The Past Month on TV #58

The flipside of watching a tonne of films during lockdown is that I haven’t watched much TV — I’ve still not even finished Picard, ffs. But I did make time for Quiz (which, as a three-parter, was basically just a movie anyway), another animated Doctor Who, a season of Archer (“a season” sounds like a lot, but it’s only 13 easily-digestible 20-minute chunks), more of the worst of the original Twilight Zone, and a few other bits and bobs — including Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller in Danny Boyle’s stage production of Frankenstein, which the National Theatre made available on YouTube last week (sorry if you didn’t know; it’s gone now).

Quiz
QuizAdapted by James Graham from his own West End play and directed by Stephen Frears almost as if it were a movie (note how only the first episode has a proper title sequence), Quiz is the story of Major Charles Ingram, who in 2001 went on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and — allegedly — cheated his way to winning the million-pound jackpot with the help of his wife and someone in the audience coughing to indicate correct answers. But Quiz takes its remit wider than this, showing how Millionaire was born and spawned a nationwide community of quiz enthusiasts determined to game the system and make it onto the programme — and once on there, cheat in their own ways.

Obviously I knew the basic story of ‘the coughing major’ from all the news coverage, but I had no idea about all the stuff with the networks of dedicated fans. Quiz only touches on it as a side element in the Ingrams’ story, but it’s a fascinating aspect. The Ingrams were only passingly involved with it, but it makes you wonder: did that organisation cheat more successfully? Were the Ingrams caught and prosecuted because the programme had been driven to be hyper-vigilant but, in fact, were not cheating? They protest their innocence to this day. And while Quiz doesn’t come down on one side or the other, it throws enough doubt on the accepted narrative that you wonder how they were ever convicted.

The enthusiasts’ network; the lengths people went to get on the show; the media storm around the Ingrams… it’s all a reminder of what a phenomenon Millionaire was at the time (at its height, it was watched by a third of the UK population). The best thing about the first episode is how it digs into that, with the backstory of the show itself, the pitches and its early success. This stuff could be seen as an aside to the main story — as padding to make Quiz a three-parter — but it really isn’t: it was that very uniqueness, the specialness of the programme, that led to the ‘cheating’. It also makes for a fun drama, pillorying the behind-the-scenes world of television. Respect to ITV for commissioning a programme that takes so many potshots at ITV itself.

Chris Sheen played by Michael Tarrant… wait…Indeed, even as there are serious events (watch out for the undeserved fate of the Ingrams’ pet dog), Quiz is consistently very funny. There’s a gag in the closing seconds of episode two (punctuated by a smash cut to black) that is golden. Michael Sheen’s uncannily spot-on impersonation of Chris Tarrant will also tickle anyone familiar with the man — i.e. UK viewers, but I guess it won’t translate internationally. Matthew Macfadyen is more understated but also excellent as Charles Ingram, while Helen McCrory burns up the screen as their barrister later on. Those are the obvious standout performances, but the whole cast are on form, in particular Mark Bonnar as one of Millionaire’s exec producers. He’s consistently superb in everything I’ve seen him in (if you haven’t, you should definitely watch Unforgotten series 2), and here adds a lot of nuance to what could’ve been an inessential bit part.

Ultimately, this is a pretty excoriating examination of what went on. Very few people come out if it well — certainly not ITV, the show’s producers, the media, the police, the general public, the jury, the British legal system… Maybe only the Ingrams. Did they do it? Possibly. But the evidence of their guilt is rather thin and, in some cases, ludicrously biased. Quiz itself doesn’t come down firmly on one side or the other, but it certainly seems to have convinced a lot of viewers of their innocence.

In the UK, Quiz is available on ITV Hub for another few days. In the US, it airs on AMC from Sunday May 31st.

Frankenstein
National Theatre Live: FrankensteinAs theatre goes, this is a blockbuster: directed by Danny Boyle and starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, with the actors alternating who played Victor Frankenstein and his Creature for each performance. One of each was filmed for the National Theatre Live cinema screenings, and for the lockdown National Theatre at Home release they also made both available.
Cumberbatch-as-the-Creature came out first and consequently attracted the most YouTube views, but the consensus seems to be that Miller-as-the-Creature is the better version, so that was the one I watched (I’m curious to see both, but watching it twice in a week isn’t really my way).

Now, frankly, I’m not the biggest fan of Frankenstein. I like the concept a lot — it endures for a reason — but I found the novel an interminable slog, and faithful adaptations fare similarly. Fortunately, this one jumps right to the birth of the creature, thereby improving things considerably by getting to the meat of the issue. It also serves to almost completely refocus the narrative away from Frankenstein and onto his creation. After a brief appearance at the start, it’s another 45 minutes before Frankenstein enters the story properly. This feels like a very modern choice — siding with the downtrodden and oppressed, making him the protagonist rather than the genius inventor. Of course, the Creature is not without his crimes, and the production plays up the mirroring of creator and creation — as if the fact they’re played by the same actors alternating roles didn’t clue you in to that theme.

It’s an impressively theatrical production (a reason why, like One Man, Two Guvnors last week, I’m not counting it as a film), with some clever and effective staging, in particular a rotating multi-level centrepiece. That said, being able to view it from different angles via camerawork does add to the production at times, in particular with one or two moments that seem to have been staged for a bird’s eye view; but then, at others we’re clearly missing something of the atmosphere created in the physical space (for example, sometimes we get to see the massive lighting rig made of hundreds of individual bulbs, but some of its uses and effect is lost by not being in the room). Also, this YouTube release has been censored at one particular moment for the sake of a wider audience, which is a shame. It’s clear enough what’s happened, and some will be pleased not to see that depicted, but unfortunately the edit is wholly unsubtle and therefore completely jarring.

Whatever its other qualities, this production will remain best known for its role-switching gimmick. Some people do think it was just a gimmick — a way to show off and stand out, but not worth much else. I’m not sure that’s fair. If you only watch it once then obviously you’ll only see the actors one way round, even the mere existence of the alternative is somewhere in your mind, informing how you view the play, the notion that these two characters can be played by the same actor in the same production. It’s a neat way to underscore the connection between the two character, which, as much as they would both like to sever it, is seemingly unbreakable.

Doctor Who  The Faceless Ones
The Faceless OnesThe most recent missing story to be animated (see last month for the history of all that) has the Second Doctor, Ben, Polly, and Jamie arrive at Gatwick airport in 1967, where there are mysterious things going on around the offices of airline Chameleon Tours, including young people flying off on holiday but never coming back…

The Faceless Ones gets off to a strong start, with suspicious alien-connected murders, disbelieving authority figures, Polly seemingly mind-wiped, and the Doctor and Jamie playing at Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson — a bit of mystery, companions in peril, the TARDIS team on the back foot as they have to investigate while dodging the authorities. Unfortunately, this is a six-parter. There are many great Doctor Who six-parters, but there are at least as many (especially in the early days) where they seem to have commissioned six episodes by default and the writers didn’t really have enough story to fill them. The Faceless Ones is among the latter: as it heads into the second half, you can feel the plot begin to stretch itself out. There are some great cliffhangers to perk things up, at least.

Nowadays Who fans have a tendency to watch whole stories in one sitting, almost like a movie — most of them are about that length, after all. But someone once observed that a lot of overlong, awkwardly-paced serials suddenly make more sense if you watch them one episode at a time; that each part works as a 25-minute chunk of TV, and when you watch them in one go you don’t see the trees for the wood. The Faceless One is almost a case in point, because each of the earlier episodes are enjoyable in isolation, and the later ones have their moments; but, with hindsight, there is a lot of back-and-forthing, and I can well imagine that, watched all in one go, it feel long, slow, and spread thin.

The last two instalments are the worst culprits. The writing’s quality dive-bombs in the penultimate episode as other characters basically explain the plot to the Doctor and Jamie, while episode six offers a rather sedate finale, with a bit of drama early on giving way to a lot of protracted business to resolve the situation. It also features the most bored-sounding delivery of the line “you fools, how can you trust him” imaginable. To cap it off, this is Ben and Polly’s last episode, and they’re written out poorly. It’s nice that they decide it’s time to return to their own lives, rather than being forced to go or stuck with a thin romance or something (as other companions would be), but it’s terribly handled: they’ve not been in it for weeks, then suddenly realise it happens to be the same date they first joined the Doctor so, hey, why not leave now? And the Doctor’s goodbye speech: “Ben can catch his ship and become an admiral, and you, Polly… you can look after Ben.” Eesh.

As for this animated reconstruction, it looks a lot stiffer and flatter than Macra Terror, which feels like a disappointing step back. Some of the animation models are quite poor, suffering from Thunderbirds syndrome (i.e. too-big heads) or with odd posture, and sets are basic in places. I don’t know the behind-the-scenes details — maybe it was made on a reduced timescale or budget, or maybe it’s the strain of having to do 50% more episodes, or maybe they were trying to be more faithful to the live-action originals (two episodes of Faceless Ones survive, although they’ve been animated too, for consistency), or maybe it’s just that a ‘60s airport is visually duller than a far-future colony. Whatever, it does nothing to enliven the mediocre script. Still, I personally find these animated visuals better than nothing (others disagree), and I’ll happily buy every one they produce.

Archer  Season 6
Archer season 6When I watched Archer’s fifth season (aka Archer Vice), I was picking it back up after years away and was set to continue it. That was in 2018. Although I was quite positive in that initial review, I was less positive by the end, and that was my enduring memory of it. Well, I’m happy to report I found season six to be a return to form.

I observed of Archer Vice that the change of setting from spy agency to drug dealers was immaterial because it was the characters not the situation that mattered. That’s true to an extent, but I suspect not entirely, because here they’re back to being spies and it all seems to have sparked back to life. That’s kind of ironic because, as anyone who follows the show will know, they eventually moved on from spies to rotate through a different setting/genre every season, which was because they’d run out of spy stories to tell; and yet comedic spy stories are clearly what these guys do best. So, I’m wary of where it’s going to go in seasons I’ve not yet got to, but, for the time being, I’m enjoying it again. This time I don’t think it’ll be years before I watch the next season.

The Twilight Zone  ‘Worst Of’
The Mighty CaseyIn last month’s initial selection of The Twilight Zone’s worst episodes I found one or two that weren’t wholly terrible. I’m not sure this selection fares even that well…

Going from worst to ‘best’, the episode placed 155th (of 156) on my consensus ranking is The Mighty Casey. It’s a very silly story about a robot baseball player, which substitutes loopy sound effects and the incredulous expressions of onlookers for its lack of special effects, and I guess also to cover for its lack of adherence to the laws of physics. The only interesting aspect of the story is the reactions — or lack thereof — from characters when they learn Casey is a robot. It appears to be set in the then-present of 1960, but no one’s like, “holy shit, you built a lifelike robot who can pass for human and play baseball!” No, they’re only concerned with whether his roboticness needs to be reported or kept secret. That dilemma ultimately leads toCasey needing to be given a heart, but once he gets one he’s too compassionate to keep playing. So the ultimate message is… you need to be heartless to be a sportsman? I mean, I don’t care for sports much myself, but even I think that’s stretching it. Maybe baseball fans would get a kick out of this episode, but for the rest of us it’s just rubbish.

Equally as daft is Black Leather Jackets, in 154th. A trio of young bikers move in next door to a nice all-American family, but there’s more to the lads than meets the eye. The kindest thing I can say about this episode is that some of it is nicely lit. Unfortunately, the script is pretty crap, with the dialogue being particularly awful. “Do you know the word… love?” Seriously. It’s like a spoof of bad ’50s sci-fi, but it’s real and it was made in 1964. ScreenCrush’s Matt Singer says it’s “arguably the most dated of The Twilight Zone’s 156 episodes” and I think he might be right. And after 20 minutes of uncomfortable ludicrousness, it comes to an entirely unearned bleak ending. Twilight Zone may be most famous for its last-minute surprise reveals, but when they were bad, they were really bad.

The Whole TruthIn 153rd is The Whole Truth, which is about a car that’s been haunted since it came off the production line — although this one’s considerably less threatening than Christine. Instead of a murderous machine, this ‘haunted’ car merely compels its owner to be completely honest at all times. Unfortunately for used car salesman Harvey Hunnicut, he only learns this fact after he’s bought it. It’s an obvious idea — forcing a used car salesman, that most dishonest of individuals, to tell the truth — but it doesn’t go anywhere particularly interesting with it, other than a totally far-fetched and implausible finale. Yes, far-fetched and implausible even by Twilight Zone standards! Singer calls it “the dumbest twist in the history of The Twilight Zone” and, again, I’m inclined to agree.

In the episode titled The Chaser, the eponymous character is a young man in love with a woman who doesn’t reciprocate his affections, but through a coincidental contact he meets a fellow who sells him a guaranteed love potion. The scene where he purchases the potion is really quite good, but on the whole it’s painfully obvious that this is going down a “be careful what you wish for” pathway, and all we can do is wait for it to play out. They’re not even nice characters to spend time with — he’s a pathetic obsessive and she’s a bitch. And after he gets what he wished for and doesn’t like it, he considers a spot of murder. It’s a bit… much. And the morals of it all are a little foggy, to say the least — as many commenters observe, it’s dated into being uncomfortably sexist. There’s an angle that could make this storyline worked (critical of the guy trying to drug a woman into loving him), but that’s not what’s played here.

The Incredible World of Horace Ford is one of The Twilight Zone’s most interesting failures thanks to its production history: the script was previously performed as an episode of a different show in 1955, and by the sounds of things it was just restaged wholesale for TZ. That’s probably why it doesn’t feel like it quite fits in properly — it’s something broadly Twilight Zone-ish that’s been recycled rather than a bespoke episode. It’s about a 37-year-old manchild toy designer who constantly reminisces about stuff he did when he was 10… and yet somehow he’s managed to find himself a caring wife, friends, and hold down a job for 15 years. Maybe we’re supposed to think he wasn’t always so stuck in the past, but the way other characters indulge him makes it seem like he was, even if he’s getting worse as the episode begins.

The Incredible World of Horace FordThe lead actor is Pat Hingle, of Commissioner Gordon in Batman ’89 fame. He gives a convincing performance… if this was about a Big-style situation of a stroppy 10-year-old boy trapped in a 37-year-old’s body, but that isn’t what’s actually happening. There’s an equally misaligned performance from Nan Martin as his wife: it constantly feels like she knows more than she’s letting on about what’s really happening, like the twist might be she’s responsible for, or at least knows, what’s going on… but she isn’t and she doesn’t. Honestly, I don’t blame the actors for struggling with how to play their roles, because it’s not like the story makes it clear for them what’s meant to be going on. At first it seems like another of the series’ “you can’t go home again” episodes about a man in love with nostalgic memories of his childhood, but then it turns out it’s some kind of time-loop thing… or… not. The resolution is maddeningly, deliberately inexplicable. And, yeah, turns out it is just another version of “you can’t rely on your memory of good times”. To compound the problem, it’s a season four episode, so of course it takes its sweet time playing out a storyline over 50 minutes when it only needs the 25 minutes of other seasons; and the time loop factor makes it literally repetitive.

Finally for now, Four O’Clock, which is about a mentally deranged man who wears a far-too-tight waistcoat — and, more importantly, arbitrarily decides he’s going to eradicate all evil in the world at 4pm that afternoon… he just hasn’t worked out how yet. You see, he’s spent his days investigating bad people (i.e. those whose lifestyle choices he personally disagrees with) and trying to rat them out to their employers and the like, but he’s not really getting anywhere. Naturally, it comes to an appropriately ironic ending. Paste’s Oktay Ege Kozak reckons it’s “like lazy Twilight Zone fan fiction: it exploits every pattern the series had developed so far and executes it without much originality or flair”, which is a bit harsh, but also kinda fair. Aside from the predictability of the ending, the episode’s only real problem is that it’s like spending 25 minutes in the company of an internet troll. It might be an accurate portrait of a self-righteous busybody, but that doesn’t mean it’s pleasant to be around him.

Also watched…
  • The Big Night In — The UK’s two big charity telethons, Children in Need and Comic Relief, teamed up for the first time ever in aid of charities who help the most vulnerable at this difficult time. The three-hour event attracted a lot of unnecessary bile on social media. Okay, it wasn’t the greatest TV programme ever made, but it was alright (not significantly worse than these things normally are, I didn’t think), and had a few genuine highlights. The best bits were probably a new Blackadder-adjacent sketch guest starring Prince William, and Catherine Tate’s Lauren being homeschooled by her teacher, played by David Tennant (reprising the role from an old Comic Relief sketch) — “Are you or have you ever been a doctor? Are you a member of the WHO?”
  • Farewell, Sarah Jane — The tie-ins to Doctor Who Lockdown events have only become more elaborate since I wrote about them last month. This is probably the highlight, though: a new, final story for spin-off series The Sarah Jane Adventures, written by creator Russell T Davies and performed by a host of cameos, all to pay tribute to the late, great Elisabeth Sladen via her iconic character, Sarah Jane Smith. You can watch it on YouTube here.
  • Star Trek: Picard Season 1 Episode 7 — I only watched one more episode all month?! Oh dear. Three to go…

    Things to Catch Up On
    Killing Eve season 3This month, I have mostly been missing Killing Eve, the third season of which is currently airing between iPlayer and BBC One. For the first two seasons we had to wait until after it had finished in the US so they could put the whole lot up on iPlayer at once, which no one noticed during season one but drew a lot of criticism during season two (you can work out why, I’m sure). Consequently, I binged those first two seasons (indeed, I came to it late, so went straight through them both), so I wasn’t sure about watching it weekly now. Also, Devs, the latest work from Alex Garland, which frankly I wasn’t even aware existed until it popped up over here (when it had already almost finished in the US). I’ve seen very mixed reviews of it, but I still intend to watch it. But, as noted above, I still haven’t finished Picard, and I’m determined to get that done before I start anything else. Hopefully next month.

    Next month… hopefully I’ll finish Picard and get on to some of the stuff I’ve been missing. Also, I’ve got my eye on more classic Doctor Who, plus a third (and, I think, final) selection of the worst of The Twilight Zone.

  • T2 Trainspotting (2017)

    2017 #124
    Danny Boyle | 117 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | UK / English & Bulgarian | 18 / R

    T2 Trainspotting

    At one point during T2, a younger character accuses some of the returning characters of living in the past; that it’s all they talk about. It’s true of the characters, and it’s kinda true of the film itself too: this belated sequel to the era-defining original feels try-hard, like it wants to recapture the verve and inventiveness of its predecessor, but everyone’s now too grown up to do it properly.

    Set 20 years on, it reunites the first film’s main characters… and, really, that’s the plot. Obviously other things happen, and the details are important, but that seems to be why the film exists: to get the gang back together for another couple of hours. Is that reason enough to make a movie? I guess everyone will have their own answer to that question. For me, it wasn’t reason enough to justify T2.

    (Trivia aside that, frankly, I find more interesting then the film itself: reportedly director Danny Boyle wanted to call it simply T2, if James Cameron would let him — they thought they needed that permission because of Terminator 2 being commonly marketed as T2. But then it turned out that Terminator 2 was never officially called T2, so they were free to do as they pleased. But then internet searches for “T2” were found to still mainly turn up the Terminator sequel (unsurprisingly, let’s be honest), so they settled on T2 Trainspotting so people would know what it was. You have to wonder why at that point they didn’t just call it Trainspotting 2…)

    Looking as bored as I felt

    Anyway, back to this T2. The meandering plot, such as it is, lacks the grit and realism of the first movie. For example, that ended with a simple betrayal — a guy stealing money while his mates were sleeping — while this ends with a knock-down drag-out fight in a construction site like something out of a low-budget thriller. Visually, too, it’s so clean and pristine. There are some properly beautiful shots, especially of the scenery outside Edinburgh, but I’m not sure that’s in-keeping with the Trainspotting aesthetic. Boyle does at points try to reheat the visual tricks of the first movie, but I didn’t feel it worked. The original’s many stylistic flourishes are now much imitated, but they were fresh back in the day and somehow that freshness still comes across when watched now. By trying to ape ape them, T2 just joins the long line of copycats.

    Another key element of Trainspotting was the soundtrack. I don’t know what they were thinking with the music here — it isn’t even close to being as memorable or iconic as the original. Maybe that was the point, to not try the same trick again; but there are still plenty of jukeboxed tracks that attempt to draw attention to themselves, but… don’t.

    I felt like this, too

    Trainspotting had energy, dynamism, exuberance; it pulsed with life and youth. Its sequel is more sedate, more… middle-aged. Well, so are the characters, so that could work; but they don’t behave like they’re middle-aged — they’re too busy trying to recapture their youth, reliving past glories and past conflicts. The film is doing the same. You could perhaps argue that it’s form mirroring content, but the form lacks the wink at the audience to say “this is deliberate.” Like the characters, it seems unaware of the sad state it’s in. Ultimately, it feels like a slightly unfocused, thematically inconclusive, largely unnecessary postscript.

    3 out of 5

    Byzantium (2012)

    2015 #21
    Neil Jordan | 119 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | UK, USA & Ireland / English | 15 / R

    This review alludes to some spoilers.

    Byzantium18 years after he adapted Anne Rice’s seminal vampire novel Interview with the Vampire into a seminal vampire film, director Neil Jordan helmed another tale of two inextricably-linked immortal bloodsuckers. However, while the older film was a lavish, luscious, romantic fantasy, Byzantium is an altogether seedier, baser view of eternal life.

    The narrative unfurls in two timelines: the present day, where vampire mother Clara (Gemma Arterton) and daughter Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) find themselves in a washed-up seaside resort while on the run from who-knows-what (well, Clara knows; Eleanor doesn’t); and 200 years ago, when a young Clara found herself entangled with a pair of military officers (Jonny Lee Miller and Sam Riley) that led to… well, you can guess what. Between them the two strands hint at a rich mythology; one we seem to be witnessing a side story of, rather than the usual epic world-altering confrontation of most fantasy cinema. Screenwriter Moira Buffini (adapting from her own play, A Vampire Story) retains enough familiar vampiric tropes to be recognisable to aficionados, but also offers unique twists and tweaks to keep us engaged.

    Although the past storyline has its pros, and merges with the present day in time for the climax, the less mythologically-minded viewer will see the meat of the film as being Eleanor’s story. The forever-16-year-old is becoming disillusioned with her secretive existence, longing to share her truth with someone. When she twice bumps into genuine-16-year-old leukaemia survivor Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), it’s easy to see where the broad strokes of their encounter will lead. A back-cover pull-quote describes Byzantium as “the best vampire film since Let the Right One In” — their relative qualities are a separate point, but this adolescent ‘love(?)’ story is an obvious point of comparison nonetheless.

    WhorehouseThe most effective part of the movie isn’t so much its plot or its mythology, though, but its atmosphere. Vampire movies take place in castles or drawing rooms, or high schools in more modern iterations. They are grand and sensuous. Any glamour in Byzantium is discarded and decrepit, like the titular hotel that Clara reshapes as a whorehouse; faded and left to ruin. The seafront is characterised by graffitied concrete, the glaring lights of arcade machines, heroin-chic Eastern European prozzies. The pier appears to have burnt down at some unspecified previous time and just been left. The only people left behind are the ones without a means of escape, stuck with their miserable lot. Clara and Eleanor fit in almost seamlessly.

    Some have picked up on an apparent lack of change or development in the lead characters’ personalities over 200 years, calling it out as a plot hole. Is it? Or is it part of the point? These two haven’t become wiser and more experienced over their long lives, but instead have become stuck in a rut, repeating the same lies and performing the only roles they know. That’s why Clara still works as a whore; why Eleanor still struggles with the guilt from her religious upbringing; why they stick together as protective mother and innocent daughter. It’s just as true of the other immortals we ultimately meet, an organisation stuck in outmoded patriarchal beliefs, who have held a grudge for two centuries. Here, the immortality of vampirism seems to mean not only staying physically the same, but mentally so as well.

    Bloody tastyOther alleged faults include the film not giving enough time or heft to facets individual viewers want it to cover. For one example, someone criticised it for not fully exploring the issue of voluntary euthanasia. I’d argue it doesn’t explore it at all, because it’s not trying to. That Eleanor chooses to only kill people she perceives as wanting to die is not her making a moral statement on a contentious issue, but finding a way to marry her conscience and upbringing with the necessities of her vampiric life; and it’s probably practical, too. That’s not to say a vampire movie can’t be used to explore a topic like voluntary euthanasia, but if you want that I’m afraid you might have to write your own.

    I don’t wish to imply that Byzantium is faultless in its execution of every point it raises, however, as some do fall by the wayside. Not least of these is Frank’s leukaemia, which has its useful points (bloooood), and I suppose it’s a good thing we’re spared the “wants to become a vampire to survive fatal illness” trope (because his cancer is in remission), but it also feels like it’s there for that trope, and by dodging it the film has nowhere else to go with his illness. A similar fate befalls the character of Frank’s mother, probably by association. What does she think of her sickly son disappearing off with some girl he just met, possibly forever? We’ll never know…

    Soulless beautyTechnically, DoP Sean Bobbitt grants us some gorgeous cinematography. There’s a cruel, aptly soulless beauty to the faded town, while some countryside vistas, both past and present, offer more traditional scenic pleasure. A remote rocky, misty isle — central to the mythology and so repeatedly visited — is particularly notable. Captured entirely on digital cameras, it seems sometimes that Bobbitt tried to push his equipment too hard: some shots during the climax look flat-out weird, as if someone has applied a Photoshop “comic book” filter or something. Also of note is the score by Javier Navarrete, which makes particularly good repeated use of The Coventry Carol.

    Byzantium is a particular kind of experience. It’s the kind of film that hints at an epic mythology but doesn’t explore it, which some will be glad of and others regret; personally, I feel both at once — there’s a grander story left here, but I’m not sure I want it told. The narrative the film does contain is grounded in a melancholic reality; one that finds a kind of splendour in forgotten things and places; that almost elevates the shabbiness of a half-abandoned community to desirability, while acknowledging that it’s nothing of the sort. It takes vampirism and its associated immortality as something tempting but terrible and fantastical but tangible, and finds reflections of that in real-life experiences and locations. Darkly lovedFor all its dual-period storytelling and its grubby settings, it’s a resolutely modern kind of take on vampire mythology.

    There’s little doubt that the film’s brand of melancholic beauty is not to all tastes — an array of poor and middling reviews are easy to find — but it has qualities that must be recommended, and the potential to be darkly loved.

    5 out of 5

    The UK TV premiere of Byzantium is on Film4 at 9pm tonight.

    It placed 5th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

    Dark Shadows (2012)

    2014 #86
    Tim Burton | 109 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA & Australia / English | 12 / PG-13

    Dark ShadowsDirector Tim Burton’s most recent live-action movie is an adaptation of a 1960s soap opera… albeit one featuring vampires, witches, ghosts and sundry other supernatural goings-on. You wouldn’t get that on EastEnders (more’s the pity).

    In the mid 18th Century, the Collins family leaves Liverpool for the New World, setting up a successful fishing empire and their own town, Collinsport. The son Barnabas (Johnny Depp) has a fling with the maid, Angelique (Eva Green), before laying his affections on Josette (Bella Heathcote). Little does he know, Angelique is a witch, who kills Josette, turns Barnabas into a vampire, and goads the townsfolk into burying him alive. As you do.

    Fastforward 200 years to 1972, where young Victoria Winters (also Heathcote) arrives in Collinsport to become governess for the still-surviving Collins family’s youngest. The fishing business is failing, the mansion crumbling, and the family (Michelle Pfeiffer, Jonny Lee Miller, Chloë Grace Moretz, Gully McGrath, plus live-in psychologist Helena Bonham Carter and handyman Jackie Earle Haley) are a collection of odd-sorts. Then Barnabas’ coffin is dug up, resurrecting him, and… Oh, look, I’m basically telling you the whole movie now. It’s quite hard to provide a summary of the introduction to the plot, because there’s actually rather a lot going on.

    white-facepainted-weirdo Burton stapleEarly on, it works. The first 20 to 30 minutes offer a serviceable prologue and an engaging introduction to most of the characters. It’s funny, it’s occasionally spooky, there’s a good deal of promise for a marginally-more-serious Addams Family-cum-Edward Scissorhands fantasy (I did say “marginally”). All in all, it’s a skilful and cohesive opening, if nonetheless a little Burton-by-numbers. Sadly, the film doesn’t seem to know where to go with it after that.

    The story is hard to summarise because it feels like someone tried to cut a year’s worth of a soap into a movie. There are more characters than the film knows what to do with, meaning we get major developments that come literally out of nowhere, plots that are explained rather than seen, others that are introduced only to be wrapped up, and the nagging sense that a lot of material has been deleted.

    Standing out from that crowd are Eva Green, who chews the scenery with aplomb, and Bella Heathcote, who grabs her chance to shine among an otherwise starry but phoning-it-in cast. Depp trots out the latest variation on his white-facepainted-weirdo Burton staple; Pfeiffer seems to wish she was back in Stardust or Hairspray; Moretz almost undermines her rising-star status (and is a little too jailbait-y to boot); Jonny Lee Miller battles his American accent almost as much as his character’s lack of purpose; and Helena Bonham Carter is in it as well, obviously.

    Eva Green steals the filmIt’s a tonal grab bag: at times it seems to be a knowing spoof of daytime soaps, at others pushing for drama almost with a straight face; it’s sometimes deliberately and successfully comedic, at others straining too hard for a desperate laugh; it has a strain of bizarre sexuality that may be aiming at comic but is frequently just uncomfortable. This scrappiness leads to the most cardinal sin of any entertainment: it ends up a bit boring; and, in its out-of-the-blue big-battle climax, crushingly derivative.

    Burton has spent almost a decade picking projects that are glaringly obvious choices for him. Perhaps it’s a reaction to Planet of the Apes’ failure; perhaps he’s just as predictable as the “Burton-esque” labelling these projects would likely have received under a different director. Whatever, it seems to have led to an artistically-criminal level of laziness — and I say laziness rather than ineptitude because, for all the project’s predictability, some almost-inspired moments do shine through. Just not often enough.

    3 out of 5

    Trainspotting (1996)

    2007 #29
    Danny Boyle | 90 mins | DVD | 18 / R

    Trainspotting

    Choose great direction.
    Choose iconic images.
    Choose a great soundtrack.
    Choose a brilliant cast.
    Choose a career-making performance from Ewan McGregor.
    Choose a witty script.
    Choose realism.
    Choose drugs.
    Choose sex.
    Choose a condom, for the first time on screen.
    Choose swearing.
    Choose violence.
    Choose drink.
    Choose Scotland.
    Choose Trainspotting.

    5 out of 5

    Choose Film4 tonight, Thursday 2nd April 2015, at 10:55pm.