The Past Fortnight on TV #20

Like some kind of Walder Frey impersonator, I’m having two feasts in a fortnight — two feasts of TV reviews, that is!

It may’ve passed you by (don’t think I’ve seen any coverage of it anywhere at all), but Game of Thrones is back, so that’s where I’ll begin…

Game of Thrones  Season 7 Episode 1
Game of Thrones season 7Season premieres of Thrones are typically concerned with re-establishing where all the major characters are, and maybe moving their stories on a few baby steps to indicate where they’ll be headed this season. Dragonstone is no exception. So where Arya had arrived in Westeros to kill the Starks’ enemies, now she’s slaughtering them by the hallful; where Bran and Meera were headed for the Wall, now they’re passing through it; where Jon and Sansa were taking charge in the North to be ready for war, now they’re preparing for war; where Sam had headed to the Citadel to research important stuff, now he’s in the Citadel researching important stuff; where Cersei had taken the Iron Throne and Jamie had his doubts, now Cersei’s preparing to defend her kingdoms and Jamie has his doubts; and where Dany was sailing for Westeros with her hodgepodge military, now she’s landed in Westeros. The wonder of Thrones is that it can take such scene-setting and turn it into riveting television.

That’s because everything about the show is so well put together. Each sequence offers one or more out of sharp-witted dialogue, sublime direction, surprising emotion, or badass mass-murder, alongside consistently stellar performances. David Bradley, Rory McCann, and Sophie Turner were the particular standouts this episode, I thought, with special mention for all that John Bradley had to endure in the name of a montage. Although some scenes only left us with more questions about the future, others were satisfying vignettes in their own right. It’s a good mix.

Ed SheeranIn fact, the only thing letting the side down was the well-publicised cameo by Ed Sheeran. If you have no idea who Mr Sheeran is then perhaps his appearance was fine — his acting was no worse than dozens of other bit players they’ve had on the series before now. But if you do know who the singer-songwriter is, his appearance was like being served a cheese board accompanied by cheese crackers with a glass of melted cheese and extra cheese on the side. After devoting what felt like a significant chunk of time (but was probably mere seconds) to him singing a song, Arya trots over to him and goes, “I don’t know that one,” and he says, “it’s a new one,” which he may as well have followed up with, “which you can hear in full on my new album, available now everywhere music is sold.” I have no idea if he has a new album out, or if that song would be on it if he did, but that’s how it felt.

Anyway, maybe next week Arya will murder him in his sleep. Things to look forward to…

Twin Peaks  Season 3 Episodes 9-10
Happy times in Twin PeaksSlowly, very slowly, the disparate strands of Twin Peaks Mk.III seem to be coalescing into a coherent, connected story… which is almost more frustrating, in its own way. By that I mean: when it was wilfully obscure, you just kind of went with it — it was Lynch being Lynch, and you had to let it wash over you and allow your feelings to do the deduction about what it was supposed to signify. Now that the plot is beginning to crystallise into something your rational brain can make sense of, it feels a mite slow in getting there. I mean, while Dougie Jones is less annoying than he used to be (helped in no small part by the brilliance of Naomi Watts), I still miss real Coop, and we’re running out of episodes to spend time with him again. Was MacLachlan just feeding us a red herring when he said he’d “almost forgotten how to play him”? Because he hasn’t played him yet! Ach, we’ll see. It remains defiantly its own thing, and at least we can trust Lynch is going somewhere with it — even if we may never be able to work out precisely where that somewhere was…

Automata  Season 1
AutomataBased on a webcomic from the creators of Penny Arcade and funded through Kickstarter (so far it’s only available to backers), this miniseries-cum-pilot (the five short episodes total 58 minutes) takes place in an alternate Prohibition-era America, where “Prohibition” instead refers to the ban on production of automatons — sentient robots. Ex-copper Sam Regal (Basil Harris) and his partner Carl (voiced by Doug Jones), an automaton, now make ends meet as PIs, doing the usual PI thing: photographing cheating spouses. Only this time the run-of-the-mill case leads them into a murderous web that encompasses speakeasies, robo-gigolos*, underground automaton-hating gangs, and a twist ending (natch).

There are two particularly striking things about Automata. The first is its interesting alternate history. From this opening season (which, as I alluded to earlier, is equivalent to a single episode really) it’s tricky to get an idea of how fully imagined it is, but this is a promising start. Secondly, it has really strong production values, especially for something on such a low budget. In particular, the CGI used to create the automatons is exceptional. But it’s also very nicely shot, with the deep shadows so evocative of noir. It was made available in 4K, so it’s the first thing I’ve bothered to properly watch in that quality since I got my new TV. I must say, I’m not sure it looked any better than a good 1080p transfer. That said, I didn’t watch it side by side with its lower-res version, and my screen is on the low end size-wise of those available in 4K, so maybe it wasn’t the fairest test of the format. When I finally get round to American Gods, or when The Defenders comes out, then I’ll give it a longer trial.

Anyway, personal technological observations aside, Automata is a well-made proof-of-concept that should satisfy anyone who thinks “Prohibition-era noir story, but with robots!” sounds like a good pitch. And if you’re still not sure, you can watch an atmospheric trailer here. Whether this’ll lead to a full-blown series, or even just further miniseries like this one, it’s too early to say, but I’ll be there to watch them. (And I’ll try to remember to mention when this one becomes available to non-backers, too.)

* That’s not what they call them, I just thought it sounded good.

Also watched…
  • Line of Duty Series 3 Episodes 1-3 — with the tennis over, it’s time to dive back into series the other half also cares about. This is the season of Line of Duty, apparently, so it should be a corker. More thoughts on this one next month when we’ve finished it, but that first episode… must’ve been great for those who hadn’t had the twist spoiled!
  • Wallander (UK) Series 4 Episode 1 — it’s been yonks since this final series was on, but we’re finally making time for it. The first episode upped sticks for a South African setting, and so did the production — and they clearly wanted us to know it, with tonnes of truly stunning location photography. It was almost worth watching for that alone, but I also thought the episode had a strong, weighty (if ultimately predictable) story.

    In other news…

    The 13th DoctorThe biggest TV news this fortnight was undoubtedly the BBC’s announcement of the 13th actor to take the title role in Doctor Who. (Well, the 14th. Well, the… oh, let’s not get into that.) As you surely can’t have missed, it was Jodie Whittaker, who is a woman! Gasp! Naturally, there was some outrage. After all, it makes no sense whatsoever that an alien being who can travel in time and changes his whole body every time one gets worn out could possibly, during that change, switch from being a man to a woman, even if it’s been established multiple times within the series itself that such a change is possible. It’s just not plausible, is it?

    It’s difficult to tell whether the loonies who actually believe that groundless claptrap are in the majority, or if the day instead belongs to the many who were mightily pleased by the news. Hopefully the latter. There’s certainly a lot of positive word of mouth, so hopefully the naysayers will be converted. Even most of the media were on side, though some of our pathetic excuses for ‘newspapers’ reverted to predictable type and ran articles on Whittaker’s previous roles that featured nudity. Apparently one paper accompanied it with photos of previous Doctors topless, as if that somehow justified it. On a more intelligent note, Variety ran a piece about the importance of the casting: “Coming from one of the biggest media franchises on the planet, the news that the new Doctor Who is female is huge — and almost completely delightful.” (Emphasis my own, because it pleases me.)

    Anyway, I guess the proof will be in the pudding — in this case, the “pudding” being the ratings. I hope it’s a success. I mean, I always hope Doctor Who is a success, but there is extra weight on this particular incarnation, like it or not. New showrunner Chris Chibnall doesn’t have the strongest track record on the show, but he’s done first-rate work elsewhere, so fingers crossed — at the end of the day, it’ll be the quality of the writing as much as the quality of the performance that will make or break the first female Doctor.

    Things to Catch Up On

    The Handmaid's TaleThis month, I have mostly been missing The Handmaid’s Tale. It belatedly started airing on this side of the pond at the end of May, but it slipped my mind so much that I didn’t even mention it in the May post. Ironically, it’s no longer fully available on demand so I’ll have to get hold of it (at some point) in the same way I would’ve before anyone bothered to air it here. Meanwhile, in “things I’ve actually started”, I’m three episodes behind on Preacher. This happened last year, too. I’m sure I’ll catch up on some or all of it before next month’s column.

    Next month… Cannes hit miniseries Top of the Lake: China Girl.

  • War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)

    2017 #98
    Matt Reeves | 140 mins | cinema (3D) | 2.35:1 | USA / English & American Sign Language | 12A / PG-13

    War for the Planet of the Apes

    Previously on Planet of the Apes… the rise of intelligence in apes resulted in them establishing a new ape society in the woods. After humanity was mostly wiped out by disease, the actions of a few apes, still angry about their treatment at the hands of humans, led to the dawn of war began between peaceful apes and vengeful humans.

    Now, ape leader Caesar (Andy Serkis) has been in hiding for years. After a human sortie into the forest leads to them finally discovering his location, the Colonel (Woody Harrelson) executes a stealth assault on the apes’ home. Incensed, Caesar and a small band of his most dedicated followers set out to find the humans’ stronghold and bring the Colonel to justice, hopefully ending the war in the process.

    When it was announced that the follow-up to Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was going to be titled War for the Planet of the Apes, it only made sense. The previous film ended with that war beginning, for one thing. More than that, the clear point of this prequel trilogy has been to show how the world as we know it ended up on the path to becoming the one Charlton Heston encountered in the original Planet of the Apes — and you just knew mankind wasn’t going to give up without a fight, making some kind of war all but inevitable. However, as it turns out, the title is almost a misnomer.

    Cheeky monkeys

    This is not a war movie in the sense of it being two hours of epic battles. There’s a set-to at the start (one which reminded me of the opening of Saving Private Ryan without in any meaningful way being a rip off of it), and a big battle forms the backdrop to the climax, but in between the film is something else. Or, rather, somethings else: there are multiple genres one could cite as an influence on the film as it transitions betweens phases of its story. There’s a bit of the “men apes on a mission” thing going on, with an edge of the Western in there, before it turns into a POW camp movie of sorts, with a healthy dose of Apocalypse Now for good measure. If that makes it sound restless, it’s not; it’s just not beholden to picking one set of tropes and sticking to them — it goes where its story dictates. That works.

    Similarly, the film is a tonal masterclass: as befits the subject matter of its title, there is grim and serious stuff here, but it’s laced with splashes of comedy, heartfelt emotion, moral debate, and social commentary, the vast majority of which is handled with understatement rather than Hollywood grandstanding. And if there’s one throughline to connect all this, it’s the characters. In a summer blockbuster?! I know, right? But that’s been a marker of quality throughout this new Apes trilogy: a willingness to be thoughtful and considered, not just trade on shoot-outs and explosions.

    Military might

    Andy Serkis is once again phenomenal in the lead role. Caesar’s story this time is almost Shakespearean, the film’s biggest war being his internal battle over the right course to take, and what his desired actions mean for his soul. He was always the sensible, reasonable, merciful ape, but events provoke another side in him — is he just like his old enemy Koba after all? Through him the film considers themes like justice vs revenge, the needs of the few vs the needs of the many, the rights and wrongs of actions in wartime. Caesar may be the hero, but he’s certainly not perfect.

    On the flip side, Woody Harrelson is a clear-cut villain — a heartless bastard; a thoroughly nasty piece of work… or so it seems, because, when he eventually gets a chance to state his case, to explain where he’s coming from, the things he’s seen and decisions he’s had to make, you can see understand his point of view. That doesn’t mean we necessarily agree (it’s pretty clear that, like Kurtz, he’s gone off the reservation), but it does make him a character rather than a cardboard cutout. As the film manoeuvres its way around these two characters, their differences and similarities, It’s abundantly clear that this is a much more complex film than your usual blockbuster fare of “always-right good guys shoot at thoroughly-evil bad guys”.

    Talk with the animals... or not

    Serkis and Harrelson are the stand outs, but there are brilliant performances elsewhere. Steve Zahn plays a character called Bad Ape, who’s both funny and touching, while Amiah Miller is a human girl the apes pick up on their travels, and the way she conveys a genuine emotional connection with the apes helps to sell them as real characters. Not that the CGI work of Weta needs much help there — it’s one again phenomenal, so real you don’t even think about it anymore. They had to break new ground for Dawn, for the first time taking performance capture outside of specially-designed studios (aka The Volume) and onto location filming. Perhaps that innovation explains why some of Matt Reeves’ direction last time was a little stilted and TV-ish. More years of development have removed those constraints, however, and his work on War is marvellously cinematic.

    It’s also a true trilogy capper. They may choose to continue the story after this point (we’re still a couple of thousand years away from Charlton Heston showing up), but if they don’t then this will happily serve as an ending. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that, although each film of this prequel trilogy has been quite distinct (pleasingly so, I’d say), there’s still a sense of this one rounding off things that were set in motion back in the first movie. There are also Easter egg-like nods and hints towards the original film; and to some its sequels too, apparently (I’ve not seen those yet so I’ll have to take other people’s word for it).

    They don't wanna be like you-ooh-ooh

    War for the Planet of the Apes is possibly not the movie we were expecting, but that’s no bad thing. I’m not sure how well it’ll go down with the crowd that pushes things like Transformers 5 to over $500m (and counting), but it has to be applauded for sneaking emotionally and thematically considered material into a huge-budget summer blockbuster. It’s not just great science fiction, it’s great drama. It’s also cemented these Apes prequels as arguably the greatest movie trilogy of the decade.

    5 out of 5

    War for the Planet of the Apes is in cinemas most places now.

    Contact (1997)

    2017 #79
    Robert Zemeckis | 144 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

    Contact

    Contact is 20 years old today. I don’t remember it going down particularly well on its release (Rotten Tomatoes backs me up on that: it scores just 62%) and I’ve largely paid it no heed, other than it still comes up now and then. I can’t remember what gave me a sudden urge to watch it last month, but doing so was a bit of a “where have you been all my life?!” experience.

    It stars Jodie Foster as scientist Dr Ellie Arroway, who’s obsessed with scanning radio signals from space for signs of alien life, much to the ridicule of her serious colleagues. While working at an observatory in Puerto Rico, Ellie becomes romantically entangled with Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey), a Christian philosopher, in spite of their differing views. Their affair is cut short when Ellie’s government funding is cancelled and she leaves to seek independent financial backing, eventually finding it from reclusive billionaire S.R. Hadden (John Hurt). Beginning research anew in New Mexico, her persistence eventually pays off when her team detect a repeating signal, and suddenly her kooky little project is of global concern.

    '90s beats

    Adapted from a novel by scientist Carl Sagan (of Cosmos fame), Contact is notable for its very grounded and plausible approach to the science of possible first contact. It’s like the anti Independence Day: rather than giant technologically-advanced spaceships turning up out of nowhere and threatening us, we receive a signal with mathematical properties (maths being a universal language) and consider opening lines of communication. Of course, it gets more speculative from there, but that’s unavoidable if you’re telling a story where we hear from aliens. Regardless, all of the science, as well as the political developments that ensue from it, feels very truthful. I’m sure there must be some of the ol’ corner-cutting Movie Science involved somewhere, but that’s usually necessary for the sake of telling a reasonably paced story. Despite that, some viewers find its methodicalness to be “slow” or “boring”. Conversely, that’s part of why I liked it so much: it doesn’t wave its hands around to obscure the discovery part just so it can get to the Cool Stuff — it is the discovery part.

    Concurrent to the “how this might actually go down” plot, Contact seeks to explore the axis of faith and science, putting them in juxtaposition to show that, for all their obvious differences, there are also psychological similarities. That’s the purpose of McConaughey’s character, really: a very religious, but amenable, figure for Foster’s very scientific outlook to bump up against. Their romantic storyline works in favour of keeping this discussion balanced: you don’t end up projecting one as the hero and the other as the villain when they’re both halves of the central relationship. It results in some thoughtful perspectives on where the line between science and religion blurs.

    “One day, I'm going to win an Oscar...”

    Foster gives an impassioned performance as the dedicated Ellie, who’s so committed to both her cause and the truth that she doesn’t compromise, even when it might get her ahead. Her tunnel-vision focus on science means she can come across as a bit of a cold fish, which makes sense given the character’s backstory, but for some viewers that seems to render her too distant to embrace as the heroine. It goes as far as some saying the film’s ending has no heart because Ellie is so cold. Conversely, I think that’s almost why it works. She’s a person who has shut herself down because of her loss, but she still has some small flame of hope that keeps her searching. What happens at the end fully taps into her emotions, fanning that flame. Surely there’s something powerful in that?

    Among the rest of the cast, McConaughey shows he had skills long before the McConnaissance, William Fichtner does a lot with a small supporting role, and Tom Skerritt plays a total dick in a way that feels like a real-life total dick rather than a movie version. By way of contrast, James Woods’ character is the other way round: he’s a good actor, but was perhaps railroaded into being a little heavy-handed as a somewhat-villainous National Security honcho. That said, with the current US administration’s attitude to science, maybe he’s sickeningly plausible today.

    Pod person

    Although not an ID4-style extravaganza, Contact features a great use of special effects — or, rather, that’s why they’re so great: they don’t exist just so they exist; they exist because the story needs them, and they’re more powerful and beautiful for it. This is true not only of some final-act trippiness, but also scenery shots of the giant Machine that gets built, which are made more real by their understatedness. Can you imagine this film now, as it would be made by most directors? There’d be constant helicopter-style shots of the thing. (The exception, of course, would be someone like Denis Villeneuve, as conclusively proven in Arrival.)

    I can understand why Contact didn’t catch on with audiences back in ’97. This was the year after Independence Day became the second highest grossing movie of all time, which shows what interested the minds (or, at least, adrenal glands) of the wider viewership. Nonetheless, I don’t understand why it didn’t find stronger recognition among those who appreciate thoughtful, realistic science fiction. It hasn’t really dated in the past two decades (aside from the chunky desktop computers everyone’s using, anyway), and its debates and messages continue to resonate as a reflection of the society we live in, so maybe there’s time yet for its reappraisal.

    5 out of 5

    Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

    2017 #94
    Jon Watts | 133 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12A / PG-13

    Spider-Man: Homecoming

    This review contains spoilers for, like, everything.

    When Marvel Studios began their grand experiment in revolutionising the Hollywood blockbuster landscape with Iron Man, I began my review with an hysterically funny (and totally under-appreciated) riff on the famous cheesy Spider-Man theme song, which was once buried at the end of the credits of a Spider-Man film as a joke. Nine years later, not only is Spider-Man joining the MCU, he’s doing so with the support of Iron Man — both in the film and in its marketing — and that cheesy song has been rendered in epic orchestral style to open the film. My, how times change.

    This is the second big-screen reboot for the Spider-Man franchise, but Sony and new production partner Marvel Studios aren’t keen for us to dwell on that (because the last reboot being such an unpopular move is the reason this one’s happened). So, following this latest incarnation’s soft introduction in last year’s Captain America: Civil War, here we pick up where that left off. 15-year-old Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is now hanging out back in New York, dealing with normal high school things like homework, parties, and casual bullying, and being just a friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man by stopping bicycle thieves and giving old ladies directions. He waits for a call from Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) about their next big mission — a call that never comes. But when Spider-Man attempts to stop a bank robbery where the crooks are armed with suspiciously advanced tech, Peter finds himself on the trail of Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), a former salvage worker who uses bits and pieces recovered from Avengers battles to build dangerous weapons that he sells to criminals.

    He's some kind of... Bird... man...

    MCU films are renowned for having a “villain problem” — their films’ antagonists are often little more than human MacGuffins; someone for the hero to punch in the third act after they’ve undergone their own journey. Recent films have sought to rectify that (Zemo in Civil War being perhaps the best example), and Homecoming continues the trend. It hasn’t gone full-on pre-Nolan Batman — this is still very much Spidey’s movie, most concerned with our hero’s psychology and his personal arc — but Toomes (aka the Vulture) is a more well-rounded character than most Marvel movie enemies. Indeed, he’s a pretty relatable figure he lost his livelihood due to government backroom deals forcing him out, since when he’s just tried to provide for the family he loves. In another version of this story, he’d be the hero.

    Although he’s not afforded an abundance of screen time, this is where having an actor of Keaton’s calibre pays off, as he effortlessly sells both Toomes’ everyman humanity and his threatening villainous side. He gets an interesting final beat, too: locked up in prison, he refuses to give up Spider-Man’s identity to a fellow inmate. I’ve read some interpret this as being because he wants to kill Peter himself, but I don’t think that fits with the rest of his arc. I saw it as he’d been reformed by Peter saving his life and was doing him a favour. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d spared his life, after all. It could go either way I guess, but there are so many good Spidey villains who haven’t made it to the screen yet that I hope they don’t intend to waste a chunk of Homecoming 2 on reheating the Vulture.

    It's mentor be

    As everyone well knows by now (thanks to it being repeated ad infinitum in the previous Spidey movies), the catchphrase of the Spider-Man franchise is “with great power comes great responsibility”. However, it’s not said once in this film. Instead, it’s threaded through the very core of the film’s story and character arcs. It’s the lesson everyone comes to learn. It’s what Stark is trying to teach Peter by giving him a fancy suit with a lot of its special features disabled, and by discouraging him from biting off more than he can chew. When Peter gets himself in too deep, as he does repeatedly, it always comes close to costing innocent lives. It’s a lesson Stark learns too, though: he’s trying to be a mentor, a father figure, and do a better job of it than his own father did, but he still doesn’t set the right example for Peter — until, of course, he does.

    That’s very much a subplot, though. Iron Man isn’t in the film as much as the trailers made some fear — this isn’t The Spider-Man and Iron Man Movie; indeed, that shot I’ve used for this post’s banner image isn’t even in the finished film. While Stark’s place as a mentor figure makes him important to our hero, this story is still all about Peter. Tom Holland is excellent, immensely likeable as both the socially awkward Peter Park and the wisecracking, overambitious Spider-Man. You want to hang out with him more, he’s such a nice guy. It’s also clear he’s got the acting chops to carry off some of the more emotional dilemmas and realisations that hit Peter. As I said, he goes through the arc of realising his powers come with responsibilities — to himself, his family, his friends, and the people he’s trying to protect — and Holland navigates that while making it look effortless.

    Every superhero's gotta brood sometimes

    It naturally brings Peter to a place that, when he’s finally offered one of the things he’s most wanted — membership of the Avengers — he turns it down because he’s not quite ready. That scene, with the modest hero and the gag about the journalists actually being there, is… kinda obvious, even if it’s a strong character moment. But it’s quite interesting on an extra textual level: as it stands, it’s a good setup for future Spidey solo movies, but we’re not getting another one of those until after the big two-part Avengers extravaganza is over and done. Kevin Feige has talked about this being a five-movie character arc for Spidey, implying he has a major role to play in those two Avengers flicks, even though he’s just turned down joining that team full time. Really, it’s nice they haven’t just used this film’s ending to set up / trail their next one, which has been another common MCU problem. Maybe the honchos at Marvel Studios are learning some lessons about power and responsibility too…

    Further feeding into the focus on our hero, the movie spends a lot of time on Peter’s school life. All the “typical high school experience” stuff brings a different flavour to the Marvel universe; and, indeed, to Spider-Man movies, which have only passingly used it in previous incarnations. Although it’s ultimately used a bit repetitiously (Peter tries to attend something high-school-y; has to run off to be Spider-Man instead), what there is of it works nicely. Peter’s best friend, Ned (Jacob Batalon), drops neatly into the comedic sidekick role and is a very likeable presence. There’s a neat reconfiguring of Flash (The Grand Budapest Hotel’s Tony Revolori) from his usual depiction as a stock football jock into a kind of nerd-bully.

    Class of 2017

    There’s an attempt to add some depth to the object of Peter’s affections, Liz (Laura Harrier), in the third act, but she’s mainly called on to be beautiful, then sweet, then scared, then sweet again, so… Meanwhile, there’s the much-discussed casting of Zendaya (are we meant to know who she is? I don’t) as a character who isn’t Mary Jane Watson, honest, but who does like to be called MJ. She’s mainly there to be sarky, and is presumably in place to be used next time. The same might be said of Angourie Rice, who demonstrated her considerable talent in The Nice Guys but is here wasted as A.N. Other Schoolmate. Her character name is familiar from the comics, so hopefully they have future plans for her too.

    Reading this review so far, you might be forgiven for thinking Homecoming was some kind of character drama. Not so, of course — there are plenty of the requisite blockbuster action scenes. I’ve seen criticism of them for being typically characterless Marvel fare, lacking in either distinctiveness or palpable stakes. While that’s not necessarily untrue of a couple of sequences, I think the Washington Monument sequence at least is mightily effective. I’m certainly looking forward to re-experiencing some of its dizzying heights in 3D when the Blu-ray comes out. The one I did find disappointing was the climax on the outside of the ‘invisible’ plane (“invisible” in the same way Die Another Day’s car was invisible, but executed a bit more realistically, so Homecoming isn’t getting the same degree of flak for it). Taking place in the night sky, aboard a vessel whose lighted surface is constantly flickering and changing, and with the requisite action-scene fast cutting, it was both too dark and too busy, the effect being just a blur of illuminations. I dunno, maybe that works better in 3D too…

    Monumental action

    And if we’re talking criticisms, I have to have a quick rant about how the trailers gave away the whole movie. Maybe I should be used to that by now — it seems to be happening a lot — but it’s still irritating. So, okay, Homecoming’s didn’t include everything — one pretty big twist was saved for the final film — but most (perhaps all?) of the best gags were included, and so many big scenes were featured that, at times, watching the full movie felt like working through a checklist of bits we’d seen. The most egregious was when it came to Peter failing at the ferry, then Tony taking his suit away, then Peter proving himself by rescuing the plane suit-less as the climax — that whole sequence of events easily deduced from the trailers. Yes, this is a fault of the marketing more than the film itself (or possibly of my brain having deconstructed the trailer and reconstructed it into a film), but it would be nice if the trailer editors could keep some stuff a bit more secret. It’s not as if there was a shortage of visually impressive action moments to hint at them without using significant chunks. And “Spider-Man tries to stop Vulture while Iron Man both mentors and ignores him” would’ve been fine for the plot. (Though, how much do you need to sell the story of a superhero blockbuster? Would “this famous character does cool things with superpowers” actually be adequate?) I’d like to say I’m going to start avoiding trailers in future, but I have no willpower; I just can’t resist.

    Finally, a quick word on the post-credits scene. As I left the cinema after it, the usher commented, “isn’t that the worst credits scene ever?” Well, I can see his point — it’s frustrating to have waited around just for that. At the same time, that’s kind of its point. And its point is bang on: it perfectly described how all of these credits scenes feel to the viewer; or, at least, how they feel to me. They’re pretty much never worth it, are they? And if filmmakers think it actually makes people read the credits… well, I dunno about you, but I turn my phone on and update Letterboxd and check Twitter until the scene turns up.

    Spider-American

    Ultimately, Spider-Man’s first full-blown outing in the MCU is… an MCU movie. Oh, sure, they’ve made inroads to fixing things like their weak villains, but the general tone — the lightness, the humour, the hero-focus, the style of the action — is all MCU stock-in-trade. Fortunately, they’re good at what they do, and that means this is a very good blockbuster movie. It’s entertainment value is consistent and high. For me, it lacks the kind of iconicity that mark out Sam Raimi’s first two Spideys as foremost examples of superhero movies — although it’s not as wedded into the ever-developing MCU storyline as some of their other movies, it’s still Marvel Cinematic Universe Episode XVI, to an extent. But, eh, when it gets so much right, what does that matter?

    4 out of 5

    The Girl with All the Gifts (2016)

    2017 #28
    Colm McCarthy | 111 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.00:1 | UK & USA / English | 15 / R

    The Girl with All the Gifts

    When George A. Romero invented the zombie subgenre in the ’60s, he was more concerned with allegory than blood ‘n’ guts. The latter has come to dominate, as it has with so much of the broader horror genre, but from time to time there’s still room for thoughtful contributions more befitting Romero’s legacy. This low-budget British film, adapted from a young adult novel, is one such effort.

    As the film opens we’re introduced to Melanie (Sennia Nanua), a young girl who sits in a concrete bedroom treasuring her photo of a kitten. Then soldiers enter and, at gunpoint, strap her to a chair, before wheeling her to a classroom with similarly restrained children. It’s just the beginning of a fantastic first act, full of atmosphere and intrigue as this world is rolled out before us. The less you know the better, though the chances of going in so cold that it’s a total mystery are sadly slim. If you’re intrigued enough already to check out the movie on my recommendation alone, stop reading now! Go watch it! If not…

    So, as it turns out, we’re in the near future and a fungal disease has turned most of humanity into zombie-like creatures known as ‘hungries’. They spend most of their time in a dormant trance, but the smell of uninfected blood sends them wild and chompy. Melanie and her classmates are children who are infected but ‘normal’ — unless provoked, when they too turn into ravenous fiends — and they may hold the key to a cure. They live on an army base, but, when it’s overrun by hungries, Melanie and a ragtag group of survivors — including Paddy Considine’s sergeant, teacher Gemma Arterton, and scientist Glenn Close, who’s obsessed with finding a cure at any cost — hit the road in search of safe haven.

    On the road

    In the A.V. Club’s review, Katie Rife asserts that “once this initial premise is revealed and The Girl With All The Gifts leaves the base… this intriguing twist on zombie lore becomes subsumed by postapocalyptic road-trip cliché.” Well, yes and no. There are certainly some familiar beats, but I felt like those just gave a narrative shape to contain otherwise interesting ideas. I haven’t seen enough zombie movies to vouch for The Girl With All The Gifts being 100% original, but I’d certainly not come across some of its ideas before. That goes for both the way it handles the zombie action (though, of course, there are only so many ways you can depict the monstrous undead) and the social commentary, which, as much as anything, tackles the way children and adults interrelate.

    The eponymous girl is fantastic — Melanie is an interesting character, and an interesting type of character too. She’s fantastically played by Sennia Nanua, who may be a talent to watch out for in future (I say ‘may’ because, per IMDb, she’s not got anything else coming up). The more familiar supporting cast are as superb as you’d expect. Glenn Close brings plausibility to what could’ve just been an Evil Scientist role, while Gemma Arterton provides the film’s heart as a motherly teacher. Paddy Considine’s role is best appreciated once all is said and done — he seems to be just the gruff soldier type, but snippets of his backstory are revealed right up until the end, revealing new layers to his character.

    Special school

    Director Colm McCarthy, a veteran of copious amounts of British TV (Spooks, Doctor Who, Sherlock, Ripper Street, Peaky Blinders, and much, much more), keeps the focus on the characters while also giving their world a fantastic sense of scale. The film was made for a pittance (for comparison, it cost about half as much as a single episode of Game of Thrones) but looks incredible. There may be some blurry edges on green screen shots and things like that, but I’ve seen less convincing effects work in movies that cost 50 times as much. Some of the footage was captured by flying over the remains of a town left to rot after Chernobyl, which lends a veracity to the post-apocalyptic vistas (and presumably saved a tonne on CGI). In terms of places you can actually take actors, it was partly filmed in Birmingham, which seems to be becoming a go-to location for dystopian / post-apocalyptic cityscapes (Spielberg’s forthcoming Ready Player One also shot there last year).

    The zombie genre is an overcrowded one nowadays, even if you exclude the innumerable direct-to-DVD knock-offs, but there’s still space for well-made movies that can put the familiar tropes to greater use. The Girl with All the Gifts is an impressively mounted and performed production, and is worth watching if just for that horror-thriller kick. However, it also has something to say. I imagine Romero would be pleased.

    5 out of 5

    The Girl with All the Gifts is available on Sky Cinema from today.

    The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984)

    2016 #134
    W.D. Richter | 103 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG

    The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension

    Buckaroo Banzai seems to have quite the cult following in the US, but, as far as I understand, it never made an impression over here; not until the internet enabled such cults to go global, anyway. It has big-name fans (one, Kevin Smith, was developing a remake for Amazon until legal wrangles got in the way), so of course it’s been noticed in more recent times. I’ve been somehow aware of it for ages, but finally got round to seeing it last year after Arrow put it out on Blu-ray.*

    For those equally unfamiliar with the film, it’s an action-adventure sci-fi satirical comedy (kinda), concerning an adventure (one of many, I imagine) of Dr. Buckaroo Banzai (RoboCop’s Peter Weller), the famous physicist, neurosurgeon, test pilot, and rock musician. While testing a device that allows him to pass through solid matter, Banzai briefly travels to another dimension. This kickstarts a series of events that leads to the escape of evil aliens the Red Lectroids, who Banzai must defeat lest it brings about the end of the world. That’s the streamlined version, anyway.

    To be perfectly honest, I’ve found it quite hard to tell what I thought of Buckaroo Banzai. On the one hand, I can definitely see where it gets its cult appeal, and I appreciate some of the ways it’s being different and boundary pushing. On the other, there’s been a definite backlash to it and I can appreciate where that comes from too — the criticism that some of that “boundary pushing” is merely sloppy storytelling and crazy overacting. There are parts where it’s hard to tell if it was deliberate and quite clever, or just incompetently done. Part of the problem (but also the appeal) is that it’s played so straight. It’s unquestionably a comedy — it’s too ludicrous to be anything else, and the sheer build-up of comedic lines becomes clear as it goes on — but it’s all played with such a straight face that I can see why you’d think everyone involved believed they were making something serious.

    Dr Buckaroo Banzai

    There are ways it could be ‘normal’, too: it contains so many elements that could be used to construct a traditional narrative — a new member being introduced to the gang, a love interest, an inciting incident which kicks off the events of the narrative, and so on — but it chooses to use none of these in a traditional way, instead being batshit crazy and thoroughly unique with it. Interestingly, director W.D. Richter was also one of the writers on Big Trouble in Little China, which is another action-adventure movie featuring a similar loose, crazy, fever-dream style. (Of all things, he also wrote Stealth, the forgotten-as-soon-as-it-was-released jet-pilots-vs-AI action thriller starring Jessica Biel and Jamie Foxx from 2005.) I can see how, after a diet of mainstream adventure cinema, something like this could feel refreshing. It’s almost like counter-culture pulp; like a Rocky Horror for the ’80s, but without the camp. (Or, at least, not the same kind of camp — I mean, have you seen what Jeff Goldblum’s wearing?)

    In the booklet accompanying Arrow’s Blu-ray, James Oliver talks about cult movies and their history. “Cult” is sometimes used nowadays as a catch-all term for anything in the broad sci-fi / fantasy / horror realm, or with a dedicated and eager fanbase. It’s almost mainstream. The term’s roots lie in the opposite direction, of course — films that critics and mass moviegoers disliked but that developed a following of people who appreciate and defended them nonetheless. This is a lot easier and quicker than it used to be since VHS came along, and even more so in the era of DVD and Blu-ray. Banzai was possibly the first cult film to benefit in this way. Oliver concludes by reasoning that the film “resists easy assimilation. It plays too many games to be embraced by everyone and is, accordingly, often patronised or even denigrated, even by some of those who usually like cult movies. But such resistance just makes those who love it love it just that little bit harder. So it is a cult movie and, no matter how much the meaning of that phrase may mutate over time, it likely always will be.” Based on the aforementioned backlash — how it’s had a chance to move in a more widely-known direction but hasn’t done so — I think he’s right.

    Villains

    Personally, I’m still conflicted. I sort of didn’t think it was all that great, but also loved it at the same time. “Loved” might be too strong a word. I admired some of the ways it was different from the norm. Plus there are some very quotable lines, and the music that kicks off the end credits is relentlessly hummable. On balance, I really wanted to like it more than I actually did like it. Maybe I’ll get there on repeat viewings (because we know how good I am at getting round to those…)

    3 out of 5

    * Said Blu-ray was actually released two years ago this month — where does time go?! ^

    10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)

    2016 #180
    Dan Trachtenberg | 104 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    10 Cloverfield Lane

    After Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is in a car crash, she awakens in a basement chained to a wall. Her captor, Howard (John Goodman), tells her he’s saved her life: a massive attack has taken place and they, along with an acquaintance of Howard’s called Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.), are in Howard’s self-built bunker to hide from the deadly fallout. But Michelle only has Howard’s word as evidence these attacks happened at all, or that their aftermath is lethal, and can he be trusted?

    For most of its running time, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a good psychological puzzle. Michelle has little choice but to trust her captor(s) / quarantine-mates and little chance to investigate the truth for herself, try as she might. I must say I never felt a particularly palpable sense of tension, despite the varied and regularly renewed attempts to make Goodman a threat, but it nonetheless works as a characterful mystery-driven single-location thriller. And then…

    We’ve all read reviews where a critic (or blogger!) will write something like, “it would benefit from being 10 minutes shorter”. That sounds very precise and therefore clever, but it’s really a number plucked from thin air. No one who’s written a sentence like that has actually sat down with a film, noted all the bits they’d cut, added them up, and then presented that total in their review. It is, at best, intuition (at worst, it’s random and thoughtless). However, with 10 Cloverfield Lane I can say exactly how much needs to be cut: 9 minutes and 10 seconds. To be exact, those’d be the 9 minutes and 10 seconds between a (spoilery) revelation and the credits rolling.

    Roomies

    There’s no need to go into detail here — if you’ve not seen the film it’s a massive spoiler; if you have, you surely know what I’m talking about. This climax feels wholly unnecessary and like it belongs in a totally different movie. Tonally, and in terms of the main plot points that drive the story, it has absolutely nothing to do with the movie we’ve just watched. If you cut that bit out, it wouldn’t make the rest of the film any less satisfying. And because it’s so unnecessary, I found it intensely irritating.

    The bulk of 10 Cloverfield Lane is a very solid contained psychological thriller, undoubtedly deserving a strong 4-star rating. Then the final ten minutes happens. It’s so misjudged, in my opinion, that it overshadows what’s come before, to the point that I’ve taken a whole star off my rating.

    3 out of 5

    Space Jam (1996)

    2017 #76
    Joe Pytka | 84 mins | TV | 16:9 | USA / English | U / PG

    Space Jam

    Space Jam is one of those movies that everyone of my generation seems to have seen, and many of them have fond childhood memories of it too. I remember when it came out. I pretty thoroughly dismissed it at the time, because I had no interest in basketball (partly because I’m British — I was baffled anyone else over here cared at all), and not much more interest in the Looney Tunes characters either, to be honest. Plus it just looked silly. And not in a good way. But, as I say, everyone else seems to have seen it, so I thought “why not?” and taped it off the telly one day. (Well, I didn’t tape it — no one uses tape anymore, do they? Recorded it. DVR’d it. TiVo’d it. Whatevs.) Then, one night when my critical faculties were feeling like they didn’t want to be challenged with anything too worthy of my time, I decided to bung it on — and learnt that I was right in the first place.

    For those who’ve managed to avoid awareness of this movie, it stars Michael Jordan as Michael Jordan, the basketball player, who ends up being recruited by Bugs Bunny and co to teach them how to play basketball so they can beat a group of aliens who want to kidnap them. I would say “it makes sense in the film”, but it doesn’t make much more sense.

    Not even Bill Murray can save this movie

    A plausible plot is not a prerequisite for an entertaining kids’ movie, but Space Jam provides nothing in its place. It is joyless. Not funny. Not clever. It’s just flat. The concept of character is nonexistent — no one has an arc. It wastes time on a subplot about a bunch of players who aren’t Michael Jordan. (I say “wastes time” — the whole thing’s a waste of time.) Bill Murray turns up for no apparent reason — did he need the money? Does he really love basketball? I don’t know. He brings some small joy just by being him. Elsewhere, there’s a grand total of one funny line.

    Even on a technical level, the animation and live-action interaction isn’t all that good. So much of it is obviously just Michael Jordan on a green screen, looking around himself at thin air which some animators filled in. It’s perhaps a little smoother around the edges than Roger Rabbit (which was released eight years earlier), but it lacks that film’s class and tactile sense that the live-action and animation are genuinely interacting, which is more important than computer-aided precision.

    You may have seen earlier this week that a list was released of “Must See Movies Before You Grow Up”, aiming to list the 50 films every child should see by the age of 11. Space Jam was on it. So was Home. Over half the list came from this millennium, a third from the past seven years. There’s lots of good stuff on there but, yeah, I think I’m going to ignore it. Like I suggest you should ignore Space Jam.

    1 out of 5

    Mr. Nobody (2009)

    2016 #192
    Jaco Van Dormael | 156 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Belgium, Canada, France & Germany / English | 15 / R

    Mr. Nobody

    Jared Leto stars in this sci-fi drama about the last mortal on Earth reflecting on his life… or is it lives? Essentially, the film is an explanation or exploration of scientific theories realised as a character drama, using a nonlinear narrative to mix and contrast different timelines and realities. For some, this makes it a very confusing movie.

    That said, if you get the theories behind it, I don’t think it’s an especially complex film at all. It can’t be understood as a linear story with a singular chain of cause-and-effect, but if you let that narrative shape go then I don’t think it’s hard to follow the multiple permutations it presents. What is tricky is gleaning any point from them. We see all the paths Leto’s Nemo could have chosen… but which does he choose? All of them? None of them? Is it immaterial which he picks? Maybe that’s the point — any number of things can happen to us in our lives, any number of little choices can lead us in fantastically different directions, and ultimately we have no control over any of it. Free will is an illusion, etc. Maybe, to put it in Disney terms, we just need to let it go. Or… not?

    Based on online comments, Mr. Nobody is a very divisive film: some people absolutely adore it (I’ve seen the word “perfect” thrown around a surprising amount), while others think it’s an empty experience, all talk and no walk. I certainly wouldn’t agree with the former, but I think it’s thought-provoking enough to be more than the latter.

    4 out of 5

    Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

    2016 #147
    Don Siegel | 77 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.00:1 | USA / English | PG

    Invasion of the Body Snatchers

    A sci-fi thriller about a stealth alien invasion using human duplicates (clue’s in the title), this original film version of the oft-remade Invasion of the Body Snatchers is best not at genre-movie chills, but at evoking and commenting on paranoia and what causes it.

    Thematically, the narrative of insidious outsiders slowly replacing good honest people with braindead versions who are on their side has been read as either anti-communist or anti-McCarthyite, with some critics claiming the framing story (more on that in a bit) changes it from the latter to the former. Allegedly none of these themes were intended — not by the author of the original story, the screenwriter, the producer, or the director. Which doesn’t mean you can’t see them there. Indeed, director Don Siegel felt the anti-McCarthy subtext was inescapable, but he tried not to emphasise it. Whichever reading you prefer, or none, the sense of unease, distrust, and lurking danger that the film creates are a peerless reflection of paranoid feelings.

    Although I deemphasised the genre aspect above, that doesn’t mean it lacks for sophistication there either. It’s as much a thriller as it is science fiction, and more mature in that regard than what’s commonly brought to mind by the phrase “50s sci-fi movie” (whether that’s fair or not). The way the mystery slowly unravels — the calmness of it; how even our heroes unwittingly allow some of it to happen — sucks you slowly deeper into its anxious grip. (“Slowly” being a relative term, because this is a short, quick movie.) Nonetheless, the most outright SF elements — the plant-like pods that the clones emerge from — are suitably creepy. Not in themselves, but when they first burst open and the bodies inside begin to ooze out… Though not strictly a horror movie (at least not as we’d define it today), those moments are chilling.

    Extreme gardening

    The impact of this sequence is supported by the black-and-white photography, which helps obscure any cheapness or amateurism to be found from the era- and budget-restrained special effects work. But such photography benefits the film as a whole, too, with some great film noir visuals during nighttime scenes. Siegel had previously helmed several such crime pictures (and would go on to a couple more) and it’s clear those skills crossed over. It also works very nicely with the film’s paranoia — what’s lurking in the shadows?

    In some respects it’s amazing Invasion of the Body Snatchers is as successful as it is, because the studio chose to dick around with it in a couple of ways. Originally the film had some humour, which (as I think we all know by now) definitely can have a place in a horror movie, generally to help manage tension levels. Despite successful test screenings in which the audience screamed or laughed as appropriate, the studio ordered the humour be cut. I guess they then felt they’d made the film too glum, because they next ordered the addition of bookend sequences, against the wishes of both the producer and the director. It’s clear these couple of scenes were shot much later, with much less care given to their quality. They do somewhat detract from the pervading pessimistic, bleak, increasingly hopeless tone — which was why they were added, of course, so at least in that respect they’re a success.

    Those late additions aren’t bad enough to ruin the film, however, which still comes away as a well-made exercise in tension.

    4 out of 5