The Past Month on TV #39

Travel through time and space, into dreams and memories, and along miniature railways in this month’s TV review…

Doctor Who  Series 11 Episodes 1-2
Doctor Who series 11The 37th season of Doctor Who begins with the show’s biggest soft-reboot since at least 2010; arguably, since 2005; arguably, ever. With a new showrunner comes a new broom, and so we have a new Doctor, a new TARDIS, a new set of companions — sorry, they’re “friends” now — new locations, new monsters, and a new style (thanks to a raft of behind-the-scenes changes, including a new effects company, swish new cameras and lenses, and a new aspect ratio). It’s the perfect jumping-on point… and it worked, with the premiere achieving the show’s highest ratings for a decade; or longer, depending how you count it.

Oh, and the Doctor’s a woman now, too. “It’ll kill the show,” cried a vocal minority. Hahaha, nope!

But what of Jodie Whittaker, anyway? As with any new Doctor, I feel she needs a little time to find her feet — something that lies in the writing as much as the performance. There are some lines which would seem more at home in the mouths of David Tennant or Matt Smith, which Whittaker gamely tackles but don’t quite feel natural. But at other times the material and her performance click in perfect synchronicity, and we can see the promise that lies within. Hopefully as the writers become more familiar with her mannerisms, what works and what doesn’t for this particular incarnation, then it’ll all become smoother. There’s no reason to doubt she’s up to the task.

Some question the new man in charge of the running the show, though. Chris Chibnall’s TV record is… patchy. For every Broadchurch series one there’s a Broadchurch series two; for every Broadchurch series three there’s a Torchwood series one; and so on. He acquits himself decently with this opening pair of episodes. The first, The Woman Who Fell to Earth, may owe an obvious debt to Predator with its alien-hunter storyline, but Who has always liberally borrowed from other places and made the material it’s own.

TARDIS TeamIndeed, even as it’s open-armed and newbie-friendly, Chibnall’s era already seems as Who-literate as you’d expect from such a long-time fan (somewhat (in)famously, as a teenager in the ’80s Chibnall appeared on TV criticising the then production team). His sense of what Who should be is at once indebted to the modern era (in particular the years of Russell T Davies, who I suspect may’ve been something of a mentor to Chibnall at one point) and also seeks to reintegrate elements long absent. For example, there’s the expanded TARDIS team, which calls to mind that of the series’ very first group of travellers; though whereas 1963 gave us a teenage girl and two middle-aged teachers, 2018 offers two teenagers and one middle-aged bloke. Such are the changing times. And for dedicated Whovians, the plot of episode two, The Ghost Monument, also had an air of early Hartnell serials, with its episodic trek across a danger-filled alien world. It was a brisk, entertaining 50 minutes, but stop and think about it too much and the cracks begin to show (read Andrew Ellard’s tweetnotes to see how it could’ve been polished up, for example).

Still, two episodes into a new era is no point at which to make generalisations about it (despite what some people have been trying). This is a reasonably promising start, though: there’s a good cast in place, and a clear sense of purpose — this feels like a production team making the version of the show they want on screen, not one rushing headlong to get out anything so long as it meets the broadcast deadline (something that afflicted both RTD’s and Steven Moffat’s eras at times). Only the weeks ahead can really tell how consistently they’ve achieved. Personally, I’m more excited for each new episode to come around than I have been for some time.

Maniac
ManiacNetflix continue to blur the line between movies and TV with this limited series starring Oscar winner Emma Stone and Oscar nominee Jonah Hill, co-created and directed by Cary “director of the next Bond film” Fukunaga. Well, I mean, it’s a line that other TV producers have blurred plenty in the past — movie stars on TV is far from a new thing at this point, and there’s no doubting this is a TV series rather than a movie (it’s 6½ hours long, for one thing) — but, still. And they bend the rules of TV, too, with individual episodes running everywhere from 26 to 47 minutes. (Does that matter when Netflix’s release-it-all-at-once strategy means you choose how much to watch at any one time? Maybe not. But if you’re the kind to still watch one episode at a time, a word to the wise: I recommend double-billing the ultra-short should-be-one-episode pair of episodes 7 and 8.)

Anyway, Hill stars as the paranoid and delusional son of a business magnate who enrols in a drug trial, where he meets Stone’s addict in search of a fix. The trial is a new method for treating past trauma, something both of them have plenty of; and when the AI that’s a vital part of the procedure malfunctions, the pair find themselves in each others dreams and fantasies. It’s kind of like Inception made by someone with a kookier imagination that Christopher Nolan.

In fact, an even better point of reference would be X-Men-adjacent TV series Legion — it has the same preoccupation with mental health, with mysterious possibly helpful / possibly evil institutions, with can’t-trust-reality trippiness, with retro-futuristic design… It’s certainly a heavily stylised series, which is half the charm. The other half is all the dreamworld stuff, which takes a few episodes to rock up but is worth the wait. And the other half — because this is the kind of show that would definitely have three halves — is the chemistry between Stone and Hill, which is unexpected but palpable.

Kooky chemistryA significant amount of the series’ offbeat likability is down to idiosyncratic direction by Fukunaga, I suspect — the way he’s shepherded the visual creation of this world, the leftfield performance choices across the cast, and so on — but Emma Stone is definitely the MVP. While the aforementioned chemistry between her and Hill is important, and a lot of the rest of the cast get to excel at being quirky and funny, it’s Stone who really brings heart and emotion to the piece, making it more than just a zany fantasy.

Maniac throws you in at the deep end, with a first instalment that’s densely packed with information and alternate-world building, which it races past and through, sometimes with two or three things going on at once, making it feel a bit like hard work. But, really, that’s all incidental detail. Once you settle into it, an inventive and kooky journey awaits. How much it all adds up to is debatable — though, for the characters, it definitely reaches a worthwhile place — but it’s the kind of trip where the journey’s worth at least as much as the destination.

The Great Model Railway Challenge  Series 1 Episodes 1-2
The Great Model Railway Challenge
Long-time readers of this column with exceptionally good memories may remember that I once watched two episodes of Shed of the Year merely because one episode featured a Doctor Who-themed shed and another featured a cinema-themed shed (I’m still jealous of the latter, and you should be too — see photos at the aforementioned link). Well, here we have another show that wouldn’t normally be up my street… but episode one was all cinema-themed builds, and episode two featured a Doctor Who-themed build.

As for the programme itself, well, the format follows the template established by Bake Off and since copied ad infinitum for almost every hobby TV producers can think of: a pair of affable, pun-delivering hosts; a mixed-gender pair of expert judges; well-practiced amateur contestants, who compete in a series of tasks and challenges over a period of three days — in this case, to build model railways. It comes across as being as nerdy a hobby as you’d think (and with one team choosing to do the Who themed setup, it’s like nerd²), but I don’t mean that as a criticism — the stuff they produce is, at its best, astonishing and a lot of fun. I think I’m going to end up watching the rest of the series.

Also watched…
  • Upstart Crow Series 3 Episode 4 — It’s funny how this era of catchup TV can lead to both binge-watching and spreading stuff thinner than intended (or is that just me?) Anyway, the sole episode of Upstart Crow continued the quality run I commented on last month, this time with an amusing episode-long riff on Much Ado About Nothing.
  • Would I Lie To You? Series 12 Episode 1 — The best panel show on TV is back and as on form as ever, particularly with the ever-unguessable Bob Mortimer popping in for the first episode. A treat.

    The Not-So-Immortal Iron Fist
    Colleen the Iron FistHaving just last month written about how improved Iron Fist was and how I was actually looking forward to season three, Netflix went and cancelled it last weekend. That’s the first of their Marvel shows they’ve outright cancelled (it doesn’t look like The Defenders is coming back, but that was technically always a one-off miniseries anyway). There are lots of options for Iron Fist’s future, however: could be they’re planning to team up some of the characters into a new show; could be it moves to Disney’s forthcoming streaming service, which is set to have other MCU-related series. I figure the latter is unlikely — it’s tarnished goods now — but it would seem a shame to not pay off the second season’s cliffhangers/teases somewhere, somehow.

    Things to Catch Up On
    InformerThis month, I have mostly been missing Informer, BBC One’s new thriller. Well, it only started on Tuesday, so that’s fair enough, right? I guess I’ll save it up and see how it goes down — I’ve managed to avoid wasting time on a few initially-promising-but-ultimately-poorly-received series with this method; though, equally, it led to Radio Times spoiling Bodyguard for me, so you take your chances… And as the lack of review may’ve told you, I’ve yet to start Killing Eve. With a bunch of stuff popping onto Netflix over the coming weeks (see below), it’ll be lucky to make next month’s column either.

    Next month… after a 2½-year wait (which has included seven seasons of other Marvel/Netflix shows), it’s finally time to give the Devil his due — that being, a third season.

    Plus! Netflix’s spooky Riverdale spinoff, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, and more new Who.

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  • The Tree of Life (2011)

    2018 #192
    Terrence Malick | 139 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    The Tree of Life

    Writer-director Terrence Malick made just five films in the first 38 years of his directorial career, this being the fifth. In the seven years since it came out, he’s made five more. Why the long gaps before, or the sudden increase now? Who knows — Malick is notoriously interview-shy. But the answer may indeed lie with this film, sitting as it does at the fulcrum of his career. It was a project Malick had on his mind for decades (he shot material for it as far back as the ’70s), which for various reasons — primarily funding and technology, I think — it took him until this decade to achieve. Many think it was worth the wait: lots of people love it, including the Cannes jury, who awarded it the Palme d’Or. Many others… don’t: plenty of people regard it as pretentious, or at least too abstruse to care about. It’s a film that, I think, can only elicit an entirely personal reaction. So here’s mine.

    The Tree of Life is about… um… oh dear, we’ve hit a snag already. Well, once it settles down (which takes the best part of an hour), what it’s literally about is a family living in Waco, Texas, in the 1950s — dad (Brad Pitt), mom (Jessica Chastain), and their three sons, Jack (Hunter McCracken), R.L. (Laramie Eppler), and Steve (Tye Sheridan). The kids play around doing the kind of thing young lads did in the ’50s — running around in the woods, swimming in rivers, throwing stones through windows, murdering frogs — while being torn between the influences of their parents: their kind, gentle, caring mother, and their strict, authoritative, borderline abusive (or just straight abusive?) father.

    But the film also occasionally shows as Sean Penn as grown-up Jack, working some high-level job in a present-day city. And it also shows us an extended sequence about the birth of the universe and the evolution of life on Earth. And that’s to say nothing of the epilogue… Or, indeed, the prologue, which introduces a massive event in the family’s life that is then, arguably, unreferenced by the rest of the movie.

    So… yeah.

    Pondering or ponderous?

    Much of The Tree of Life is more like visual poetry than a traditional narrative film. Beautiful images glide before our eyes, some with obvious meaning, others less so. Some of the images resonate or rhyme with each other, urging us to infer our own interpretation of what we’re seeing, and why, and what it signifies. This is mostly true of the opening chunk — which lasts a good 45 to 60 minutes — and the ending. In between, more of a narrative is discernible — the stuff about the young family — although its constructed in a poetic fashion, with minimal dialogue, lots of vignettes, fragments of day-to-day life that don’t necessarily have an immediate significance.

    To me, it felt like we were watching someone’s dreams or memories, presented as we really remember things: random fragments from our lives. If you think about your memories of childhood, they don’t take the form of a neat narrative in concise scenes with all the important landmarks accounted for. We do remember big events, of course, but also many small things; and some things we remember extensively, but others only fragmentarily. If you could view a person’s memories, they’d create, not a biopic, but an impressionistic collage or our lives — and this film is that, I think.

    But that can still leave the viewer to question what it’s all about, especially given the extended sequence of space gases, forming planets, burgeoning microscopic lifeforms, and dinosaurs. Yes, in arguably the film’s most baffling sequence (there are many contenders), we see an event in the life of some dinosaurs. Actually, I say it’s the most baffling, but only if you stick to the film itself: of all the confusing things herein, that’s the one with the most concrete explanation, thanks to visual effects supervisor Michael L. Fink having a little chat with critic Jim Emerson about Malick’s intentions for the scene. Not everyone likes firm answers to this kind of stuff, so I’ll just link to where you can read it if you want to.

    Motherly love

    That said, some of the stuff I’ve already mentioned in passing I only know definitively thanks to extra-textual sources. Well, if you count the film’s end credits as extra-textual, which I suppose they’re not. But it’s only thanks to those that I know for certain which of the boys Penn was supposed to be, or that creation-of-the-universe stuff is indeed meant to be that (based on genuine science, donchaknow), and that these scenes show us the “astrophysical realm”, because there are effects credits for that. And more still can be learnt from, of all places, the Blu-ray’s chapter menu: the long creation sequence is indeed called “creation”, in case you weren’t sure. The ending is “eternity”, followed by “was it a dream?” Others include “grief”, “innocence”, “mother”, “father”, “I do what I hate” — all showing us the way towards important themes… maybe. Or perhaps they’re just convenient chapter points…

    Praise for the film’s imagery is due not only to Malick, but also cinematography Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki. And it’s not even the guy’s best work — I’d argue for consistent beauty he’s surpassed it with some of the stunning, Oscar-winning stuff he’s done since — but you can see how he got from here to there: the very best shots in The Tree of Life are kind of what he does all the time in films like The Revenant. As for constructing those images into a meaningful flow, I’m never sure how much is down to an editor’s own creativity and how much is them operating machinery under the director’s instruction — I guess, like most things in the movies, it’s a collaborative mix of both. Anyway, the film has five credited editors — Hank Corwin, Jay Rabinowitz, Daniel Rezende, Billy Weber and Mark Yoshikawa — who I’m sure must’ve been vital to the process. (Relatedly, here’s a fun anecdote from IMDb: “an Italian cinema showed the film for a week with the first two reels switched. Even though the film starts with production logos, no one in the theater noticed and thought it was all part of Terrence Malick’s ‘crazy editing style’.”)

    Creation

    There’s a lot of really great music and sound design as well — something Malick clearly considered important to a Lynchian degree, given that before the film plays the Blu-ray flashes up a notice advising you to “play it loud”. Alexandre Desplat is credited for the music, but a very, very long list of sourced tracks too hints at what actually happened: most of his music went unused in the final cut, with only a few minutes making it in. I imagine that feels quite unedifying, to have your work sidelined; but maybe it’s better than being ditched entirely in favour of a new score, as has happened to plenty of other composers in the past.

    It’s easy to get hung up on all this filmmaking when thinking about The Tree of Life, because that’s where its own focus seems to be, as opposed to the usual things a reviewer might think to discuss first, like the screenplay or performances. But there are still actors here, and good ones at that. The movie is really centred around Hunter McCracken, and he’s very good. The casting directors saw thousands of Texan school kids while trying to cast the boys, and the effort paid off; though McCracken hasn’t done anything else since, so maybe not for him personally. The other two brothers don’t have so much to do; in fact, I kept almost forgetting one of the trio existed, so little is he on screen or relevant to events. Ironically, he’s the only one of the three who’s gone on to have a career: it’s Tye Sheridan, most recently seen as the lead in Ready Player One.

    As for the adults, Sean Penn is one of the many lead actors in a Malick film whose performances have wound up on the cutting room floor. According to Lubezki, there’s enough deleted footage to make a whole movie focused on Penn’s character. Yep, sounds like Malick! Obviously such a movie would be completely different to this one, but I’d be curious to see it. More screen time is devoted to Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt, who both achieve a lot with comparatively little. Chastain is the focus early on, but it later becomes apparent that Pitt has a showier role, in a way, because of his character’s arc. There’s a pullquote on the back of the UK Blu-ray that calls it “the strongest performance of his career”, but considering his performances in the likes of Se7en and The Assassination of Jesse James, or that he’s been Oscar-nominated for his turns in Twelve Monkeys, Benjamin Button, and Moneyball, I thought that was a bit of an outlandish claim to make. To each their own, though.

    Affection or headlock?

    Anyhow, all this is “technical” stuff quite apart from what The Tree of Life is really about. Not that I’m totally clear on what that is, still. I guess maybe it’s there for us to infer what we like from it, be that religious, scientific, humanistic, or, for many a viewer, just boredom. Whether you love it or hate it — and there are certainly plenty of perfectly reasonable people at both extremes — it’s definitely an Experience; one every person who considers themselves serious about film appreciation needs to have.

    4 out of 5

    A new edition of The Tree of Life, which includes a different cut that’s 50 minutes longer (but, intriguingly, is not an extended cut), is released by Criterion in the US tomorrow and in the UK on November 19th.

    A Quiet Place (2018)

    2018 #177
    John Krasinski | 90 mins | download (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA / American Sign Language & English | 15 / PG-13

    A Quiet Place

    Not, in fact, the directorial debut of John Krasinski (aka Jim from the US remake of The Office, aka Mr Emily Blunt, aka Jack Ryan Mk.V later this month), but the first one that’s really gained any attention (to the tune of a sizeable $332.6 million off a budget of just $17 million), A Quiet Place is a post-apocalypse survival movie cum horror thriller. In the near future, the human race has been seemingly decimated by a race of aliens that hunt via sound. The film introduces us to a family — parents Emily Blunt and John Krasinski, kids Millicent Simmonds, Noah Jupe, and Cade Woodward — who have managed to survive by living on an isolated farm and communicating via sign language, which they’re fortunate to know thanks to a deaf daughter. Naturally, their carefully-constructed safety is threatened when Something Goes Wrong and the creatures are attracted to the farm.

    A Quiet Place’s USP is the “must stay quiet” aspect, which reportedly led to less chatter and popcorn-munching during cinema screenings. If only all moviegoing experiences were so blessed. Of course, a similar conceit was only recently deployed in Don’t Breathe, but here the threat level is upped by the almost supernatural enemy. The film’s PG-13 rating in the US means it occasionally pulls its punches on going all-out terrifying, but, as the UK 15 certificate may indicate, it’s still loaded with sequences of tension and suspense.

    Fingers on lips!

    Some have questioned the film’s adherence to its own rules, or the practicalities of the characters’ decisions, or the ‘luck’ of them having a deaf child and so being able to communicate via sign language. I don’t hold much truck with any of those criticisms. In the latter case, is it not logical that those who already know non-verbal communication have an advantage when it comes to silent survival? Maybe everyone who didn’t know sign language just got killed already. In the first, I think the film sticks closely enough to its conceit: small or disguised noises can go unnoticed, but anything big or obviously human is going to attract attention. Besides, there are only two or three of the creatures in the area — even with their super-hearing, surely some stuff is going to pass them by.

    The issue with the characters’ decisions perhaps comes down to the fact that the film leaves a lot unsaid (ho-ho) when it comes to their relationships and thought processes. Big events and the emotional fallout have occurred offscreen, leaving the family in the position we follow them for most of the film. Those viewers demanding 100% foolproof logic from every aspect of the movie are clearly left out in the cold by the lack of exposition, but more creative minds can fill in the blanks. Arguably it leaves the film wanting as a character drama, even as it strives for the kind of subtly and understatedness that is usually lauded in such a genre.

    The family that stays together fights sound-hunting aliens together

    But, really, it’s a horror-thriller, designed to have you biting your nails and on the edge of your seat as you wonder where the monster will spring from next and whether the characters can survive the assault. As a genre piece of that kind, half the running time is the film’s climax, and it’s an effective one at that.

    4 out of 5

    A Quiet Place is released on DVD, Blu-ray and UHD in the UK this week.

    Review Roundup: 15-Rated Comedies

    You don’t have to be an adult to like today’s reviewed movies, but… you do have to be a teenager. Still being a teenager would probably help you enjoy them, too.

    In today’s roundup:

  • Airplane II: The Sequel (1982)
  • Hot Tub Time Machine (2010)
  • Sausage Party (2016)


    Airplane II: The Sequel
    (1982)

    2018 #17
    Ken Finkleman | 81 mins | DVD | 16:9 | USA / English | 15* / PG

    Airplane II: The Sequel

    Comedy sequels are a funny business. Generally the first film’s been a big enough hit that people want to cash in, but can lightning strike twice? Well, the number of comedy trilogies (or more) suggests the answer is “yes”… or at least that enough people liked the first one enough that they went to see the second one and, regardless of what they actually thought of it, that persuaded people there should be a third.

    Airplane is widely regarded as one of the best comedies of all time. There is no Airplane III. Those two facts might suggest something about Airplane II — though it’s a film which even included a gag in its title, so it’s off to a good start.

    Watched now, over 35 years after its release, Airplane II has a certain vein of humour that hasn’t aged well. Ha ha, those two men kissed like they were a couple! Ha ha, that priest was looking at Altar Boy magazine like it was Playboy! Ha ha, everyone has to slap an hysterical woman! At least one of those gags would probably get you fired from a directing job at Disney nowadays… But to focus on those is to pick on the film’s weak points. Another would be that it has a few too many rehashes of jokes from the first one. Well, what comedy sequel doesn’t? That aside, much of the rest is pretty darn funny.

    3 out of 5

    * This was rated PG on its original theatrical release, but that was cut. The uncut version has consistently been rated 15 on video. ^

    Hot Tub Time Machine
    (2010)

    2018 #51
    Steve Pink | 97 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15*

    Hot Tub Time Machine

    I don’t know why I felt the need to watch Hot Tub Time Machine. Maybe just because it found its way onto my 50 Unseen list back in 2010 (I guess people talked about it at the time. Has it lasted? I don’t think so). Maybe because it’s got “time machine” in the title and so the sci-fi implication draws me in, especially as a Doctor Who fan. I don’t know. Whatever, it’s been vaguely on my radar for the past eight years and, when I wanted something undemanding one Friday night, its time finally came.

    As the title implies, it’s about a hot tub… that’s a time machine. Four dudes get in it and find themselves in the bodies of their ’80s selves. Except for one who wasn’t born at the time, who just finds himself in the past. Yeah, the logic of it is really shaky.

    Nonetheless, it actually has a couple of solid thematic and plot ideas buried away, to do with fate and second chances and stuff, but those are mired in execution that’s both derivative (of both Back to the Future and stuff like The Hangover — and, I swear, I hadn’t seen the quote on the above poster when I wrote that) and often unfunny (unless you really like that lowest-common-denominator gross-out stuff). There are some genuine laughs, but they’re infrequent enough that they might just’ve been accidents. Another part of the problem is that for the eventual pay-offs to work you need to be invested in the characters. The film makes half an attempt to give us reasons to care about the guys, but they didn’t connect for me. Maybe if that worked better, the later stuff would land too.

    I didn’t hate Hot Tub Time Machine — it was passably amusing for a time-filler — but it wasn’t great either. My score errs on the harsh side, because I definitely liked it less than other movies I’ve recently given 3 stars.

    2 out of 5

    * I watched the extended “unrated” version, hence no MPAA certificate. It’s less than two minutes longer (comparison here), with no material that would challenge an R rating. ^

    Sausage Party
    (2016)

    2018 #37
    Greg Tiernan & Conrad Vernon | 85 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA & Canada / English | 15 / R

    Sausage Party

    A movie about sentient food that parodies the inherent stupidity of religion — I mean, what’s not to like? Well, it’s from the minds of Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, and co (Jonah Hill as a story co-credit), so if you don’t like their kind of humour…

    Certainly, it’s incredibly rude and crude — even more so than they’d necessarily intended: they were so certain they’d get an NC-17 rating from the MPAA that the version they submitted included some extra extreme material, the hope being that would act as a distraction so that what they actually wanted in the film would pass as an R. However, the MPAA only insisted on one relatively minor change. I imagine that was to the massive, long, graphic orgy scene. There are no words for it. And yet, it only got a 15 over here — you really have to be very extreme to get an 18 these days, huh? Or maybe it’s just because it just involved food…

    For all the eye-watering content, at least the film has the good grace to also be quite witty and clever at times. I guess some of the ‘satire’ is a bit on the nose, but it works for what it is. I mean, no one comes to a film like this expecting subtle social commentary, do they? And if the analogies for religious belief are a bit on the nose, well, maybe that’s what it takes to get through to those people…

    4 out of 5

  • Despicable Me 2 (2013)

    2018 #155
    Pierre Coffin & Chris Renaud | 98 mins | download (HD+3D) | 1.85:1 | USA, France & Japan / English | U / PG

    Despicable Me 2

    In this sequel to the popular animated comedy (which I wasn’t that fond of, personally), supervillain turned adoptive dad Gru (Steve Carell) is dragged back into his old world when the Anti-Villain League recruit him in order to track down the villain who stole a dangerous serum. Meanwhile, Gru’s daughters think he needs a girlfriend, and the AVL agent assigned as his partner, Lucy Wilde (Kristen Wiig), seems the perfect fit. Also, his yellow Minions are still around, getting up to all sorts of ker-azy antics.

    That’s the concise version, anyhow. This is a film that rambles around a lot in the telling, presumably out of fear that it might ever become boring to hyperactive youngsters. Unfortunately, it almost had the opposite effect on me. The main plot just felt like a shape on which to hang the romantic and Minion subplots, but those subplots just felt like a constant distraction from the main plot. The end result is a film that’s narratively unsatisfying on all fronts.

    So. Many. Minions.

    Instead, entertainment value comes from individual scenes or moments. Personal preference will dictate just how entertaining those are, however. I didn’t feel there was much consistency, with the humour able to spin on a dime from being pretty amusing to falling flat. It doesn’t help that it feels way too long, overloaded with subplots that don’t go anywhere meaningful and the Minions’ sketch-like shenanigans. And there’s a lot of the Minions, clearly the breakout stars of the first movie (and hence why the series’ next film was entirely centred around them). While they amuse me on occasions, I mostly find them annoying, and am slightly baffled that anyone over the age of about six can find them significantly amusing.

    But it looks pretty great in 3D, at least — turns out Gru’s long pointy nose was made for the format — and it’s quite funny and imaginative in places. Still, a good trim would’ve benefitted it enormously. Unless you do really enjoy the Minions, I guess.

    3 out of 5

    The UK network TV premiere of spin-off Minions is on ITV today at 6:15pm.

    Godzilla: City on the Edge of Battle (2018)

    aka Gojira: Kessen Kidō Zōshoku Toshi

    2018 #156
    Hiroyuki Seshita & Kôbun Shizuno | 101 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | Japan / English | PG

    Godzilla: City on the Edge of Battle

    The 31st official Godzilla film from Japan’s Toho studio is the second part of their anime trilogy. Released theatrically in Japan, it’s a Netflix exclusive in the rest of the world — which is probably for the best, because it means we don’t have to pay money specifically for this shite.

    Picking up where the previous film left off, City of the Edge of Battle is set on Earth 20,000 years in the future, where a 300-metre-tall Godzilla (the largest ever, fact fans) rules the planet. I could go into the rest of the backstory, but we’ll be here for a paragraph or two — you can either watch the first film or, better yet, save yourself a couple of hours and just don’t bother with any of it. But anyway: in this instalment, the party that have landed on Earth to defeat Godzilla discover a tribe of humans (or, possibly, just a human-like species) who have somehow survived Godzilla’s reign. They in turn lead them to the remains of Mechagodzilla, a failed project by alien chums to help defeat Godzilla. Left alone for 20 millennia, the mech’s “nanometal” has grown into an entire city, which they now hope to use to defeat Godzilla.

    There are some neat sci-fi ideas in this trilogy — aside from the Battlestar Galactica-esque stuff I talked about last time, there’s some interesting notions about how the planet might’ve changed and evolved over 20,000 years without us, and a city that’s grown itself has potential — but promising concepts alone are not enough to overcome the clunky dialogue, dull visuals, unmemorable characters, turgid philosophising, and sauntering plot. And if you’re here for the eponymous big guy, once again he doesn’t even get involved until over an hour in, just in time for the final big action sequence. That’s so badly done, it requires constant narration from the human command centre to explain what’s supposed to be going on. It would make as much sense as an audio drama as it does as a film.

    Look, Godzilla is in this film! (Eventually.)

    Another way this second film suffers is that many actions are built on motivations that were established and explained in the first film, but which aren’t restated here — and they were easy to miss in the first one anyway, because it was overloaded with exposition and jargon. It should be no surprise that this sequel is no better in that regard, justifying my decision to watch it in English this time. It did seem weird to switch language part way through a trilogy, but it’s not like any of the characters were memorable enough that I associated their voices with them, so why not? Well, I always feel I should watch anime in its original Japanese, for purism’s sake, but English is just easier — especially when the amount of made-up jargon flying around made the first film something of a chore to read.

    I didn’t really enjoy the first film, but generously gave it 3 stars on the basis that it wasn’t completely terrible and had some ideas with potential. This sequel squanders most of that. I still like the mythology they’ve loaded into this universe — the conflicting ideologies of the different species on the spaceship; the situation on Earth when they return (the human-like tribe; the self-built city-with-a-brain) — but it’s all bungled in the execution, coming out as gloop that is, at best, barely intelligible, and, at worst, flat out boring. And if there wasn’t already more than enough backstory, mystery, and potential conflict to be going on with (which there was), City on the Edge of Battle throws a ton more into the mix. But hey, maybe the third film will actually generate some excitement if it has to rush to wrap all that up?

    2 out of 5

    Godzilla: City on the Edge of Battle is available on Netflix now. The final film is scheduled for release in Japan in November, and worldwide in early 2019.

    Passengers (2016)

    2017 #156
    Morten Tyldum | 116 mins | download (HD+3D) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    Passengers

    This review contains major spoilers.

    I got the distinct impression everyone hated Passengers when it came out 18 months ago — it has a lowly 31% on Rotten Tomatoes, and most of the think-pieces penned in its wake seemed to be about how terrible one particular aspect was (I’ll come to that, hence the spoiler warning). It has a 7.0 on IMDb though, which might not sound great, but anything north of 7 isn’t bad on IMDb — there are plenty of popular movies languishing in the 6s. Personally, I rather enjoyed it.

    Sometime in the future, shortly after mankind has begun to colonise other worlds, the spaceship Avalon is on a 120-year journey to a new planet with thousands of colonist-to-be in hibernation onboard. Just 30 years into the trip, the Avalon strikes an asteroid field, causing a malfunction that wakes up just two passengers: Jim (Chris Pratt), a mechanical engineer, and Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence), a journalist. Faced with the prospect of never reaching the destination they’d set out for, the pair begin to develop a relationship.

    Or so the trailer would have you believe (and this is where the spoilers come). In fact, the malfunction only awakens Jim. After a year alone on the ship, with his only company being a robot bartender called Arthur (the always excellent Michael Sheen), a suicidal Jim comes across Aurora’s pod. Smitten, he watches her video diary, struggles with the morality of awakening her… and eventually does, claiming her pod must’ve malfunctioned too. What a bastard, right? Eventually Aurora finds out and hates Jim for robbing her of the life she’d intended, but this is a romance movie so…

    I C You

    Obviously, this is the aspect that generated all those digital column inches. Having read some of them, I get the impression that the reason so many people were annoyed by Jim’s dick move is either, a) it wasn’t hinted at by the trailer (therefore people were too busy trying to read the film as a straight-up romance, because that’s what the ads promised, and didn’t consider the actual story it was telling), or b) people seem to really struggle with movies where the lead character makes bad decisions that are either unlikeable or amoral. That’s a general observation I have about audiences, but it seems applicable here. See the numerous “Star Lord is the real villain of Infinity War” hot takes for a similar Chris Pratt-related example.

    One of the reasons people being angry about the film’s ethics bug me is that at no point does the movie try to argue that Jim waking up Aurora was a good decision — everyone knows it was a bad, selfish idea. What the film does do is try to make you see why he would make that choice (it takes him over a year to do it, remember), and then shows how everyone eventually deals with the fallout (which is just life — shit you don’t want happens and you have to find a way to handle it). In fact, buried underneath all the romancing and effects whizz-bangery of the film’s climax, maybe there are some decent life/moral lessons, about the need for forgiveness, and accepting, and making the most out of things we can’t change.

    No! Bad Jim! Bad!

    A lot of people seemed to jump on the idea the film would be better if acts one and two were flipped — if we woke up alongside Aurora, only later learning of Jim’s betrayal. It would certainly have been different. Better? I don’t know. It would shift the emphasis around a lot. Maybe it would’ve made him romancing her more palatable for those who found it objectionable to their core, because while watching it you wouldn’t know what he’d done — but it wouldn’t change what he did, just how you were presented with it. In some ways, then, the movie we have got is the more interesting version: we know what he did throughout their courtship and have to accept that fact.

    Moral questionability aside, the romantic plot is actually traditionally shaped: there’s the meet-cute (it’s just a sci-fi’d-up one), the falling for each other, the disagreement and separation, and eventual reconciliation. Maybe such familiarity is fine when it’s being dressed up in shiny new sci-fi surroundings; maybe it was the problem, too: the massive betrayal at the film’s core gets in the way of a traditional happy-sappy arc; if you wanted to go all gooey over their burgeoning romance, it gets in your way. But it’s a more interesting story because of it. In real life, such a horrid act might prompt a definite “walk away and never see him again” response. Things aren’t so straightforward aboard the Avalon. If you wanted them to be… well, so did Aurora, and she didn’t have a choice either. Perhaps the film could’ve spent more time digging into the emotional impact and decision-making of that rather than faffing with a sci-fi-cum-disaster-movie action-packed climax, but when your movie’s this expensive (as much to do with the no-doubt-ginormous salaries of the two stars as it is the CGI, I expect) you need some money shots and jeopardy to draw the blokes in.

    Sci-fi money shot

    Taken as a sci-fi movie, I really liked it. The concepts are well considered and played out, from the big ideas of how colonisation might work to little touches of how the tech functions. Much of the ship and its interfaces are beautifully designed and realised — I don’t know how much of it was built for real, but I suspect a fair chunk of the main locations are practical, and I do love a big set. I liked Arthur too, partly because I like Michael Sheen, but also because of how he functions as a robot designed to be kind of your mate.

    On the whole, I suspect the negative reaction to Passengers is more a case of mismanaged expectations for some audience members rather than it being an objectively bad movie. I guess a lot of critical viewers put themselves in Aurora’s position, but Jim’s dilemma is just as relatable — I mean, not in a literal sense (none of us are ever likely to wind up in such a situation), but in a “what would I do?” way. Clearly, everyone thinks he did the wrong thing, but can you blame him? Would you be able to withstand a life of total loneliness? Maybe you would. Maybe you think you would. Nonetheless, the romance plot is inevitable (because that’s how movie plots work, especially in expensive Hollywood blockbusters), so the time bomb of What He Did adds an uncommon frisson. And the big action climax isn’t bad for what it is.

    It's full of stars!

    That said, the more you think about it, the more you can dream up variations that would’ve been of even greater interest. Like, what if Jim wasn’t physically attractive? Would Aurora still have fallen in love with an ugly bloke just because he was the only fella there? Or what if he’d died, leaving her to face the same dilemma he had — would she in fact wake someone up too? But those kinds of alternatives are far too challenging for a Hollywood romantic blockbuster. Like, the only way you’d get a physically unattractive leading man would be if it was a comedy and he was funny, and then she’d fall for him in spite of his looks because he made her laugh. But hey, it’s Hollywood entertainment behaving like Hollywood entertainment — should we be surprised?

    4 out of 5

    Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D (2008)

    2017 #139
    Eric Brevig | 93 mins | download (HD) | 1.78:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

    Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D

    Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D (as it’s actually titled on screen, a rarity for 3D movies) is a very loose (very, very loose) adaptation of Jules Verne’s classic fantasy novel — indeed, you could say it’s more of a sequel, as the characters’ adventure is inspired by the belief that Verne’s novel is actually an account of real events. It turns out they’re right, of course, because otherwise this would just be a movie about a man and his nephew trekking up a mountain to find nothing — which sounds like a film someone would make, but not an effects-driven summer blockbuster.

    I remember Journey 3D (as the title card indecisively morphs into before finally moving on) going down quite poorly on its release a decade ago, but, looking up sources to cite for that now, I’m not wholly correct: it has 61% on Rotten Tomatoes, which isn’t great but is still considered ‘fresh’, and grossed a respectable $242 million (off a budget of just $60 million). Nonetheless, I expected little of it (I watched it mainly because it’s on my 50 Unseen from 2008, a notoriously under-completed list) but wound up pleasantly surprised… in some respects, anyway.

    They're all right

    The key to my enjoyment was watching it in 3D, in which it plays more like a theme park attraction than a movie: from the very beginning it has loads of those “sticking stuff out into the audience” hijinks that no one bothers with anymore (indeed, after watching a dozen other 3D movies on my TV, I don’t think I’ve seen anything poke out before). Gimmicky and in your face (literally) though it may be, the effect works, it’s uncomplicatedly fun, and it makes the movie better just because it’s trying. Relatedly, this was the first film released in 4DX, the South Korean-developed theatrical format which features “tilting seats to convey motion, wind, sprays of water and sharp air, probe lights to mimic lightning, fog, scents, and other theatrical special effects”. I imagine all that palaver suits the film really well — as I said, it’s more like a theme park attraction than a regular movie anyhow.

    However, that’s just one of the reasons why I imagine it would be nearly unwatchable in 2D. All the stuff that’s kinda fun in 3D would seem pointless in 2D, and the at-the-camera things would be horrendously blatant (I mean, they are in 3D, of course, but at least their purpose is retained). And as for the rest of the movie, the direction feels very TV-ish; or, again, like a theme park attraction — it’s a bit basic, basically. Some moments push towards achieving wonder. I’m not sure they quite get there, but I’ve seen worse. (Director Eric Brevig is a visual effects guy by trade, with credits ranging from The Abyss and Total Recall up through Men in Black and The Day After Tomorrow to John Carter and The Maze Runner, and many more besides. His second film as director was the Yogi Bear movie (you know, the one with that poster), which is probably why he’s not directed anything since.)

    Remember when Hollywood thought Brendan Fraser was Harrison Ford?

    Let’s not just reserve our criticism for the direction, though: the dialogue is terrible too, including what may be the single worst (or best — it’s so bad it’s good) exchange in the entire history of movies:

    Trevor: Max was right. He was right! [shouting] Max! Was! Right! Ha ha! [to Sean] Your dad was right. He was right.
    Sean: Hannah, your dad was right too.
    Trevor: They both believed in something that everyone told them was impossible. He was right! [echoing:] He was right!

    But hey, at least it makes an effort to do that screenwriting thing of eventually paying off every single thing we learnt about earlier… except for a yo-yo, the thing with the most “this is setup for later” introduction. Maybe the scene where they needed to do some hunting got cut… There’s added incidental amusement watching it a decade on thanks to the surprisingly old-fashioned technology on display: computer monitors are still CRTs; cool kids’ mobiles are still flip phones; being able to Google while on a plane is a wonder… It’s like the film is self consciously showing off how much technology has changed in the last decade — which it isn’t, obviously, because it couldn’t’ve known. And hey, if you don’t laugh at it you’ll cry because it’ll make you feel old.

    Really, Journey 3D is cheesy, tacky, and kinda terrible… but I also enjoyed myself. Yes, a big part of that was the 3D. I’d never claim it was a good film, and I don’t think that I’d even recommend it, but I wouldn’t write off watching it again someday.

    2 out of 5

    Perfect Sense (2011)

    2017 #131
    David Mackenzie | 89 mins | streaming | 2.35:1 | UK, Sweden, Denmark & Ireland / English | 15 / R

    Perfect Sense

    It’s funny, sometimes, the journeys we take to watch a movie. I distinctly remember Ewan McGregor appearing on a chat show to promote this back in 2011. I thought it sounded like a good setup for a story, so the film’s existence lodged itself somewhere in the back of my memory. Clearly the film itself didn’t have much impact, and so, with no one talking about it, and no releases or TV screenings or whatever that were high-profile enough for me to notice, it went on the back burner. Until last year, when I noticed it was available to rent on Amazon Video.*

    Anyway, the aforementioned setup is a global epidemic that causes people to have an intense emotional outburst followed by losing one of their senses — for example, the first stage is an uncontrollable bout of crying followed by losing the ability to smell. Over a short period everyone experiences the same thing, then the world learns to adapt… until it happens again, losing another sense. While this is going on, we follow the relationship of Michael (McGregor), a chef, and Susan (Eva Green), a member of a team trying to find a cure for the disease. Obviously, this provides our human connection to events, with the grand world-changing stuff providing more of a backdrop.

    Life goes on...

    It’s ironic, then — or at least counterintuitive — that there’s more emotional power in the montages about senses and what was being lost — the ideas-y stuff — than there is in the character- and relationship-based bits. Those are actually surprisingly clunky at first, with even McGregor and Green — both actors I like a good deal — struggling to make them work. Things do smooth out in that regard, but the romance plot proceeds to conform to a pretty standard shape. Was the sci-fi crisis meant to reflect the relationship, or is the relationship a down-to-earth framework on which to hang a big sci-fi story? I suspect the latter, because it’s the end-of-the-world theatrics that prove more interesting.

    Those are kept grounded and plausible: despite the ever-worsening situation, people keep getting used to the new status quo and going on as normal — until the sensory deprivation goes too far to ignore, of course. There are lots of neatly observed and imagined little bits in how this unfolds, like how after taste is lost the rituals of going out to restaurants remains, with focus moved to the sounds and physical sensations of the environment and the food; and newspaper critics still review places for this, naturally. This “life goes on” thing feels very much like how we as a society genuinely react to big changes or threats.

    ...until it doesn't.

    So, it’s not a perfect film, but Jesus, the negative reviews I sampled (chosen at ‘random’, where “random” means “the top results on Google”) were shitty pieces of criticism. Their points include things like it’s preposterous (well, the plot is propelled by an unexplained virus — it’s less preposterous than, say, Spider-Man), or the characters fall in love while the world falls apart (because no one ever seeks comfort in others during times of stress or tragedy), or the screenwriter has kind of a funny name (seriously — a supposedly professional review dedicated some of its limited word count to basically going, “lol, foreigner’s got name that looks funny!”) It annoys me that some people get paid to write bollocks like that.

    As I said at the start, no one ever really talks about Perfect Sense, even after its director has gone on to bigger things (Starred Up attracted a lot of praise and Hell or High Water earnt Oscar nominations), but it’s worth a look for anyone interested in broadly-plausible end-of-the-world dramas.

    4 out of 5

    * Having rented it, I was surprised to see it begin with a BBC Films logo, because most BBC Films productions end up on BBC Two within a year or two. So I checked, and it turned out it had been on TV, just once, in November 2012. (You’d think they’d’ve shown it more than that in the five-and-a-half years since — I mean, they’ve shown The Ides of March six times in four years.) Worse than that, though, was when I checked my iPlayer downloads and found I had actually downloaded it, so paying for the rental was a waste of money. Well, at least it was only £1.99, and I paid with vouchers anyway. But the colour grading of the two was completely different, which was just odd. Anyway, back to the review: ^

    Review Roundup

    Hello, dear readers! I’ve been away for most of the past week, hence the shortage of posts, but I’m back now, so here’s a random ragtag roundup of reviews to kick things off again.

    In today’s roundup:

  • That’s Entertainment! (1974)
  • ’71 (2014)
  • Guardians (2017)


    That’s Entertainment!
    (1974)

    2017 #80
    Jack Haley Jr. | 124 mins | TV | 1.33:1 + 1.78:1 + 2.35:1 + 2.55:1 | USA / English | U / G

    That's Entertainment!

    Greatest hits compilations always seem to be a popular product in the music biz, and that’s essentially what this is, but for movies. An array of famous faces appear on screen to help provide a scattershot history of the MGM musical, but really it’s an excuse to play some fantastic clips from old hits. This may be the kind of programming that TV has taken on and made its own in the decades since, but when the quality of the material is this high, it feels like more than just schedule filler.

    Thanks to many eras being covered it has more aspect ratio changes than a Christopher Nolan movie, though that’s actually quite effective at demarcating the old-school spectacle from the linking chatter. There’s also some “you wouldn’t get that today” commentary, like Frank Sinatra talking about a line of chubby chorus girls (who don’t even look that large!), or various bits and pieces criticising the studio’s history, like how all the films had the same plot.

    It was originally promoted with the tagline “boy, do we need it now”, a reaction to the gritty style of filmmaking that was popular in Hollywood at the time, as well as all the real-life problems of the era (it was released the same year as Nixon resigned because of Watergate). MGM needed it too: the studio was in decline, releasing just five films in 1974. The whole thing carries a somewhat bittersweet air, as ageing stars reflect on past glories from the decrepit environs of MGM’s rundown backlot.

    Nonetheless, it creates a marvellous tribute to a golden era. And I guess it must’ve done alright, because it spawned two sequels, a spin-off, and MGM are still going (more or less) today.

    4 out of 5

    ’71
    (2014)

    2017 #95
    Yann Demange | 99 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 15 / R

    ’71

    Set in Belfast in (you guessed it) 1971, ’71 is a thriller that sees an Army recruit become separated from his unit during a riot at the height of the Troubles, leaving him trying to survive the night “behind enemy lines”.

    The film’s best stuff is early on: a brewing riot as police perform a door-to-door search; a tense foot chase through the backstreets; a single-take bombing and its aftermath. The immediacy of all this is well-conveyed, suitably tense and exciting, but also plausible. Then the film decides it needs some sort of plot to bring itself to a close, and so it kicks off some IRA infighting and British Army skullduggery. The added complications don’t exactly bring it off the rails — it’s still a fine and tense thriller — but it lacks that extra oomph that the hair-raising sequences of the first half deliver.

    Still, it’s a promising big screen debut for director Yann Demange, who was reportedly among the frontrunners to helm Bond 25 before that got diverted into Danny Boyle and John Hodge’s idea. His second feature, another period movie, this time a crime drama, White Boy Rick, is out later this year.

    4 out of 5

    Guardians
    (2017)

    aka Zashchitniki

    2017 #122
    Sarik Andreasyan | 89 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Russia / Russian | 12

    Guardians

    You may remember this film from when its trailer went viral a couple of years ago: it’s the “Russian answer to The Avengers” that featured a machine-gun-wielding bear. Naturally, that kind of attention assured it got an international release eventually (I paid to rent it, then it later popped up on Prime Video. You never know how these things are going to go, do you?)

    It’s about a bunch of old Soviet superheroes being reactivated to stop a villain. If that sounds vague, well, I can’t remember the details. Frankly, they don’t matter — Guardians is the kind of film a 6-year-old would write after a diet of Saturday morning cartoons, with the same attention to character development and plot structure you’d expect from such an endeavour. The story is semi-nonsensical: the villain’s plan is never clear (beyond “rule the world”); it flits about between subplots; characters appear and disappear from locations… There’s a litany of “things that don’t quite make sense” — too many to remember without making obsessive notes while rewatching, which I have no intention of doing.

    But if you can ignore all that — or, even better, laugh at it — then it’s fairly watchable, in a brain-off entirely-undemanding so-bad-it’s-good kind of way. There’s some decent CGI (given its budget), some half-decent action, and it’s mercifully brief at under 90 minutes.

    2 out of 5