The Past Month on TV #42

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“Month” is a bit of a stretch, as it’s only 2½ weeks since my Christmas roundup, but let’s go with it and get things back on schedule.

A Series of Unfortunate Events  Season 3
A Series of Unfortunate Events season 3The third and final season of Netflix’s adaptation of Daniel Handler’s Lemony Snicket’s 13-volume series of children’s novels arrived on New Year’s Day. “Final” because they have now reached the end of book 13, and therefore the end of the tale. And that means the whole story — running just under 20 hours total, across 25 episodes — is now sat there on Netflix, available for any future viewer to watch as a complete work. We live in an era where there are far too many quality films and TV series and other entertainments vying for our precious time, but even though I’ve already seen it all (obviously), “watching it as a complete work” is something I definitely intend to do someday in the future, because it’s bloody marvellous.

But, for the time being, back to this final batch of episodes. They begin exactly where the last lot left off — which only makes sense, because that was a cliffhanger. It’s quickly enough resolved, naturally, and we’re off into the series’ final stretch. That’s a funny one, actually: there are seven whole episodes here — an entire run for many UK dramas, for example — but it feels like we’re right at the tail of the, er, tale. So, for example, when we’re introduced to a new pair of major villains, it feels a bit late in the day for that kind of thing — surely there’s not enough time left to explore their importance? Indeed, the series basically doesn’t. It’s part of why the opening two-parter, The Slippery Slope, felt a bit something-or-nothing to me. But perhaps that’s unfair — perhaps I was just itching to reach the impending denouement, with all its long-promised answers — so perhaps they’ll fare better on a rewatch. Things pick up in The Grim Grotto, which is set mostly aboard a pair of submarines, a nice showcase for the series’ always-impressive production design. There are some neat surprises and revelations here, which turn out to be vitally important later on.

But things really get good in the penultimate tale, the appropriately-named The Penultimate Peril. Well, I say “appropriately” — in some respects this two-parter actually feels like the show’s big finale, with many much-anticipated meetings and events taking place, plus a healthy dose of long-awaited reveals and answers. It’s all wrapped up in a tale that is gorgeously constructed, the screenplay and editing revelling in a temporally-twisted structure that helps underscore some of the series’ biggest and best messages. I thought it was an absolutely stunning, especially the first half; a phenomenal finale that brings so much together while also being clever in itself.

Is Olaf so awful?After that, we come to The End — that’s not emphasis, it’s the title of the actual finale. Every other novel in Snicket’s 13-volume series has been treated to a two-part adaptation, but The End is the longest book of them all, so it gets… one episode. A regular-length one, at that. Well, I’ve never read the books (I will someday…), so I can’t comment on why this should be, or if the programme-makers have done it a disservice, but I’m sure they had their reasons. That said, it’s even more intriguing given that the TV series manages to wrap up almost every on-going plot line and mystery, something the book series is notorious for not doing — you’d think they’d need more screen-time for that, not less.

As an episode, The End isn’t quite as impressive as The Penultimate Peril. It’s a weird cross between an epilogue and an essential final piece of the puzzle. One thing I think the final three episodes do get right is they explain almost all of the complicated, mysterious backstory in Penultimate Peril, then bring the focus back onto the Baudelaire orphans for the finale. There’s been so much of that backstory to get into that it’s sometimes threatened to overwhelm the main plot; to make the programme all about the kids’ parents and what went on in the past. To get that explaining out of the way, then swing round to “where do the kids go from here?”, is a good move. And having just said how much the series explains and wraps up, it’s actually very open-ended, especially considering it’s explicitly designed to be a definite end. But (spoilers!) it is an end to what was explicitly the story of the series (Olaf’s attempts to get the Baudelaire fortune, plus the mysteries of VFD); it’s just that Violet, Klaus and Sunny’s lives will continue to be adventurous after that story is over. Though it does make one wonder if Handler will ever be tempted to write a sequel series someday…

That open-ended-ness is just one of many big, potentially challenging ideas the series has presented its younger audience with. In amongst all the quirky whimsy and kids’ picture book aesthetics, the series has ultimately engaged with important and mature themes — about bad people not being purely evil and good people not being purely good; about how ‘good’ and ‘bad’ can be subjective and personal anyway; about not blindly respecting authority, or expecting it to deliver what’s right or fair… This maturity is one (of many, I think) reasons the series also works for adult viewers.

Bye bye, BaudelairesBack at the start, it took me a couple of episodes to warm up to A Series of Unfortunate Events. I’m worried the same thing will have put other viewers off. That’s a shame. Okay, sure, some people are never going to be on board with its particular style — it’s like something by Wes Anderson or Tim Burton or someone in that respect; stylised and mannered in a way some people just don’t get on with — but I think more people need to give it a fair shot; to stick with it, knowing the early stuff is sometimes about establish a tone and a status quo for later episodes to peel away as a facade. I’m not saying it’s perfect — there are ups and downs along the way — but, for me, I think the series taken as a whole borders on being a masterpiece. I love it, and I’m going to miss it, and that’s just one reason I’ll watch it again. So much for looking away.

Also watched…
  • Island of Dreams — This was a proper oddity: a one-off comedy set on Sir Richard Branson’s private island, where he hosts guests including J.K. Rowling, Daniel Radcliffe, Daniel Craig, Adele, Greg Wallace, Professor Brian Cox, and Elon Musk — all played by comedians, obviously. It was… kinda funny, I guess? Apparently it’s a pilot, so maybe there’ll be more.
  • Les Misérables Episodes 2-3 — When this series started there was apparently much discussion on social media about how it was “weird without the songs”. Other than Look Down popping into my head when it first cut to the prison ships, that hasn’t bothered me too much. What I have found kinda odd, though, is seeing a familiar story told in such a different way. I don’t know why that’s weird — it’s not as if I haven’t seen a remake before, and I’ve only seen the musical three or four times (in several different versions, too). I think it’s something to do with seeing a story I only know as a musical being told as a straight-up drama, and an expanded one too, with events occurring in slightly different ways, and with whole other characters and subplots and stuff mixed in. It makes it quite hard for me to judge as a drama in its own right, though. Well, I’ll try in next month’s TV roundup, by when it’ll be finished.

    Things to Catch Up On
    The cast of Sex Education are shocked by my opinion, clearly.This month, I have mostly been missing Sex Education, Netflix’s comedy-drama about a sex therapist’s son who begins offering what expertise he’s picked up second-hand to his classmates. It attracted a bit of hype before release and has been much-discussed on social media, but I thought something looked kinda off about it… and then I saw this, which has hit the nail on the head for me. I always hate it when British programmes or films behave like UK secondary school is anything like US high school, and by the sounds of things Sex Ed has gone all-in on that ludicrous fallacy. If I do end up watching it, I feel like that’s just gonna bug the hell out of me.

    Next month… the Punisher returns for (what will presumably be) the penultimate season of the MCU on Netflix.

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  • Blindspot Review Roundup

    Of the 22 Blindspot/WDYMYHS films I watched in 2018, I still haven’t posted reviews for 18 of them. (Jesus, really?! Ugh.) So, here are three to get that ball rolling.

  • The 400 Blows (1959)
  • Big Fish (2003)
  • Strangers on a Train (1951)


    The 400 Blows
    (1959)

    aka Les Quatre Cents Coups

    2018 #4
    François Truffaut | 100 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | France / French | PG

    The 400 Blows

    One of the first films to bring global attention to La Nouvelle Vague, François Truffaut’s semi-autobiographical drama introduces us to Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), a schoolboy in ’50s Paris who plays havoc both at home and at school, which naturally winds up getting him in trouble. The film is both a portrait of misunderstood youth (Antoine isn’t so much bad as bored) and indictment of its treatment (neither his school nor parents make much effort to understand him, eventually throwing him away to a centre for juvenile delinquents).

    The film barely contains one blow, never mind 400, which is because the English title isn’t really accurate: it’s a literal translation of the original, which is derived from the French idiom “faire les quatre cents coups“, the equivalent meaning of which would be something like “to raise hell”. Imagine the film was called Raising Hell and it suddenly makes a lot more sense.

    Anyway, that’s beside the point. As befits a film at the forefront of a new movement, The 400 Blows feels edgy and fresh, that aspect only somewhat blunted by its 60-year age. I was thinking how it was thematically ahead of its time, but I suppose Rebel Without a Cause was also about disaffected youth and that came out a few years earlier, so I guess it’s more in the how than the what that 400 Blows innovated.

    Either way, it’s an engaging depiction of rebellious youth, that remains more accessible than you might expect from a film with its art house reputation.

    5 out of 5

    Big Fish
    (2003)

    2018 #32
    Tim Burton | 125 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English & Cantonese | PG / PG-13

    Big Fish

    After getting distracted into the mess that was his version of Planet of the Apes, Tim Burton returned to the whimsical just-outside-reality kind of fantasy that had made his name. Based on a novel by Daniel Wallace, it’s about the tall tales of a dying man (played by Albert Finney on his deathbed and Ewan McGregor in his adventurous prime), and his adult son (Billy Crudup) who wants to learn the truth behind those fantastical stories.

    Most of Big Fish is fun. It exists at the perfect juncture between Burton’s sense of whimsy and a more realistic approach to storytelling — he’s reined in compared to some of the almost self-parodic works he’d go onto shortly afterwards made since, but it doesn’t seem like he’s constrained, just restrained. With a mix of many funny moments, some clever ones, and occasional somewhat emotional ones, it ticks along being being all very good.

    But then the ending comes along, and it hits like a freight train of feeling, clarifying and condensing everything that the whole movie has been about into a powerful gut-punch of emotion. It’s that which elevates the film to full marks, for me.

    5 out of 5

    Strangers on a Train
    (1951)

    2018 #176
    Alfred Hitchcock | 101 mins | Blu-ray | 1.37:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

    Strangers on a Train

    Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s thriller novel, in which two men get chatting on a train and agree to commit a murder for each other — as you do. In fact, one of the men — tennis star Guy Haines (Farley Granger) — was just making polite conversation and doesn’t want to be involved; but the other — good-for-nothing rich-kid (and, as it turns out, psychopath) Bruno Antony (Robert Walker) — really meant it, and sets about executing the plan.

    Strangers on a Train is, I think, most famous for that premise about two strangers agreeing to commit each other’s murder; so it’s almost weird seeing the rest of the movie play out beyond that point — I had no idea where the story was actually going to go with it. It’s a truly great starting point — the kind of “what if” conversation you can imagine really having — and fortunately it isn’t squandered by what follows — the “what if” scenario spun out into “what if you actually followed through?” Naturally, I won’t spoil where it goes, especially as you can rely on Hitch to wring every ounce of suspense and tension out of the premise.

    Aside from Hitch’s skill, the standout turn comes from Walker, who makes Bruno a delicious mix of charming and scheming, confident and pathetic, and brings out the homosexual subtext without rubbing it in your face (well, it was the ’50s).

    5 out of 5

    The 400 Blows, Big Fish, and Strangers on a Train were all viewed as part of Blindspot 2018, which you can read more about here.

  • The Past Christmas on TV

    Once again it was another busy festive period on the tellybox, and here’s what I thought of what I watched.

    Doctor Who  Resolution
    Doctor Who: ResolutionNow, that’s more like it! After the damp squib of alleged-finale The Battle of [Mashes Hand on Keyboard], this New Year’s Day special does a much better job of putting a capstone on series 11. Despite its status as a separate “special” episode, it’s hard to deny that it’s actually part of the last series (despite what BBC Worldwide would have us believe, with their cash-grab move of leaving the episode out of the series box set, which isn’t even released for another fortnight): Ryan’s dad finally turns up (after being mentioned multiple times during the main series), while the primary storyline does a more subtle and effective job of mirroring series premiere The Woman Who Fell to Earth than Battle of Thingy-Wotsit did by just having a returning villain.

    Resolution has a returning villain too, of course: the Daleks! Or, rather, one sole Dalek. Like 2005 episode Dalek, Resolution seeks to make a single Dalek a world-threatening force, and largely does a bang-up job. As has been thoroughly demonstrated by now, current showrunner Chris Chibnall isn’t half the writer that Russell T Davies or Steven Moffat are (and he only proves this harder by trying to emulate their styles so often), so Resolution doesn’t have as much freshness or innovation as some Dalek tales from Davies’ and Moffat’s eras. But, saying that, the Dalek ‘riding’ a human via some kind of icky telepathic link is a new idea, which makes for some effective horror moments, especially given the creepy cephalopod-influenced design of the creature. There’s plenty of exciting running about too, making this the most blockbuster-like version of Who we’ve yet seen from Chibnall’s era.

    It still wasn’t perfect (as glad as I was to see Ryan’s dad turn up, the lengthy heart-to-heart scenes crippled the pace, and his inevitable redemption was narratively unearned; plus, Yaz continues to get shafted with “generic companion” duties), but overall it was a fun treat for Christmas New Year’s Day. More episodes with this kind of ambition when the series returns in 2020, please!

    The ABC Murders
    The ABC MurdersOnce upon a time it seemed implausible that anyone would ever try to play Poirot ever again, given how iconically (and thoroughly) David Suchet had embodied the Belgian detective during the 25-year series in which he starred. But I suppose it was inevitable that it would happen someday, and so following Branagh’s go at the end of last year, this year ends with another pretender to the throne: John Malkovich. Where Branagh stuck to tradition, with a flamboyant and fastidious embodiment of the character that seemed in-keeping with how Agatha Christie wrote him, Malkovich and regular TV-Christie scribe Sarah Phelps (she’s written all of the BBC’s new adaptations to date) have gone more revisionist. This Poirot is quiet, unassuming, ageing, almost embarrassed to be butting into the police investigation, especially as they would rather he pushed off, and he lives in a 1930s where fascism is ascendent and foreigners are despised, so he feels compelled to hide his Belgian roots as much as possible. It all feels psychologically plausible (and the mirroring of Brexit Britain are obvious), but it’s also a big set of changes to take in one go, which understandably angered some fans. I confess, I’ve never read a Poirot book, but I was a fan of the Suchet series. Nonetheless, I enjoyed this take on the character as an alternative — it may not be faithful, but it is believable.

    The same could be said of the plot. Poirot and/or Christie are best remembered for country house-type murder mysteries, with a bunch of upper-class suspects in a confined location, who Poirot interviews one by one before bringing them all together to explain what happened. This was the format that Branagh used to reassuring effect in his film (and, presumably, will continue to use in his next one, if my memory of its structure serves me right). The ABC Murders doesn’t go that way, however, with Poirot on the hunt for a killer who taunts him via letters. The suspect pool is limited not by confined location, but by how sophisticated the viewer wants to be at guessing — the structure is that of a howcatchem rather than a whodunit, as we witness the murderer going about his deeds while Poirot attempts to find him out. But this is Christie, so there’s a twist in the tail. Look, I’m trying not to spoil it for anyone who’s not seen it yet, but everyone I was watching with figured early on that (last spoiler warning!) the guy who was Obviously The Murderer was not the murderer, and so it turned into the usual guessing game of “which recognisable guest star did it?” Well, at least one aspect of this was reassuringly familiar, then.

    Watership Down
    Watership DownThe BBC and Netflix teamed up for this £30 million CG animated adaption of Richard Adams’ children’s novel, perhaps most (in)famous for its 1978 film adaptation that is said to have traumatised all who saw it (I never have). I guess most of that money went on the all-star cast (seriously, the number of well-known names is mad — far too many to list here, so you can check out this list if you want), because it certainly doesn’t seem to have been spent on the animation. Frankly, much of the series looks like an unfinished animatic; the stuff you sometimes see on animated movies’ DVD release as deleted scenes or work-in-progress versions. And yet, there are occasional flashes of polish: look closely at the rabbits’ fur in many scenes and you’ll see high levels of detail.

    Cheap production values are not the be-all-and-end-all, though — such things can be easily overlooked if there’s a good story or characters. But Watership Down’s animation is so poor that it scuppers that, too. Most of the characters are visually indistinguishable, made worse when there are so many of them to get to know, and very little screen time is invested in delineating them. It’s not even something you get used to or work out for yourself — the longer the series went on, the more confusing it became to follow who each rabbit was and what was meant to be happening to them. It’s frustrating and distancing, getting in the way of you caring about the characters or the story, which literally ruins the entire production. We stuck with all four hours of it because of a bloody-minded “we’ve started so we’ll finish” attitude. I’d recommend not even starting it.

    Not Going Out  Ding Dong Merrily on Live
    Not Going Out LiveNormally I’d fold this into the comedy roundup (see below), but I enjoyed it so much I’m singling it out. As the title implies, this was a live edition of the long-running sitcom. What inspired that, I don’t know, but it paid off with the series’ best episode for years. The storyline didn’t necessitate the live-broadcast format in the same way as 2018’s other live comedy special, Inside No.9, but writer-star Lee Mack built in various sequences to push what was possible live. And, naturally, some things went wrong — golden opportunities for a quick-thinking comic like Mack, who got to throw in plenty of improvisations and fourth-wall breaking. It may not be sophisticated, but it was funny. Indeed, I enjoyed it so much that I watched it twice within 24 hours.

    Comedy roundup
    Upstart Crow: A Crow Christmas CarolAlso tickling my funny bone this season were a new Upstart Crow Christmas special, given a prime Christmas Day slot. It riffed off A Christmas Carol, which was unfortunate because I saw rather too many version of that this year (see below for another). I can’t say Crow’s take was particularly special, but I’m fond of the sitcom anyway so another episode is always welcome. The night before that (Christmas Eve, for those not keeping up), BBC One had one-off comedy-drama Click & Collect, with Stephen Merchant as a dad who must travel to the other end of the country to collect that year’s most-wanted toy for his daughter, accompanied by his irritatingly over-friendly neighbour. It’s the kind of fluff that would feel a bit too daft most of the time, but hits the right light-entertainment note at Christmas. A bit more cutting edge was Goodness Gracious Me: 20 Years Innit!, marking the 20th anniversary of the groundbreaking British-Asian sketch show with a special that used some of the series’ funniest sketches as examples to discuss what made the show so important. It was a subtly clever way to be both “greatest hits” clip show and retrospective documentary at once. Sadly, the repeat of an overlong old Christmas special that followed wasn’t quite as vintage. And, as I’m rounding things up, there were also seasonal editions of panel shows Mock the Week (the usual clips and outtakes), Have I Got News for You (more compiled clips), and Insert Name Here (actually a new edition! I’m fond of it and was happy to see back on our screens). Several others I’m yet to catch up on (Would I Lie to You, The Imitation Game), though I did see both new episodes of Mrs Brown’s Boys. I know I “should” hate it, but the Christmas Day one, at least, made me laugh.

    Also watched…
  • Black Mirror Bandersnatch — Was it a film? An episode of TV? Something else? I’m still not 100% sure, but I went with “film” and reviewed it in full here.
  • A Christmas Carol — A filmed version of Simon Callow’s one-man show, and another production that sits on the film/TV divide. They released it in cinemas before it was on TV, though, so I’ll be reviewing it as a film at some point. The only reason I mention it now, then, is because I thought it was very good and wanted to point out it’s still on iPlayer.
  • The Dead Room — Simon Callow reading again, this time in Mark Gatiss’ latest attempt to revive the beloved-by-some “Ghost Story for Christmas” format from the ’70s. It was an effectively creepy little tale while it lasted, but it seemed to stop before the story was over.
  • Mark Kermode’s Christmas Cinema Secrets — A festive edition of the series that entertainingly explains the inner workings of genre. In this case, we learn that pretty much every Christmas movie is basically A Christmas Carol.
  • Les Misérables Episode 1 — OMG there woz no singing!!!! (Proper review in a future post, when more of it has aired.)

    Things to Catch Up On
    A Series of Unfortunate Events season 3This Christmas, I have mostly been missing A Series of Unfortunate Events season three — the final one! Okay, it only came out yesterday, but I was with family and couldn’t watch it (ugh!) Not that I’d want to rush through it, anyway. By the time you’re reading this I’ll have made a start, and it’ll be reviewed next month. The same is true of Luther season four, which also started yesterday and which I’ll watch sometime later.

    Next month… look away, if you can: it’s the final series of Unfortunate Events!

  • Ready Player One (2018)

    2018 #183
    Steven Spielberg | 140 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    Ready Player One

    Steven Spielberg’s latest foray into the style of popular moviemaking he helped create in the ‘70s and ’80s — the summer tentpole action-adventure mega-blockbuster — is an adaptation of a novel so bedded in the popular movies of the ‘70s and ‘80s that the whole thing is a bit too meta: it’s a movie obsessed with the brilliance of ‘80s pop culture, made by one of the primary creators of that culture. At least Spielberg insisted that all references to his own work be cut, otherwise it could’ve become a mite self-congratulatory. Though it does mean that Spielberg becomes conspicuous by his absence in a Spielberg movie. Oh, it’s enough to make your head spin…

    The plot, then: in the year 2045 the real world is a mess, so people spend most of their time in the virtual reality playground of the OASIS. When the game’s creator died, he left behind the first in a series of challenges, and whoever completes them will inherit the OASIS itself. (If you’re thinking, “isn’t that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory but with video games?”, I guess we’ll chalk that up as just another reference. (If you’re thinking, “isn’t that Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory but with video games?”, tsk, go read more Dahl.)) Unfortunately, no one’s even been able to crack the first clue… until someone does, of course, because this is an action-adventure blockbuster, not some existential mood piece on the futility of trying to please the dead… or, you know, something. Anyway, cue lots of whizzy CG antics, with CGI that’s actually allowed to look like CGI because it’s all set in a CG environment — I bet the animators were thrilled when that brief came along, because who doesn’t love their job being made easier?

    What other car is an '80s lover gonna choose?

    Unfortunately, the same amount of effort seems to have gone into the screenplay. Some of this no doubt stems from the original work: the world of 2045 makes no plausible sense (check out the ghost of 82’s review for more on this theme), and there’s the least convincing romantic relationship outside of a George Lucas movie. Worst for me was something a screenplay can readily fix, the dialogue, but which here is frequently full of clunky, hand-holding exposition. This rears its head not just when establishing the film’s world and its rules, which would be bad enough, but also for relatively minor and easily-followed plot points throughout. It’s like the film has been written so even a goldfish could follow it — you don’t need to remember the start of a sentence because its end will explain the same thing again. Equally ill-considered is the movie’s apparently pro-gaming stance. Certainly, a lot of gamers seem to have embraced it as a film that understands their culture; and yet its final message is, “go spend more time in the real world, ya nerds!”

    And yet, I mostly enjoyed it. It may not hang together if you engage your brain, but as a bit of fluff it’s largely a fun virtual romp. There are more Easter eggs than a Cadbury’s warehouse in January, which are fun for geeks like me to spot, and those whooshy visuals are even more entertaining when viewed in 3D, which (as Blu-ray.com’s review put it) is “a compelling demonstration of why the format is worth keeping alive.”

    Watching other people play video games

    But, even though I liked it overall, I can’t help feeling it was a bit of a waste of Spielberg’s time. It’s not that he’s done a bad job — he’s still a god amongst men when it comes to crafting a blockbuster movie — but I also think the end result lacks a certain something that his best work contains. I don’t really know why, but for some reason I feel like he should’ve spent the time it took to make this doing something else, and left this film to be helmed by someone… less important. I mean, there are a lot of other filmmakers who could’ve done a fine job with the material, and wouldn’t have felt the need to cut all the book’s references to Spielberg’s films either.

    4 out of 5

    Ready Player One is available on Sky Cinema as of this weekend.

    A Monster Calls (2016)

    2018 #129
    J.A. Bayona | 109 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK, Spain & USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    A Monster Calls

    Twelve-year-old Connor (Lewis MacDougall) is having a pretty shit time of it: his dad (Toby Kebbell) has buggered off and started a new life in America; his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) is frustratingly strict; he’s being bullied at school; and, worst of all, his beloved mum (Felicity Jones) has terminal cancer. No wonder he has nightmares. Then, one night, he’s visited by a walking, talking yew tree — the eponymous Monster (Liam Neeson) — who will tell Connor three true stories, after which Connor must tell the Monster the truth behind his nightmares.

    The most immediately striking element of A Monster Calls may be that it stars a giant tree monster with the grumbling voice of Liam Neeson, but this isn’t just a fantasy adventure, it’s a powerfully emotional drama about the pain of impending loss and grief. In this respect it’s not just a good movie, but potentially an important one — I can imagine it being of great help to children who find themselves in similar circumstances to Connor. The lessons the film imparts are considerably more palatable when they come in the form of a fantasy adventure, as opposed to a straight-up grim social drama.

    But that doesn’t mean it’s without lessons for the rest of us, too. It might seem obvious where it’s all headed, especially to experienced viewers, but it still pulls out real emotional truths at the end; the kind of revelations that are so cut-to-your-core true that you can’t anticipate them.

    All the feels

    The journey to those is a success too, with screenwriter Patrick Ness (adapting his own novel) and director J.A. Bayona skilfully handling the potentially-awkward integration of depressing reality with fantasy. The film was made on what we’d call a fairly small budget nowadays ($43 million), but that hasn’t hindered its visual style. In particular, the three stories the Monster tells are told through animation, which look gorgeous. If I have one criticism it’s that the pace seemed a bit off, sometimes dragging its heels.

    Talking of the budget, A Monster Calls was a box office disappointment, earning just over $47 million worldwide. A disappointment for the producers, certainly, but I feel like this is a film that is more likely to find its audience over time — it’s a truthful, moving drama (that happens to feature a prominent role for a giant walking, talking tree) that will surely affect anyone who watches it, and perhaps help them with their own problems too.

    4 out of 5

    A Monster Calls is available on Netflix UK as of yesterday.

    Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle (2018)

    aka just Mowgli

    2018 #252
    Andy Serkis | 104 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | UK & USA / English & Hindi | 12 / PG-13

    Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle

    Hollywood has a long history of different people coming up with the same idea resulting in competing films — asteroid-themed Armageddon and Deep Impact is perhaps the best-known example. But often when the ideas are too similar, one of the projects gets scrapped — Baz Luhrmann ditched plans for an Alexander the Great biopic once Oliver Stone’s got underway, for instance. When Disney and Warner Bros both announced CGI-driven live-action adaptations of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, I don’t know about anyone else, but I figured one studio would blink and we’d end up with just one film. That didn’t happen, and both movies entered production around the same time, and were even originally scheduled to come out the same year. In this respect it was Warner who blinked first, putting their version back to allow more time to finesse the motion-capture-driven animation, while Disney got theirs out on schedule. Unfortunately for Warner, it was a huge hit with critics and audiences alike, putting their version in a rather precarious position.

    So when the news broke that Mowgli (as the film had been retitled to help distance it from Disney’s) was to be released direct to Netflix, well, I don’t think anyone was surprised: the streaming service has become a regular dumping ground for movies that studios have lost confidence in, seemingly happy to pay for any castoff a major studio throws their way. Apparently that’s not what went down this time, though: Mowgli had a theatrical release date set and the promotional campaign had begun, when Netflix approached Warner saying they loved the film and wanted to buy it. I guess the certainty of a large Netflix payday, vs. the gamble of box office success on a film that could be seen by the general public as a Johnny-come-lately cash-in rip-off, was an easy choice for Warner to make. And so here we are.

    A legend in the jungle

    Mowgli (as it’s always called in the film itself, the subtitle presumably being a Netflix marketing addition) has a story that will be broadly familiar to anyone who’s seen any other version of The Jungle Book, most especially that recent Disney one: the eponymous boy is orphaned when his parents are murdered by man-eating tiger Shere Khan, but he’s rescued by black panther Bagheera, who takes him to be raised by a pack of wolves. Shere Khan wants to kill the man-cub, however, and looks for an opportunity to separate him fro the wolves’ protection. The difference, then, lies in the details: where Disney’s version was PG-rated and family-friendly, director Andy Serkis has given this a darker, PG-13 spin. It’s not an Adult movie by any means, but it’s definitely suited to slightly older children. That said, there’s a revelation at the 80-minute mark which is horrendously misjudged, and is liable to upset children of all ages (i.e. including some adults too).

    That moment aside, the film’s more realistic tone manifests in multiple ways. One is characterisation, most notably of the bear Baloo. As we know him from Disney’s takes, he’s decidedly laid-back and chummy, casually teaching Mowgli some ways of the jungle. Here, he’s more of a drill sergeant for the wolf pack, explicitly training Mowgli (and his wolf brothers) in the skills required to fully join the pack. He has a softer side — he definitely cares for the man-cub — but this never manifests in the Disney-ish way. Elsewhere, there’s a drive at some kind of psychological realism for our hero. With Mowgli driven out for his own safety (again, an example of the animal characters being somewhat harsher than in Disney), he ends up in a human village. There, he comes to realise he doesn’t truly belong in the world of animals… but nor does he truly belong in the world of men. This internal conflict about his place in the world comes to underpin the climax, and arguably makes it superior to the over-elaborate forest-fire spectacle of Disney’s film.

    Not burning bright, but he is in a forest of the night

    The realism extends to the overall visual style, too. Where Disney’s live-action version was all shot on L.A. sound stages, with the young actor playing Mowgli frequently the only real thing on screen, Serkis and co travelled overseas and actually built sets on location to shoot a significant portion of the film. Accompanied by cinematography that often goes for a muted colour palette, it seems clear the aim was to make a film that is perhaps not “darker” in the now-somewhat-clichéd sense, but more grounded and less cartoonish than certain other adaptations.

    Unfortunately, Serkis made one design decision that threatens to scupper the entire endeavour: having motion-captured famous actors for most of the animal roles (including the likes of Christian Bale, Benedict Cumberbatch, Cate Blanchett, Tom Hollander, Peter Mullan, Eddie Marsan, Naomie Harris, and, of course, Serkis himself), someone thought it would be a good idea to try to integrate the actors’ features into the animal faces. The result is… disturbing. There’s so much realism in the overall design, but then they have these faces that are part realistic, part cartoon, part like some kind of grotesque prosthetic. It is so bad that it genuinely undermines the entire movie, for two reasons: one, it’s a distraction, making you constantly try to parse what you’re watching and how you feel about it; and two, a more serious take on the material asks for us to make a more serious connection to the characters, and that’s hard when they look so horrid. The section in the human village — which, by rights, should be “the boring bit” because it doesn’t involve fun animal action — is probably the film’s strongest thanks to its location photography and real actors making it so much more tangibly real. It suggests how much more likeable the entire film would be if they’d gone for real-world-ish animal designs — like, ironically, the Disney film did. (Now, that might’ve got away with cartoonish semi-human animals thanks to its lighter tone. Or it might not, because these are monstrous.)

    Monstrosity!

    It sounds petty to pick one highly specific element and say it ruins the film, but I really felt like it did. It’s a barrier to enjoying the bits that work (Rohan Chand is often superb as Mowgli; the always-brilliant Matthew Rhys is brilliant as always; there’s some welcome complexity and nuance to several characters and situations), and therefore it does nothing to help gloss over any other nits you want to pick (Serkis is miscast; Frieda Pinto is completely wasted; Cumberbatch is a little bit Smaug Mk.II; that revelation I mentioned back in paragraph three is brutal and I can’t believe it was okayed by the studio). Also, on a somewhat personal note, I felt there were times you could tell Serkis had made the film in 3D, but Netflix haven’t bothered to release it in that format (outside of some very limited theatrical screenings) — as someone who owns a 3D TV because, you know, I enjoy it, that miffed me.

    On the whole, Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle is a frustratingly imperfect experience. I believe it’s fundamentally a unique-enough variation on the material that it could’ve escaped the shadow of Disney’s film, but a few misguided creative decisions have dragged it down almost irreparably.

    3 out of 5

    Mowgli is available on Netflix worldwide now.

    Persepolis (2007)

    2018 #27
    Marjane Satrapi & Vincent Paronnaud | 92 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | France & Iran / English | 12 / PG-13

    Persepolis

    Adapted from co-director Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel, Persepolis is the story of an Iranian girl coming of age in the ’70s and ’80s, during and after the Iranian Revolution. Such a broad description is probably the only way to succinctly summarise it, because it’s kind of a sprawling film, about many different things — just like a life, I suppose. As well as being part biography, it’s also part history lesson, with a normal-family’s eye-view of the revolution and what followed.

    Some of the events we’re shown are crazy-specific to her life (Satrapi has certainly lived a life!), and some of it is very specific to her background (i.e. all the Iranian Revolution stuff), but some of it is also very universal. For example, a sequence where she falls in love with a guy sees him depicted as a perfect, angelic boyfriend that she spends many magical times with… until he sleeps with someone else, then when she reflects on their relationship he’s an ugly ogre, and all those wonderful memories have a rotten mirror. Plenty of us have been through something akin to that, right?

    Such subjective depictions are one of the benefits of the film being animated. Drawn in a simple, cartoonish style and mostly presented in black-and-white, the visuals are striking and sometimes very effective, but can also have something of a distancing effect — the atrocities of the revolution don’t hit home in quite the same way when, say, they’re executing a black-and-white cartoon rather than a real girl. Conversely, it was Satrapi who insisted on adapting her novel in animated form, with the goal of keeping it universal — in her opinion, “with live-action, it would have turned into a story of people living in a distant land who don’t look like us. At best, it would have been an exotic story, and at worst, a ‘Third-World’ story.” I suppose there’s some truth to that.

    Punk is probably ded in Iran

    I believe the film was produced in French, but the copy I had access to only offered the English dub. Unfortunately, this is frequently quite poor — the actors sound like they’re reading out slabs of text as quickly as they possibly can, rather than really delivering the lines. I can only presume this was necessary to fit the animation, but the end result leaves the audio feeling like a bad school presentation. I don’t hold this against the film itself, but it’s a word of warning if you have a choice of audio.

    Persepolis is only an hour-and-a-half, but it’s a long one thanks to the scope of what it covers. It’s a frequently dark and bleak film too, taking in not just a violent revolution but also things like depression and attempted suicide. Frankly, it’s the kind of film which I don’t know if I’ll ever bother to watch it again, but it’s also a fascinating and informative experience that I’m unquestionably glad I’ve seen.

    4 out of 5

    The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1 (2011)

    2018 #207
    Bill Condon | 113 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English & Portuguese | 12 / PG-13

    The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 1

    And so we reach the final book in the Twilight Saga… but not the final film, because Breaking Dawn hails from the era when Young Adult adaptations routinely split their final book in two, all the better to make more money fully adapt the story. Sparked by the success of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, said “era” lasted all of five years, taking in Twilight and The Hunger Games, before the two-part adaptation of the Divergent series’ finale was cancelled halfway through due to poor box office.

    But back to Twilight. Breaking Dawn, Part 1 starts with an event promised by the end of the previous movie: the wedding of human Bella (Kristen Stewart) to vampire Edward (Robert Pattinson). Sorry, Team Jacob; but let’s be honest, he never stood a chance. The double-length running time afforded this book means the film can spend its whole first half-hour indulging in the nuptials, which I imagine is the kind of thing fans of this series would revel in, so fair enough.

    Then Bella and Edward head off on a romantic honeymoon, and after spending three movies being an analogy for the wonders of chastity, the lead couple getting married means they can finally get. it. on! PG-13 style, of course (I believe some thrusting was cut to retain the teen rating in one or both of the UK and USA). Nonetheless, Edward’s so vigorous that he completely destroys the bed — well, the poor guy has been waiting for about 100 years. He also leaves Bella with some cuts and bruises, making him reluctant to go again. This leads to an extended montage where the newly wed girl desperately tries to get laid while the newly wed guy does his best to avoid it. It’s almost transgressive in its role reversal, except Twilight is too coy to present this quite explicitly enough to really nail that gag. Besides, if you’re looking for a human-vampire relationship that nails the sexual politics of teen relationships, Buffy got there over a decade earlier.

    PG-13 fucking

    Despite the paucity of their lovemaking, and the fact that one of the pair is technically dead, Bella winds up pregnant, with the baby growing in super-double-quick time and sucking the life out of her. Well, it is at least half vampire — that’s kinda their thing. All this means trouble for Bella’s life, but she insists on keeping the foetus — or baby, as one character forcefully points out when another refers to it as a foetus. Hm, I wonder what the conservatively-minded author might be drawing parallels with now? In fairness, it depends a certain amount on how you choose to read it. Screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg has said she is pro-choice and wouldn’t have agreed to do the film if she felt it violated her beliefs, while acknowledging she had to find a way to not offend the beliefs of “the other side”. So, almost everyone tries to dissuade Bella from sticking with the pregnancy, but they let her make her own choice… and (major spoilers!) it ends up killing her. So they were right, basically.

    And that’s the entire movie, more or less. Well, it is only half the story. I think it’s the knowledge of it being only half the book that led many critics to describe the film as slow and light on content (you always see such comments about multi-film adaptations of single books), because while it’s hardly fast-paced, I didn’t think it was notably less incident-packed than previous Twilight movies. Mind you, that probably says less about the pacing of this film and more about how little actually happens in all these movies.

    Angry like the wolf

    However, despite choosing to adapt only half the story, it still feels like the plot is making jumps at times. For example: Jacob (Taylor Lautner) and his werewolf buddies factor into things because they want to kill Bella’s devil-kid, but there’s also the matter of a treaty between the vampires and wolves (which I can’t remember the details of, so don’t ask). The film makes a point of emphasising that the wolfpack leader doesn’t want the treaty to be broken, then later on it’s stated that in his mind the treaty is broken. Now, okay, we can connect those dots ourselves, but really it’s missing a scene where the guy undergoes this about-turn of opinion. And yet, despite such missing links, director Bill Condon finds time for numerous sequences where people do nothing while a mournful song plays.

    On the bright side, Condon does manage to create a sequence that is the nearest this series has ever got to being an effective horror film (well, apart from Edward being a creepy stalker in the first film). It’s basically the ending of the movie, so, again, massive spoilers. So: Edward eats the baby out of Bella, who promptly dies, forcing Edward to flood her corpse with venom by biting her all over, which seems to do pretty awful things to her organs — that’s the scary bit, though it doesn’t sound particularly terrifying when you put it like that. Potentially more emotionally scarring is that, meanwhile, Jacob is off falling in love at first sight with Bella and Edward’s baby. That’d be their creepy CGI baby, which is roughly as convincing as a plastic one in a Clint Eastwood movie.

    “Is it a boy or a girl?” “I think it's... pixels.”

    Not that the acting of the humans is much more convincing. Kristen Stewart had a promising career before Twilight, and seems to have managed to reignite it as something of an arthouse darling afterwards, but here she’s just a personality vacuum. The film starts with her delivering a couple of lines of voiceover, and even from just that she manages to sound terminally bored. Later she asks, “why can’t you see how perfectly happy I am?” Probably because you’re not putting any effort into your performance, love. And yet, the less said about the rest of the cast, the better. Lautner doesn’t even get to wheel out his surprisingly-effective comedy chops this time.

    But for all the terribleness, I sort of feel I can’t hate it, because the rubbish bits are too funny, and the mad bits too bonkers (for a movie that is primarily aimed at romantically-inclined teenage girls, at least). While I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it, it was entertaining to sit through — kind of like The Room, for example, only still not quite as transcendently appalling.

    2 out of 5

    Join me this time next year when I finally finish this thing off. Unless I decide to do it next month, because Part 2 is currently sat on Netflix going “finish meeee”…

    Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade (1999)

    aka Jin-Rô

    2018 #212
    Hiroyuki Okiura | 102 mins | DVD | 1.85:1 | Japan / Japanese | 15 / R

    Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade

    Jin-Roh has enough cool costumes and bursts of ultra-violence to cut together a trailer that looks like a kinda-typical anime action-fest, but that’s really hiding a thoughtful, complicated (oh so complicated) drama about an unlikely romance and military conspiracies.

    If that sounds like a bizarre mix… well, it is. Jin-Roh is a film that likes to pull tricks on its audience (maybe those action-packed trailers were deliberate rather than marketers just doing their best to sell the thing!), and one of the tricks it plays is to constantly wrongfoot you about what kind of movie it’s meant to be. First it’s a kind of action thriller about terrorists vs. police; then it’s a subtle romance between two damaged individuals; then it’s a conspiracy thriller, and also an espionage drama; and finally it’s some kind of allegorical tragedy. As it moves through those various phases, the characters — and, by extension, us — are subjected to crosses, double crosses, and triple crosses. Good luck keeping up…

    Set in an alternate history where Germany occupied Japan after World War 2 (I’m not sure that’s made clear enough in the film, but hey-ho — maybe it’s obvious to Japanese viewers), the film picks things up a couple of decades later, with Japan free from occupation but having to fight antagonistic forces from within. With many guerrilla cells having combined to form terrorist group The Sect, the security services consequently created Kerberos, a controversial police paramilitary unit, to combat them. When Kerberos corporal Kazuki Fuse fails to shoot a bomb-carrying girl and she blows herself up, he’s punished by being sent back to basic training. At the same, he meets the girl’s sister and begins to form a bond with her. Meanwhile, his failure has thrown the future of Kerberos into doubt, setting political machinations whirring every which way.

    Little Red Riding Hood... and the Big Bad Wolf?

    I’ll admit, I got pretty lost with all the various factions, who was plotting what and when and why, and which side everyone was supposed to be on. Perhaps I was lulled into not paying enough attention because, as I noted above, the film appears to be a tender, understated examination of the relationship between two scarred individuals struggling to cope with the same recent tragedy from different sides, before it abruptly takes a hard turn into an intricate conspiracy thriller. Reading a plot description afterwards, I managed to get my head around it, though it didn’t resolve one quandary I felt at the end of the film itself: that it’s hard to know who we’re meant to be rooting for. Did the good guys win? Did the bad guys win? Were there actually any good guys — was anyone right? Personally, I’m fine with a film where there are no heroes, where everyone’s a bad guy and one of those bad guys wins; my problem is that I was left feeling unclear about whether that was the case or not.

    Mixed feelings, then. It’s a well-made film (even watching on a crummy window-boxed DVD), but all those whiplash-inducing turns and confusion-producing twists left me somewhat reeling and bewildered.

    3 out of 5

    The Korean live-action remake, Illang: The Wolf Brigade, is available on Netflix from today.

    (As is Daredevil season 3, Making a Murderer season 2, a brand-new Derren Brown special, and over half-a-dozen other series and films I’ve not heard of — why dump so much on one day, Netflix?!)

    What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

    2018 #153
    Robert Aldrich | 128 mins | TV (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 12

    What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

    Real-life rivals Bette Davis and Joan Crawford star as squabbling sisters forced together by circumstance in this slice of Hollywood Gothic. Both were once famous in their own way: as a child, bratty Jane Hudson (Davis) was a huge vaudeville star as the eponymous ‘Baby Jane’; later, her level-headed sister Blanche (Crawford) became a huge star of the silver screen, where Jane struggled to make a mark, employed only as a clause of her sister’s studio contract. A tragic incident ended both their careers, leaving Blanche paralysed and Jane her carer. Decades later, resentment has made Jane casually abusive of her invalided sister — and when she discovers that Blanche has been secretly plotting a major change to their situation, things only get worse…

    What Ever Happened to Baby Jane plays out as a mix of overwrought melodrama, plausible real-life horror, and mature psychological thriller. It’s really driven by the acting of the two leads. Crawford gets a less showy role, having to play it straight as the reasonable, sensible older sister, struggling to do what’s right for her sibling even as she’s mistreated. Davis, on the other hand, is allowed to cut loose. Jane starts the film batty and only gets less mentally stable from there. It’s quite an extraordinary performance from Davis, which threatens to tip over into scenery-chewing at any moment but remains compelling.

    Bette Davis and her preferred co-star

    The film itself is less assured. Director Robert Aldrich manages a good line in generating tension from people almost finding out what’s going on in the Hudson household, and there’s a solid final-reel twist (even if the final act in general is a bit bizarre — no spoilers, but those beach users are seriously inattentive), but the film is allowed to run longer than the material really merits. A slow burn can be used to create atmosphere, of course, but that’s not really the case here. It could do with a little more drive early on.

    But maybe it’s this looseness that has allowed so many different ways of viewing the film. As well as those I’ve already mentioned — sibling melodrama, psychological thriller, unnerving horror — people have taken it as a black comedy, or a cult camp classic. Whichever way you look at it, it’s certainly an experience.

    4 out of 5

    The TV series Feud: Bette and Joan, which dramatises the making of this film, begins a repeat run on BBC Four tonight at 10pm.