The Past Month on TV #56

This TV column is over a week later than I intended it to be, meaning there’s loads to talk about — half a season of Doctor Who; two new ITV dramas; more Picard and Twilight Zone; I finally watched Good Omens, and got back to The Good Place; there’s even the Oscars; plus a bunch of other stuff. It’s an epic — over 5,500 words if you read the whole thing — so let’s crack on…

Doctor Who  Series 12 Episodes 6-10
PraxeusMost of the Doctor Who chatter of late revolves around what happened in the finale — no surprise there, given major revelations were teased in previous episodes this series. But before I natter about that, there’s a handful of other episodes to cover.

After a rocky opening to this 38th run of Doctor Who, with episodes varying wildly in quality, I think it settled down pretty well in the middle. That doesn’t mean it was a classic series by any means, though. Praxeus is a perfect case in point: it’s a solid episode, with a decent storyline, a few nice scenes, a handful of broadly well-drawn characters, and a reasonable amount of important-message delivery. As the second environmentally-themed plot in as many months, it suffers somewhat from the repetition, but how this handles its messaging about plastic pollution vs how Orphan 55 battered us around the head about climate change is a good example of how to do such things fairly well instead of very, very poorly. But there are also a handful of plot holes and character inconsistencies to niggle away at you. It’s as if they didn’t bother to employ script editors or continuity checkers this series — though the oversights are so glaring, anyone should’ve spotted them. So if all of this sounds like damning with faint praise… well, it is. In any other recent era of Who, this would be a middling-to-poor midseason filler; in the current era, it’s one of the better episodes.

There were more Issues on hand the next week in Can You Hear Me?, to the extent the BBC even put up their Action Line phone number at the end. It’s clear showrunner Chris Chibnall wants to Say Something with at least a couple of episodes every season, but he’s once again clashing with the past: Vincent and the Doctor already did mental health better. In itself, how Can You Hear Me handled the issues it raised was a mixed bag. Yaz’s backstory came out of the blue — it’s not even been vaguely alluded to before, and how it’s depicted in the episode left a lot up in the air. The consensus on social media is we were meant to think she was intending to commit suicide, but the episode soft-balls this in order to avoid triggering terms or visuals — a commendable aim, especially in a family drama, but it left the point entirely unclear. And the end of the episode, where the Doctor seems dismissive of Graham trying to open up about his cancer, drew actual complaints and the BBC having to issue a statement. If you have to explain the intent of your drama in a statement released afterwards… well. But ‘Issues’ aside, as a sci-fi adventure it was another solid attempt.

The Haunting of Villa DiodatiAll of which means that the series’ penultimate story, The Haunting of Villa Diodati, was on a whole ‘nother level. For me, this might be the first genuine classic of this era. (If you’ve not seen it, spoilers ahead.) The first half is like a proper horror movie, complete with jump scares and other creepy effects (the dead-eyed little girl behind the door, but only when the lightning flashes… brr!) Naturally there’s a sci-fi explanation for it all, but even that was thrilling and chilling in its own way. It was the best use of the Cybermen since… er, their last story, because that was really good too. But the Cybermen are sometimes underserved by Who, wheeled out and disregarded as second-tier baddies after the Daleks, so I delight in seeing them used so well more often. Throw in a well-researched and depicted historical atmosphere, some good comedic asides (I thought the butler was superb), and a genuine sense of jeopardy (the Doctor stuck between a rock and a hard place with the decisions she has to make, and the lone Cyberman a towering presence), and you’ve got an all-round great episode.

Which leads us to the two-part finale. The first half, Ascension of the Cybermen, went down well with many, but I thought it was no great shakes. Like most episodes this season, it was solid mid-range Who, which ticks certain boxes whilst never in any way excelling. As epic finales go, seven humans vs three Cybermen is hardly a grand setup. And why do three Cybermen require two (quite large) spaceships, anyway? Was one full of those Cyberdrones — which looked thoroughly daft, so maybe they should’ve left that ship at home. The rest of the plot is a lot of faffing about to get us to the real point: the cliffhanger. Only, it’s not much of a cliffhanger, because it’s just the Master popping back up (which was inevitable) to say “now I’m going to tell you that thing I wouldn’t tell you earlier!” Wow. J.J. Abrams, you have a lot to answer for.

The Timeless ChildrenSo the real point of it all comes in The Timeless Children, where the Master finds some new sources to rewrite the Doctor’s Wikipedia entry, then reads that revised version to her. I’m only half joking. Chibnall has managed to rewrite Doctor Who mythology in a way that both angers fans with its radical changes, and fundamentally makes no difference whatsoever. The Doctor used to be a mysterious alien from another planet who travelled the universe helping people. Now, she’s a mystery alien from another dimension who travels the universe helping people. Instead of being “just another Time Lord” who rejected the rules of their society and ran away to interfere, the Doctor is now a Special / Chosen One — the originator of the Time Lords’ ability to regenerate; her DNA copied and pasted into every other Time Lord… and then her memory wiped, so she grew up as just another Time Lord who rejected the rules of their society and ran away to interfere… but, y’know, was secretly special. I feel I should hate it, but, honestly, it was so guessable and so fundamentally immaterial that I just can’t muster the energy to care enough to hate it. It may yet go the way of “half-human” anyway, i.e. we’ll all just ignore and/or rewrite it as soon as someone other than Chibnall gets in charge.

As for the story of the episode itself — because it did kind of have one, away from the Doctor getting that massive info dump — it was, predictably, an adequate middle-of-the-road knockabout, with an underwhelming finale. When someone on Twitter can knock up an infinitely better resolution in comic strip form within hours of the episode ending (which is exactly what this is), you’re once again left questioning the actual ability of the current showrunner. They can’t even do a very good copy of a Russell T Davies-style cliffhanger/Xmas special tease. The Judoon imprison the Doctor… as a tease for a special starring the Daleks? “What?!” indeed.

Star Trek: Picard  Season 1 Episodes 2-3
Picard: engagingI’m a good few episodes behind on Picard now (episode 7 arrived this week), which is not because I’ve given up on it, but because it hasn’t engaged me quite enough to especially make time for it. It seems to have garnered quite the mixed reaction: the critics’ scores on Rotten Tomatoes are very strong; the user ratings on IMDb aren’t bad at all; but every time I see someone write about the show, on Twitter or another blog or what have you, it seems to be in criticism. I fall in between all these stools. There are things the show is doing well, or at least passably, but other bits that are awful; that feel like the worst of cheap made-for-syndication ’90s sci-fi, rather than the peak TV ‘prestige series’ it clearly wants to be.

I read one of the execs or writers or someone say that they consider the first three episodes to be their pilot, and that’s indicative of one of the show’s major problems. It’s not unique in that regard — it’s an attitude that’s become ubiquitous in this “we’ve really made an X-hour movie” era of TV making. Netflix series get away with it a bit because of their all-at-once model — if the makers say “the first three episodes are the pilot”, you can find two or three hours to sit down and watch all three as your first chunk. But Picard is coming out the old fashioned way, i.e. weekly, and so it takes three weeks to get through what should be the first hour or so. Even within the episodes, it’s paced like treacle. I don’t necessarily expect them to get through all the necessary setup in just 45 minutes — because it does establish a fair bit across these three episodes — but the same material in a double-length opener, instead of spread thin across three weeks? I think that would’ve been fine. Plenty of shows before now have had double-length pilot episodes — including, pertinently, TNG.

I’m currently wondering if Patrick Stewart regrets signing up to this. It took a lot to lure him back, and presumably it was the general shape of what they were aiming to do (rather than the specific qualities of the individual scripts) that got him there. And he’s committed to multiple seasons too, with a second already commissioned and strong rumours of at least a third. Perhaps the grand plan will become clearer as things go on. Or perhaps it is just another paced-for-streaming modern TV show, which obviously works for some people.

Flesh and Blood  Series 1
Flesh and BloodBetween its short length (four parts), quality cast (Imelda Staunton, Stephen Rea, Russell Tovey), and condensed broadcast schedule (it was on four consecutive nights), this looked like a miniseries… until a last-second cliffhanger (plus some dangling plot threads) suggested there’ll be more to come. I watched it on that back of that cast and some strong reviews, which it only somewhat merited. It’s a decent family drama, about a 60-something widow getting into a relationship with a man her three grown-up children think might be conning her, with the added spice of a friendly/nosey next-door neighbour who might be a proper weirdo herself; but decent is about the extent of it — the cast elevate the material, which is fine but didn’t excite me otherwise. I expect I’ll keep watching if it comes back.

McDonald & Dodds  Series 1 Episode 1
McDonald & DoddsNormally I’d give a new ITV crime drama a miss, but this one is set and filmed in Bath (they got in my way one day by filming in the park I wanted to sit in for lunch, the bastards), so I had to see. It was… adequate. It’s about a hot-shot London detective who relocates to Bath, and lines like “that may be how things are done in London, but you’re in Bath now” were repeated to the point of absurdity. And don’t get me started on the accents (one local review derided the programme for thinking we all speak like Hobbits). Yet, inexplicably, it seems to have gone down quite well with viewers, which just goes to show you can’t trust the general public to judge anything. It’s only two episodes, so I’ll watch the second (if only to see what other recognisable locations they trot out — it makes a real point of showing off where it was filmed), but that might be my limit.

Good Omens
Good OmensThis six-part adaptation of the beloved fantasy novel by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman debuted on Amazon last May, and by rights I should’ve been all over it from day one — I read the book as a kid, and loved it enough that I used to cite it as my favourite novel (the only thing that changed that was the fact it’s been decades since I last read it). But, as regular readers will know, life has got in the way of my viewing choices over the past year or so, and it was in fact that level of attachment that stopped me watching it — it needed my full attention. Obviously, that time has come.

The downside of all the waiting is that I perhaps built up expectations the series couldn’t hope to match. To say it was a disappointment would be going too far, but it didn’t blow me away in the manner the book did when I was ten-ish. It couldn’t, shouldn’t have been expected to, really. But there’s an awful lot to like here. In the lead roles of an angel and demon, respectively, Michael Sheen and David Tennant are fantastic, both individually and as a double act. There is much quirkiness and craziness to revel in, and while it’s not often laugh-out-loud funny, it regularly tickles your amusement centres with its absurdity. There are some bravura touches as well, like the 30-minute pre-titles to episode three. On the downside, at six hours it seems a little long, and there’s way too much voiceover narration — Gaiman’s true calling as a novelist rather than screenwriter showing through, I feel.

Maybe it’s a case of “the book is better” (as I say, I haven’t read it for yonks), but there’s still an awful lot to like about the adaptation. Those without a preexisting attachment to the novel may get more out of it than I did thanks to not bringing baggage. Personally speaking, someday I’ll watch it again, and hopefully having watched it once will mean it’s less weighed down by my expectations and I’ll enjoy it even more.

The Good Place  Season 3
The Good Place season 3“Holy fork,” I said to myself when I saw that the series finale of this had aired at the end of January — I’d forgotten how much time had passed since I last watched it. If you’ve still not seen any of the show yourself, look away now — it’s the kind of series you want to experience knowing as little as possible, and if you read about later seasons before you’ve seen earlier ones it’s just gonna ruin stuff. (I know that sounds self-evident, but it applies to some shows more than others, and this is very much one it applies to.)

So, the third season picks up where the second left off (duh), with the gang back in their lives on Earth trying to prove they’re good people at heart. As I found with season two (which also started with a new status quo), these early episodes are okay — during this phase I like the show, but I don’t necessarily love it; I feel “it’s not as good as it used to be”, but it still entertains me, even while it seems to tread water a bit. But then, halfway-or-so through, the plot kicks into gear, and the season’s second half is a run to the finish line through an array of surprising and hilarious situations. The “back on Earth” premise robs something special from the show, I think — it’s only once they’re on course back into the afterlife that things pick up. Not that the early part of the seasons is a washout — like most of the best sitcoms, the joy is more in the characters than the exact situation they’re in, and the characters are still around — but something didn’t quite work for me (as I said, it’s not bad, just less good), and it’s only once they’re getting stuck back into the fantastical side of things that it really comes to life. It all builds to a finale that hits a surprisingly emotional note. And, knowing the next season is the final one, I’m looking forward to seeing where this crazy journey is going to end up.

Lucifer  Season 3 Episodes 16-24
Lucifer season 3So, I’ve finally caught up on the Fox years of Lucifer — it was here that its original network cancelled the show (Netflix picked it up for a fourth season, recommissioned it for a fifth and supposedly final season, added more episodes to that fifth season, and now are reportedly lining up a sixth season too). I can see why fans were particularly enraged — the season ends on a massive change of circumstance that would’ve been a terrible place to leave it forever. Indeed, the most intriguing thing here is where it will go next, especially given the network change: Lucifer is an old-fashioned network procedural, as much concerned with case-of-the-week crime stories as it is with arc plots and the supernatural goings-on of its angels-and-demons universe; and that was to be expected when it was on an old-fashioned network, but now that it’s on Netflix, the home of bingeing, will it shift its emphasis?

That’s a question for next season, anyway. As for season three, it suffered a different fault familiar from network series of old: struggling to pace an arc plot across a mammoth 24 episodes. It actually went rather well at first (even if certain revelations were glaringly obvious), but by this final stretch it’s spinning its wheels a bit, trying to delay the finale-sized events for, well, the finale. I mean, one minute Chloe and Pierce are on course to get married, then he’s calling it off, then it’s back on, then she’s calling it off… pinging back and forth, one episode to the next; swinging from one major-life-choice extreme to the other from week to week. That’s something else the more concentrated Netflix runs (season four is ten episodes, season five will be two halves of eight each) will hopefully improve upon.

The Twilight Zone  ‘Best Of’
The DummyJordan Peele’s new version of The Twilight Zone belatedly made it to UK screens a week or two back, almost 11 months after its US airing. I still haven’t watched any of it, but I am still going with cherrypicking the best of the original series.

I started my exploration of The Twilight Zone by watching the top ten episodes according to a couple of different websites. After that, I found more lists to create an average ranking (see last month), but I didn’t complete those new lists’ top tens — so that’s what I’ve done for this month’s selection. There were four new lists and, interestingly, all but one of their top tens contain episodes I hadn’t seen — you’d think that, between completing three top tens and a consensus ranking up to #16, I’d’ve seen every top-ten-worthy episode. That’s where personal preferences come in, of course, but it also shows how many great episodes of The Twilight Zone there are. Across the seven top tens there are 29 different episodes, and the only two that are included in every one are The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street and Time Enough at Last. 15 episodes appear on just one list, including all six I’m reviewing today.

Anyway, enough of my statistics preoccupation — some episodes! The highest ranked among these is The Dummy, which is #2 on Buzzfeed’s list. It’s about a ventriloquist who thinks his dummy is talking to him — is it, or is it his inner demons? A sentient ventriloquist’s dummy is a none-more-creepy idea, and the episode does an interesting line in “is it real or is it in his head?”, but it didn’t quite come together in a satisfying enough way for me. Sure, there’s a somewhat chilling final beat, but I didn’t feel like the rest of the story quite got there, more jumped to it. The second best episode of the entire show? Not even close. Though it does have one of host Rod Serling’s coolest on-screen intros.

Next up is also from Buzzfeed: their 6th place choice, Long Distance Call. Five-year-old Billy loves his grandma, and she loves him, somewhat to the chagrin of his mother. But then grandma dies, her parting wish that Billy could come with her. He starts to spend a lot of time playing with a toy telephone she gave him… and who’s he talking to? Grandma, of course. It seems like it’s just a child’s way of dealing with grief… until Billy runs in front of a car, saying someone told him to do it. It’s a strong idea for an episode, with some neat developments along the way, but it feels in need of a closing act — a final plot beat to resolve Billy and his telephone. We can extrapolate one from what happens (spoiler: by the end, grandma isn’t on the line any more), but it would be nice to see Billy realise this. And it would be effectively Twilight Zone-y as well, helping to underscore the magical realism with a final question: has Billy finished grieving and is ready to move on, or were the father’s pleas answered and grandma stopped calling? Add that final scene and this would probably be one of my most favourite episodes. As it is, it’s a very strong almost-but-not-quite.

The Big Tall WishMoving on to TV Guide’s 50 Essential Episodes now for three picks. First, their #4, The Big Tall Wish. It’s a significant episode in the history of television because it features a nearly all-black cast in a story that isn’t predicated on their race; consequently, it was awarded the Unity Award for Outstanding Contributions to Better Race Relations. Critics rank this one fairly well — it’s also 18th on Screen Crush, 32nd on Paste, and 33rd on Buzzfeed — but on audience-ranked lists it’s much lower: 127th on IMDb; 119th on Ranker. The racism of audience rankings, so regularly visible on new releases, truly knows no bounds. Anyway, it’s about a beat-up ageing boxer hoping for one last shot at glory, and the young kid who believes in him — and who also believes his wishes come true, so he uses one to help the boxer win his fight. I really liked the setup, which plays as thoughtful and groundedly dramatic, with the suggestion of magical realism as opposed to outright fantasy. It’s well directed by Ronald Winston (one of three contributions he made to the series, including The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street), from an interesting use of a mirror in the opening, which helps to enliven what would otherwise just be a scene of two people chatting, to a striking way of visualising the fight sequence. At first I was unimpressed about where the episode eventually goes story-wise, but after a bit of thought I’ve come round to it more. It is, of course, metaphorical, rather than merely following some made-up rules of magic, and therefore has something to say about belief.

Right after that in 5th is Deaths-Head Revisited, the story of a former Nazi captain going for a nice little holiday to Dachau, where a nostalgic wander around the old concentration camp turns into something he didn’t anticipate. It’s easy to forget nowadays, but this was made just 17 years after the end of the war. That sounds like quite a long time, but it isn’t really — it’s like something now relating to events from 2003. In fact, just look to a recent cinema release: that exact period of time gets you from Bad Boys II to Bad Boys for Life. I know that’s an insanely trivial comparison, but hopefully it makes my point: 17 years can be no time at all. Indeed, on the audio commentary by author and TZ expert Marc Scott Zicree and his mate Neil Gaiman (yes, that Neil Gaiman), they note how contemporary this issue was at the time: Judgment at Nuremberg had just been in cinemas; Eichmann had been tried but not yet sentenced. And this bit of trivia from IMDb: “due to religiously-inspired antisemitism that existed in the US at the time, none of the prisoners are shown wearing the yellow Star of David, which the Nazis made Jewish prisoners wear at Dachau.” Just 17 years after the Holocaust, and antisemitism was that present again. Chilling, isn’t it? And, today, we have our own problems with the resurgence of the Far Right, rendering these kinds of stories timely once again. This is as strong an example as any. As Gaiman says on the commentary, “it has real content. It’s something that leaves you with an emotion. It leaves you feeling something. It leaves you thinking.” Gaiman rationalises the events of the episode as being that “on some deep level he [the Nazi] had enough of a soul that he went back to the place of his crimes, realised what he’d done, and went mad.” Perhaps, but I think it’s more about the Nazis’ unending hubris: he thinks he can revisit the camp with impunity, to revel in the glorious memory of his deeds; but instead he is punished, and he’s not been hunted down for this punishment — it only happens because he has the gall to return.

Twenty TwoOn a lighter note, in 9th place at TV Guide is Twenty Two. I say “lighter” — the subject matter isn’t as heavy, but this is a creepy episode. It’s about a woman in hospital who has a recurring nightmare about visiting the morgue, but she’s convinced it’s not a nightmare, it’s happening. It’s the enactment of her nightmare that is genuinely creepy (just imagining having to ‘live’ it gives me chills), and the idea of not being sure what’s dreams and what’s reality is a very Twilight Zone concept. Unfortunately, some of the specifics are weak. Whether it’s a nightmare or not would be easy to disprove, considering it includes details like her breaking a glass every night, or that the morgue is room number 22 — if it is, how does she know that? (Her doctor does eventually realise this… after days of hearing about it.) And as there’s nothing else wrong with her, why not discharge her — the nightmare is so location-specific that it couldn’t happen at home. Eventually there’s a twist, and it’s a good’un, pushing the concept somewhere logical (within the bounds of paranormal ‘logic’, anyhow) and retaining the creepiness. (There’s also a question about whether it inspired a much later film series, with which it shares many notable similarities, but to say more would be a whopping spoiler.)

Another point about Twenty Two is that it’s one of a handful of episodes they shot on video to save money. Well, it may’ve saved some dough, but it looks like crap, even by the standards of video productions — it looks like it was transferred from a VHS copy. Maybe tape was really crummy back then (I swear other ’60s taped productions, like Doctor Who for example, don’t look this bad), or maybe it’s been poorly preserved, or maybe it’s just a shoddy transfer on the Blu-ray. In the end, only half-a-dozen episodes were made this way because they weren’t happy with the results — understandably! Sometimes money isn’t everything. But it’s interesting how much it’s shot like a video production. The shot choices aren’t like a normal film episode but on videotape; instead, it’s got all the kinds of camera moves and slight adjustments and whatnot you almost subconsciously recognise from live / minimally-edited TV. (Incidentally, Long Distance Call is another videotaped episode, but I watched that after this one so had fewer thoughts on the technical presentation.) And yet, the underlying episode is so good that it overcomes the technical limitations. No, the problem is the logic gaps. They may seem minor quibbles, but if they were ironed out it would improve the whole episode. For me, fixing them would make this a 10-out-of-10, but as-is it’s more of an 8.

A Game of PoolFinally for now, the one outstanding top-ten-er from Thrillist’s ranking — their 8th pick, A Game of Pool. It’s about a pool shark who thinks he’s better than the player everyone else considers to be the greatest, but that guy’s dead so he can’t prove it… except, of course, he’s in the Twilight Zone. Some episodes save their Twilight Zone-ness for midway or final-minute reveals, but others put it front and centre, and this is one of them: a game of pool with a dead man! But it still has one of the show’s trademark ironic twists at the end, to teach us a lesson. That said, I didn’t think it landed as well as some other episodes, because it’s a bit of a fantastical warning rather than a pure morality play. There’s an alternate ending (included on the Blu-ray as both a narrated screenplay and a clip from the ’80s remake, which used that ending instead), which was screenwriter George Clayton Johnson’s original and preferred conclusion, and it’s that alternative conclusion that’s stuck with me more. Of course, the advantage of things like special features is we kind of get to have both versions; we can pick our favourite, or even consider both, like alternate timelines — how very The Twilight Zone.

The 92nd Academy Awards  and
The British Academy Film Awards 2020
The 92nd Academy AwardsOn Twitter in the run-up to the ceremony itself, there was a general acceptance that (a) Parasite was the best picture of the year, and (b) Parasite was not going to win Best Picture. As far as I could see, there was a sort of genial acceptance of these facts, which made a nice change from Film Twitter’s usual condemnation of everything. But then, blow us all down, Parasite did actually win! It’s noteworthy for all sorts of reasons — primarily because it’s the first ever non-English-language film to win Best Picture at the Oscars. It was also only the third time that the Palme d’Or and Oscar have gone to the same film. And director Bong Joon Ho became only the second individual to win four awards at one ceremony (after Walt Disney, and he did it across four different films). As for the rest of the ceremony, most of the other gongs went where expected, leaving 1917 the major victim of Parasite’s surprise success. But it still took home three well-deserved technical trophies, whereas Netflix’s The Irishman (which had the same number of nominations, ten) was shut out entirely.

There were even fewer surprises at this year’s BAFTAs. Maybe Klaus winning Best Animated Film, but then the British Academy are always more resistant to the dominance of Disney/Pixar in this category than our American cousins (I think of Kubo deservedly winning a couple of years ago, for example). Of course 1917 won Best Picture — it was the favourite anyway, but it was also British, and that does sometimes sway the local vote. Not so in the acting categories, which went to the expected sources. I thought Graham Norton was a good host, too. He’s a natural fit for this kind of thing, and so while not every line quite landed, his hit rate was much higher than other recent hosts. I hope he returns next year.

Also watched…
  • Death in Paradise Series 9 Episode 3-8 — The back half of this run introduced a new lead detective (the show’s fourth), played by Ralf Little. His quirk is that the island’s heat / animals / etc cause him all sorts of irritations and rashes. I can relate. Other than that, it’s business as usual for the sunny, silly murder mystery.
  • The Goes Wrong Show Series 1 Episode 6 — A final recommendation for this most excellent comedy, which went out on a high with one of its best episodes: 90 Degrees, which refers to the heatwave occurring during the story, but was “misinterpreted by the set builders” so one of the main sets is on its side. Hilarity ensues. The whole magnificent series is still available on iPlayer, it’s also out on DVD, and a second series has been confirmed. Hurrah!
  • My Dad Wrote a Porno — A one-off HBO comedy special spun off from the popular podcast. I’d vaguely heard of said podcast (I don’t really do podcasts), and apparently it’s very funny, so this seemed worth a punt. And I did enjoy it, overall. I’ve read that it’s not as good as the real thing, though, so maybe I should get onto that.
  • The Rookie Season 1 Episodes 1-6 — I remember being interested in this when it was first announced, because it starred Nathan Fillion (so enjoyable in both Firefly and Castle) and had an interesting-enough premise (middle-aged man joins LAPD as their oldest ever rookie), but then I kind of forgot to keep an eye out for it — it’s on season two now and I’m just getting started. It’s an above average police drama, I’d say, and it’s a nice change that it’s not about detectives solving a murder of the week.

    Things to Catch Up On
    Noughts + CrossesThis month, I have mostly been missing Noughts + Crosses, the BBC’s high-profile adaptation of Malorie Blackman’s beloved alternate-world young adult novels. It seemed to go down very well on Twitter when the first episode aired, and the whole series is already available on iPlayer, so I’ve no excuse not to make time for it next month (other than all those Picards I have to catch up…)

    Next month… Disney+ finally comes to the UK on March 24th, and with it The Baby Yoda Show The Mandalorian. Plus, a different tack in my viewing of both The Twilight Zone and Doctor Who.

  • 1917 (2019)

    2020 #6
    Sam Mendes | 119 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | UK & USA / English & French | 15 / R

    1917

    BAFTABritish Academy Film Awards 2020
    9 nominations

    Nominated: Best Film; Outstanding British Film; Best Director; Best Cinematography; Original Music; Best Production Design; Best Make Up/Hair; Best Sound; Best Special Visual Effects.

    I haven’t been following awards season too closely this year, but from the snippets I have picked up here and there it seems to be quite a variable race — every time a frontrunner emerges, something else wins some other award and suddenly the field is open again. 1917 was one of the early tips, and now has several wins under its belt to back that up. It may not be a lock at the Oscars, where the latest works by American auteurs like Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino will give it a robust run for its money (plus the six other contenders, several in with a shot), but tonight it’s BAFTA’s turn. The British Academy may seem to be more focused on being counted among the major Oscar forerunners than anything else, but they do still have a penchant for rewarding British films — and 1917 isn’t just “a British film”, it’s a British film about a key event in British history with an all-star cast of cameos from great British actors. So, as it’s a season-wide contender anyhow, if 1917 doesn’t win the big prize this evening it’ll be a genuine surprise.

    Does it deserve it? Take a sample of social media and you’ll get different answers. As with any big, much-discussed film nowadays the initial reception has been followed by waves of backlash — or maybe that’s too grand a term for it; maybe it’s just been different ‘sides’ expressing their opinion in turn. If it wins, there’ll be a vocal contingent about how it didn’t deserve it. As someone observed the other day, literally the only way to avoid such a negative reaction nowadays is to literally take the award out of the incorrectly-named winner’s hands. (If you think that’s facetious, think about it for a second: do you remember any significant backlash to Moonlight winning? I don’t. Every other winner in recent years? Yep. I’m not saying it should’ve had one — it’s a great film — but it is unique in avoiding it.)

    Personally, having seen 60% of this year’s BAFTA Best Film nominees, 1917 would be my pick (the others I’ve seen are Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and The Irishman; the remainder are Joker and Parasite, which is only out in UK cinemas next week so probably doesn’t stand a chance). My view may very well change once I’ve ticked all the boxes (Parasite is supposedly the greatest film ever made, after all), but that doesn’t lessen 1917 as an achievement.

    War, huh? What is it good for? Winning BAFTAs, probably.

    Famously, the film is a single take… sort of. That caveat comes for two reasons. First, because it isn’t a single take, because there’s a fade-to-black in the middle. It’s an effective, well-timed event — basic filmmaking technique as narrative twist, because this is so famous as “a single-take film” and, by that point (it comes fairly late in), we’re so embedded in the technique that the sudden blackness comes as quite a surprise. Second, because it isn’t a pair of single takes, because there’s no way you could shoot a film of this scale and complexity in a genuine single shot. Rumours abound of how many hidden cuts are in the movie. One said there were as many as five. Editor Lee Smith refuses to confirm the exact number, but makes a very sensible point: the film was shot over 65 days — you can’t put together 65 days’ worth of footage with only five cuts. But that shows how well it was achieved: people thought that, gasp, there could be as many as five, when actually there are far more.

    “Wait, this film had an editor? That must’ve been a quick job!” Yeah, there’s been a lot of that on social media. People have been quick to dismiss it — people who should know better, quite frankly. As with so many things in life, just because it looks easy doesn’t mean that it was. There’s more to editing than just “sticking shots together”, and planning a film as complicated as this involved Smith’s input throughout shooting, not just in post-production. Plus, they didn’t just do one take that worked for each setup and call it quits — the job still involves choosing which take has the best performances, the right lighting, making sure it matches exactly enough for the transition to the next shot, and so on. The least number of takes for any individual shot was “five or six”, the most 39, so there’s plenty for an editor to do with choosing. I’m getting this info from an interview with Smith by Catherine Springer at AwardsWatch, which is worth a read if you’re interested in getting some insight into why there is actually a lot of difficult, impressive editing work going on here. One further titbit: some of the cuts were ‘improvised’, in that there are some cuts where a cut hadn’t been planned. You can’t do that kind of thing without a skilled editor, surely.

    Deakins!

    And it makes it all the more impressive that the end result is so seamless — you can buy that you’re watching a single take (okay, two single takes) rather than dozens strung together in pretend. Well, I say it’s seamless — yeah, sure, any Tom, Dick, or Harry can spot places where there are surely cuts (they walk through a dark doorway; someone/thing passes in front of the camera, blocking the view for a split second; etc). But unlike other faked single cuts I’ve seen, where the action doesn’t flow perfectly across a hidden cut, it’s at least conceivable that some of 1917’s hidden-cut-opportunities don’t actually mask a cut at all. Plus, as that interview suggests, there are actually dozens of cuts in the movie, and there aren’t that many glaring opportunities (which is probably how whoever it was arrived at their total of five).

    The fact I’ve spent most of this review so far talking about the film’s single-take-ness is some people’s problem with 1917 — that it’s a filmmaking stunt and nothing more; that it’s a technical achievement at the sacrifice of character or narrative or anything but “look what we can do”. I don’t agree with that assessment. I think the single take serves a purpose beyond showing off. At the most basic level, it puts us on this mission with the characters, attaching us to them and their fate in a very intimate way. The camera rarely strays far from their side, choosing to remain at eye level and near to them when it could float off to give us a godly overview. Some have taken to describing it as “like watching a video game” for that reason, but I bet those people also refer to CG effects as “graphics” and, basically, spend too much time watching/thinking about computer games and conflating them with films (I’ll move on before I get distracted into a wholly different argument…) There are plenty of other ways for filmmakers to attach you to characters, of course, but that doesn’t invalidate this method.

    The other thing it brings is a tangible sense of time. Our heroes are on a time-sensitive mission, and we’re with them every step of the way — they don’t get to jump from one side of a field to the other with the magic of editing, we must walk across it with them. (The film is certainly not as boring as “watching characters walk across a field” makes it sound — there’s plenty of action and incident.) Again, you don’t need a single take to create real-time — 24 proved that over ten seasons and a movie (not that all of those seasons take their real-time conceit wholly seriously, in my opinion) — but it does emphasise and enhance it.

    Walking (running) across a field (a battlefield)

    Regular readers will know I love a bit of real-time, so that was right up my street. I have similar feelings about single takes (fake or not), so I loved that aspect too. Plus I’ve got a long-standing interest in World War One, which I don’t feel is represented well enough on film (at least, not as well as its sequel), so getting a big-budget high-profile movie about it is something else I welcome. And I love the work of cinematographer Roger Deakins, who is absolutely on fine form here (when isn’t he?) The long and the short of it is, 1917 was always a movie almost tailored to things that interest me. Fortunately, it lives up to them. Is it the very best picture of 2019? I dunno, I’ve not seen Parasite yet. Will it be a worthy winner nonetheless? I think so.

    5 out of 5

    The British Academy Film Awards are on BBC One tonight at 9pm.

    The Past Month on TV #43

    Between trips away and rotten colds, my posting (and viewing) this month has been in rather short supply. That explains both why this TV column is later than normal and why it covers series that the constantly-churning “Netflix new releases” discussion cycle has already moved on from. (Next month: belated commentary on The Umbrella Academy, maybe.)

    As well as Netflix shows that came out a while ago, there’s a BBC show that finished a while ago, an Amazon series that isn’t really out yet, and some thoughts on last weekend’s Academy Awards.

    The Punisher  Season 2
    The Punisher season 2Earlier this month the news everyone had been expecting was finally made official: Netflix was cancelling The Punisher and Jessica Jones, thereby bringing to an end the era of the MCU on the streamer. Altogether it will have produced 13 seasons and 161 hours of television, ending with the release of Jessica Jones season three sometime later this year — which will be a more appropriate time to get into this, I guess. For now, there’s just the second — and, as it turned out, final — season of The Punisher.

    Picking up a year after the first season, initially it seems like this will be an all-new tale for the eponymous antihero (Jon Bernthal) when he finds himself protecting an ungrateful teenager, Rachel (Giorgia Whigham), from a group of highly-trained assassins who want to kill her for reasons she and they won’t divulge. There’s plenty of mystery around the girl, the villain hunting her (a religious fundamentalist type who goes by the name Pilgrim (Josh Stewart)), what everyone’s motives are, and what the bigger picture might be. At one point our heroes get arrested by small-town sheriffs and the series gives over a whole episode to an Assault on Precinct 13 homage. It’s all good.

    But then stuff left hanging from season one begins to creep in. No surprise, really: that first run did the usual Marvel/Netflix thing of introducing us to a character destined to become a more famous character, then spent the whole season getting there. In this case its Punisher nemesis Jigsaw (also the villain of Punisher: War Zone, FYI), aka Billy Russo (Ben Barnes), Frank Castle’s friend-turned-enemy whose face he lacerated in the season one finale. So, they were due a rematch. Unfortunately, here Russo’s storyline plays out with that other regular fault of Marvel/Netflix series: it… takes… ages… to… get… anywhere… And as we keep cutting away from Frank and his new ward to spend time on Russo, it’s slow pace is even more distracting.

    Frank and RachelThe two plots do converge somewhat, naturally, with Frank having to deal with the machinations of Russo/Jigsaw at the same time as Pilgrim is coming after him. That means the series has to juggle the two stories as well, and it does that less than effectively, swinging back and forth between which it wants to focus on. For me, the problem remained the same: the new plot is interesting with a lot of potential, while the season one hangovers feel like little more than unfinished business. The latter become stretched out to fill the season, going round in circles, rather than being dealt with succinctly. Conversely, with that stealing so much space, the Pilgrim and Rachel story doesn’t get the screen time it needs or deserves. It seems like there’s a half decent balance at first, but that ultimately goes awry, and the ins and outs of the new storyline (I keep wanting to call it the “main” story, but that’s only true in a couple of early episodes) aren’t as explored as much as they should be. Considering there’s some interesting potential in there (Frank and Rachel have great chemistry, and the plot shapes up as a kind of political thriller, in a 24-esque way), it’s a shame it goes under utilised. It also comes to a great conclusion, showing it’s the real star element of the season. That said, the ending to the Russo story is good too (and so, combined, they make for an exciting finale), it just shouldn’t‘ve taken up so much time.

    I wouldn’t go so far as to call The Punisher’s second season a disappointment — there’s a lot to like here for fans of the character and the series — but its lack of focus is a drawback. On the bright side, it wraps things up enough that this is an okay place to leave it. It’s open-ended for more adventures, of course (the across-the-board cancellations came so late in the day that none of the shows had planned for them), but there aren’t direct “what happens next?” questions like in Luke Cage or Iron Fist. Considering the chances of a revival on a Disney-owned platform seem to be 50/50 at best, at least there’s that.

    Russian Doll  Season 1
    Russian DollYou spend years wondering if anyone could re-do the premise behind Groundhog Day in a different way (well, maybe you don’t, but the thought has crossed my mind), and then several come along… not exactly at once, but in relatively close succession. So, following Happy Death Day, which saw a college student having to repeatedly relive her birthday which was also the day of her murder, now we have Russian Doll, which casts co-creator Natasha Lyonne as a thirtysomething New Yorker having to repeatedly relive her birthday which is also the day she dies. Well, she’s not being murdered, at least. Indeed, the series has a few tweaks and additions to the basic premise up its sleeve, but to say too much would spoil it — although the trailer gives away at least one biggie. Of course, as this is a streaming series, it takes three whole episodes before it reaches that major game-changer.

    Fortunately, the show has other things to commend it, primarily the characters. Well, one character, and a bunch of quirky funny types. But hey, this is a comedy, so we can let that slide. And as for that one actually fleshed-out character, Lyonne’s heroine, the series really makes itself about her, her attitude to life, and how the situation affects her. It’s all good stuff. Plus, if you’re here for the plot, although it takes a little while to reveal its unique twists on the formula, once they’re out in the open they build up into an intriguing mystery. And, though it starts out looking like just a comedy in the vein of those other films that have used this concept before, it actually evolves into something more psychological, darker and more complex.

    Frankly, one of the main reasons I started watching Russian Doll was because I expected it to be just Groundhog Day / Happy Death Day rehashed as a TV series — that’s what it looked like from the trailers, and I was partly expecting to be able to justifiably complain about that if I’d actually watched it. But, at the same time, I do like both those films, and Russian Doll’s trailer promised at least one new twist on the formula, so I was prepared to give it a fair shout to prove itself. In the end, it deserved the latter. Sure, of course the basic premise is similar to those previous films, but it reimagines it with a dark and foul-mouthed wit that’s distinctly its own, plus it takes the concept down some entirely new avenues. I don’t know how they’d do future seasons (it was originally pitched as three seasons, but it sounds like that evolved during production, so maybe they don’t have as clear an idea as they once did), but I’ll be here for them if they come along.

    Hanna  Season 1 Episode 1
    Hanna the seriesAmazon are adapting Joe Wright’s 2011 film Hanna into a TV series. Apparently that was commissioned back in 2017, which I don’t recall hearing about, and I feel like I would’ve remembered because I loved the film (never did get round to writing a fuller review, though). Anyway, the first I did hear of it was when they made the first episode available for 24 hours as a preview (the whole first season will be released at the end of March).

    Unsurprisingly, the story has been extended to fit its new TV format — this first hour only covers the first act of the film. At this pace, it’s very plausible it’ll take the rest of the season to get through the rest of the movie’s plot (and I’m sure they’ve got some tricks up their sleeve to extended it beyond that). But, surprisingly, it doesn’t feel horrendously slow or artificially drawn-out. This isn’t a mile-a-minute action show, but its pacing is no worse than most other streaming series, here with the added excuse that it’s setting the scene. Indeed, that’s arguably the episode’s biggest problem when viewed in isolation: it feels a bit like the real plot will kick off in episode two, and this is all prologue. On the other hand, in that sense it works all the better when released as tease ahead of the main series. Either way, it grabbed my attention enough that I’ll continue with it when the rest is released.

    Les Misérables  Episodes 4-6
    Les Misérables
    The second half of the BBC’s new adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel (gotta be careful to be clear about that, apparently) is all set in the story’s final time period — Cosette is now a young woman, desperate to see the outside world; Marius is now a young man, whose friends seem desperate to die for a revolution; and Javert is still Javert, still desperate to catch Valjean, presumably out of sheer spite and/or pride. All the characters, connected as much by coincidence and chance as by choice or action, come together around the June Rebellion of 1832, and… well, you either know the plot or you don’t want me to spoil it for you. This remains a handsomely mounted production until the last, however, including pulling off the action at the barricades with suitable scale and impact.

    That stuff always feels like it should be the climax to me. In a literal sense, it’s the big action set piece, and is the end of the road for several major characters. But no, there’s plenty left after it, for good (the final confrontations between Javert and Valjean) or ill (Thenardier in the sewers; the unearned redemption of Marius’ grandfather). I rewatched the film of the musical when I was exactly halfway through this series, and by comparison most of the movie felt like a long “previously on” montage. The exception is this post-barricade stuff, where the BBC version, conversely, feels drawn-out compared to the economy of the musical’s telling. The final part was almost quarter-of-an-hour longer than the first five, and I couldn’t help but feel a little more streamlining would’ve helped. Still, it’s a relatively minor complaint amidst what has been a typically excellent adaptation by the Beeb.

    In the UK, the whole series remains available on iPlayer for the foreseeable future, while in the US it will air on PBS from April 14th.

    The 91st Academy Awards
    The 91st Academy AwardsThe run-up to this year’s Oscars seemed to be mired in a mix of controversy and disinterest. The former was provoked by a variety of poor decisions by the Academy, including fiascoes around a Best Popular Film award, over who would host (it was Kevin Hart, then it wasn’t, then it was no one), and over the decision to present some awards during the ad breaks (which was scrapped, thankfully). This whole palaver is part of what fed the disinterest, along with a slate of nominees that was regarded to be generally uninspiring. As it turned out, plenty of people still tuned in (US viewing figures were slightly up from last year) and plenty of conversation was sparked. Other people can dig into it in more depth than me (and have, of course, considering the ceremony was days ago), but I will say I was overjoyed for Olivia Colman (definitely the best speech, although a couple of others were quite good too) and Spider-Verse, was quite pleased Black Panther won Best Score (I don’t know if it was actually the best overall, but I really liked it), and its other two victories (costumes and production design) were also welcome, and Spike Lee’s ecstatic win was another top moment. It wasn’t all sunshine and roses, obviously, with Best Picture in particular being an underwhelming result; though I’m not as miffed about Bohemian Rhapsody’s multiple wins as some people (even if its awards for sound editing and mixing were more about “most” than “best”).

    The big takeaway from the night should probably be that going host-less worked. Queen’s opening performance was great (because Queen), and the non-monologue monologue from Maya Rudolph, Tina Fey, and Amy Poehler was another highlight of the ceremony. Things still ran smoothly, and there were no stupid asides like bringing normal people into the auditorium or whatever — cutting those time wasters was a much better idea than cutting actual awards. Maybe being host-free is the way forward, though I think they’ll need to continue finding ways to handle the monologue section going forward — the show needs some kind of intro, and a gentle ribbing of the nominees is an appropriate way to do it, I think.

    Also watched…
  • The British Academy Film Awards 2019 — The BAFTAs also happened. We gave a better Best Film, but further evidence that maybe a host-less ceremony is a good idea: Joanna Lumley is a national treasure, but her opening monologue was excruciating.
  • Great News Season 2 Episodes 8-13 — The series finale of this cancelled-too-soon newsroom sitcom is titled Early Retirement. So, that’s a nice meta gag to console ourselves with, at least.
  • Mark Kermode’s Oscar Winners A Secrets of Cinema Special — Kermode dissects the formula to make an Oscar winner in this special of his excellent series. It’s available on iPlayer for a few weeks yet.

    Things to Catch Up On
    The Umbrella AcademyThis month, I have mostly been missing The Umbrella Academy, as I mentioned at the start. The trailers look good (love a bit of Hazy Shade of Winter), and it seems like critical and audience reaction has been positive, so it’s definitely on my watchlist. I’m also yet to start the new series of Scottish crime drama Shetland, or The Missing’s much-anticipated spin-off Baptiste. I expect I’ll be saving those up for a little while yet.

    Next month… HBO have set the Deadwood revival/finale movie to air this spring, which is, y’know, soon. I watched season one when it first aired, thought it was great, but when season two came around I found myself thoroughly lost and eventually gave up. I imported the US Blu-ray box set years ago (it’s bursting with special features vs. the UK’s completely bare bones release), and it’s been sat on my shelf waiting ever since, like so many non-pressing TV series nowadays. Well, I guess now is its time…

  • The Past Month on TV #14

    After last month’s bumper-bonus TV review (with three major series to review, plus a couple of big specials), the past four weeks have been pretty quiet. I’ve certainly watched stuff, just very little of it feels worthy of comment.

    Nonetheless, there was this:

    The Missing (Series 2)
    The Missing series 2While everybody’s busy fawning over Happy Valley (never watched it) and Line of Duty (series one was quite good; I need to catch up), I reckon The Missing is one of the best dramas British TV has produced in a good long while. The second series (which aired towards the end of last year over here and, coincidentally, started last Sunday in the US) is every bit the equal of the first, and possibly even better — and considering how good the first was, that really is an achievement.

    Featuring a brand-new case (what with the first one having been resolved), sibling screenwriters Harry and Jack Williams have this time made their story and scripts even tighter, partly in awareness of the scrutiny fans exacted upon the first run. What that means in practice is every mystery has an answer; nothing is thrown away, nothing is a mistake. That’s even more impressive given some of the audacious twists they pull off, which I shan’t spoil here.

    As well as the enjoyable plot theatrics, the emotional lives of the characters are as on point as ever. Maybe none are quite as effective as the toll exerted on James Nesbitt’s character in series one, but the cast is arguably more well-rounded beyond a sole lead. Talking of which, the only major returning character, Tchéky Karyo’s detective Julien Baptiste, is even more central this time, which can only be a good thing because he’s a top character expertly brought to life. The writers agree: while a third series of The Missing is contingent on them having a good idea for a story, they’ve talked about potentially conjuring up a Baptiste spin-off instead.

    I’ve recently been thinking about my favourite TV series of the last ten years. There are rather a lot of contenders, considering the golden age of “peak TV” we’re currently living through. Frankly, I’m not sure if The Missing will quite crack the top ten, but it’s definitely in the conversation.

    The British Academy Film Awards 2017
    The BAFTAs 2017aka the BAFTAs, obv. I have to say, I thought it was a pretty dull show this year. For starters, Cirque du Soleil — impressive, but what’s it got to do with the last year in film? Why did no one write Stephen Fry some good material for his opening monologue? Then there were the awards themselves. Short on surprises — the big prizes went where expected, the smaller ones erred British. None of the American winners are committed to giving a decent speech here because they’re saving it all for the Oscars. Well, apart from the Kubo guy — he knows his award is going to Zootropolistopia next fortnight and so he gave us his best stuff. Good on him.

    Also watched…
  • Death in Paradise Series 6 Episodes 2-6 — Caribbean murder.
  • Elementary Season 5 Episodes 4-9 — Sherlockian murder.
  • The Flash Season 3 Episodes 10-11 / Arrow Season 5 Episodes 9-11 — not much need to investigate the murders here, as the heroes are doing them half the time.
  • Who Dares Wins Series 9 Episodes 5-6 — they’ve had to cut out the National Lottery bits now they’ve dropped that from TV, and they’re shunting it around the schedule like an unloved heirloom they’ve committed to display but really rather wouldn’t… and it is a kind of terrible show, really… but the lists, man, they keep me coming back. #addict

    Things to Catch Up On
    LegionIt must be a slow time for TV — I don’t even feel like I’ve been missing all that much. Well, X-Men spin-off Legion recently started and I haven’t got round to that yet, and 24 spin-off / sequel / continuation 24: Legacy started in the UK last night, so I’ve barely had a chance to watch it (I’ll have something to say about that next month, then). So I really have no excuse for not watching Westworld yet. Oh, and I need to get on with starting my long-planned re-watch of Twin Peaks, because there are only…

    94 days until new Twin Peaks.

    Next month… the final series of Broadchurch begins.

  • Ex Machina (2015)

    2016 #26
    Alex Garland | 108 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | UK / English | 15 / R

    BAFTABritish Academy Film Awards 2016
    5 nominations

    Nominated: Best British Film; Best Supporting Actress (Alicia Vikander); Best Original Screenplay; Best Special Visual Effects; Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer.

    A British sci-fi movie from a first-time director will tomorrow take a place at the table (well, in the auditorium) alongside 2015’s biggest awards contenders, as it vies for multiple gongs at this year’s BAFTAs — and it stands a very plausible chance of walking away with several of them, too. I hope it does, because, after a year that brought us awards-quality sci-fi bombast (Mad Max, Star Wars), it’s fantastic that a small film about three people sat in rooms talking can stand toe-to-toe with them as one of the year’s best.

    The increasingly ubiquitous (and deservedly so) Domhnall Gleeson stars as Caleb, a programmer at search engine giant Google Bluebook who wins a staff lottery to spend a week with the company’s reclusive founder, Nathan, played by the increasingly ubiquitous (and deservedly so) Oscar Isaac. However, on his arrival he learns he’s not just there to hang out: Nathan wants him to perform a Turing test on an AI he’s built. The point of the Turing test (as I’m sure you know) is for a human to interact with an AI but not realise it’s an AI, so Caleb’s surprised when said AI — Ava, played by the increasingly ubiquitous (and deservedly so) Alicia Vikander — comes in the form of a robot that’s obviously a robot. The real test is whether Caleb can know he’s talking to something non-human and still come to be convinced it’s human. As Caleb begins his interviews with Ava, it becomes apparent that there’s something else going on at this remote facility, where regular power cuts mean they’re all locked in…

    As is probably clear, Ex Machina is a sci-fi movie of the thoughtful variety. It’s a film that considers ideas of artificial life, how we test it and what it means to create it, and only gradually builds in thriller elements that pay off in its final twenty-or-so minutes. In truth, it’s not the most thorough deconstruction of what it means to be human and whether artificial intelligence can have that right, but it does touch on these issues and, in so doing, leaves them open for the viewer to mull over for themselves, or debate with friends, or however else one likes to consider their movies post-viewing (like, I dunno, writing about them on the internet or something).

    There are thematic similarities to Blade Runner, which (in case you’ve not seen it) also deals with the humanity or otherwise of man-made intelligence. Mulling on that comparison, I’m tempted to say Ex Machina is almost the inverse of Blade Runner, in this regard: Ridley Scott’s classic is ostensibly an SF-noir thriller (Harrison Ford is a cop hunting down some rogue robots), but by its end has revealed a considered exploration of what it means to be human, and whether these artificial creatures can lay claim to that. Conversely, Alex Garland’s film seems like it’s sitting us down to consider those same issues, but is actually laying the groundwork for revelations and twists that build to an edge-of-your-seat climax. I’m not saying one’s better than the other in this respect, just that they’re approaching the same topics almost from opposite ends.

    Also like Blade Runner, Ex Machina is an exceptionally well made and performed film. Not in the same way as Blade Runner — it’s bright and clean and modern, in a Google-y, Apple-y kind of way — but to a similar level of internal consistency and accomplishment. Gleeson’s Caleb may seem a little plain, a blank page for the other characters to write on, but as his insecurities begin to come to the fore you realise that’s almost the point. Isaac is suitably overbearing as the alcohol-dependent genius behind Bluebook and Ava, an initially affable but quickly disquieting presence — he may be a threat, or may just be a bit odd. And his dance scene is surely one of 2015’s highlights (there’s an extended version hidden on the US Blu-ray, which is a treat). Garnering the most praise (and awards) is Alicia Vikander’s take on an AI. It’s a tricky role to tackle, because she’s not just a robot — that would defeat the point of Nathan’s exercise — but nor is she fully human. It’s a tightrope of a role, a fine line to walk, and Vikander negotiates it with aplomb. To say too much more would be to spoil it.

    Aside from the acting, the film’s most striking element is surely the design of Ava. Her face and hands appear to be human, but everything else is robotic, and much of it transparent. This isn’t a case of slipping an actor into a suit painted with circuitboards — you can see the metal limbs and motors in her arms and legs, the metal spine in her back, the various computers or power sources or whatever glowing and spinning inside her. Occasionally she dresses in clothes and her workings are covered, but she spends most of the film with them on display. The CGI is literally flawless, which for a relatively-low-budget little British sci-fi-drama is all the more remarkable. I guess the visual effects awards are going to go to the big films, Star Wars or Mad Max or The Revenant (the bear seems to be very popular), but I do wonder if the work here is more deserving. You know how it must’ve been done — mo-cap suits and CGI — but there’s still a feeling of “how did they do that?”, because it’s so faultless. In fact, you don’t even wonder how they did it, because you just accept it; it’s only if you actively stop to consider it that you realise it’s physically impossible and must be CGI.

    Those after a dissertation-like hard-science deconstruction of the meaning and possibilities of AI will likely find Ex Machina slightly lacking, as will anyone after the crash-bang thrills most mainstream sci-fi provides. Viewers prepared for a decently thought-provoking dramatic thriller about near-future tech, however, should be both engrossed, and grateful that movies like this are (for the time being) still getting made.

    5 out of 5

    The British Academy Film Awards are tomorrow night, televised on BBC One from 9pm.

    Ex Machina placed 20th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here.

    The BAFTAs 2008

    British film’s big night has been and gone. I won’t offer a comprehensive list of winners, or even many thoughts on them — such things are easily found elsewhere — but I will instead offer my thoughts on one of the few ceremonies this year to be presented in full (well, relatively speaking), and the only film awards ceremony that receives a terrestrial television airing in the UK.

    The first thought that comes to mind is, “oh dear”. Anyone would think the writers’ strike was affecting the UK too, if this was the evidence they had to go on. Jonathan Ross’s jokes were few and far between, and rarely gained much reaction from his audience. To be fair to Ross, Stephen Fry had a good deal of excellent material when he used to host the BAFTAs and he was often met with silence too… but not as often, and it tended to be the silence of “that went over the heads of the yanks in the audience” rather than of “it wasn’t that funny…”

    I like Ross as a presenter, generally speaking — I enjoy his Friday night show, and while I rarely catch his radio show (I’m rather lax about listening to anything on the radio) I enjoy that even more; and I liked Film 2000-whatever, because I often find I agree with his views and have some broadly similar tastes. But he’s no BAFTA host. He’s just not funny enough… oddly, because his work at the Comedy Awards is usually hilariously good.

    The opening, with a troop of 300-style Spartans, was by far the most interesting bit. It all seemed quite incongruous for an awards show, but through this it suggested a show with some flair and excitement. Sadly it just remained incongruous, with nothing else even vaguely close amongst the endless troop of fairly famous people reading poorly from an autocue. Even that Spartan-packed opening was flawed, missing out on the apparently obvious joke of having someone enter and yell, “THIS. IS. BAFTA!”, which would’ve been a far stronger opening than… whatever Jonathan Ross said. I can’t remember now…

    It’s a shame we couldn’t make a better fist of it for a year when more eyes than ever were on the BAFTAs, thanks to the faltering performance of US awards shows under the strike. A new host would help. Eddie Izzard, maybe — he got laughs. So did Ricky Gervais, not that he’d do it. But when even Hugh Laurie can’t bridge the cultural divide of British and American humour, you have to wonder if the host is doomed to failure from the start. At least the awards themselves threw up some surprises, with enough nods to the American films (and a consequent shunning of British talent) to keep them interested — I do wonder if the BAFTAs pander to trying to gain an American audience too much, but one could probably debate that for hours.

    There’s one thing we do better though: fewer awards, and we don’t even screen them all. It makes for a much less tiring experience.