnell, but changing the character up so much is a braver, more interesting choice — and probably really helped the programme in the long run.

    As for the story itself, as well as the mystery and threat of the Daleks it has a nice line in the petty political squabbling and machinations of the human colony’s leadership. Almost as much time is spent worrying about rebels, sabotage, and plots to rule as there is about the Daleks. I feel like that’s the kind of extra angle that often gets overlooked in Who nowadays, what with the need to deliver fast-paced 45-minute blocks of entertainment. (Maybe that’s unfair — almost everything of interest gets overlooked in Who right now, and previous eras of the revived show certainly weren’t averse to a little commentary on the pettiness of humanity.) There are some great performances too, especially Robert James as the scientist Lesterson, who has the most prominent character arc of anyone across the serial. His ultimate fate is particularly well written and acted, his final moments tragic and hilarious and barmy all at once.

    As for the animation, it’s understandably a bit basic (these are not big-budget productions) and at times unsure what to do with itself — there’s the occasional bit of ‘dead air’ in the original soundtrack, probably where someone was just walking across a room or giving a reaction shot or something, and the animation isn’t quite up to filling the gap with something of interest. There are definitely times when it feels like you’re missing a little bit of business that was deemed too difficult or vague to animate. It would’ve been nice if they could’ve invented something to happen during those moments, instead of just holding on shots of literally nothing going on. But that’s probably nitpicking. As a visual to accompany the soundtrack, it’s more than adequate. Given the choice between this, a slideshow of rarely-changing photos, and audio-only, I’ll take the animation, thanks.

    The Moonbase

    The MoonbaseNext up by the series’ original chronology is The Moonbase — in terms of animation, Power was released in 2016 while The Moonbase was done in 2013; and half the serial survives, so it’s only half animated. It’s actually this older effort that looks better, the animation feeling much smoother and more realistic than Power, and making that look even more stilted and Flash-y by comparison. Apparently production on Power was incredibly rushed, and obviously they had to complete six episodes vs just two for The Moonbase, but the visual style is also slightly different; less obviously cartoonish.

    As for the story itself, we move from one iconic Who monster to another: the Cybermen. And it’s another landmark in Who history: the first base-under-siege story, a subgenre that would become a staple of the Troughton era and keep popping up in the decades to follow. It’s also only the second Cybermen story, and they show off a sleeker redesign, which sets a precedent — whereas the Daleks have looked fundamentally the same since their first appearance, the Cybermen are redesigned almost every time they appear. Personally, I love the Cybermen, but this is not their finest hour.

    The serial’s biggest problem is that it seems slow and uneventful. It begins with the Doctor and friends having a jolly holiday on the Moon, which I actually quite liked — bear in mind this was made in 1967, two years before man actually walked on the Moon, and you can see why the very fact of our heroes being there would be worthy of such emphasis. But it sets the tone for the story to come — Episode 2, for example, mostly revolves around the base’s crew spouting technobabble while they run checks to repair a machine. This came 113th in the aforementioned DWM poll, and with time wasting like that it’s easy to see why. At least the cliffhangers are effective, even if they don’t always make sense — but you can see how that would build the series’ reputation for them. It’s a shame such a defining aspect of the show has mostly been lost in the modern era.

    The serials was written by the Cybermen’s co-creator, Kit Pedler, an actual scientist who was brought on to bring “scientific rigour” to the programme. These scripts do feel like they come from someone with a keen interest in science — there’s plenty of jargon thrown around; the Doctor runs medical tests and experiments (rather than just waving his sonic screwdriver around as he would nowadays); Ben and Polly cooking up a plan to defeat the Cybermen with a solvent cocktail, based on Polly’s nail varnish remover…! It’s easy to joke about “defeating Cybermen with nail varnish remover”, but it’s a scientific way of problem solving, which is quite good really for a show that was still very much aimed at children and with some degree of an educational remit. It’s just a shame that the narrative around it is so sluggish. Maybe they were going for “atmospheric”. I don’t think it worked. Shame.

    The Macra Terror

    The Macra TerrorMuch more successful in that department is The Macra Terror. No full episodes survive of this serial, so it’s back to 100% animation, and once again we have a change in style. It’s in widescreen, and it’s in colour, and the locations are bigger and more varied than they would’ve been on ‘60s TV, and the audio is so clean and clear it could’ve been recorded yesterday. It makes for a surreal viewing experience at first — are we sure this is a genuine Second Doctor story from over 50 years ago, not some recreation with perfect impressionists? After the previous animations tried to emulate the style of the original episodes, it’s a definite change of pace, but why not? It certainly brings some added dynamism to a few of the scenes — like Power, there are some all-but-silent sections; unlike Power, many of them now have some interesting visuals, which is most welcome. They had to make some trims here and there, I think for budget reasons (stuff that is inessential to the main narrative and would’ve been time consuming to animate), which is a shame (it would’ve been particularly fun to see the whole TARDIS crew dance a jig to escape at the end), but it is what it is.

    As for the story itself, it offers an intriguing setup, with a good setting (a colony of happy workers) and mystery (what was seen by the ‘mad’ man they want to hush up?) It unfolds at a much better pace than The Moonbase, with a regularly developing and shifting plot. For example, many penultimate episodes of classic Who serials devolve into running around in place to delay the ending by another week. The Macra Terror is the antithesis of that, introducing brand new locations and plot points to genuinely further the narrative and mystery. There are exciting cliffhangers, too — again, probably much more so in animation than it was in the original live action. The Macra themselves benefit in particular. They’re basically giant crabs, which was a bit overambitious for the series to attempt in the ’60s. The originals have the look of an awkward primary school art project and aren’t actually that big, whereas the animated versions are huge and genuinely threatening. When one attacks Polly in Episode 2 it’s epic and exciting and scary… in animation. This is one of the few parts that survives from the original (thanks to censors in Australia) and… it ain’t that. The Macra is so much smaller and so much less manoeuvrable that you can see Anneke Wills and Michael Craze working overtime to convince you their escape requires any more than just getting up and wandering away. It’s a perfect example of how the artistic licence taken by the animators has paid off in dramatic terms.

    I’ve always got the impression that The Macra Terror has a pretty poor rep among Whovians. I hope the animation has caused it to be re-evaluated, because I think it’s really rather good.

    The Wheel in Space: Episode 1

    Finally for now, an abridged version of The Wheel in Space: Episode 1, which was created for the BFI’s annual Missing Believed Wiped event about missing TV. The Wheel in Space is a six-parter, meaning it runs approximately 150 minutes, but here we get just 11 of them. The animation itself is about the same quality level as the others, and it’s a nice little bonus in its own way, but ultimately it feels rather pointless; like an extended tease for a full-length animation that isn’t coming. The serial may well be animated in full someday (if they’re happy to do The Faceless Ones and Fury from the Deep, which have no obvious hooks to interest casual / on-the-fence viewers, then surely something with the Cybermen is a no brainer), but if they do then what purpose will this have served? I expect they’d want to do these 11 minutes again rather than make the remaining 139 to match. And if they don’t ever do it in full, well, the serial is still left with three-and-a-half episodes visually missing. But, like I say, it’s enjoyable enough for what it is.

    In Part 2… new Red Dwarf; Mark Kermode’s Secrets of Cinema; the worst of The Twilight Zone; and quickies on McDonald & Dodds, The Rookie, Star Trek: Picard, and National Theatre’s YouTube stream of One Man, Two Guvnors — which, I’ll tell you now, is great fun, worth your time, and you only have until 4pm tomorrow to start watching. It’s here.