The Past Month on TV #41

Christmas is on the horizon, with the usual glut of seasonal specials and high-profile miniseries/one-offs crammed into a couple of weeks. But that’s for my next TV column — this time, here’s a bit more of the usual stuff.

Doctor Who  Series 11 Episodes 8-10
It Takes You AwayThe most recent season of Doctor Who went out, not with a bang, but with a whimper, in perhaps the most underwhelming “finale” the show has ever done. It wasn’t really a dramatic and exciting culmination of this year’s run of episodes, which is what a true “finale” is. Rather, it was just the last episode shown before the season… stopped. Fortunately, before that were two more episodes that proved this new era’s best stuff comes from its guest writers rather than its showrunner.

The Witchfinders saw the TARDIS Team head into the past for the third time this season, and once again brought up a heavy theme: after racism in Rosa and religious division in Demons of the Punjab, now it’s the misogyny of 17th century witch hunts. Fortunately it wore this somewhat more lightly than the previous two episodes, which meant it lacked their emotional weight. Instead, it was a fun adventure, revolving around an alien race reanimating the dead, and a broad, camp, but occasionally nuanced performance from Alan Cumming as King James I. I thought he was a lot of fun.

It Takes You Away set its scene as a “monster lurking near a remote cottage” tale, but pulled off a couple of twists to reveal something entirely different. It was an episode rich in science-fiction ideas — almost too rich, arguably, as the emotional impact they led to was powerful but perhaps not given enough screen time to be fully processed. But with some typically Doctor Who quirkiness thrown in, this was one of my favourite episodes of the season. Even if the execution sometimes faltered, I admired its ambition.

Which brings us back round to the finale, the stupidly titled The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos. It’s such a dumb, unpronounceable title that I don’t think I was alone in suspecting it was a cover for something else (in the same way the classic series used to hide the return of the Master by crediting the actor by an acronym in the Radio Times, for instance). But no, that sadly was the title. Even worse, it had barely anything to do with the episode itself — the titular conflict is over, with the Doctor and co arriving to help the few remaining survivors defeat the big bad. Or, rather, get a bunch of exposition from the survivor (with a few hoops jumped through to make sure that exposition is gradually doled out rather than received all at once), then virtually ignore him while they set about some other storyline.

The Battle of Ranskoor Av KolosTypically for showrunner Chris Chibnall, it was a half-thought-through tale, with regular logic gaps and narrative dead ends, and none of the impact you expect from a season-ender. Kinder viewers may say that’s because there’s a New Year’s Day special imminent which is the real finale, but I think that’s just being optimistic. Certainly, the BBC haven’t seen fit to include the special in the season box set (even though it’s released a fortnight after the special airs), which I’m sure is partly a shameless cash grab, but also indicates its separate status.

With that in mind, we can already take an overview of the season as a whole. It’s been a mixed one for me, with a lot of stuff I really liked, but frequently undercut by dodgy execution. I’m not at all convinced Chibnall has the necessary skills to be in charge of the show — even the best scripts exhibit a lack of polish that Russell T Davies or Steven Moffat would’ve brought. And considering there are niggling faults across the board (the direction is rarely terrible, but pretty much every episode has some odd shot or editing choices), the blame must surely lie at his door. The next season won’t materialise until sometime in 2020 — hopefully that’ll be long enough to get things more in order. But with pretty strong ratings and praise in some quarters, I’m not convinced the production team will see where they need to improve.

Crisis on Earth-X
I ended up finally quitting all Arrowverse shows just before this crossover event aired last November, though I’d intended to make it through these episodes first (I fell behind and just never picked them back up). The crossover itself seemed to go down well, and with a new one having recently aired that I also intend to watch (to see how they’ve handled Batwoman), I thought I’d first catch up on last year’s.

Crisis on Earth-XWhereas the previous four-show crossover failed to really coalesce into a successful single narrative, Crisis on Earth-X manages to lose the sense of hopping about across different series to play more like a single four-part story. I suppose that’s not the only way to do a crossover, but for someone tuning in just for the event who isn’t interested in the ongoing storylines of each individual series, it’s more entertaining this way. That said, it’s not as if those elements go away: the story is kicked off by everyone coming together for the wedding of Barry Allen (aka the Flash) to his longtime love Iris West. The nuptials are eventually interrupted by Nazi doppelgängers from another dimension (I do love how outright comic booky these shows can be), but it takes most of the opening episode to get there — I’d forgotten how much time these shows spend on soapy stuff like weddings and relationship woes. In that regard, they’ve certainly been designed to fit their US network (The CW, more associated with teen-girl content until these series came along). From there it goes full superhero show, with large-scale action sequences and dimension hopping antics. It may not transcend its genre roots to be objectively high-quality premium TV, but it’s pretty fun.

Agatha Christie’s Poirot  Series 2 Episodes 4-6
Poirot series 2One day I’m going to watch all of Poirot from the start, but I happened to see these few episodes this month. They’re from the series’ early days (obviously), when episodes were an hour long and based on short stories (as opposed to the feature-length novel adaptations they did later). What’s remarkable is how different they are, structurally and tonally, from those later episodes, with which I’m more familiar. The feature-length ones each feel like a standalone movie, whereas these early episodes do feel like a TV series, with “case of the week” plots. For example, there’s a regular recurring cast (alongside the titular detective there’s his sidekick Captain Hastings, his housekeeper Miss Lemon, and trusty Inspector Japp), who all appear every week and each get some kind of subplot, even if it’s not tied to the main storyline — in one episode, while the other three are away solving a jewel theft, Miss Lemon has to hunt for her missing keys. And that’s another thing: there’s not always a murder. And there’s not always a pile of suspects, either — none of these episodes feature the famous “gather all the suspects in one room and explain what happened”-style finale, so synonymous with the series. So, in many ways it feels quite strange, but still entertaining.

Also watched…
  • Great News Season 2 Episodes 1-7 — See last month for my comments on season one, which still apply (they tried adding Tina Fey as a guest star for a few episodes at the start of season two, which doesn’t massively change things). This little run ended with a Christmas episode (a fun riff on A Christmas Carol), which seemed a good place to pause for now.
  • The Royal Variety Performance 2018 — I haven’t bothered to watch one of these since 2012, but somewhat accidentally caught this year’s. It turned out to be rather good on the whole, I thought. Not so much the song-plugging music acts, but the comedians and circus turns, yeah.
  • Would I Lie To You? Series 12 Episodes 5-6WILTY is regularly superb, but sometimes it outshines even itself. There was one such moment back in episode three this series; there’s another in episode six, when regular panellist Lee Mack says he had to turn down an invitation to the Royal wedding to film that episode. It sounds like an obvious lie… but the other regulars, who didn’t receive invites, are worried it might just be true…

    Things to Catch Up On
    Death by MagicThis month, I have mostly been missing Death by Magic — not a high-profile show, maybe, but a new Netflix thing that seems up my street. Other than that, I’ve been conspicuously failing to get around to a bunch of “box sets” (I hate calling digital collections “box sets” — there’s no “box” involved) that I’ve been meaning to get to for varying amounts of time: The Little Drummer Girl, Killing Eve, The Haunting of Hill House, Lost in Space, the Netflix years of Black Mirror, Ash vs Evil Dead, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (which even added a new Christmas episode), Riverdale, Mindhunter, Inside No.9… Not to mention everything that’s on my long-term back-burner, like Breaking Bad, The Wire, The Sopranos, The Shield, The X Files, things that don’t begin with a definitive article… There’s no doubt many more that are currently slipping my mind, anyway. With an abundance of Christmas specials incoming, I guess whichever series I dive into next will have to wait until January.

    Next month… is January, but expect an overview of Christmas telly before that.

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  • The Past Month on TV #33

    There’s much to see in this month’s packed overview, including a pair of BBC miniseries (as promised last month), a couple of comedies, the camp joy of Eurovision, and the return of Westworld. Plus, a word about the bloodbath that was the recent US renewal/cancellation season.

    The City and the City
    The City and the CityThe first screen adaptation of a novel by acclaimed British sci-fi/fantasy author China Miéville, The City & the City is a police procedural set in the unique location of twin cities Besźel and Ul Qoma, which occupy the same geographical space but inhabitants (and visitors) are forbidden from seeing the city they’re not in. When I first heard the pitch I assumed it was a Doctor Who-y sci-fi thing — that the cities were slightly out of step in time or something, and literally existed in the exact same space. Instead, they’re side by side, sometimes overlapping — there are places where the left-hand side of a road is in Besźel, the right-hand side in Ul Qoma. Residents are trained from birth not to see the other city. Apparently it’s partly an analogy for how we mentally block out unsavoury things in our own cities, but that doesn’t really come across in the screen adaptation, which is more focused on the murder mystery and its implications — it’s connected to a mythical third city, Orciny. In this respect it reminded me of Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49: our hero ends up investigating a very-secret, potentially dangerous organisation that may or may not exist, and whether or not they find it… well…

    This production makes for a dense, demanding drama, throwing you in at the deep end with all sorts of terms and jargon that treats the world as real, challenging you to keep up and work it all out as it goes. There’s no hand-holding here. I guess that explains its low ratings on IMDb and the raft of “people were, like, totes confused by David Morrissey’s new drama!” articles that accompanied its airing. In terms of what it is “about”, the visual style very much evokes ’80s Soviet countries in Besźel, with secret police and dated, rundown cars and gloomy yellow-brown palette; while Ul Qoma is characterised by blues, glass and steel, LCD screens — a modern metropolis, but with different kinds of oppression. It’s very timely in its depiction of far-right nationalist groups being ascendent vs those seeking unification and tolerance being crushed — I wonder if that’s why it got made now, or if it’s just a fortunate coincidence.

    Not everyone’s going to get on with The City and the City’s challenges, but there’s something here for those prepared to attempt the trip. Put it this way: after it finished, I popped on Amazon and ordered the book.

    Ordeal by Innocence
    Ordeal by InnocenceThe BBC’s latest Agatha Christie adaptation finally reached our screens after a delay for extensive reshoots (to remove a cast member accused of sexual misconduct, not on this production). It’s a grim tale of abuse and, of course, murder, but classy work by director Sandra Goldbacher kept it more in the tone of the Beeb’s excellent And Then There Were None and away from the dirge of their Witness for the Prosecution. It’s buoyed further by strong work from a star-studded ensemble cast — there are many names here who could (and, indeed, do) headline their own series or movie. (Nothing against Luke Treadaway, who’s very good, but why he’s in the key art (pictured right) when they could’ve included, say, Alice Eve, Eleanor Tomlinson, or Matthew Goode, I don’t know.)

    I’m only really familiar with Christie from screen adaptations, but it seems to me her rep for writing fundamentally-lightweight game-like murder mysteries comes from her ‘series’ — the books starring Poirot, Miss Marple, and Tommy and Tuppence — because her other work seems to be serious and quite dark. Maybe that’s just the route these recent adaptations have gone down, I don’t know, but it certainly differentiates them from the jolly tone of the next-most-recent Christie adaptations (2015’s Partners in Crime and ITV’s Marple, which ended in 2013). Though they also adapted Ordeal by Innocence as an episode of Marple back in 2007, so what do I know?

    Westworld  Season 2 Episodes 1-4
    Westworld season 2Last month I wrote a mostly praise-filled review of Westworld’s first season, but if I’d been reviewing it in smaller chunks then my comments on the first four episodes would’ve been very, very different — I know, because after episode four I happened to draft a paragraph about how, while it wasn’t bad, it was kind of a slog (most of that paragraph survived into my published review, actually). I’ve been trying to bear that in mind as season two gets underway, because once again it exhibits flashes of greatness amid a feeling that it’s really going nowhere fast. But in season one this was the setup phase, introducing characters and places and concepts and threads that would begin to come together and pay dividends as their purpose was revealed in the season’s second half. Hopefully they’re playing a similar game here. Equally, I hope they haven’t overcooked it — Westworld became notorious for the it-was-under-your-nose-the-whole-time reveals it pulled in the final few episodes, and if they’re trying to do that again but without as good a set of ideas, well, we’re all just going to be disappointed.

    Episodes  Season 5
    Episodes season 5A whole seven months after its US airing (and nearly three years since we saw the last series), the final run of this UK-made UK/US-coproduced sitcom finally reached British screens (a far cry from the days when that took less than 24 hours). Originally about a pair of UK sitcom writers struggling to remake their successful British series for the US market, Episodes is fairly removed from that format at this point — it’s just about the characters now, and mainly their trials and tribulations with each other rather than the whims of the US network TV system.

    I’m not sure that this was the funniest season, but at this point it seemed mainly concerned with wrapping up the lives of its characters, at least as far as we’re concerned (I mean, it didn’t kill them all off or something). So, unsurprisingly, the final season isn’t a great jumping-on point, as it mainly continues and resolves storylines and relationships hanging over from previous seasons. The final instalment even indulges in a series of time jumps to get us to an endpoint that is so predictable (but not unpleasant) that I reckon writers David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik probably had it planned from the outset. Whether all that time-hopping was economical storytelling or because they didn’t leave themselves enough episodes to let it play out in full, you be the judge. Anyway, Episodes at its best was almost sneakily great, and remains very good to the end.

    Eurovision Song Contest  Lisbon 2018
    Eurovision 2018There was drama to spare at this year’s Eurovision. Firstly, China were banned from showing it due to messing around with the semi-final broadcast (they censored tattoos, homosexual dancing, and Pride flags); then, on the big night itself, the jury voting was neck-and-neck right to the final country… before being completely upended when the public votes were added.

    But most talked about of all was a stage invasion halfway through the UK’s performance. In case you didn’t see it, a protestor ran on stage, grabbed the mic off the singer, tried to blurt out a message of some kind, before being hustled off stage, and then our act carried on with the rest of the song. Everyone was duly impressed by her fortitude, the UK’s odds of winning surged… and then we did crap in the voting anyway, because the rest of Europe still hates us. They also hate Russia, as evidenced by the crowd once again booing the nation for merely appearing during the voting. Apparently they’ve no such problems with Israel, though — their song may’ve had a popular feminist message, but it was also mired in accusations of cultural appropriation, and then there’s the whole Palestine thing too. We’ll see how much handwringing there is about that this time next year…

    Across it all was Graham Norton’s sassy commentary, which is the one benefit of being a UK Eurovision fan. Here are some of his best bits from this year — my favourite was #27.

    Also watched…
  • Brooklyn Nine-Nine Season 3 Episodes 18-20 — First it was cancelled, and I thought, “well, at least being two seasons behind means I’ve got plenty of episodes left for now.” Then it was uncancelled, and I thought, “noice.”
  • Car Share Unscripted — A special all-improvised edition of the commuting-based sitcom, which proves that, if your characters are likeable enough, just hanging out with them for half-an-hour is all you need. Next month: the series finale.
  • Friday Night Dinner Series 5 Episode 1 — Another great sitcom! I’m a couple of episodes behind, though. I was reading the other day about someone who caught up by bingeing nine episodes in one go. I can believe that.
  • Lucifer Season 2 Episodes 11-18 — Well, at least being a season behind means I’ve got a fair few episodes left for now, but I’m still disappointed it’s been nixed.
  • Not Going Out Series 9 Episodes 5-7 — I still like Not Going Out, but I feel like it’s not as funny as it used to be, too often getting involved in over-complicated plots rather than just being the gag machine it once was. Maybe that’s rose-tinted glasses for earlier episodes; maybe Lee Mack’s struggling for ideas after nine whole series — who can say?

    Cancellation season
    Brooklyn Nine-Nine — the most important cop show. Ever.Cancellation season has been and, I think, gone in the US, and this year was a particularly bloody one. The big news as far as Twitter was concerned was Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which caused such a ruckus that multiple other networks were interested and it found a new home within 24 hours. Lucifer also caused a bit of a stir, though there’s no sign of hope for that yet. Similarly afflicted were Designated Survivor (which was decently addictive enough that I binged through season one in just ten days and have been holding back on season two to do the same; apparently Netflix, who have the rights outside of the US and Canada, are contemplating a continuation) and The Expanse (which I haven’t started yet but has been on my radar thanks to Ghost of 82’s review), as well as a couple of other moderately-high-profile shows that I don’t personally watch. I guess the networks must have some really good pilots in the offing for next season… or, more likely, not. Well, you never know.

    Next month… time to say do svidaniya to The Americans.

  • Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

    2017 #164
    Kenneth Branagh | 114 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | USA, UK, Malta, France, Canada & New Zealand / English, French & German | 12A / PG-13

    Murder on the Orient Express

    Did we need another version of Murder on the Orient Express? That seems to be the question that preoccupies many a review of the film, primarily with reference to the Oscar-winning 1974 version directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Albert Finney as Agatha Christie’s Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, alongside an all-star supporting cast. That’s not the only other adaptation of arguably detective fiction’s most famous novel, though there were fewer than I thought: a modernised TV movie starring Alfred Molina was made in 2001, and it was of course filmed as part of the David Suchet Poirot TV series in 2010, but that’s your lot (in English — the Germans and Japanese have both done it on TV). So, on the one hand, maybe we should be all set for screen versions; on the other, it’s not like it’s the only remake.

    So, if you’ve not seen a version before, you’re spoilt for choice. If you want to know which I think you should pick… Well, I’ve not seen it, but I imagine we can discount that 2001 TV movie. Suchet is still the definitive screen interpretation of Poirot, but that particular episode is not the series’ finest hour, as I recall. And while I enjoyed the ’74 version a good deal, I wasn’t bowled over by it. Which brings us to this new one.

    The star of the film: Branagh's moustache

    Personally, I thought it was very good indeed. It’s a film of its genre and heritage — by which I mean it functions the way Christie-style murder mysteries always do, and it’s staged and shot mostly with a classical dignity — so if you have a dislike for that then this isn’t revisionist in a way that will win you over. But within those ‘constraints’ it’s very well done. The photography, in particular, is magnificent. Shot on 65mm, but without showing off about it in the way some other directors have recently, it has a richness, a grandeur, and an elegance that is most befitting.

    Having mentioned the all-star cast of the previous film, it must be said that this version doesn’t skimp in that department either. The key roles are filled with a veritable who’s-who of acting talent, including big names (Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Penélope Cruz), quality thesps (Olivia Colman, Willem Dafoe), people who’ve worked with Branagh before (many of the small roles), people who tick multiple of those boxes (Dame Judi Dench, Sir Derek Jacobi), and freshly-minted stars too (Star Wars‘ Daisy Ridley, Sing Street‘s Lucy Boynton; depending on your point of view, Beauty and the Beast‘s Josh Gad and Hamilton‘s Leslie Odom Jr as well). The size of the cast and style of the story means that even the most-featured only get a couple of scenes of their own (plus scattered lines in ensemble moments), but the talent involved imbues the roles with inherent character.

    A dangerous liaison?

    And then there’s Branagh himself as Monsieur Poirot. Most discussion of his performance has focused on the moustache, understandably. It’s certainly a magnificent feat. But Branagh is a very fine actor, of course, and he manages to make Poirot his own — an impressive job when there’s the spectre of David Suchet’s definitive performance looming. I wouldn’t say he’s surpassed Suchet in any way, but his take on the character is different enough to dodge too many direct comparisons, while not being so different that it no longer feels like Poirot, at least to me.

    Frankly, I feel like an important element to enjoying the film is to approach it with an openness to it being its own thing — a courtesy I don’t believe it was afforded by some critics and viewers. Many reviews I’ve read had a tendency to compare it to the 1974 film, either in a specific “what I thought of each” sense or a broad “your opinions of that film may colour your view of this one”. I guess that’s a useful metric to some people, but it’s better to judge the film on its own merits, I feel. That said, I’ve also seen some call it too slow, others call it too fast; some say it’s too dull, others say it’s too full of action… No wonder it ended up with middling average scores: never mind not being able to please everyone, it seems like you can’t please anyone. Personally, I thought it largely hit the mark in all those respects.

    Classical elegance

    And it seems like the wider audience agreed: it ended up grossing $350 million worldwide, which places it in the top 30 releases of 2017. For a film of this type in the current box office climate, that’s an excellent achievement. For comparison, it’s just below the likes of Fifty Shades 2, Cars 3, and The Mummy Mk.III, and it also out-grossed films such as The LEGO Batman Movie, Blade Runner 2049, Split, Baby Driver, and even Get Out. I guess it appealed to a different audience than the one that routinely discusses movies online. It also means we’re getting a sequel, with Death on the Nile set for a 2019 release. Do we need another version of that too? Well, why not?

    4 out of 5

    Murder on the Orient Express was released on DVD, Blu-ray, and all the rest, in the UK this week.

    Review Roundup

    In today’s round-up:

  • Partners in Crime… (2012)
  • Charlie Bartlett (2007)
  • Florence Foster Jenkins (2016)


    Partners in Crime…
    (2012)

    aka Associés contre le crime… “L’œuf d’Ambroise”

    2016 #189
    Pascal Thomas | 105 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | France / French & Italian | 12

    Partners in Crime…

    André Dussollier and Catherine Frot star as Agatha Christie’s married investigators Tommy and Tuppence (here renamed Bélisaire and Prudence) in this third in a series of French adaptations of Christie stories (best I can tell, the first two aren’t readily available in English-friendly versions).

    Based on the short story The Case of the Missing Lady, it sees Tommy and Tuppence Bélisaire and Prudence investigating the disappearance of a Russian heiress at a suspicious health farm, while also quarrelling about their relationship. It’s very gentle comedy-drama, even by the standard of Christie adaptations, with a thin mystery, thin humour, and thin character drama, which all feels a little stretched over its not-that-long-but-too-long running time. I shan’t be seeking out its two antecedents.

    2 out of 5

    Charlie Bartlett
    (2007)

    2017 #9
    Jon Poll | 97 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Charlie Bartlett

    Anton Yelchin is the eponymous rich kid trying to fit in at a regular high school, which he does by becoming an amateur psychiatrist to his classmates, in a comedy-drama that plays as the ’00s answer to Ferris Bueller. It starts out feeling rather formulaic and predictable, running on familiar high school movie characters and tropes, but later develops into something quite emotional. It’s powered by excellent performances from Yelchin and Robert Downey Jr, as the school’s unpopular and unprepared principal.

    4 out of 5

    Florence Foster Jenkins
    (2016)

    2017 #34
    Stephen Frears | 106 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | PG / PG-13

    Florence Foster Jenkins

    Try to ignore the fact Meryl Streep nabbed an Oscar nomination away from someone more deserving (for example, Amy Adams. Well, no, definitely Amy Adams), and she gives a good turn as the titular society lady who couldn’t sing for toffee but thought she was fantastic, and used her wealth and influence to launch a concert career. She’s only enabled by her doting… assistant? Lover? Husband? You know, the film blurs that line (deliberately, I think) and I’ve forgotten what he was. Anyway, he’s played by Hugh Grant, who is also good.

    It’s a gently funny comedy, as you’d expect from the subject matter, but one that reveals a surprising amount of heart and depth through Florence’s attitude to life, as well as how her men (who also include The Big Bang Theory’s Simon Helberg as the third lead; also good) attempt to care for her needs.

    4 out of 5

  • Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

    2016 #157
    Billy Wilder | 112 mins | DVD | 1.85:1 | USA / English | U

    Witness for the ProsecutionCharles Laughton and Marlene Dietrich shine in this adaptation of Agatha Christie’s play (in turn based on her short story), about a man accused of murder but who proclaims his innocence (Tyrone Power), the barrister who decides to take the case (Laughton), and the man’s wife who agrees to alibi him but seems somehow suspicious (Dietrich).

    Despite expanding the action from the play, it’s still dialogue-heavy and a little stagey in places — but between the engrossingly labyrinthine plot, those captivating performances, and some humour added by screenwriters Billy Wilder and Harry Kurnitz, such potential criticisms are irrelevant.

    Helluva twist, too.

    5 out of 5

    A new adaptation of The Witness for the Prosecution begins on BBC One tonight at 9pm.

    Ten Little Indians (1974)

    aka And Then There Were None

    2016 #120
    Peter Collinson | 94 mins | TV | 1.66:1 | Italy, West Germany, France, Spain & UK / English | PG / PG

    Ten Little IndiansThe third English-language screen adaptation of Agatha Christie’s famed mystery, one of the best-selling novels of all time, relocates the action to the middle of a desert but is otherwise a word-for-word remake of the 1965 version — though it does lose the gloriously ’60s “Whodunnit Break”. (Both versions were made by the same producer, who would later remake it again in the ’80s.)

    It’s interesting, therefore, that this lacks the atmosphere or tension of that version. I don’t think it’s just because I’m now more familiar with the story (having seen not only the ’65 version a couple of years ago, but also the new BBC adaptation that was on last Christmas) — it feels rushed at times, like a summary of the novel rather than a full retelling. Considering the screenplay is nearly identical to the ’65 version (merely tweaked to reflect the relocation), I can only assume that’s down to the way director Peter Collinson chooses to handle certain sequences. For example, in this version I never bought the relationship between youngsters Hugh and Vera, and sequences like the group searching the cellars contain no real sense of menace.

    The cast is made up of recognisable faces from ’60s/’70s European cinema, led by Oliver Reed and Richard Attenborough, but also including the likes of Herbert Lom, Gert “Goldfinger” Fröbe, and Adolfo “Emilio Largo” Celi. Not that anyone’s bad, but there’s the sense they were probably there to earn a bit of cash while having a nice exotic holiday, and making a film on the side.

    As a précis of the storyline, with some nicely photographed locations (the Iranian hotel they filmed in looks fairly stunning), this isn’t half bad. However, there are at least two better screen adaptations of the novel, and if what I’ve heard of the 1945 film and ’80s Russian adaptation are to be believed, I guess this comes pretty far down the chain.

    3 out of 5

    The Hateful Eight (2015)

    2016 #89
    Quentin Tarantino | 168 mins | Blu-ray | 2.76:1 | USA / English & Spanish | 18 / R

    Quentin Tarantino hadn’t made a film in the same genre as his preceding movie for almost 20 years when The Hateful Eight came out — his second go-round with the Western genre, after the Spaghetti-ish thrills of Django Unchained three years earlier. Aside from the setting and its accoutrements, however, The Hateful Eight has more in common with Tarantino’s debut feature, Reservoir Dogs.

    Wyoming, sometime after the Civil War: bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) flags down a stagecoach driven by O.B. (James Parks), looking for transport to Red Rock. Inside is fellow bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) with his latest catch, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who’s worth $10,000 — naturally, Ruth is suspicious of Warren’s motives. Later, they pick up Chris Mannix (Walter Goggins), who claims he’s to be sworn in as the new sheriff of Red Rock — also of great suspicion to Ruth. As a blizzard chases them, the quintet seek shelter at Minnie’s Haberdashery, a rest spot Major Warren has clearly visited many times before. However, Minnie isn’t home, and care of her establishment has been left in the hands of Bob (Demián Bichir). Inside, they find fellow travellers Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), and General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern). Ruth doesn’t trust a’one of them — and as they settle down to ride out the blizzard, it turns out he’s right about someone…

    I’m not the first to observe that The Hateful Eight actually functions like a murder mystery, Agatha Christie style. It might be easy to miss because the film doesn’t begin with a murder or feature a detective, but then neither do all of Christie’s stories. Instead, there’s a long period setting up all the players and suggesting their motivations, and then eventually the proverbial does hit the metaphorical fan, after which deductions must be made. And it’s all in a remote, isolated location which has been cut off by weather, and every character is hiding some nefarious past — so far, so And Then There Were None. All of this comes dressed in QT’s famed dialogue, unfurled at the somewhat languorous pace he’s gradually been cultivating for a few movies now, and topped off with a few doses of the old ultra-violence.

    One reason the “whodunnit” label doesn’t really stick is that Tarantino doesn’t sit it out until the end. Without spoilers: there’s certainly mystery about who is and isn’t involved, but you can’t invest in that too much because the answer is a little bit Murder on the Orient Express. Not completely Orient Express (I said no spoilers!), but a bit. One factor he does handle well is that (again like And Then There Were None) you can never be quite sure whose side you should be on; who might turn out to be a villain. Even at the end, when all has been revealed, the heroes are hardly heroic.

    More talked about than the film’s content has been the way it was made. Despite the confined setting, Tarantino chose to shoot it on 65mm film, using the Ultra Panavision 70 process (only the 11th film to do so) and lenses that hadn’t seen light in nearly five decades, all of which have produced incredible images. QT’s regular DP since Kill Bill (excepting Death Proof), Robert Richardson, has once again done sterling work, with beautiful shots of scenery near the start and a fantastic definition of space once we’re locked up in Minnie’s.

    Ultra Panavision 70 produces an ultra-wide 2.76:1 frame (for those not in the know, your widescreen TV is only 1.78:1), which for such an intimate story has struck people as odd ever since it was announced. In fact, it pays off in (at least) two ways: firstly, all the scene-setting scenery looks magnificent; secondly, for a lot of the film there’s stuff going on in the background or at the edge of frame — it’s not just a series of close-ups or two-shots where the ancillary detail is either non-existent or doesn’t matter, but one where that ‘background’ detail is sometimes very instructive to what is going on. Tarantino also uses the full width a lot of the time, placing two figures at either edge of the image — this really isn’t a film you could crop (thank goodness it doesn’t exist in the pan & scan era!)

    Richardson’s work was Oscar nominated but lost to The Revenant (which I’m now a little biased against, after it beat this, Fury Road, and handed Roger Deakins his 13th loss, but I’ll see what I think when it finally hits British home ent formats next month), but the film did triumph for Ennio Morricone’s score — and quite rightly so, too, because it’s incredibly atmospheric and effective. Tarantino has commented that it isn’t really a Western score (which you’d expect from Morricone, what with his famous ones), but more of a horror movie score, and that that’s appropriate for the film. And, y’know, that’s not pretentious director-speak — he’s right. Well, that the movie is a horror movie is debatable, but he is right that Morricone’s work sounds more like a horror score, and that that score is appropriate to this movie. It even recycles some of Morricone’s material from The Thing, as if to bring the point home (and that’s far from the only thing about The Hateful Eight that’s indebted to The Thing, but I’ll leave that for someone else to dig into another time). Even though this is the first time he’s had a full score composed for one of his films, Tarantino still sources a couple of well-selected songs from elsewhere, including a very apt credits track by Roy Orbison.

    The Hateful Eight may have a deceptively simple story, with straightforward characters and — once they’re finally all revealed — straightforward motivations; and despite that running time, it’s not as grand or as epic as either Inglourious Basterds or Django Unchained; but I say “deceptively simple” because I feel that it’s the kind of film that might reward repeat viewings, to reveal depths of character as well as hints toward the ultimate reveals. Or maybe I’m being generous — maybe it is just a long-winded, verbose way of telling a slight tale. But if it is, it’s still a mighty entertaining one.

    4 out of 5

    The Hateful Eight is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today.

    Ten Little Indians (1965)

    2014 #105
    George Pollock | 88 mins | TV | 1.85:1 | UK / English | 12

    Ten Little IndiansAdapted from one of Agatha Christie’s best-regarded novels (now commonly known by its US title, And Then There Were None), Ten Little Indians sees a group of ten people invited to a remote location (in the book, an island; here, an alpine hotel) by a mysterious host, who doesn’t appear but does accuse them all of murder via a recorded message. Then, stranded, they begin to die one by one.

    Also known as one of Christie’s bleakest books, this follows the track of most adaptations and uses the upbeat ending Christie herself wrote for a stage adaptation. Apparently other changes abound, with characters and their actions updated to have a more ’60s vibe. Novel purists may wish to avoid it. There’s also the ‘innovative’ addition of “The Whodunnit Break”, where the action pauses and a clock counts down for 60 seconds while a Creepy old house in the dark? Super.voiceover informs us this is our chance to have a guess. Ah, the ’60s.

    Modified or not, the rest of the film remains full of the usual Christie antics — essentially, it’s one big puzzle. Whether it bears re-watching once the solution is known is probably down to the individual viewer, but Pollock and a decent cast make it an entertaining ride.

    4 out of 5

    Ten Little Indians is on Film4 tomorrow at 11am.

    ‘Thin Man’ Thursday

    William Powell and Myrna Loy starred in 14 films together between 1934 and 1947, and the most famous of these are a series of detective films that started life as a B-movie adaptation of a Dashiell Hammett novel, before earning multiple Oscar nominations and enough popularity to inspire multiple sequels, a spin-off TV series, and more. That film, of course, is The Thin Man.

    Powell and Loy play Nick and Nora Charles, a retired detective and his well-to-do wife, who are trying to enjoy the high life but are regularly dragged in to investigating murders, mainly thanks to her curiosity and his crime-solving genius. Special mention must also be made for the couple’s dog, Asta, a wire fox terrier who was so popular he was paid many times more than your average movie dog, and whose role only increases as the series continues — he even has a romantic subplot in the second film.

    The films on the whole are more concerned with the screwball-ish relationship between the leads than they are with the mysteries, which are so speedily intricate as to barely be worth following — just accepting what Nick tells you and going along with it may be the order of the day. They all have the air of Agatha Christie-esque parlour games more than genuine criminal undertakings, which of course means they make for splendid entertainment.

    Six films were produced in all, over the course of 13 years — rather the opposite to most of these ’30s/’40s detective series, which were more likely to churn out 13 movies in six years. Anyway, it’s the perfect number to allow every Thursday between now and the end of February to be Thin Man Thursday here at 100 Films. Below you’ll find links to all the reviews as and when they’re available, starting today with (naturally) the first:


    The Thin Man

    After the Thin Man

    Another Thin Man

    Shadow of the Thin Man

    The Thin Man Goes Home

    Song of the Thin Man

    The Thin Man (1934)

    2014 #120
    W.S. Van Dyke | 87 mins | DVD | 1.33:1 | USA / English | U

    The Thin ManProduced as a B-movie, but eventually nominated for four of the biggest Oscars (Picture, Actor, Director, Screenplay*), comedic detective mystery The Thin Man went on to spawn five sequels and a TV series (not to mention a radio series, a stage play, and a musical), as well as inspiring a host of similar comic-mystery B-movie series like the Saint and the Falcon.

    Playing like a cross between an Agatha Christie mystery and a screwball comedy, it’s in fact based on a novel by Dashiell Hammett, author of The Maltese Falcon, The Glass Key, and other hard-boiled tales. This is definitely not one of those. The murder mystery is standard enough — a businessman has disappeared, but when his former secretary and lover is found dead, he’s the prime suspect — albeit with enough genuine suspects and twists to keep the viewer guessing. The real joy comes from the investigators: retired detective and alcohol fan Nick Charles (William Powell) and his rich, interested wife Nora (Myrna Loy). Plus their dog, Asta, who gets up to all kinds of mischief. Regular readers will know I’m half-sold on the film at that point.

    The film luxuriates in the interactions between Powell and Loy, and between them and any other character. The plot regularly takes a back seat to the cast’s playfulness, which only the most mystery-focused viewer will find objectionable, because it’s so delightful. Acting drunk for the sake of comedy might seem like a cheap fallback, but Powell is on just the right side of the line to make it work flawlessly, especially in scenes that border on farce, Screwing aroundlike a Christmas party which is regularly interrupted by victims and suspects. Even the final scene, a rambling and none-more-Christie-like “gather all the suspects and reveal the answers” dinner party, seems natural because of the characterisation throughout the rest of the film. Loy’s part may not be quite as showy — as demonstrated by its failure to gain an Oscar nomination — but she’s an invaluable half of the double act.

    Across the decades the detective story has transitioned to be a staple of television, with dozens of US dramas each churning out 22+ mysteries per year, not to mention all the British ones and, more recently here in the UK, European imports — you can’t move for a fleet of complex murder mysteries being solved on the gogglebox every day. It can make older movies that do the same thing feel less significant; less deserving of their big-screen status. Not so with ones like The Thin Man, which has so much more to offer besides the narrative and its revelations. Here a solid mystery, with potential to keep the viewer guessing, gives a structure on which to hang the real joys, which are provided by the central screwball-ish relationship. And the dog, of course.

    5 out of 5

    Read my reviews of all the Thin Man films on Thin Man Thursdays.

    * It lost to the father of screwball comedy, It Happened One Night, in every category. ^