The Personal History of January 2020

We’re a whole month in — 2020 is properly underway!

The less said about yesterday’s biggest news the better, so I’m just gonna plow on into some films…


#1 Crooked House (2017)
#2 Evil Under the Sun (1982)
#3 Rocketman (2019)
#4 Little Women (2019)
#5 Dial M for Murder 3D (1954)
#6 1917 (2019)
#7 The Dead Don’t Die (2019)
#8 Dolemite Is My Name (2019)
#8a What Did Jack Do? (2017)
#9 Bait (2019)
#10 Ad Astra (2019)
#11 (1963)
#12 Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986), aka Tenkû no shiro Rapyuta
Rocketman

Laputa: Castle in the Sky

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  • As should be self-evident, I watched 12 new feature films in January.
  • I watched my first film on New Year’s Day — the first time that’s happened since 2016.
  • I watched my second film on January 2nd — the first time that’s happened since 2012.
  • I watched my third film on January 3rd — the first time that’s ever happened.
  • I watched my fourth film on January 8th — which doesn’t sound as remarkable, but it’s earlier than I watched last year’s #1.
  • By #8, I was ahead of every previous year. By #12, I was ahead of just 54% of them.
  • In terms of averages, 12 slightly beats the January average (previously 11.42, now 11.46), but is slightly behind the average for 2019 (12.6).
  • Dial M for Murder is the first 3D film I’ve watched since last May, eight months ago.
  • This month’s Blindspot film was Federico Fellini’s semi-autobiographical search engine / hashtag nightmare of a title, .
  • From last month’s “failures” I watched just Little Women.



The 56th Monthly Arbitrary Awards

Favourite Film of the Month
I’m always wary of picking the last film I watched as my favourite of the month — I worry it’s just recency bias giving it a boost. And there are certainly other films I liked a lot this month — when I’ve settled on my final ratings, up to 50% of them will be getting full marks. But, eh, it’s just an opinion. So, for now, this month’s victor is a Miyazaki classic (of which there are so many!), Laputa: Castle in the Sky.

Least Favourite Film of the Month
This is a very straightforward choice, though. I’d heard only terrible things about The Dead Don’t Die, but the trailer had looked such fun that I went ahead and rented it anyway. Sadly, it was the word of mouth that was accurate — it’s a dud.

Most Quotable Film of the Month
You might not expect a black-and-white hand-developed art-house-y drama about the plight of locals in a Cornish fishing village to be full of zingers, but there are loads of such memorable bits in Bait. My favourite? A barmaid watching a local bloke chat up a bit of posh totty from out of town: “He’s wasting his time with her… ‘ow’s she gonna suck his dick with that plum in ‘er mouth?

Least Hashtag-Friendly Film of the Month
Continuing the theme of “recycling stuff I already put on Instagram”, you try and come up with a workable hashtag for .

The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
This month’s winner slayed all before it to become, not just my most-read new post, but my most read post overall for last month (that happens quite rarely — just thrice last year, or 25% of the time). The post in question was my Christmas TV review. It received more than double the number of views as the post in second place (which was the previous TV review), a lot of that powered by referrals from IMDb for people wanting to read about Dracula. I hope I switched them on to The Goes Wrong Show while they were here… (The highest new film-related post was my review of The Personal History of David Copperfield.)



Last year’s Rewatchathon limped to an ignominious end (only just over half of my 50-film goal), but 2020’s is off to a solid start…

#1 Zatoichi at Large (1972)
#2 The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939)
#3 The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939)
#4 Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979)
#5 Twin Peaks (1990), aka Twin Peaks: Pilot

Starting at the end, Twin Peaks — the original pilot, which I watched in UHD courtesy of the From Z to A box set. I was counting it as a film as part of a long-term setup for eventually including it on a list of my favourite films (oops, given the game away!)… but I feel less sure after watching it again. Not of its greatness — I still reckon it’s one of the very best episodes of TV ever made, with at least one sequence that’s among my favourites in the entire history of visual storytelling — but it’s so obviously a pilot; so made to set wheels in motion for a series to run with them over many more hours. Yeah, there’s the close-ended International Version, but that’s a bit of a mess. This is something I’ll continue to ponder on.

As for the picture quality of this UHD version, it’s unfortunately a mixed bag. Lynch chose not to use HDR here, apparently… though I don’t know if that’s been confirmed or if it’s accepted wisdom from the disc not playing with HDR. I say that because when I turned Dolby Vision on, it kicked in. So is the disc encoded for Dolby Vision but not normal HDR? Is that possible? Or was my player ‘faking it’? I don’t know enough about how HDR/DV works to answer that. Normally I have Dolby Vision switched off because I don’t like it (I don’t know if I just consider it inaccurate or if it’s my TV’s fault, not displaying it properly for some reason), and Twin Peaks did nothing to convince me I should change that. Mainly it just seemed to make things too dark, erasing detail in the shadows (I tried fiddling with my settings in case I’d set it up poorly, but that didn’t help). With or without DV, the pilot doesn’t look right. The resolution is good, with improved fine detail compared to the Blu-ray, so that’s nice; but the colours look far too pale. Considering classic Twin Peaks is renowned for its warm look, this is especially jarring. Some scenes — outdoor ones, mainly, where the colours are cooler anyway — look just fine, but others look thoroughly wrong. What’s really baffling is that Lynch supposedly supervised this new version, so it should be bang on; but I’m pretty sure he supervised the previous one too, so what’s gone awry? Whenever I next watch the pilot, I’m going to have a difficult choice on my hands: 4K for the base-level image quality, or 1080p for (what I think is) the correct colour balance. Argh!

As anyone au fait with the news has likely guessed, I watched Life of Brian in honour of Terry Jones. Plus, I’d been meaning to rewatch it ever since I watched Holy Grail last September. Like that film, it’s now down to get the “Guide To” treatment at some point.

Rather than regurgitate comments about my other rewatches, I’ll point you towards Letterboxd for my thoughts on The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and why I rewatched Zatoichi at Large when there are still several original Zatoichi films I’ve not seen.


2020 got off to a solid start, but there were still plenty of things I failed to see. On the big screen, I saw most of the stuff I really intended to — I’m happy to leave both Guy Ritchie’s latest, The Gentlemen, and belated trilogy-maker Bad Boys for Life until they reach rental. Speaking of which, I’ve got both Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale and Danny Boyle’s Yesterday sitting on my Amazon Prime Video account with the days ticking down — definites for next month, those.

In terms of new disc acquisitions, I watched a few as soon as they landed on my mat, but I went on a bit of a spending spree this month — a mix of new releases, random bargains, and having some vouchers to use up. In the former camp, the BFI’s new Blu-ray of Judgment at Nuremberg rubs shoulders with Arrow’s release of Black Angel, a film noir directed by Roy William “director of 11 Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes films” Neill (which was recommended to me almost eight years ago by an esteemed fellow blogger, so it’s about time I got round to it).

The random bargains pile, meanwhile, is mostly made up of horror: the 101 Films Black Label edition of David Cronenberg’s Rabid; 88 Films’ box set of Hollow Man and Hollow Man II; and an import of Dario Argento’s Dracula 3D, which is meant to be absolutely terrible but, eh, I’m curious (it’s also only available in the UK on DVD or digital, neither of which are 3D, so I got the German one. The extras aren’t English-friendly, but I don’t reckon I’m ever likely to watch an hour-long making-of on this particular film). And in the “I had a voucher” camp, Don’t Look Now in its 4K limited edition form. Frankly, I’d’ve snaffled that up even without the voucher — it’s sold out online and so the price is beginning to rise on eBay and the like, but I happened across a single copy in a branch of HMV, where they were still charging the original price. The voucher comes into play because I wouldn’t even have been looking were it not for having an HMV voucher that expired the next day. So, that was nice.

And finally, the ever-burgeoning ranks of what’s available on streaming. Headliners this past month include In the Mood for Love cropping up on Prime Video — it’s one of the most acclaimed films of this century, but it never seems to be available in the UK, apart from an old DVD. It’s on my Blindspot list this year too, but I’d already got hold of it by, er, other means for that purpose. Other additions that drew my attention on Prime included Booksmart (particularly as I previously rented it but accidentally let the clock run out), Samuel Fuller’s The Naked Kiss, The Boondock Saints (one of those films I’ve heard of but don’t know much more about), and Jason Statham vehicle Wild Card — it’s been a while since I watched a run-of-the-mill Stath flick, so I feel overdue. Also overdue is a rewatch for Brokeback Mountain, which is also now on Prime here. Back in 2006 I was one of that rare breed who thought Crash was better. I didn’t hate Brokeback, but I didn’t like it much either. So, it’s long overdue that I revisit it and form a new opinion, now that I’m older and wiser.

Over on Netflix, the biggest hitter is probably Uncut Gems, which is one of this year’s many “should’ve had Oscar noms” films. But that only came out yesterday, so it’s not much of a “failure”… yet. Also catching my eye were Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (not to be confused with A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, which is only just reaching UK cinemas) and Zhang Yimou’s Shadow. Plus they now have Phantom Thread, which I personally don’t intend to rewatch in anything less than 4K, but I mention its presence nonetheless because I highly recommend it.


Ghibli comes to Netflix! Well, not if you’re in North America, but for the rest of us: hooray!

…although I own Blu-rays of most of the ones I’m interested in seeing, I’ve just not got round to watching them yet, so their presence on Netflix isn’t likely to affect my viewing much at all. Hey-ho.

The Past Christmas on TV

Continuing the spirit of publishing things about ten days late, here’s my Christmas TV review, about ten days after the season ended. (And if you’re thinking, “um, Christmas was 18 days ago,” well, the TV ‘Christmas’ season goes on until at least January 1st here, so there.)

Santa Goes Wrong
Here’s Santa to rekindle your festive spirit.
With alcohol.

This is now my fourth annual Christmas TV post, would you believe. I still feel like TV reviews are a fairly recent addition to this blog, but nope, it’s been four years. And this is, in a way, a vintage year, what with the Gavin & Stacey revival becoming the most-watched Christmas Day broadcast in something like 17 years; and, even more impressively, it was the only scripted programme to make the top ten TV broadcasts of the decade (the rest going to sporting events and one random episode of The X Factor).

As for whether it was any good, and what I thought of other stuff that was on… well, read on…

Doctor Who  Spyfall
Doctor Who: SpyfallFor the first time in 14 years, since the series returned, there was no Doctor Who Christmas/New Year special. Gasp! At least we got the first episodes of a new series, though — two slightly-longer-than-normal instalments (at 60 minutes each, which doesn’t feel that special when regular episodes are 50 minutes now). And a two-parter, too — the first of those since 2017. And a big two-parter at that, with big-name guest stars and big action sequences and big overseas locations.

Yep, this is Doctor Who with a bang — a marked contrast to last series, which mostly went for understated. Well, as understated as modern Doctor Who gets, anyway. But whereas series 11 had no two parters and no returning monsters and, as I say, a markedly calmer pace and tone, series 12 begins with the antithesis of all of that. In case you’ve not seen it I shan’t spoil the end-of-part-one reveal, which was a massive delight that I did not see coming (I guess someone learnt a lesson from last time that villain returned, when the production team basically spoiled it themselves before anyone else could). That was the highlight of an episode that moved at a mile a minute, not pausing to let you consider the logic of what was going on (which, yeah, was not faultless). But while it may not have been perfect, I’m glad to see a return for this fun, exciting version of the show. I didn’t find series 11 a total washout (I think my reviews as it was airing were mostly positive, even), but overall I felt like something wasn’t quite working.

Well, let’s be honest, what wasn’t working is showrunner Chris Chibnall. His episodes under previous showrunners Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat were never the very best (and I say that as someone who likes them more than most), but without their oversight to guide him, he seemed a bit lost. He’s a long-time fanboy of the show (somewhat famously, he appeared on a viewer feedback show in the ’80s to slag off the quality of the writing), and at times last series it felt like he was writing for the show as he’d loved it as a kid (that is to say, a bit slow-paced and old-fashioned). Now, possibly taking some of the criticism on board (or possibly just trying to mix it up), he’s attempting to emulate the whoosh-bang blockbuster-but-quirky style of RTD and Moffat. What he can’t grasp is their effortless-seeming slickness — when they rushed over something it was usually because “it makes sense if you think about it”, whereas Chibnall is trying to cover a logic gap; conversely, when there’s no gap to be hidden, he has characters mercilessly over-explain everything, I guess for the sake of anyone who’s just walked in.

So, not perfect, but I thought Part 1 was a blast nonetheless. Sadly, I was much less enamoured with Part 2 — a virtually nonsensical runaround through time, which didn’t seem to know what to do with everything that had been put in play, just throwing “more” at us until the Doctor basically said “time for the story to end now”, and so the baddies disappeared and that was that. Apart from an epilogue, which was quite intriguing — and dove head first into full-on mythology territory, something the series studiously avoided last year. Whether Chibnall’s got anywhere good to go with what he’s teasing, God only knows (I fear not, based on the evidence), but it’s a welcome bit of business that will hopefully jazz up the season to come.

Gavin & Stacey  A Special Christmas
Gavin & Stacey: A Special ChristmasI won’t recap Gavin & Stacey’s ratings success (what with already having mentioned it at the start), nor will I touch on the controversy around its use of Fairytale of New York (I kind of get why people complained, but also, the song is the song). As for the episode itself, well, I thought it was masterful. It may be nine years since the last episode, but it was like they hadn’t been away. Not that they tried to ignore the passage of time — clearly, the best part of a decade had passed in the characters’ lives, and naturally changes had come with that — but the characters and performances felt true to their old selves, as if they’d never stopped playing them, with the rhythms and comedic style of the show fully intact. Some decade-later revivals feel like new shows — the writers have forgotten how to write it properly; the cast have forgotten how to play it right — but not this one. This was bang on what it should be. Tidy.

Dracula
Dracula“From the makers of Sherlock”, declared the publicity for this new adaptation of the Victorian novel — so you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a present-day reimagining. But it wasn’t. Well, until it was.

This new Dracula is very much a tale of three parts, and not just because it was in three 90-minute episodes. While undoubtedly a serial, each episode was almost a standalone instalment, which was a structural trick I quite liked — it doesn’t feel like you’re watching one four-and-a-half-hour work broken into three by the necessities of the schedule, but rather three separate-but-connected works. And I really, really liked the first two.

The Rules of the Beast is what you most expect of Dracula: a spooky Transylvanian castle; “I don’t drink… wine”; mild little Englishman Jonathan Harker discovering terrible secrets… Of course, writers Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss didn’t shy away from bringing a few affectations and twists to the piece, but I thought they all worked well. Claes Bang makes for a fantastic Dracula (a comment that holds true throughout the series), the rest of the cast were very good as well, and there were some proper horror bits — this adaptation was not, ahem, toothless.

The second instalment, Blood Vessel, dealt with Dracula’s voyage to England aboard the Demeter — a part usually more or less glossed over in other adaptations, as far as I know. But here Moffat and Gatiss spin it out into a full 90-minutes, kind of like a slasher movie set in a confined location, albeit we know whodunnit — so, naturally, there are other twists to be found. Again, I liked this a lot — the way it felt respectful to the source while also expanding and refreshing it; the interesting supporting cast; some very impressive production work (they built the entire ship on a soundstage!)

Then we get to episode three, The Dark Compass. There’s no way to talk about what happens here without spoiling it, so if you haven’t watched the series yet and are intending to, look away now. If you have watched it, you’ll know this episode jumps the action forward 123 years to 2020. And you also probably hated it, because it seems almost everyone did. My feelings were slightly more nuanced. In my opinion, its biggest mistake is that it’s a completely different show. Sure, we still have Claes Bang playing Dracula (and he’s still excellent), and we still have Moffat and Gatiss’s recognisable stylings in the dialogue and whatnot, but the entire setup has shifted. Judged in isolation, as a present-day-set reworking of the Dracula story as told in the novel, I don’t think it’s that bad. Maybe it’s a tad too cheesy (the scenes in nightclubs and whatnot do have a feel of “how do you do, fellow kids”), but it’s workable as a modern-day adaptation of the character and plot. The problem, as I say, comes from placing it as part of a whole alongside the reenvisioned-but-fundamentally-faithful adaptation we got in the first two episodes. In doing so, Moffat and Gatiss undermine the whole enterprise — it robs the first two-thirds of a fitting finale; and, by being so radically different to the style we’ve spent three hours getting used to, it doesn’t give itself a fair shake either.

And so many have judged the overall result to be a failure. Personally, I enjoyed enough of it that I was still entertained, but if they’d given us a ‘proper’ third episode to round it out then I think I may’ve loved it.

The Goes Wrong Show  Series 1 Episodes 1-2
The Goes Wrong Show - The Pilot (Not the Pilot)Oh my, what a treat! Regular readers will remember how much I loved Peter Pan Goes Wrong at Christmas 2016 (“the best thing that was on TV during the festive season”) and its 2017 followup, A Christmas Carol Goes Wrong. When the gang missed Christmas 2018 I feared we wouldn’t be getting any more, possibly thanks to the negative-nelly reception in some quarters. But oh no, for 2019 they’re back with a vengeance: not a one-off hour, but a whole series of half-hour Plays Gone Wrong. Reader, I am cock-a-hoop with delight!

The first episode was another Christmas special; the second a historically-inaccurate WW2 thriller (set in 1961); the third aired on Friday but I’m currently saving it. It’s a half-hour parade of utter silliness — slapstick, wordplay, entirely predictable tomfoolery… but sometimes the total predictability of what’s about to go wrong is part of the fun (episode one begins with a blatant setup for a joke that isn’t paid off until the very end of the episode). And it’s exactly the kind of thing the whole family can watch and enjoy, whether you’re 6 or 66. I genuinely can’t remember the last time I was driven to tears of laughter. Actually, I can — it was Peter Pan Goes Wrong. Long live the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society!

Also watched…

A mix of Christmas scheduling and non-Christmas stuff we just happened to catch up on.

  • Criminal: United Kingdom Season 1 — Netflix’s high-concept cop show wasn’t quite as classy as the publicity would have you believe (it still indulged in the old staples of office politics, breaking from the tension of the interrogation to faff around with romance subplots and whatnot), but the guest stars still gave it their all — I don’t think I’ve ever seen Hayley Atwell like that before, and David Tennant was superb as always. Good enough that I’ll check out some of the international versions.
  • In Search of Dracula with Mark Gatiss — This felt like it was planned as a promo for the BBC’s new Dracula, but aired after it. Weird. Anyway, Gatiss has fronted several great documentaries on horror before, and while this wasn’t quite in their league (the others are exceptionally good) it was still a solid and interesting look at the history of the Count. And it made me want to see a load of previous Dracula films, which I always think is the mark of a good movie documentary.
  • Miranda My Such Fun Celebration — I know the sitcom Miranda wasn’t to everyone’s taste, but I loved it, as did lots of others, hence this one-off special to mark its tenth anniversary. It’s a bit of an oddity — a mix of cast reunions, sketches, clip montages, and song and dance. Yes, song and dance. It was well-meaning but, well, I found it a little strange. But for those people whose lives have been positively impacted by the series (and, genuinely, hurrah to it and them for that), I’m sure it was a delight.
  • Vienna Blood Series 1 — A new crime series from “that other guy who wrote some episodes of Sherlock”, this adaptation of a series of novels set in Vienna c.1907 did feel a bit like Sherlock Lite, with its Freud-influenced genius consulting detective and some stylish visuals. But it lacked the innovation that marked out Sherlock, especially in its early days. You can tell this has half an eye on being an easy sell to international markets, able to sit comfortably alongside all the other 90-minute crime dramas the UK TV industry churns out. So, it was a bit predictable and formulaic, but decently done and reasonably entertaining. This Guardian article echoes my feelings on it pretty well.

    Things to Catch Up On
    A Christmas CarolThis month, I have mostly been missing the BBC’s new adaptation of A Christmas Carol, written by Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight. I know it went down with some degree of controversy, but its revisionist, horror-tinged style looked right up my alley. Unfortunately, it was stripped over three nights, and because I knew I was going to be away for the third evening I didn’t start it. By the point I had enough time to make room for it, it was so long enough after Christmas that I wasn’t sure it was appropriate. Now, it’s January 12th and it’s definitely too late. Guess I’ll have to try to remember to watch it next year, then.

    Next month… it’s a new year, so I’m sure there must be plenty of new TV. Although I kind of hope not, because I’ve still got tonnes and tonnes from last year to catch up on.

  • The Monster Squad (1987)

    2017 #43
    Fred Dekker | 79 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / PG-13

    The Monster Squad

    When I rewatched The Nice Guys on Blu-ray, I also watched the (pathetic selection of) special features, in which Ryan Gosling mentions being a fan of Shane Black before he knew who Shane Black was because growing up he loved The Monster Squad. To cut to the obvious, that inspired me to watch the thing.

    It’s about a group of young kids who idolise classic monster movies, but basically find themselves in one when Dracula and friends come alive and set about finding an amulet that will allow them to control the world. The film wasn’t a success on its original release, but has gained a cult following since. It feels like that kind of movie, too.

    It’s also the kind of film I can imagine you’d love if you saw it at the right age, but the “right age” is not, it would seem, the one I am now. Really, it’s a kids’ movie, despite the BBFC’s 15 certificate. There’s more swearing and stuff than you’d typically expect from a kids’ movie, which I’m sure led to that classification, though as it’s not been submitted since 1990 perhaps they’d give it a 12 today. Nonetheless, the tone feels more aimed at, say, ten-year-olds — it stars kids who are 12 and under, and I bet they’re a moderately realistic version thereof, despite what ratings bodies would like.

    Frankie comes from Hollywood

    That’s not to say it’s without value for those of us coming to it late. There’s great make-up and creature effects, better than you might expect given the overall quality of the film, which is what you get when Stan Winston’s involved. It’s under 80 minutes long, which keeps things pleasantly fast — there’s very little titting about with bits of plot that we know where they’re going, it just gets there. There are some good lines too, as you’d expect from a Shane Black screenplay, although it’s surprisingly scrappily constructed. Perhaps that’s Fred Dekker’s limited skill as a director rather than Black’s screenplay? This was early in his career, mind, so maybe Black wasn’t up to scratch yet — it came out the same year as the film that made his name, Lethal Weapon… which I didn’t actually like much either, so…

    The Monster Squad wasn’t a huge success for me, then, but I imagine if you saw it at the right age it would become a nostalgic favourite.

    3 out of 5

    Nosferatu (1922)

    aka Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens / Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror

    Nosferatu2007 #18
    F.W. Murnau | 81 mins | DVD | PG

    One of the earliest and most-referenced horror films, and the first screen adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (faithfully, albeit unofficially).

    With such a weight bearing down upon it I found it quite hard to watch it objectively, and so was mainly left with the sense that I didn’t enjoy it as much as Sunrise and that I’d rather like to see a fully restored version. Perhaps Masters of Cinema shall treat us to one soon.*

    Whatever one’s thoughts on it, it really is a must see for anyone into sci-fi/fantasy, horror, or (again) the history of film.

    3 out of 5

    * In the years since this review was written, they have. ^