100 Films @ 10: Favourite Film Series

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Once upon a time, sequels were very much a lesser thing, and making more of them only made things worse. Nowadays we’re almost at the opposite extreme: first movies are routinely designed as setup for the better sequel, and never-ending franchises are all the rage.

Today’s top ten ranks some of my favourite movie series that have been part of 100 Films. Here that means a series with four or more movies (three would just be a trilogy, wouldn’t it?) where I’ve watched at least a couple of them during 100 Films’ life, as well as having seen a significant proportion overall. For instance, I’ve seen the two most recent Planet of the Apes films but none of the original five, so I can’t really judge that as a series.

A big factor herein is acknowledging consistency — one or two great films and a bunch of duds should mean exclusion. For example, the Star Wars series has two unimpeachable classics, and at least two more pretty great movies… but that’s only 57% of the Saga, or just 44% if you count the two theatrically-released spin-offs. Considering the lowly quality of the prequels, how much do they drag down the series as a whole?

You may disagree. Let’s take a look…

10
Marvel Cinematic Universe

If we’re talking about consistency here then the MCU has it in spades: consistently underwhelming villains, consistently bland cinematography, consistently unmemorable music… Ah, but they also have consistently likeable heroes, a consistently light tone, and a consistent ability to be pretty entertaining. None of them are really bad (except the first Captain America, which has its fans anyway), a couple of them even push towards a certain degree of greatness, and overall they are — to paraphrase the description of The Avengers by its writer-director, Joss Whedon — not great movies, but they are each a great time.

Best film: Captain America: Civil War
Weak link: Captain America: The First Avenger
Other reviews: Iron Man | The Incredible Hulk | Iron Man 2 | Thor | Avengers Assemble | Iron Man 3 | Thor: The Dark World | Captain America: The Winter Soldier | Guardians of the Galaxy | Avengers: Age of Ultron | Ant-Man | Doctor Strange | + 5 Marvel One-Shots (take a look under ‘shorts’ on my reviews page) and various TV series, including Daredevil season two and Luke Cage season one


9
The Hunger Games

The shortest series in my top ten, this is very much a borderline on my rules — if they’d done the third book as one film, it wouldn’t count. That gives The Hunger Games a certain advantage over the other films here, in that it has one long story to tell across just a handful of movies, rather than trying to refresh itself in some way with each new film. About a group of young people fighting against an oppressive autocratic regime in a future version of America, it’s a future-history of, like, next week. For all the fun of its action theatrics, a series aimed at younger viewers with themes about the dangers of dictators and the potential benefits of and need for a resistance — what some might call “terrorism” — has rarely been more pertinent.

Best film: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Weak link: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1
Other reviews: The Hunger Games | The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2


8
The Thin Man

Ostensibly a series of murder mysteries, the reason the Thin Man series is such a joy is that the films are more concerned with the screwball-ish relationship between the leads, married detective duo Nick and Nora Charles, played with a certain rakish aplomb by William Powell and Myrna Loy. The mysteries themselves are Christie-esque parlour games and there’s a major role for the pair’s adorable dog. Mix all that together like one of the Charles’ favoured cocktails and they make for similarly splendid entertainment.

Best film: After the Thin Man
Weak link: The Thin Man Goes Home
Other reviews: The Thin Man | Another Thin Man | Shadow of the Thin Man | Song of the Thin Man


7
George A. Romero’s ‘Dead’ Films

With his low-budget horror film Night of the Living Dead, co-writer/director George A. Romero single-handedly created a whole sub-genre: the zombie movie. Although the form eventually degenerated into a miasma of excessive gore, what makes Romero’s films timeless is the way they use the zombies to reflect something else, whether it be basic humanity or wider sections of society. The first two movies (Night and Dawn) are genre-transcending classics, but if we’re talking consistency then I even have a fondness for the underrated fourth instalment, Land of the Dead, and the rush-produced but not meritless sixth, Survival of the Dead. Even the weakest, Diary of the Dead, has more of interest to say than many of its genre stablemates.

Best film: Night of the Living Dead
Weak link: Diary of the Dead
Other reviews: Dawn of the Dead | Day of the Dead | Land of the Dead | Survival of the Dead


6
Sherlock Holmes starring Basil Rathbone

Between 1939 and 1946 Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce starred in 14 Sherlock Holmes films, cementing themselves as the definitive screen interpretation of Holmes and Watson for decades to come — some would say forever. Rather than faithful adaptations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories, these liberally remix the best bits into exciting new mysteries and adventures. If that sounds familiar from more modern times, it’s because Sherlock creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss are massive fans of the Rathbone/Bruce films, and have never been shy about admitting their influence on how Sherlock adapts the canon. Maybe not one for literary purists, then, but otherwise there’s barely a dud to be found in this entertaining series.

Best film: The Scarlet Claw
Weak link: Pursuit to Algiers
Other reviews: The Hound of the Baskervilles | The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes | Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror | Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon | Sherlock Holmes in Washington | Sherlock Holmes Faces Death | The Spider Woman | The Pearl of Death | The House of Fear | The Woman in Green | Terror by Night | Dressed to Kill


5
Batman

You could, not unreasonably, split the Batman movies into multiple sub-series at this point: the four movies from 1989 to 1997, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, Batman’s role in the DCEU; plus the ’66 Batman, animated cinema release Mask of the Phantasm, and, now, the LEGO movies. This ranking encompasses them all… more or less. Certainly the live-action ones since ’89, anyway. Yes, that run of movies contains one of the poorest blockbusters of all time (Batman & Robin), but it’s counterbalanced by one of the greatest blockbusters of all time (The Dark Knight), and several others I’d place in the form’s upper echelons (Batman Returns, Batman Begins, maybe one or two more). I’m one of those people who likes Batman v Superman and sees promise in Justice League and The Batman, too, so long may it continue.

Best film: The Dark Knight
Weak link: Batman & Robin
Other reviews: Batman (1966) | Batman (1989) | Batman Returns | Batman Forever | Batman Begins | The Dark Knight Rises | Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (and its Ultimate Edition) | + 8 animated movie reviews (take a look under ‘B’ on my reviews page)


4
Harry Potter

I rarely classify myself as “a Harry Potter fan” because I know the full extent of obsessiveness you get from die-hard Potheads (as I like to call them. I don’t think anyone else does, but I think we should.) It’s no worse than any other dedicated fandom, I’m sure, but I’m not that extreme. Nonetheless, I’m of the right age to have read the books during my childhood (albeit right at the end of the my childhood) and do have a fondness for them, as well as for the film adaptations. This is the perfect list for those, because I definitely feel like they’re more than the sum of their parts: each film is at least ‘good’, but few of them stray toward the territory of ‘really great’ — not individually, anyway. As a whole eight-film saga, though, I think they make for an impressive piece of work.

Best film: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Weak link: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Other reviews: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone | Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban | Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix | Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince | Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 | Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 | + an overview of the Harry Potter films of David Yates, and also fan edit Wizardhood


3
Mission: Impossible

It’s the second-shortest series on this list, making my following statement comparatively less of an achievement, but still: in my view, there are no bad Mission: Impossible films. They’ve sometimes been given a rough ride down the years, with the first two especially meeting with more than their fair share of criticism, but I’ve enjoyed every one. The most recent is the best, in my opinion, but I don’t think I’d begrudge anyone naming any of the others as their favourite.

Best film: Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
Weak link: Mission: Impossible III
Other reviews: Mission: Impossible II | Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol


2
X-Men

I feel like I’ve written plenty of introductory overviews to the X-Men at this point in my blogging career — about my near-lifelong love for the series; about its relevance to the modern superhero movie landscape; and so on. As with most of these series, not every entry is perfect, but very few of them are outright bad. Even the black sheep of the series, The Last Stand, isn’t all it could’ve been had director Bryan Singer stuck around, but it often gets an unfair rap — it’s not a bad piece of blockbuster entertainment. On the other end of the spectrum, I think the series’ high points are among the very best superhero movies. By the sounds of things the imminent third Wolverine movie, Logan, only continues that tradition.

Best film: X-Men: First Class
Weak link: X-Men Origins: Wolverine
Other reviews: X-Men | X2 | The Wolverine | X-Men: Days of Future Past (and The Rogue Cut) | Deadpool | X-Men: Apocalypse


1
James Bond

With 24 films to date, produced across 53 years, the James Bond films are a series like no other (though, in terms of number of films, the MCU will likely surpass it within the next five years). If we’re talking consistency of quality, then there are probably more underachievers here than in any other series in this top ten… but then there are more films full-stop, so what do you expect? Conversely, there are probably more high points too, be it the era-defining action of the Connery films, the lightness of the better Moore movies, the grit of Dalton, the polished blockbusterdom of Brosnan, or the series’ reinvention as prestige pictures with Craig. Indeed, there’s pretty much a Bond movie for every taste (unless you fundamentally object to enjoying the adventures of a government-sponsored killer, of course). At this point the series seems to be inoculated against any obstacle — they are critic proof, box office proof, almost audience proof. Whatever else happens in this crazy, crazy world, you can be sure of one thing: James Bond will return.

Best film: Casino Royale
Weak link: A View to a Kill
Other reviews: Dr. No | From Russia with Love | Goldfinger | Thunderball | You Only Live Twice | On Her Majesty’s Secret Service | For Your Eyes Only | Octopussy | GoldenEye | Tomorrow Never Dies | Quantum of Solace | Skyfall | Spectre

Tomorrow: an elementary list.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016)

2017 #16
Tim Burton | 127 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | UK, Belgium & USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

After his beloved grandpa Abe (Terence Stamp) dies in mysterious circumstances, Floridian teen Jake (Asa Butterfield) seeks closure by visiting the children’s home in Wales where his grandpa was raised. As a child, Abe regaled his grandson with tales of the home’s other residents and their fantastical abilities — tales which were completely true, as Jake discovers when he meets Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) and her peculiar wards.

The quickest route to defining the experience of watching Miss Peregrine is by referencing other films, if only in a broad sense. For starters, it’s adapted from a young adult fantasy-adventure novel, and there’s a definite shape to things which reflects other entries in that genre — the whole “ordinary kid discovers a fantasy world of incredible powers and approaching danger” type thing.

It’s also directed by Tim Burton, and does feel like a Tim Burton movie. However, what’s incredibly pleasant about that is it doesn’t feel aggressively Burtoneseque. As if in reaction to the blandness of his Planet of the Apes remake, much of Burton’s output since then has slipped towards self-parody, and suffered for it. Miss Peregrine has recognisable flourishes, undoubtedly, but is a little more restrained with how it deploys them. Some have criticised it for this, citing it as another example of Burton removing his unique stamp from the picture, much as he did with Apes, but I disagree.

Her special ability is being a badass

The final other work I would reference is the X-Men; in any incarnation, but the most relevant filmic one is probably First Class. Or not, because that was all about the establishing of Xavier’s school and the equivalent establishment here is already established. Nonetheless, it’s about a country house owned by a British matriarch-figure who cares for a gaggle of misfit kids with special powers. Rather than the X-Men’s potentially-violent array of action-ready skills, however, the ones on display here are a little more whimsical — like Emma (Ella Purnell), who’s lighter than air, or Horace (Hayden Keeler-Stone), who can project his dreams through his eyes.

Also like X-Men, the threat comes from within this secretive world. The starter X-baddie is, of course, Magneto, a mutant seeking to use scientific methods to turn the whole world into mutants. Here, the baddie is Barron (Samuel L. Jackson), a peculiar seeking to use scientific methods to grant immortality to himself and his cronies. Part of their thing is eating people’s eyeballs, which has benefits for them — again, that’s quite Burtonesque… though a mite less whimsical.

The eyes have it

Being on board with this whole milieu is important to enjoying Miss Peregrine, because the film does spend a lot of time establishing it. For those not interested in world-building, the action-packed third act must be a long time coming. There is a lot to marvel at along the way though, and Burton keeps things pleasingly real in his filmmaking techniques: there’s a fight between two creatures that was created with stop-motion, while another sequence involved constructing underwater rigs, and the vast majority of Emma’s floating was achieved by dangling Purnell on wires. That’s not to say there’s no CGI — ironically, the foremost example is a sequence that could otherwise be considered a tribute to Ray Harryhausen — but Burton’s filmmaking encapsulates varied techniques to lend a satisfying physicality to much of the film.

On the whole Miss Peregrine seems to have received a rather muted response, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. It might be best to qualify that by reiterating that it’s playing with a lot of things I enjoy — “X-Men by way of Tim Burton” sounds fantastic to me, and that’s not a bad definition of this movie. I’d even go as far as saying it’s his best work this millennium (though, in fairness, I still haven’t seen Big Fish. Well, it’s only 14 years old.) The shape of the story is no great shakes, but it’s built from magical elements and fantastical imagery, and a game cast of quality thesps hamming it up magnificently and eager youngsters with a slightly earnest likeability.

Let's go fly a kite

Actually, in many ways it reminds me of another heightened, stylised young-adult adaptation that suffered from a mixed reception. See you in 2029 for the Netflix re-adaptation, then?

4 out of 5

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is released on DVD & Blu-ray in the UK tomorrow.

iBoy (2017)

2017 #11
Adam Randall | 90 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 15

iBoy

When it comes to TV, Netflix are dominating the cultural landscape with much-discussed original series like Stranger Things, Making a Murderer, Orange is the New Black, the Gilmore Girls revival, their cadre of Marvel shows… I could go on. But when it comes to their original movies — the eponymous “flix” — well, it’s a bit different. Their Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon sequel went down like a lead balloon; Beasts of No Nation was well reviewed but couldn’t translate that into the awards buzz that was clearly hoped for; and their Adam Sandler movies… well, those are apparently very popular with viewers, at least.

Their latest effort, iBoy, is based on a young adult novel about a teenager who fights against bad people — so that’s pretty zeitgeisty at least. It’s not set in a dystopian future, though, but why bother when our own days are so bleak? So iBoy sets its stall in present-day London, where Tom (Bill “the sweet one from Son of Rambow” Milner, looking completely different) is just a normal teen — going to school by day, blocking out the sounds of violence around his tower block by night. When the girl he fancies (Maisie Williams) invites him round to study one evening, he turns up at her flat to find her being, to not put too fine a point on it, gang raped. He runs, trying to phone the police, but the gang give chase and shoot him in the head. When he wakes up, parts of his phone have been inoperably embedded in his brain, which he soon comes to realise has given him the ability to interact with technology using his mind.

Look, it's London!

So, yeah — scientifically, it’s a thoroughly dubious premise. But is it any worse than having abilities bestowed by a radioactive spider-bite or spilled toxic goo? In respect to Tom’s newfound powers and how he chooses to use them — as a vigilante seeking revenge on the gang that have been terrorising his estate — iBoy is more in line with superhero narratives than other young adult adaptations. Where it comes unstuck is the tone. How many superhero films are going to feature gang rape? Well, somewhat appropriately, I guess the Netflix ones might. But the disjunct between iBoy’s daft premise and the grim world of inner city gangs (there are more acts of shocking violence) is a difficult one to negotiate.

To its credit, iBoy doesn’t use the assault as a starting incident and then discard its aftereffects — the presence of Maisie Williams, who’s been quite outspoken about the treatment of female characters in media, should give an indication that it’s not so thoughtless. But nor does a 90-minute movie that’s fundamentally about a superpowered vigilante have much time to dig into it properly. Nonetheless, Williams essays the role with some subtlety, aided by a screenplay that keeps things appropriately unverbalised. Perhaps the most effective part is when, home alone, she has to venture outside for some milk.

Nasty gangs

Unfortunately, the screenplay doesn’t pay the same amount of attention to the hows-and-whys of its hero and his abilities. Apparently hacking someone else’s phone involves watching a progress bar; he can learn how to fight while watching a couple of YouTube videos during the ten seconds he’s walking towards an assailant; and so on. A little more effort would’ve sold the premise more and could’ve removed these niggles (at least have him download a phone-hacking app or something; maybe the YouTube videos could be downloaded into his brain, but his unpracticed muscles struggle to perform the moves). Problem is, the notion of phone fragments getting stuck in your brain and giving you superpowers is pretty silly, so even if you provide better internal consistency, it’s still a struggle to parse that implausibility being mashed up against the ultra-real-world stylings of the rest of the story. Films like Super and Kick-Ass do the “real-life superhero” thing by making their hero a bit inept. Maybe iBoy isn’t shooting for “real-life superhero”, but then why are the threats he faces so serious?

Talking of the threats, Rory Kinnear turns up near the end as the Big Bad, and lifts the film considerably. I suppose there’s not a whole lot of originality in a politely-spoken but actually horrendous villain, but Kinnear sells the part effortlessly. You kind of want to see that character (or at least that performance) turn up in something bigger and better. Elsewhere, Miranda Richardson brings some much-needed lightness as Tom’s grandma, who serves as an Aunt May figure. If nothing else, you can rely on British productions to have quality acting, eh?

British baddies are best

For all this criticism, on the whole I didn’t dislike iBoy while it played out, it just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. As Netflix’s first genuine original movie from the UK, it’s a shame it can’t demonstrate to the rest of the Netflix-viewing world what British film could be capable of if encouraged, but maybe that would be too big a weight to put on its little shoulders anyhow.

3 out of 5

iBoy is available on Netflix everywhere (I presume).

The Past Christmas on TV

Christmastime: it’s all about family, food, presents, sweets, more food, alcohol, a bit more food, some kid who was born a while ago, and also food. But most of all, it’s about TV. Oh dear Lord, so much TV.

Is it just me and my insanely broad and forgiving interests, or has there been more TV to watch this Christmas than normal? Every day in our copy of the Radio Times’ “legendary” Christmas issue seems alight with highlighter markings, an endless parade of visual entertainment to… well, to add to the list of stuff to watch later on catch-up, mainly. But I did actually watch some of it, and here is what I thought.

Doctor Who The Return of Doctor Mysterio
Doctor Who: The Return of Doctor MysterioThe controversial Steven Moffat era of nuWho is headed towards its end, but before his final full series next year there’s this penultimate Christmas special. There have been 12 of them now and they’re always divisive: some people think they’re too Christmassy, some that they’re not Christmassy enough; some like that they’re standalone adventures suited to a broader audience, but other times they’re not standalone enough… Each year presents a different mix of these elements, pleasing some and alienating others.

This year, Doctor Who taps into the zeitgeist by finally tackling superheroes, with a riff off classic-styled Superman. Personally, I thought it was the best Christmas episode for years — a fun, exciting, witty, entertaining romp, that captured the tone of the superhero genre but gave it Doctor Who’s typical gently-irreverent spin. The tone was perfectly suited to Christmas day.

But was there too much or too little Christmas in it? Well, I’ve seen critics put it in their top five Who Christmasses purely because there wasn’t much Christmas, and Letterboxd fans write it off purely because there wasn’t enough Christmas. When you’re the showrunner of Doctor Who, you literally can’t win.

The Great Christmas Bake Off
The Great Christmas Bake Off“Proper Bake Off” came to an end with what felt a little like a joyous celebration of the series’ unique charms, as well as its highs and lows. Considering the two festive episodes were shot before the controversial move to Channel 4 took place, that’s almost impressive. It’s hard to imagine GBBO without the alchemical mix of Mel, Sue, Paul and Mary, and these episodes showed the format on fine form. And then the BBC went and snuck in that perfectly-edited 60-second tribute to the whole thing. Who knew a programme about baking cake could be so good? Or make some people so emotional

Bob Monkhouse: The Last Stand
A few months before his death in 2003, Bob Monkhouse gave a one-off gig to an invited audience of fellow comedians which has apparently gone down in comedy legend. I’d never heard of it before, but there you go (I had the same thing with the joke in The Aristocrats and its alleged notoriety, so I won’t say I’m surprised). This was the first time that gig has been televised in a full form, and I confess I’d paid it no heed until it was trending on Twitter. Thanks for that recommendation, Twittersphere, because it’s a very good show: Bob tells jokes, tells stories, and interviews Mike Yarwood in front of an admiring audience who aren’t aware it’s probably his last gig — but, with that hindsight, the themes of sharing a lifetime of wisdom and finding contentment are obvious.

Grantchester
GrantchesterThe problem with Christmas specials of on-going shows is you’re sometimes left with on-going plots that must be acknowledged, and Grantchester has a particularly major one with its hero’s life-long love leaving her husband while pregnant. If you don’t watch, it’s set in the ’50s, so this kind of behaviour is the greatest scandal known to man. The special leaps into this without even the by-your-leave of a “previously on”, so I pity any non-regular viewers made to sit down in front of it on Christmas Eve. But it’s an immensely popular show with big ratings, apparently, so who can blame ITV for wanting it in their always-underpowered Christmas schedule? I imagine it fared better than Maigret did the next night…

Revolting Rhymes
Revolting RhymesThe team behind previous Christmas specials The Gruffalo, Room on the Broom, and Stick Man returned this year with a two-part adaptation of Roald Dahl’s retold fairy tales. Dahl’s individual tales have been intelligently remixed into a pair of stories (one per part, of course), with a framing narrative that actually contains a neat cliffhanger twist at the end of part one. Maybe it just caught me unawares because I wasn’t expecting it, but I thought it was very effective. Anyway, Dahl’s witty rhyming couplets are retained, delivered by a well-chosen cast, not least Dominic West as a smooth, charming, suspicious Wolf. The claymation-ish visual style of the CG animation is familiar from the makers’ previous films, but as polished and well-applied as ever, with some beautiful details. It makes for a visual treat to equal the excellent words they have to work with.

The Witness for the Prosecution
The Witness for the ProsecutionI thought And Then There Were None was one of the highlights of last year’s Christmas schedule, turning Agatha Christie’s most popular novel into a dark, slasher-movie-esque thriller, the first English-language adaptation to remain faithful to the original’s glum ending. I don’t know if this year’s Christie is faithful to her original short story, but it isn’t to the play adaptation (at least as I know it from the excellent film version). It seems to have deliberately followed in And Then There Were None’s tonal footsteps, shooting for a bleak tale about the fundamental darkness of human nature. Instead it’s diluted the satisfying mystery and removed the tension, with a two-hour running time feeling ponderous and its cinematography trying for atmospheric but instead hitting murky. Some people don’t approve of Christie-esque narratives that make a guessing game out of murder, but if you want you can always write your own gloomily realistic meditation on the nature of evil rather than co-opting her work into a grim treatise.

Comedy round-up
WILTYThere’s always a lot of special episodes of comedy shows on over Christmas, with varying degrees of success. I thought this year’s Live at the Apollo was woeful, with Romesh Ranganathan the only truly bright spot in 45 minutes of flat observations and unfunny daftness. Conversely, Would I Lie To You? proved to be as good value as it always is, thanks to the quick wit of the regulars plus Tom Courtenay’s affected (I presume) dodderiness. Mock the Week’s clip show format was perhaps improved by the fact I didn’t watch the most recent series, while the imperfect Insert Name Here makes a nonetheless welcome return. In the comedy gameshow sub-genre, Alan Carr’s 12 Stars of Christmas was the kind of trash I’d never watch at any other time of year yet stuck with for all five hours and kind of enjoyed (helped by watching on catch-up and fast-forwarding the really repetitious bits), while the David Walliams-fronted Blankety Blank revival provided as much charm as the format ever has. And normally it wouldn’t count as comedy, but this year’s run of Celebrity Mastermind began with CBBC puppet Hacker T. Dog as a contestant. At least he didn’t win.

Also watched… (stuff that wasn’t Christmassy)
  • Castle Season 7 Episodes 22-23 — the last episode feels very much like someone thought they might get cancelled. After the quality of this season, I don’t blame them.
  • Class Series 1 Episode 8 — it’s been an uneven series, but the tease for season two’s big plot is very intriguing. Fingers crossed for a recommission.
  • The Grand Tour Season 1 Episode 3 — in which they actually do a version of the Grand Tour.

    Things to Catch Up On
    OutnumberedMy list of Christmas TV to get round to remains pretty extensive. There are all those regular series that insert a seasonal episode — The Grand Tour (that’d be the episode with Richard Hammond’s ice cream comments that you might’ve heard about), Paul O’Grady: For the Love of Dogs, Yonderland (not that I’ve watched any of the latest series), QI, Inside No.9 (which I’ve never watched before, but the special sounds good)… And there are series coming back for one-offs too, like Outnumbered and Jonathan Creek (which I loved during its original run but have been surprisingly lax about watching in the last few years). I’ve also not yet caught a couple of this year’s animated adaptations, Michael Rosen’s We’re Going on a Bear Hunt and Raymond Briggs’ Ethel & Ernest (which I figure will count as a film). Documentaries like Lego’s Big Christmas and West Side Stories also sit on my list, likely to get forgotten. There’s Sky1’s big Christmas Day drama, The Last Dragonslayer (which I wager I’ll also count as a film); Eric Idle’s comedy musical science thing, The Entire Universe; and Charlie Brooker’s 2016 Wipe, which apparently manages to make 2016 funny (I’ll believe it when I see it). Finally, I always save Channel 4’s The Big Fat Quiz of the Year for either New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day, because that just seems more appropriate.

    Whew!

    (And to think: this doesn’t even mention all the big specials for things I don’t watch.)

    Still To Come
    Sherlock series 4Things are beginning to wind down now… but as far as TV schedulers are concerned “Christmas” lasts until at least January 1st, so there are a couple of big hitters left. The biggest of all is a new, potentially final, run of Sherlock. No idea what the quality will be like, but expect lots of handwringing on social media and huge ratings either way. On New Year’s Eve there’s stage adaptation Peter Pan Goes Wrong, which I’ve heard such good stuff about it’s probably going to be a disappointment, and a Winnie-the-Pooh documentary that I’m going to watch even though it’s presented by Alan Titchmarsh. Next week (which you could argue is still part of Christmas if you have very forgiving holiday leave) sees lots of police shows kicking off, if that’s your thing: Death in Paradise, Endeavour, Midsomer Murders, No Offence, Silent Witness, Unforgotten… even Brooklyn Nine-Nine. And in the sphere of movies on TV, tonight you can choose between the network premiere of Captain America: The Winter Soldier on BBC One at 8:30pm and the subscription premiere of Captain America: Civil War on Sky Cinema at 8pm, an almost-double-bill (I mean, you can’t watch them both live) that I only note because of the “huh, well there you go” factor.

    Next month… Sherlock returns.

  • X2 (2003)

    100 Films’ 100 Favourites #99

    The time has come for those who are different to stand united.

    Also Known As: X-Men 2 (promotional/DVD title), X2: X-Men United (US promotional title)

    Country: USA & Canada
    Language: English
    Runtime: 134 minutes
    BBFC: 12A
    MPAA: PG-13

    Original Release: 25th April 2003 (Lithuania)
    UK Release: 1st May 2003
    US Release: 2nd May 2003
    First Seen: cinema, May 2003

    Stars
    Hugh Jackman (Van Helsing, The Prestige)
    Patrick Stewart (Dune, Hamlet)
    Ian McKellen (Gods and Monsters, Mr. Holmes)
    Brian Cox (Braveheart, Troy)
    Alan Cumming (Emma, Josie and the Pussycats)

    Director
    Bryan Singer (Apt Pupil, X-Men: Days of Future Past)

    Screenwriters
    Michael Dougherty (Superman Returns, Trick ‘r Treat)
    Dan Harris (Superman Returns, Imaginary Heroes)
    David Hayter (X-Men, Wolves)

    Story by
    David Hayter (The Scorpion King, Watchmen)
    Zak Penn (Last Action Hero, The Incredible Hulk)
    Bryan Singer (X-Men, The Triangle)

    Based on
    The X-Men, comic book superheroes created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. In part inspired by the graphic novel God Loves, Man Kills by Chris Claremont and Brent Anderson.

    The Story
    When a mutant attempts to assassinate the president, military scientist William Stryker uses it as a pretext to step up his persecution of mutants. With the X-Men occupied hunting for the would-be assassin, the school is attacked and the remaining students flee with Wolverine — whose still-mysterious past has some connection to Stryker.

    Our Heroes
    The X-Men, a team of mutants — humans who have evolved superpowers — organised by Professor Charles Xavier. As well as returning heroes Wolverine, Cyclops, Jean Grey, Storm, and Rogue (see X-Men), the roster this time includes Bobby Drake, aka Iceman, who can generate and manipulate ice, and John Allerdyce, aka Pyro, who can control fire. Plus Kurt Wagner, aka Nightcrawler, a demonic-looking blue-skinned German teleporter.

    Our Villains
    Col. William Stryker, a military scientist who wants to eradicate mutants, and plans to use Xavier’s mutant-finding Cerebro machine to do so. Has a role in Wolverine’s mysterious past…

    Best Supporting Character
    Imprisoned at the end of the last film, Magneto is tortured by Stryker for information on Cerebro… until he escapes and teams up with the X-Men to stop the new threat.

    Memorable Quote
    “Have you ever tried… not being a mutant?” — Bobby’s mom

    Memorable Scene
    When Stryker launches a military assault on the school, Wolverine goes full berserker to defend the students, before he comes face to face with Stryker — as it turns out, not for the first time.

    Write the Theme Tune…
    I’ve always loved John Ottman’s main theme for X2, so I’ve been very pleased that Bryan Singer has made it the recurrent theme for the X-Men series since he retook the directorial reins for Day of Future Past. Its appearance there is quite short, but Apocalypse has two fantastic renditions.

    Making of
    The set for Stryker’s underground base was the largest in North America at the time — so large that cast and crew used bicycles to get to the bathroom as quickly as possible. Some areas of the set weren’t even used in the film, such as a room that was to be the setting of a Nightcrawler vs. Toad fight. (Several other sets were built and not used, including the X-Men’s famous Danger Room training centre. After also dropping its inclusion from the first X-Men, it finally turns up in The Last Stand.)

    Previously on…
    The film that started the modern era of comic book movies, X-Men.

    Next time…
    The trilogy was rounded out by X-Men: The Last Stand, though answers about Wolverine’s past were saved for spin-off movie X-Men Origins: Wolverine. More history was revealed in prequel X-Men: First Class, before time travel adventure X-Men: Days of Future Past combined both casts. The prequels continued with this summer’s ’80s-set X-Men: Apocalypse, with a ’90s-set follow-up in the works. Spin-offs include The Wolverine and next year’s third Wolverine movie, Logan, as well as Deadpool, the perpetually delayed Gambit, and X-Men: The New Mutants. TV series Legion is based on the X-Men licence but may or may not be connected to the films, and other connected (or not) TV series are in development.

    Awards
    1 Saturn Award (Science Fiction Film)
    6 Saturn nominations (Director, Writing, Music, Costumes, Make Up, Special Effects)
    Nominated for the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form
    2 Kids’ Choice Awards nominations (including Favorite Female Butt Kicker (Halle Berry))
    1 MTV Movie Awards Mexico nomination (Sexiest Female Villain (Rebecca Romijn) — she lost to Demi Moore in Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle)

    What the Critics Said
    X2 is also possessed of an emotional complexity that won’t surprise comics fans, but will delight connoisseurs of the summer blockbuster. […] The plot, in which hatred of a minority group threatens to spark a global war, is frighteningly topical and Singer doesn’t flinch from showing that resolution often comes at a bitter price — albeit one which paves the way for a pleasingly inevitable X3. Yet it’s not all FX-augmented naval-gazing. Though it does get very dark, X2 is unashamedly entertaining, with crowd-pleasing moments for geeks (the appearance of metal-skinned muscle man Colossus in full armoured form should benefit upholsterers everywhere) and non-geeks (a Nightcrawler-led mid-air rescue is exhilarating) alike.” — William Thomas, Empire

    Score: 86%

    What the Public Say
    “it was the perfect superhero film sequel, the one that truly set the bar for all future sequels (and many managed to match it, thankfully.) Singer understood what worked about the first film, he understood that the audience wanted ‘more of the same’ but not just the same story over again. The core elements were preserved. The team’s personalities, diversity, and relationships that formed the emotional core of the first film, and were the most faithful thing about Singer’s adaptation, were carried on, as was the emphasis on Magneto (Ian McKellen) and Charles’ (Patrick Stewart) relationship and contrasting philosophies. The driving elements of the plot, though different than the driving elements of X-Men‘s plot, didn’t feel like they ‘came out of nowhere.’ Everything felt familiar without necessarily being the same. The ‘new’ elements that were introduced really did broaden the world, but were based in elements X-Men had already established. […] Although I, unlike many fans, didn’t consider this an improvement over Singer’s first X-Men film, I also don’t think it needed to be. And despite my preference for the first film, X2 was to a certain extent really when the series hit its stride and showed that it had staying power.” — Kat, Love. Think. Speak.

    Verdict

    If there’s one trend in the modern superhero era that’s gone under-analysed (at least as far as I’m aware), it’s this: sequels that are better than their predecessor, upending the accepted order of things. It’s not a universal occurrence (Iron Man 2, anyone?), but it happens often enough that many reviews of first films now note they’re setup a sequel. And as with so many things in the current superhero epoch, it started with the X-Men.

    Personally I’ve always slightly preferred the first movie, but X2 does polish up the action sequences, engages with the series’ thematic subtexts in an effective manner, and adds significantly to the ongoing mystery of Wolverine’s past. Coupled with a shock ending that teased a big plot to come, everything looked so good for the third movie. Sadly, the whole “sequels are better” thing still doesn’t regularly extend to third movies. (Suffice to say, The Last Stand will not be next week’s #100.)

    #100 is the moment when… Ewan McGregor drops his Jedi knickers and pulls out his real lightsaber.

    X-Men (2000)

    100 Films’ 100 Favourites #98

    Trust a few.
    Fear the rest.

    Country: USA
    Language: English
    Runtime: 104 minutes
    BBFC: 12
    MPAA: PG-13

    Original Release: 13th July 2000 (Australia)
    US Release: 14th July 2000
    UK Release: 18th August 2000
    First Seen: cinema, 2000

    Stars
    Hugh Jackman (Oklahoma!, Les Misérables)
    Patrick Stewart (Star Trek: First Contact, Green Room)
    Ian McKellen (Richard III, The Lord of the Rings)
    Anna Paquin (The Piano, Margaret)
    Famke Janssen (GoldenEye, Taken 2)
    James Marsden (Gossip, The Box)
    Halle Berry (B*A*P*S*, Catwoman)

    Director
    Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects, Superman Returns)

    Screenwriter
    David Hayter (The Scorpion King, Watchmen)

    Story by
    Tom DeSanto (producer of Apt Pupil & Transformers)
    Bryan Singer (Public Access, Superman Returns)

    Based on
    The X-Men, Marvel comic book superheroes created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby; and in particular Wolverine, a comic book superhero created by Roy Thomas, Len Wein, and John Romita, Sr.

    The Story
    In a near future where some humans have mutated to have extraordinary powers, and consequently are hated and feared by the general population, a runaway teen comes under the protection of a mysterious stranger. As a radical leader hunts them for his world-changing scheme, they encounter a school for mutants — and the superpowered team who teach there.

    Our Heroes
    The X-Men, a team of mutants — humans who have evolved superpowers — organised by Professor Charles Xavier, a wheelchair-bound telepath. There’s team leader Scott Summers, aka Cyclops, who shoots force beams from his eyes; Dr. Jean Grey, potentially an even more powerful telepath than Professor X, who can also move things with her mind; Ororo Monroe, aka Storm, who can control the weather. We’re led into their world by teen runaway Marie, aka Rogue, who can absorb people’s energy, and her reluctant protector, Logan, aka Wolverine, who has metal claws in his hands, can heal really fast, and can’t remember most of his past.

    Our Villain
    Erik Lehnsherr, aka Magneto, who can manipulate metal. A one-time friend of Xavier’s, they parted ways over his beliefs that mutants and humans couldn’t coexist, which leads him to violently oppose mutant oppression.

    Best Supporting Character
    Mystique, one of Magneto’s gang, who runs around naked — but that’s because her skin’s blue and bumpy and stuff, so it’s OK. She can shape shift into the form of anyone she’s made contact with, which is very useful for her and very tricky for our heroes.

    Memorable Quote
    Magneto: “Does it ever wake you in the middle of the night, the feeling that one day they will pass that foolish law, or one just like it, and come for you and your children?”
    Xavier: “It does indeed.”
    Magneto: “What do you do, when you wake up to that?”
    Xavier: “I feel a great swell of pity for the poor soul who comes to that school looking for trouble.”

    Memorable Scene
    As Magneto, Sabretooth and Toad exit a train station with a kidnapped Rogue, they’re greeted by a sea of policemen. With his powers, Magneto takes all their guns and turns them on their owners. Then Sabretooth grabs Magneto’s throat — he’s being mind-controlled by Xavier. Magneto fires all the weaponry in his control, but stops the bullets just short of their targets — unless Xavier lets him go…

    Truly Special Effect
    Superheroes really needed the modern era of CGI to make them possible — and, as with everything else, X-Men led the way. Probably the most memorable are Mystique’s skin-changing transformations, which involved 8,000 scales animated in different directions.

    Making of
    Stanley Kubrick is responsible for the casting of Wolverine. No, really. Well, sort of. Here’s how it goes: Kubrick’s famous perfectionism meant the filming of Eyes Wide Shut overran; that meant star Tom Cruise had to delay his next project, Mission: Impossible II; that sequel finishing later than scheduled meant Dougray Scott — who played the lead villain in M:I-2 and was originally cast as Wolverine — had to drop out of X-Men, which was already on an insanely tight schedule to make its release date. Hugh Jackman was cast on the recommendation of his friend Russell Crowe, who had been sought for the role, and only joined the production several weeks into filming. Apparently if you look closely you can see Jackman’s physique change in various scenes because he was working out extensively while filming continued.

    Previously on…
    Although this is the first X-movie, I’m sure the enduring popularity of the 1992-1997 animated series can’t’ve hurt the film’s success.

    Next time…
    In an immediate sense, X2. After that, multiple direct sequels, prequels, and spin-offs. Plus the entire current multitude of comic book movies owe their existence to this film being (a) good, and (b) a hit. Whether that’s a mark for or against X-Men is up to you.

    Awards
    6 Saturn Awards (Science Fiction Film, Actor (Hugh Jackman), Supporting Actress (Rebecca Romijn), Director, Writing, Costumes)
    4 Saturn nominations (Supporting Actor (Patrick Stewart), Younger Actor (Anna Paquin), Make-Up, Special Effects)
    Nominated for the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation
    1 World Stunt Award nomination (Best Speciality Stunt for “Wolverine blown out of truck”)

    What the Critics Said
    “After trying for decades, Marvel Comics finally may gain the kind of pop-cultural cachet that only comes from a major leap into movies. That movie is X-Men, a fully realized translation of comics’ adolescent power fantasies to adult-level, big-screen entertainment. It’s a film X-Men fans can embrace and action fans in general can appreciate. It has emotion and a solid story to go with its mayhem, and the comics’ central themes aren’t betrayed. Director Bryan Singer gets bang for his buck. At $75 million, X-Men was a modest and rushed shoot for an action showcase, yet its computer generated imaging effects are handsome, and it gleams with polished production design.” — Bruce Westbrook, Houston Chronicle

    Score: 81%

    What the Public Say
    “this is a superhero movie with ideas, fully aware of the potential social commentary inherent in its source material. It paints simplistically, in broad strokes, but elegantly. It feels small-scale but full-bodied, and it takes storytelling risks. I mean, the damn thing opens on a concentration camp. The main characters being mutants, discriminated against by ‘normal’ people, gives the screenplay the opportunity to use this as a catchall allegory. Any feared or shunned group of people can find familiar themes at work in the world of the film. […] reflecting on the first X-Men solidifies its status as not just a prelude of better things to come, but as quite a strong movie in its own right. After seeing the franchise move the Golden Gate Bridge, travel decades in time, and resurrect an Egyptian god, it’s refreshing to rewind to this one humble tale of ‘the not too distant future’. The 2000 film has a great lo-fi charm to it, while at the same time being lent gravitas by McKellen and Stewart’s war of wills. It holds up not just as a curiosity, but also as a well-told story of mutants and morals.” — Paul Stanis, A Voyage through Film

    Verdict

    I’ve written before (several times) of my near-lifelong fandom of the X-Men. This isn’t where it started (that’d be the classic ’90s animated series), but it certainly helped cement it. Its significance to the current movie landscape is hard to underestimate: it took the superhero subgenre, which hadn’t actually produced that many major movies and had nonetheless reached a comedic nadir with Batman & Robin, and made it respectable blockbuster fodder, which leads directly to where we are today. And the reason it sparked all that is because it’s a quality entertainment in its own right, mixing superpowered action with weighty themes and top-drawer performances from a cast who are almost all better than this, elevating the material rather than besmirching themselves with it. I mean, even without the witty lines and tightly choreographed fisticuffs, anything that has Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen verbally sparring over a game of chess is bound to bring satisfaction.

    #99 will be… X-Men united.

    Unbreakable (2000)

    100 Films’ 100 Favourites #95

    Are you ready for the truth?

    Country: USA
    Language: English
    Runtime: 107 minutes
    BBFC: 12
    MPAA: PG-13

    Original Release: 22nd November 2000 (USA)
    UK Release: 29th December 2000
    First Seen: DVD, 2001

    Stars
    Bruce Willis (Armageddon, Looper)
    Samuel L. Jackson (Pulp Fiction, Avengers Assemble)
    Robin Wright Penn (The Princess Bride, The Conspirator)

    Director
    M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense, The Village)

    Screenwriter
    M. Night Shyamalan (Stuart Little, The Visit)

    The Story
    When security guard David Dunn is the only survivor of a train crash, and without a scratch on him, he encounters comic book fan Elijah Price, who has an unusual theory: that David is indestructible, a real-life superhero.

    Our Hero
    David Dunn is just an ordinary guy, with a low-key job and a wife and kid, but after his near-impossible feat of survival he begins to test himself. Could he be more remarkable than he ever imagined?

    Our Villain
    Spoilers! Which, considering this is an M. Night Shyamalan movie, is basically a red flag saying “here’s where the twist is”. All I’ll say is, keep an eye on David’s kid, Joseph. I mean, pointing a gun at your parent is never innocent, is it?

    Best Supporting Character
    Comic book art dealer Elijah Price was born with Type I osteogenesis imperfecta, a rare disease that makes his bones extremely fragile and prone to fracture. Losing himself in the world of comic book superheroes throughout his childhood, he develops a theory: that if he represents an extreme of human weakness, there must be someone at the opposite extreme…

    Memorable Quote
    Elijah: “Why is it, do you think, that of all the professions in the world you chose protection?”
    David: “You are a very strange man.”
    Elijah: “You could have been a tax accountant. You could have owned your own gym. You could have opened a chain of restaurants. You could’ve done of ten thousand things, but in the end, you chose to protect people. You made that decision, and I find that very, very interesting.”

    Memorable Scene
    As well as his indestructibility, David comes to believe he may have a form of ESP, that allows him to glimpse people’s criminal acts when he touches them. Encouraged by Elijah, he goes to a bustling train station, stands in the middle of the crowd, and holds out his arms…

    Next time…
    Reportedly the plot of Unbreakable was merely Act One of Shyamalan’s original concept, until it wound up expanding into an entire movie. Talk of a sequel and/or trilogy used to occur regularly, but Shyamalan made a bunch of crap no one liked instead. 16 years on, I guess hopes of a continuation are long dead.

    Awards
    1 Saturn nomination (Action/Adventure/Thriller Film)

    What the Critics Said
    The Sixth Sense was no fluke. Unbreakable, writer-director M. Night Shyamalan’s dazzling reunion with Bruce Willis confirms he’s one of the most brilliant filmmakers working today. […] The deliberately paced Unbreakable, make no mistake about it, is a vehicle form-fitted to Bruce Willis’ burgeoning gifts as an uncommonly subtle and affecting actor. Willis should get the Oscar nomination he deserved for The Sixth Sense, and Jackson’s enigmatic Elijah – who has devoted his life to searching for the sole survivor of a disaster, for reasons that won’t be explained here – is equally commanding in a difficult if somewhat underwritten role.” — Lou Lumenick, New York Post

    Score: 68%

    What Quentin Tarantino Says
    “The final film, alphabetically, on my top twenty list is M. Night Shamalamadingdong’s Unbreakable, which I actually think, 1) not only has Bruce Willis’ best performance on film that he’s ever given. I think he’s absolutely magnificent in the film. It also is a brilliant retelling of the Superman mythology. In fact, so much so that, to me, the film was very obscure when it came out as far as what it was about. I actually think they did themselves a disservice, because you can actually break down what the film is about by basically one sentence, that I should think would’ve proved far more intriguing than their ad campaign, which is basically, “what if Superman was here on Earth and didn’t know he was Superman?”, which is what the film is about. Course, you don’t know that until actually you see the movie. Anyway, Unbreakable is, I actually think, one of the masterpieces of our time.” — Quentin Tarantino’s Favourite Movies from 1992 to 2009

    What the Public Say
    “The story is unique… I mean we see stories about superheroes everywhere… everywhere, and despite things here and there changed, they are still the same stories we have heard a thousand times before. This film had an original story that was both compelling and intense. The use of the camera angles is so well done it is a shock that Unbreakable is not at the top of everyone’s favorite Shyamalan film. It is masked under the presumption that it is moving slowly, because in reality… a lot is going on.” — Dave, Dave Examines Movies

    Verdict

    Some people view Unbreakable as the start of M. Night Shyamalan’s inexorable quality slide after the debut peak of The Sixth Sense (not that it was his debut). Those people are wrong. Partly because that degeneration doesn’t really start until the final act of The Village; partly because Unbreakable is Shyamalan’s best film. We’ve now had countless big-screen takes on superhero mythology, but none are quite like this. Man of Steel may have attempted to ask “what would happen if Superman were real?”, but it’s Unbreakable that better answers that question. With subtle performances, including arguably a career-best turn from Bruce Willis, and a plausible handling of its fantastical material, which nonetheless develops into a satisfying climax, Unbreakable is still one of the most original and best superhero movies ever made.

    #96 will be… gunpowder, treason, and plot.

    The Past Month on TV #10

    If there’s something strange in your neighbourhood, who ya gonna call? Three middle-schoolers on their bicycles, apparently…

    Stranger Things (Season 1)
    Stranger ThingsHype — it’s a funny old business. It’s hard to have avoided hearing something about Stranger Things, Netflix’s summer hit that went down like gangbusters, its ’80s nostalgia perfectly calibrated to target the kind of people who run entertainment news websites these days — just to be cynical about it. Or truthful. Then there came the backlash, which attested there was nothing more to the show than those callbacks and tributes; a hollow experience of copying and “hey, remember this? That was good, wasn’t it?”

    So, I confess, I approached the first chapter with the thought in mind that I might be about to watch the most overrated thing since sliced bread. The opening instalment did little to sway me either way — as with many a ‘pilot’ episode (it’s not a pilot if it goes straight to series, but anyway), it’s got a lot of establishing to do: teaching us the normality of this world, introducing us to the players, setting up a mystery, teasing where that might be going… Stranger Things does all this well, but not exceptionally. It’s good, it makes you want to stick with it, it has promise, but it’s not one of those first episodes where you come away thinking, “Holy moly, this is gonna be great!” (First example of that that comes to mind: Game of Thrones. Another: Firefly. I’m sure you have your own.)

    Like so many streaming series, produced with an awareness that they’ll be released all at once like a really long movie, it’s a little slow-going at times, but it’s kept ticking over with some exceptional elements. Yes, it’s bedded in the style and tone of many beloved ’80s genre classics — primarily Stephen King tales and films produced (not just directed) by Steven Spielberg — but that’s just the execution. In storytelling terms, it has its own mythology, and it feels like there’s a rich vein of originality there. Or possibly it’s just references and riffs I’m not familiar with, who knows. Even better than that are the performances. Winona Ryder is incredible as the mother of a missing boy, her raw feelings and frantic actions forming a core of plausible emotional reaction in the centre of fantastic events. Millie Bobby Brown is also excellent as the mysterious Eleven, conveying so much personality and internal conflict with very little dialogue.

    Stranger haircutsWithout wanting to get into spoiler territory (despite what the media would have you believe, not everyone has Netflix all the time and not everyone watches every new zeitgeisty series immediately. Apologies if you write for an entertainment site and I’ve just given you palpitations), everything comes together nicely for a barnstorming pair of climactic episodes. For my money, the penultimate chapter is the best one: with a bunch of revelations out of the way (some of them easily guessed but finally confirmed), the series kicks off a run of long-awaited fan-pleasing events (as in many a drama, it takes this long for everyone to finally start talking to each other; also, the bit with the van!) The finale is less accomplished, with some characters wandering around for a bit in away that feels designed to pad the running time. Still, it’s a satisfying conclusion… to season one, anyway.

    As an outsider for most of the summer, the endless and ever-increasing handwringing over whether there would be a second season was actually kind of amusing — and the punchline came when it was revealed Netflix had actually commissioned season two before season one was even released, they’d just decided to keep it secret for a bit. Here’s the thing: Netflix has never not recommissioned one of its original series. Even Marco Polo, which apparently no one watched or talked about, got at least a second run. And here you have a show which everyone’s talking about, and presumably most of them are actually watching too, and you think Netflix aren’t going to bring it back? I mean, it wraps itself up quite well, but there’s a whole pile of blatant teases for future storylines. C’mon, people!

    Anyway, I’m happy to report that Stranger Things by and large lives up to the hype, especially by the time it reaches its climax. Bring on season two! Between that and all the Marvel series, maybe I’m going to end up with a year-round Netflix sub after all… You win, Netflix. You win.

    Class (Series 1 Episodes 1-5)
    ClassTen years to the very day since the launch of the original dark, sexy BBC Three Doctor Who spin-off, Torchwood, we got this dark, sexy BBC Three Doctor Who spin-off. Playing as much like the other 21st century Who spin-off, CBBC’s The Sarah Jane Adventures, it concerns a bunch of Sixth Formers battling alien threats coming through cracks in time and space that occur around their school. And also having sex with each other at the drop of a hat, because that’s totally what life is like for all teenagers. So yes, Torchwood + Sarah Jane x Skins = Buffy, pretty much. I really liked the first episode (as pilot-type episodes go, it’s a strong’un), and the third, Nightvisiting, was also a great concept well executed; but the other three instalments were run-of-the-mill and/or awash with niggles. Plus the two-parter in episodes four and five suffered from having too little story to fill two whole episodes. So it’s a mixed bag, but Torchwood was the same at the start and eventually produced one of the best miniseries ever made (Children of Earth), so you never know.

    The Flash (Season 3 Episodes 1-2)
    Arrow (Season 5 Episodes 1-2)
    The Flash season 3The CW’s raft of superhero shows restarted on UK TV this month. I’ve given up on Legends of Tomorrow and am still not joining Supergirl (though I got hold of the opening episodes, co-starring Superman, to maybe make time for at some point); but, five seasons in, Arrow has me suckered for the long-haul, and The Flash tempted me back with the intrigue of adapting Flashpoint. I’ve never got on the bandwagon with Flash, which attracted a lot of praise during its first season that I simply didn’t agree with, leading it to outshine Arrow in ratings and people’s affections. Arrow has long been off the boil, and season five certainly hasn’t got it back up to temperature so far, but The Flash had plenty of issues of its own. It’s not problem free now, but I actually really liked the first couple of episodes of the new season. It’s still a long way from the top tier of TV superheroes (Netflix have that sewn up), but it’s likeable.

    Also watched…
  • Castle Season 7 Episodes 2-15 — it feels like the quality takes a nosedive with this season, and, sure enough, as I suspected, it turns out this is when they changed showrunner. Halfway through it’s beginning to pick back up a bit, at least.
  • The Crystal Maze Stand Up To Cancer Celebrity Special — I used to love this as a kid. As an adult… eh. I’m sure it’s a lot of fun to actually do, though.
  • The Great British Bake Off Series 7 Final — bye bye, Proper Bake Off. Whatever Channel 4 do in 2018, it won’t be the same.
  • The Musketeers Series 2 Episodes 8-10 — in which everything is wrapped up… and then left open-ended. Good thing there’s a third series.
  • The National Lottery: Who Dares Wins Series 9 Episodes 1-4 — I don’t waste much time on gameshows, but naming as many things as you can think of from semi-obscure lists? Right up my street. An impossible show to watch live, though — you need to fastforward the filler and pause the answers.
  • The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again — full review here.

    Things to Catch Up On
    The CrownThis month, I have mostly been missing the most expensive TV show ever made*, Netflix’s much-discussed The Crown. I don’t know if they’ve been pushing it as much in the rest of the world as they did in the UK, but it certainly felt like it was everywhere… for about a week, as is usually the way with Netflix series. Also missed: the equally-discussed Netflix-exclusive new run of Black Mirror. Both of these are because I don’t keep up a permanent Netflix subscription, but between them, the forthcoming Gilmore Girls revival, and the Series of Unfortunate Events remake in January, I will be signing up again late in December (using the free month voucher they had in the Radio Times, hurrah!)

    * Apparently it isn’t, actually.

    Next month… I’ll be out of the country when the next update is due, so it may be a little later than normal — perhaps a ‘Christmas special’.

  • Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders (2016)

    2016 #174
    Rick Morales | 78 mins | Blu-ray | 1.78:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

    Batman: Return of the Caped CrusadersHoly nostalgia hit, Batman! This animated movie reunites the surviving stars of the enduringly popular ’60s Batman TV series (and spin-off movie) for a new adventure in the style of their classic ones — that is to say it’s funny and colourful, a world away from the Dark Knight version of Batman we’re so accustomed to these days.

    In some respects, that’s all you need to know in terms of a critical review of this film. If you’ve never seen the ’60s originals, it’s not really ‘for’ you. I mean, it’s perfectly accessible, I think, but it’s loaded with winks and nods to its inspiration. I definitely missed some of those because I haven’t watched the series for a while (I really need to get stuck into the Blu-ray set they released a couple of years back), but, from what I can remember, it captures their tone well. That is to say: on the surface it’s pulp superhero derring-do, but underneath it’s laced with a knowing wit and an awareness of its own glorious ridiculousness. The animated medium is used to push beyond what would’ve been possible in live-action TV 50 years ago, but I won’t go into detail so as not to spoil it for anyone who’s not seen it yet (though it screened in cinemas last month and has been out on disc on both sides of the Atlantic for a bit now).

    The voice cast is headlined by — of course — Adam West as Batman, along with Burt Ward as Robin and Julie Newmar as Catwoman. West is nearly 90 now and you can hear that in his voice, but he’s still got it. You soon forget the old-age huskiness and just revel in his consummate skill at delivering his Batman just so; that earnest delivery of humorous material that led some people to miss for decades that the series was actually, Vile villainous verminfundamentally, a comedy. Conversely, Ward still sounds pretty spry, and is gifted plenty of those “Holy [insert something here], Batman!” catchphrases that never cease to be fun. Unfortunately, Newmar also sounds her age, but doesn’t seem to quite have the liveliness that West retains. In the behind-the-scenes featurettes she seems a delightfully kooky old bird (at the recording she’s wearing cat ears, for one thing), so it’s hard to resent her, but the portrayal of Catwoman as slinky and sexy feels a little… odd. On the bright side, it means you don’t get the uncomfortableness of West flirting with a much younger actress, even in animated form.

    The rest of the cast has to be rounded out by replacements by necessity. The most famous foes from that era of the Bat — namely, the Joker, the Riddler, and the Penguin — are all in on the action, and voice actors Jeff Bergman, Wally Wingert, and William Salyers do a bang-up job recreating their recognisable tics. However, I think the biggest respect is due to writers Michael Jelenic and James Tucker. They’ve managed to pen something that feels like a tribute without being set in aspic; that’s genuinely fresh and funny in its own right, while also evoking the beloved classic that inspired it, including plenty of in-jokes and nods at other screen iterations of Batman. I also particularly enjoyed the alliteration-addled dialogue, because I do love a bit (or a lot) of alliteration. I’m a man of simple pleasures sometimes.

    Batty Batman's back!On the whole, Return of the Caped Crusaders is a resounding success. It’s a fun return to a beloved incarnation of arguably the most popular superhero; a version who’d been somewhat left out in the cold for a couple of decades by a world that grew up a bit too much, but is now being re-embraced and held in deserved esteem. And, even better, there’s already a follow-up in the works. Holy must-see sequel, Batman!

    4 out of 5

    Fantastic Four (2015)

    2016 #110
    Josh Trank | 96 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    Fantastic FourSometimes you just have to see what all the fuss is about, even if that fuss is overwhelmingly negative. Obviously that’s the case with the most recent attempt to bring Marvel’s popular “first family” to the big screen. The behind-the-scenes stories are already the stuff of movieland legend, so I won’t repeat them here, but what of the film itself? Or the version that ended up available for public consumption, anyway.

    Reimagining the group’s origins, the film sees young genius scientist Reed Richards (Miles Teller) recruited to a research institute where he works with Sue Storm (Kate Mara), her adoptive brother Johnny (Michael B. Jordan), and the precocious and rebellious Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell) to develop a teleport to another world, Planet Zero. When the device is proven to work, the institute’s supervisor rules astronauts will get to take the maiden voyage. Annoyed, the scientists rope in Reed’s childhood friend Ben (Jamie Bell) to help them use it first. But things go horrendously awry, leaving the gang with new abilities…

    That chunk of the story takes most of the first hour. Other than being a little slow getting to the point, considering most viewers know where it’s all going, and perhaps not building the characters’ relationships as thoroughly as it could have, I thought it was shaping up as a pretty decent film. It’s not a mind-blowing masterpiece, and it’s certainly not faithful to the original comic, but as a sci-fi movie? It’s good. Not incredible, but good. Well, aside from one truly terrible reshoot wig.

    Then the story suddenly jumps forward a whole year, and things go to pot. From that point the film’s ideas aren’t bad, but it feels like the movie was ripped apart and put back together awkwardly, with parts missing, some out of order, and other bits added to cover gaps Awkwardly assembledand serve as new pieces — like a shattered mug that’s been reassembled with lashings of superglue and using a handle from another vessel, which has inexplicably wound up a slightly different size and shape to how it used to be. Considering the studio got cold feet and insisted on massive reshoots, this is quite possibly exactly what happened.

    It climaxes with a rushed action sequence on Planet Zero, which was clearly constructed entirely during reshoots (the constant presence of Reshoot Wig gives that away, if nothing else). The speed with which it’s dispatched makes it feel anticlimactic, despite the alleged world-destroying scale, and mainly leaves you wondering how the film originally ended. When it’s done, the heroes return to Earth and triumphant music swells… as they survey a scene of total devastation. It’s clear this hasn’t been thought through. There are still more signs of a rushed production: the CGI used to realise the Thing is pretty good for most of the film, but an unbearably cheesy final scene looks like a poorly-composited unfinished draft. Allowing such a rushed, underfunded, and heavily reshot final act to be released feels amateurish on Fox’s part.

    While the studio are obviously keen to blame director Josh Trank for all the film’s problems, and possibly sink his career in the process, I can’t help but think it’s their own fault. It was they who chose to commission a “dark and serious” take on the Four, at odds with their usual depiction, but then wimp out and not follow through on the directorial vision they’d chosen. Despite what some fans would say, it’s this lack of commitment that’s the actual problem. Even in the face of the success of the lighter-toned Marvel Studios movie universe, Too cool for superhero schoolFox like to keep their superhero movies Serious and Dark — and why not? Before this, it had worked pretty well for them across seven X-Men movies, while their colourful-and-cheery earlier attempts at bringing Marvel’s first family to the big screen met with unwavering derision and diminishing box office. It was not an illogical choice to try something different tonally.

    In the end, however, this version crashed and burned even harder than those earlier films, both with fans and at the box office. Meanwhile, the latest X-Men movie was similarly ripped asunder by critics and has only performed acceptably; and concurrently, superhero comedy Deadpool took the world by storm. Perhaps this will create a sea-change in the way Fox approach their superhero properties? Only time will tell — though with Deadpool 2 set to offer more of the same and a Wolverine threequel following in its R-rated footsteps, while another X-Men movie is surely in development but not officially announced and the planned Fantastic Four sequels have been quietly cancelled, perhaps it already is.

    Fantastic Four’s real problems are twofold: deviating so heavily from the original comic book, which meant from the outset that an awful lot of fanboys were always going to hate it; and then not having the confidence to see that vision through, titting about with things in post. The latter results in a mess of a second half where the whole thing unravels. It’s not perfect before that, but it’s a decent sci-fi movie. I’d love to see Trank’s original cut — I’m not sure it would be a great film, and I’m damn sure it still wouldn’t properly resemble the Fantastic Four of Marvel’s comics, but I bet it would be a lot more consistent than this, and consequently better.

    Beam of blue light shooting into the sky? Never seen that before...What could have been a comfortable 3-star movie, maybe even 4 if it followed through well enough, is dragged down to 2 by studio meddling. Will they never learn? Nonetheless, I actually enjoyed enough of Fantastic Four that, while it won’t be going on the long-list of contenders for the best movies I’ve seen this year, I won’t be putting it on the list for the worst either.

    2 out of 5