The Past Month on TV #60

I suppose lockdown is officially over now, for good or ill, but we begin this month’s TV review by reliving those heady days…

Staged  Series 1
StagedThis filmed-in-lockdown comedy stars David Tennant and Michael Sheen as they attempt to rehearse a play over the internet, the goal being they’ll be ready to put it on as soon as theatres reopen. Naturally, there’s much more to it than two actors practising a play — indeed, I’m not sure they ever actually get round to any proper rehearsing. Conflicts abound, both broadly relatable (Sheen is blackmailed into helping look after his elderly neighbour, but develops genuine concern for her) and actorly (a running debate/gag about which of the pair should get top billing), and there are a couple of big-name surprise cameos along the way (no spoilers — the surprises are worth it). With all episodes in the 15- to 20-minute range, the series is hardly a big time commitment (it runs well under two hours in total), but it’s well worth it and consistently funny. Indeed, I wish there was going to be more. Well, a second lockdown isn’t out of the question yet, is it…

Lockdown may be over, but Staged is still available on iPlayer.

Hamilton’s America
Hamilton's AmericaThis documentary first aired back in 2016, in the wake of Hamilton’s success on stage. I’m not sure if it’s ever been screened in the UK, but I tracked down a copy after watching Hamilton on Disney+. So, firstly, I’m glad I didn’t watch this before seeing the film — I feel like it would’ve somehow ruined, or at least tarnished, the experience of seeing the full production, because this contains extensive-but-far-from-complete clips from the show. I guess, back in 2016, when the only way to actually see Hamilton was by securing hard-to-come-by, insanely-expensive Broadway tickets, getting to see those clips was probably great for fans.

Aside from that, the documentary is part making-of (it follows lyricist, composer, and leading man Lin-Manuel Miranda starting in 2014, when he’s writing the musical with an impending rehearsal deadline, and then continues on to cover the show’s opening and success) and part history lesson (various cast members and experts discuss the real events and visit relevant historical locations to learn more about their characters). Rather than half-arse either of these aspects, the feature-length running time allows the doc to offer genuine insights into both. For just one example, there’s a bit where they discuss the issue of the Founding Fathers being slave owners, and although it’s only a couple of minutes long, it contains more intelligent commentary than the entire bloody social media debate about it that the film’s release provoked.

It’s a real shame this isn’t on Disney+ to accompany the film, because I think a lot of people who’ve enjoyed that would enjoy this as a chaser. It’s definitely worth a watch if you can track it down.

Star Trek: Picard  Season 1 Episodes 9-10
Star Trek: PicardI started this when it began in January, and have been slowly trekking through it ever since — it’s taken me six whole months to get through just ten episodes. That’s a commentary in itself as to what I thought of it, I suppose, though if you asked me I’d say it’s “not bad”.

From what I’ve seen of other people’s reactions, Picard seems to be a real “love it or hate it” show. A lot of people I read and/or whose opinion I respect either can’t stand it or find it thoroughly mediocre, but there are definitely people out there — more than an odd handful, apparently — who think it’s fantastic. As often seems to be the case with something so divisive, I find myself somewhere in the middle. After a rocky start (the first three episodes should’ve been condensed into one feature-length opener, at most), I felt the series settled down reasonably well, with a couple of almost-standalone episodes of varying quality eventually giving way entirely to its arc plot, which from then was executed with a relative consistency of pace — a major problem with many “one long story” streaming series nowadays. The quality of the dialogue and acting remained somewhat turbulent, which perhaps belies the franchise’s roots as predating “prestige TV” — what’s acceptable for Star Trek doesn’t necessarily wash with the modern sophisticated non-die-hard-fan viewer.

That said, for every scene or plot development that worked well, there was something truly ridiculous or implausible just around the corner, with the finale being one of the worst offenders. Some might say “it’s sci-fi — implausible is its stock in trade”, but even sci-fi has rules, and Picard seemed to merrily flout them, often in the name of fan service. And that’s why I end up somewhere in the middle, because overall I thought it was a solid-enough space adventure, undermined by frequent blips in quality and sense. I believe the writing team is undergoing some significant changes ahead of the already-commissioned second season, so maybe they’ll iron out the kinks.

Fleabag
Fleabag (the play)I’ve never got round to Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s much-acclaimed sitcom, but, during lockdown, Amazon offered the original one-woman-show stage version (recorded last year during a live cinema broadcast) as a charity rental, so I thought I’d see what the fuss was about. My reaction was… muted, to be honest. I can certainly see how it pushes at boundaries, both of the depiction of women in fiction and of taste in general, and for that reason it’s significant, but I only found it sporadically funny, which makes it somewhat unsatisfying as a comedy. Also, I wasn’t expecting it to get so dark — if you’re a lover of small furry animals, beware.

James Acaster: Repertoire
James Acaster: RepertoireAnother filmed stage comedy that left me somewhat underwhelmed. This is more straightforward stand-up, however, and as that it was more often amusing — whether you find Acaster’s “wacky” style (his word) to your taste will dictate exactly how funny. For me, he’s not the most consistently hilarious standup I’ve seen, but provoked laughs regularly enough. The real selling point here, however, is that it’s a four-parter. Ever heard of a multi-part stand-up gig before? Me either. These aren’t just four entirely independent gigs box-set-ed up either, but were conceived and shot as four connected sets.

Despite that high-concept pitch, it turns out the four-part structure isn’t particularly clever after all. The cross-episode callbacks are sometimes good and clever, but sometimes just elicit recognition (accompanied by an “I got that reference!” laugh from the audience). It’s not anything unique to the four-part structure — plenty of other comedians structure their standalone shows in the same way. The only differences are (a) if you watch it in four sittings then some of the callback are to a different episode rather than something earlier in the same set, and (b) it’s three-and-a-half hours of material, all of which were all performed on the same day, which is a remarkable feat. Otherwise, the connectivity is basically limited to episode 4 ending in such a way as to imply it’s ‘set’ before episode 1, including a cleverly staged final shot. But, unless I missed something, the other episodes don’t line up in such a way that 2 must follow 3 and 4 must follow 3, so it doesn’t create some kind of ouroboros loop, which I guess was the kind of structural inventiveness I was looking for.

Overall, Acaster is whimsically amusing — not my favourite standup, but solid with some excellent bits — and the sheer volume of material at a sustained quality level is impressive. But I don’t buy that this miniseries structure is innovative In any way except volume. And I can’t help but wonder if, had he condensed these 205 minutes into a normal 60- to 90-minute set, it might’ve felt like a higher density of pure gold.

The Twilight Zone  ‘Best Of’
After a few months spent scraping the bottom of what the original Twilight Zone has to offer, it’s back to the cream of the crop. (At this point you may be wondering “how many episodes can he reasonably class as ‘the best’?!” My final answer is: the top third. Yes, that’s quite a broad definition, but I like to be generous. For what it’s worth, today’s selection gets me to 20.5% on my consensus ranking.)

Where is Everybody?This month’s selection begins at the very beginning: the first-ever Twilight Zone episode, Where is Everybody? The title alone is a pretty succinct pitch of the episode’s theme, and the episode is as one-note as its premise. This is an exciting story in which a bloke… gets himself coffee, and… talks to a mannequin, and… tries to phone the operator but can’t get through, and… has an ice cream, and… yeeeaaah. The twist ending isn’t much cop either, 50% “it was all a dream”, 50% a thin moral about humans’ need for companionship. It could’ve been better: Rod Serling’s original pitch for episode one was a tale about a society where people were executed when they turned 60, which I think is a better concept, but it was deemed too depressing (imagine what they would’ve made of Logan’s Run, where the executions happen at 30!) That said, “everybody’s gone” is a reasonable starting idea, but the episode needs (a) more places to go with it, and (b) a more interesting reveal. (See The Quiet Earth for essentially the same premise being more thoroughly explored.)

Next is one of the very few Twilight Zone episodes that doesn’t have a sci-fi or fantastical element (apparently there are only four such instalments). The Silence concerns a wager between an old rich dude and a talkative guy at his club: if the latter can manage to stay silent for a whole year (while under constant observation, natch), the former will pay him $500,000 (equivalent to over $4 million in today’s money). What the episode really asks is how far would — could; should — you go to win (or keep) half-a-million dollars? Whatever your answer, the episode gives us a very dark version, primarily because of the ending — in traditional TZ fashion, there’s a twist (or two) and no one comes out of it well. Although it’s less allegorical than the series’ usual fantastical episodes, there’s no less of a lesson to be learned.

Conversely, some Twilight Zone episodes feel like a concept without a plot, and The Odyssey of Flight 33 is one of them. It concerns a transatlantic flight that finds itself in some weird midair phenomena, and to say where it goes would be to spoil the only card this episode has up its sleeve — as Oktay Ege Kozak of Paste puts it, the episode is “a light sci-fi rollercoaster ride” without “a clear sociocultural theme or complex existential narrative”. To be less kind, it’s a nice idea but the story doesn’t have anywhere to go with it — it doesn’t even end, just sort of peters out. Conversely, Matt Singer at ScreenCrush argues the ending is “an unsolved mystery [with] total ambiguity, which makes it … that much more disturbing.” Despite that, I actually think is one of those rare episodes that would’ve worked better with season four’s extended running time. Most of the story is set in the plane’s cockpit with its crew, but we meet a couple of the passengers, only for the episode to do nothing with them. At least if their reactions had been fleshed out, maybe there would’ve been more meat here.

Nightmare as a ChildI’ve written before that some episodes suffer from the series’ own influence, or just from an ensuing 60 years of sophistication on the part of the viewer, and Nightmare as a Child is a case in point. It has two reveals, and they’re both not so much guessable as obvious and inevitable. There’s even a bit of a coda to thoroughly explain it all again in case you didn’t get it. Maybe that was necessary back in 1960, when stories like this were breaking new ground in the audience’s minds, but today it feels like overkill. However, I wouldn’t say it’s a bad episode — indeed, the story of a woman meeting a strange little girl who seems to know an impossible amount about her life is still suitably eerie and tense in places — but it is one that plays less effectively today. That said, if you engage with it not as a mystery with a surprise but as simply a story, it has more to offer — Kozak compares it to “a tightly wound Hitchcockian thriller/murder mystery”, while Scott Beggs of Thrillist reckons it “replaces the usual slow burn of horrifying realization with tense, immediate danger” while it “confronts memory and PTSD in a fascinating way”. They’re not wrong.

Another episode with a tricky-to-parse twist is Third from the Sun. It’s a famous one — I won’t directly spoil it here, but I feel like the title gives it away rather. But, a bit like Nightmare as a Child, the episode is saved by being rather good even without the ironic final note (indeed, Kozak reckons the twist is “unnecessary… cheap and immediately predictable”). It’s about two families who, aware that nuclear annihilation might be imminent, try to escape, but a suspicious government figure potentially stands in their way. It’s a decent little tale of Cold War paranoia, but the twist probably is a little distracting. It reshapes what we’ve already seen, and explains some of the deliberate oddities in direction and set dressing, but it sort of doubles back on itself because the characters are now heading into the situation we thought they were in in the first place…

More successful, for my money, is And When the Sky Was Opened, about a pair of pilots of an experimental spaceship that crashed on its return to Earth — except one of the pilots maintains there used to be three of them, but no one else can remember him. A bit like Flight 33, there are no overt morals or explanations to be found here, just a lot of mystery and madness. Unlike Flight 33, I thought it had enough of that to fuel the narrative, leaning in to how the unexplainable phenomena affects the characters. It’s a neat little sci-fi tale — and, incidentally, is based on a story by Richard Matheson, making this his first credit on the series. I know in some circles Matheson is rightly exalted, but I feel like he’s not as widely known as he deserves — Serling gets much of the credit for TZ’s success, but several of the very best episodes are by Matheson.

An Occurrence at Owl Creek BridgeHaving begun today with Twilight Zone’s first episode, we end with the last one produced — although they didn’t actually produce it. An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge is an award-winning French short film that Serling saw and liked so much he bought the TV rights (saving so much money on the cost of producing another episode that he brought season five in on budget). Even if Serling didn’t point out its alternate origin in his introduction, it’s immediately clear this came from somewhere else, because it doesn’t look or feel at all like a normal TZ episode. So what made Serling think it would fit the show? Why, it has an ironic last-minute twist, of course! This is regularly one of the best-regarded episodes of the series, and the short film itself has a pretty strong rep too, but I don’t get it. There’s some pretty photography and the beginning is fairly atmospheric, but it quickly starts to drag — the story is thin and slow, ending with a twist that I found inevitable from early on.

I feel like I’ve been quite negative on this month’s selection of episodes, but that’s only because I have very high standards for The Twilight Zone. Owl Creek Bridge was the only one I truly disliked, while The Silence and And When the Sky Was Opened are definitely deserving of their higher reputation.

Also watched…
  • Elementary Season 6 Episodes 15-21 — I guess the threat of cancellation hung over Elementary’s head as this season ended, because it very much gets to a place they could’ve left it if necessary. It’s one of those “that’ll do”-type endings, though, so I hope to find the final, foreshortened seventh run does a better job.
  • Jonathan Creek Series 2 — I didn’t remember this second series as vividly as I did the first, but it still has some very fine and baffling mysteries. Particular highlights include a man seen on two continents at the same time, and a priceless painting stolen from a closely-watched empty room.

    Things to Catch Up On
    CursedLast month, I didn’t include this section because I couldn’t think of anything to put in it. Naturally I then spent the next couple of days remembering things, like the recent re-adaptations of Alex Rider on Amazon and Snowpiercer on Netflix. Obviously, I still haven’t watched either of those. More recently, Netflix launched Cursed, a young adult (I think) take on Arthurian legend from the point of view of the Lady of the Lake. I’m not wholly convinced by the trailers or buzz, but I do love a bit of Arthurian whatnot so it’s on my radar. Also passingly of note is that Amazon just released season three of Absentia. I started out moderately enjoying the first season, but by the end was not at all impressed. I was surprised when it got a second run, so I’m even more flabbergasted to see it back for a third. I guess someone must be watching it. Each to their own.

    Next month… the second season of Netflix’s superhero show The Umbrella Academy is out soon, but as I never got round to season one, I doubt I’ll do season two next month. Elsewise, more of the best of The Twilight Zone, and I really should get round to The Mandalorian (how long’s it been now?!)

  • Passengers (2016)

    2017 #156
    Morten Tyldum | 116 mins | download (HD+3D) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    Passengers

    This review contains major spoilers.

    I got the distinct impression everyone hated Passengers when it came out 18 months ago — it has a lowly 31% on Rotten Tomatoes, and most of the think-pieces penned in its wake seemed to be about how terrible one particular aspect was (I’ll come to that, hence the spoiler warning). It has a 7.0 on IMDb though, which might not sound great, but anything north of 7 isn’t bad on IMDb — there are plenty of popular movies languishing in the 6s. Personally, I rather enjoyed it.

    Sometime in the future, shortly after mankind has begun to colonise other worlds, the spaceship Avalon is on a 120-year journey to a new planet with thousands of colonist-to-be in hibernation onboard. Just 30 years into the trip, the Avalon strikes an asteroid field, causing a malfunction that wakes up just two passengers: Jim (Chris Pratt), a mechanical engineer, and Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence), a journalist. Faced with the prospect of never reaching the destination they’d set out for, the pair begin to develop a relationship.

    Or so the trailer would have you believe (and this is where the spoilers come). In fact, the malfunction only awakens Jim. After a year alone on the ship, with his only company being a robot bartender called Arthur (the always excellent Michael Sheen), a suicidal Jim comes across Aurora’s pod. Smitten, he watches her video diary, struggles with the morality of awakening her… and eventually does, claiming her pod must’ve malfunctioned too. What a bastard, right? Eventually Aurora finds out and hates Jim for robbing her of the life she’d intended, but this is a romance movie so…

    I C You

    Obviously, this is the aspect that generated all those digital column inches. Having read some of them, I get the impression that the reason so many people were annoyed by Jim’s dick move is either, a) it wasn’t hinted at by the trailer (therefore people were too busy trying to read the film as a straight-up romance, because that’s what the ads promised, and didn’t consider the actual story it was telling), or b) people seem to really struggle with movies where the lead character makes bad decisions that are either unlikeable or amoral. That’s a general observation I have about audiences, but it seems applicable here. See the numerous “Star Lord is the real villain of Infinity War” hot takes for a similar Chris Pratt-related example.

    One of the reasons people being angry about the film’s ethics bug me is that at no point does the movie try to argue that Jim waking up Aurora was a good decision — everyone knows it was a bad, selfish idea. What the film does do is try to make you see why he would make that choice (it takes him over a year to do it, remember), and then shows how everyone eventually deals with the fallout (which is just life — shit you don’t want happens and you have to find a way to handle it). In fact, buried underneath all the romancing and effects whizz-bangery of the film’s climax, maybe there are some decent life/moral lessons, about the need for forgiveness, and accepting, and making the most out of things we can’t change.

    No! Bad Jim! Bad!

    A lot of people seemed to jump on the idea the film would be better if acts one and two were flipped — if we woke up alongside Aurora, only later learning of Jim’s betrayal. It would certainly have been different. Better? I don’t know. It would shift the emphasis around a lot. Maybe it would’ve made him romancing her more palatable for those who found it objectionable to their core, because while watching it you wouldn’t know what he’d done — but it wouldn’t change what he did, just how you were presented with it. In some ways, then, the movie we have got is the more interesting version: we know what he did throughout their courtship and have to accept that fact.

    Moral questionability aside, the romantic plot is actually traditionally shaped: there’s the meet-cute (it’s just a sci-fi’d-up one), the falling for each other, the disagreement and separation, and eventual reconciliation. Maybe such familiarity is fine when it’s being dressed up in shiny new sci-fi surroundings; maybe it was the problem, too: the massive betrayal at the film’s core gets in the way of a traditional happy-sappy arc; if you wanted to go all gooey over their burgeoning romance, it gets in your way. But it’s a more interesting story because of it. In real life, such a horrid act might prompt a definite “walk away and never see him again” response. Things aren’t so straightforward aboard the Avalon. If you wanted them to be… well, so did Aurora, and she didn’t have a choice either. Perhaps the film could’ve spent more time digging into the emotional impact and decision-making of that rather than faffing with a sci-fi-cum-disaster-movie action-packed climax, but when your movie’s this expensive (as much to do with the no-doubt-ginormous salaries of the two stars as it is the CGI, I expect) you need some money shots and jeopardy to draw the blokes in.

    Sci-fi money shot

    Taken as a sci-fi movie, I really liked it. The concepts are well considered and played out, from the big ideas of how colonisation might work to little touches of how the tech functions. Much of the ship and its interfaces are beautifully designed and realised — I don’t know how much of it was built for real, but I suspect a fair chunk of the main locations are practical, and I do love a big set. I liked Arthur too, partly because I like Michael Sheen, but also because of how he functions as a robot designed to be kind of your mate.

    On the whole, I suspect the negative reaction to Passengers is more a case of mismanaged expectations for some audience members rather than it being an objectively bad movie. I guess a lot of critical viewers put themselves in Aurora’s position, but Jim’s dilemma is just as relatable — I mean, not in a literal sense (none of us are ever likely to wind up in such a situation), but in a “what would I do?” way. Clearly, everyone thinks he did the wrong thing, but can you blame him? Would you be able to withstand a life of total loneliness? Maybe you would. Maybe you think you would. Nonetheless, the romance plot is inevitable (because that’s how movie plots work, especially in expensive Hollywood blockbusters), so the time bomb of What He Did adds an uncommon frisson. And the big action climax isn’t bad for what it is.

    It's full of stars!

    That said, the more you think about it, the more you can dream up variations that would’ve been of even greater interest. Like, what if Jim wasn’t physically attractive? Would Aurora still have fallen in love with an ugly bloke just because he was the only fella there? Or what if he’d died, leaving her to face the same dilemma he had — would she in fact wake someone up too? But those kinds of alternatives are far too challenging for a Hollywood romantic blockbuster. Like, the only way you’d get a physically unattractive leading man would be if it was a comedy and he was funny, and then she’d fall for him in spite of his looks because he made her laugh. But hey, it’s Hollywood entertainment behaving like Hollywood entertainment — should we be surprised?

    4 out of 5

    Twilight (2008)

    2015 #145
    Catherine Hardwicke | 122 mins | download (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    I’m not a big one for Halloween, but I’ve acknowledged the horrific holiday on a couple of occasions now. For 2015, I decided to review one of the most notorious supernatural films of recent times. A movie so horrific, it sent critics cowering behind their sofas. A film so evil, it’s perverted the minds of children — and some adults — the world over. A movie so renowned, it strikes fear into the hearts of even hardened movie lovers.

    I speak, of course, of Twilight.

    (That was more surprising when it was in a generically-titled post as an introduction to a whole week of reviews for the entire saga, but then it turned out I had better things to watch in October than four more Twilight films, so you’re only getting this one for now.)

    For thems that don’t know, Twilight is the story of Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart), a teenager who moves to live with her father in the small town of Forks, Washington (apparently it’s actually a city, but the film would have you think it’s almost a village). Attending the local high school, she’s intrigued by the introverted Cullen siblings, in particular Edward (Robert Pattinson). To cut a long ramble short, it turns out they’re vampires, but friendly vegetarian vampires. Bella instantly falls in love with Edward in all of three seconds, because he’s kinda dangerous but pretty and sparkles in sunlight (we shall come back to this), though his lust for her brings out his blood-drinking side. Just to make things complicated, there are some other vampires visiting the area who have fewer qualms about drinking human blood…

    Twilight is adapted from a young adult novel by Stephenie “one too many Es in her name” Meyer that no one had heard of (bar its legion of bloodthirsty fans) before someone thought it would make a good movie. It would probably have been better if things had stayed that way. There are many reasons for that, but let’s take them in the order they must’ve occurred. First: the story, which is also the worst part. Edward is an odd, creepy stalker — turning up in Bella’s bedroom and staring at her while she sleeps, that kind of thing — who she then finds out is a century-old man (bit of an age gap) and, literally, a predator… but she instantly unconditionally loves him. What the merry fuck? She’s given no reason to even like the guy, and plenty of reasons to run away scared of him, but no, she falls in love. What message is this sending to young girls? That the guy who follows you around everywhere just staring at you and then confesses he’s having trouble controlling his impulse to murder you (yes, he says that) is the perfect soulmate? Not to mention that he’s 100-and-something years old and dating a 17-year-old. He shouldn’t be pre-teen girls’ idol, he should be Hugh Hefner’s!

    All of the characters are this poorly drawn. Their motivations, actions, and reactions often make little sense. The number of times one of them does something because Plot are incalculable. That’s without even mentioning Bella’s almost total inability to do anything for herself, except use Google to find some tiny second-hand bookshop in a rarely-visited town to buy a book about something she wants to research, rather than, say, use Google to read up a bit first. Then she gets the book, looks at one illustration and its caption, and it’s back on Google to find out more. Nice work, Bella.

    All of this is Meyer’s fault, faithfully translated to the screen by adapter Melissa Rosenberg. This is a woman with quality TV form: she was a lead writer on Dexter back in its first four seasons, when it was really, really good; now she’s showrunner on the forthcoming Marvel/Netflix series Jessica Jones, which has promising trailers and a well-reviewed first episode, in particular its treatment of female characters. Yet she also wrote this. Even if you allow for her being hamstrung by the novel in story terms, the dialogue is appalling, in every respect. Characters bluntly state their own and each other’s emotions at each other. We’re always being told stuff instead of shown it. Scenes heavy with exposition are shot with frenetic camerawork and underscored with driving music as if that somehow makes it filmic and exciting.

    Ah, the acting and direction! Nearly every performance is poor. Pattinson and Stewart spend the entire film appearing uncomfortable and puzzled — by themselves, with each other, with everyone else. Her only other emotion is “moody loner”; he at least manages a smile, maybe twice. Some of it is unbelievably cheesy, like an ’80s genre B-movie by a music video director. That kind of thing can work, a) when it’s from the period, or b) when it’s done knowingly. Twilight is neither. The Pacific Northwest location is inherently atmospheric, which is handy because Catherine Hardwicke’s direction does nothing to conjure up any such feeling itself.

    And then we have vampires who sparkle. Sparkly vampires. Sparkly. Vampires. Just… why?! The whole traditional mythology of vampires is played fast and loose with, which is fine, that’s what many vampire flicks do; and there are even some borderline-neat subversions… but golly, that sparkliness is silly.

    Some of these points are definitely just niggles, but the film is so laden with them that it all becomes ripe to cause either laughter or frustration. Better the former than the latter, which is why the Honest Trailer is so entertaining. See for yourself:

    Believe it or not, I didn’t actually hate Twilight as much as I thought I might. Occasionally there are shots or moments that work, maybe even the odd whole scene. Bella’s dad is pretty good, both their relationship and Billy Burke’s performance. I quite liked some of the aggressively-blue cinematography, but then I do like the colour blue. There’s almost a nice element of melancholic “leaving a fun ordinary life behind for this fantastic but dangerous new one”, but I think that might be limited to literally one shot-reverse-shot of Bella seeing her friends leaving a café.

    So it’s not a good film, but it’s not a “worst film ever made”-level disaster either. I mean, it’s not so bad that I can’t even bear the thought of watching the sequels. Actually, they kind of intrigue me, because (spoiler warning!) it hasn’t even got to the Jacob/werewolves stuff yet, and that whole Team Edward / Team Jacob aspect seemed to be such a big thing. And I want to see what Michael Sheen has to do with anything. And I kinda wanna see if Breaking Dawn is as batshit crazy as the plot description I once read made it sound. And maybe there’ll be more of Anna Kendrick’s cleavage, because wow, who knew that was there? (Look, it’s a movie about a creepy stalker romance between a 100-year-old man and a 17-year-old girl — a little light ogling of someone around my own age pales in comparison.)

    So that’s Twilight for you: poorly plotted, poorly written, poorly acted, poorly directed, teaching poor life lessons to its target age group, and yet still somehow so compelling that I’m prepared to sit through another eight-ish hours of the stuff. Never has the phrase “your mileage may vary” been so apt.*

    2 out of 5

    * Unless someone used it in reference to the Fast & Furious films.

    Liebster Award

    Michele at Timeless Hollywood has kindly nominated me for a Liebster Award (or, as spellcheck insists on rendering it, “Leicester Award”).

    For those not in the know, a Liebster Award is bestowed from blogger to blogger as a kind of peer appreciation. There are actually a bunch of variations — this person took it upon themselves to write some official rules. Not entirely sure what makes them qualified to do such a thing, but they did it anyway, and now that post sits right at the top of the Google search results, so I guess it worked for them.

    Anyway, The Rules:

    1. Answer my nominator’s 11 questions;
    2. Nominate 11 additional bloggers;
    3. Ask 11 questions to my nominees;
    4. Share 11 additional facts about myself.

    I’m not sure why it has so much to do with the number 11. Having seen various other bloggers complete the award, #2 seems to be particularly flexible in this regard. I suspect I shall be too.

    But first! 11 questions must be answered, in my usual longwinded style:

    1) What onscreen couple has the best chemistry?
    A relatively recent discovery for me, but I’m going to go with William Powell and Myrna Loy in the Thin Man films.

    2) If one lost film could be found, what would it be?
    Would it be a cheat to pick some Doctor Who episodes? It would, wouldn’t it? Especially as Who is in a better state than silent cinema, where up 75-90% of films are estimated to be lost. Of course, there’s Hitchcock’s second feature, The Mountain Eagle, and the first British Sherlock Holmes film, an adaptation of A Study in Scarlet (which always seems to be given short shrift when it’s filmed, Catch My Soulso I wouldn’t hold much hope of that being any better), but the film that most intrigued me when looking into this was from the ’70s: #10 on this list, Patrick McGoohan’s first (and only) film as director, Catch My Soul. Turns out it’s since been found, though the chances of anyone else seeing it look shaky. Still, it does exist, so I go back to the first two.

    3) If you could choose one silent comedian between Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd or Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, who is your favorite and why?
    I confess, I haven’t seen enough of any for this to be a fair contest. From what I have seen, however, The Great Dictator was my favourite work, so I’ll go for Chaplin. (Also for compatriotism.)

    4) Who is your favorite swashbuckler?
    Does someone who usually (always?) played the villain in such movies count? Basil Rathbone, arguably best known for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes, was a skilled fencer in real life, shown to great effect in The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Mark of Zorro, The Court Jester (even if that mostly isn’t him), and a few other films that I really must see.

    5) What is your favorite biography or autobiography?
    The Writer's Tale - The Final ChapterIt’s not an autobiography per se, but Doctor Who: The Writer’s Tale by Russell T Davies and Benjamin Cook kind of is, as it chronicles Davies’ experience running Doctor Who (and its spin-offs) in 2008 to 2010. You may think “I’m not a Doctor Who fan, this has no relevance to me,” but you’d be wrong. Anyone who’s had a desire to write in a professional capacity, especially for the screen, must read this book — it’s the experience of writing for TV and running a TV show, just with Doctor Who as a case study. And it’s immensely readable, making its surprising length (particularly in the extended The Final Chapter paperback version — length-wise, it’s literally a whole extra book bundled in) fly by.

    6) Have you ever participated in a blogathon and if so what did you enjoy most about it?
    I’ve participated in a few now (three, to be precise). Each time, I found the knowledge that I was likely exposing my writing to a much wider readership than normal led me to up my game in terms of the research and thought I put into my posts (and consequently their length, too). Which is not to say I don’t just do that anyway (sometimes), but there was a kind of pressure to do well. Good pressure.

    7) If you could buy any memorabilia, what would it be?
    Let’s be properly extravagant and say a James Bond Aston Martin DB5. I’m not even a ‘car person’, but c’mon, the DB5!

    The car's Martin. Aston Martin.

    8) In your opinion, who is the biggest pioneer in the film industry (past or present)?
    I mean, where do you begin? But here’s a slightly more obscure one: Garrett Brown. Who? The inventor of the Steadicam, that’s who. It looks like the Steadicam might be about to be replaced by the even greater flexibility afford by drones, but still, it was (is) awesome while it lasted.

    9) What decade had the best films?
    I’m quite fond of all eras of film, so I decided to be empirical about this: I looked at my list of favourite movies and totted up the decades. Turns out the 2000s have it, just pipping the 1990s. Probably says more about when I grew up than anything else, mind.

    10) Is there any actor/actress you feel hasn’t gotten the recognition they deserve?
    Maybe it’s just because I’m more immersed in modern film, but no one ever seems to talk about Ray Milland. I discovered him for myself through films like Ministry of Fear, The Thief and The Lost Weekend, and I really ought to seek out more of his work because he’s great in all of those.

    11) What actor/actress should receive an Oscar that hasn’t?
    Michael “The Queen / Frost/Nixon / The Damned United / etc” Sheen.

    The many faces of Michael Sheen

    Next! 11 5 bloggers shall be nominated. (I’m not stingy, I’d do more, but a bunch of blogs I thought of just had one.) Anyway, in alphabetical order:

    (You’ll notice a fair degree of crossover with blogs I highlighted in my June update. Not a coincidence.)

    Next! The 11 questions they must answer:

    1) Have you ever walked out of a cinema part way through a film?
    2) Favourite current TV series?
    3) Favourite silent film?
    4) Favourite David Fincher film?
    5) Favourite film soundtrack?
    6) Who’s the best James Bond?
    7) Which is the longest-running film series that you’ve seen every movie in?
    8) Which film have you watched the most?
    9) Which film do you love that everybody else hates?
    10) Is there a line from a film that you use a lot in everyday life?
    11) How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if woodchuck would chuck wood?

    A woodchuck, yesterday

    And finally! 11 random facts about my good self:

    1) I am currently mostly listening to Muse’s Drones and Nightwish’s Endless Forms Most Beautiful.

    2) I have two dogs, Rory and Poppy, both rescues.

    3) Part of the reason for adopting Poppy was to help with the transition when Rory… you know… because he’d been on his last legs for years. 18 months later, he’s still going, bless ‘im.

    4) I kind of work on the principle that my personal life has little to do with my film-related blogging (which, in many ways, is an invalid stance, but that’s a whole other debate), so this is proving tricky…

    5) I get kind of ‘attached’ to sayings — not deliberately, but I think I use certain phrases a lot, even if just for a while. Maybe we all do? I’m sure there are plenty of examples in my reviewing (there are certainly words I revert to often); in real life, “there’s a first time for everything” is regularly applicable and “better safe than sorry” is virtually my motto. Whether I listen to it or not is another matter.

    List of lists of lists

    6) I make lots of lists, about all sorts — mainly films, DVDs and Blu-rays, especially ones to be watched. Each time I watch a film for this blog, it has to be added to, removed from, or rated on up to 21 separate lists and websites.

    7) To make sure I don’t miss any, I have a list of those lists.

    8) I am inordinately chuffed with the top menu on this blog, which I rebuilt t’other week to include most of my categories and streamline the review lists. Check out Film Noir (under Categories > Genres) in particular. Sub-submenus!

    9) I love pizza. I don’t know if this is attributable to a childhood love of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or just because it’s awesome. Anyway, I’ve been trying to eat more healthily and haven’t had a pizza for five months. Five months. You’re driving me back towards pizza, Liebster Facts.

    Pizza is totally more addictive

    10) Most people my age and nationality call it Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles, because that’s how they rebranded it over here (I really don’t know what the British / the BBFC had against ninjas and their weaponry). It’s always been Ninja to me because, at the time I was into Turtles, I spent nearly two years living in Saudi Arabia. (Who knew that fact was going somewhere broadly interesting, right?) (Obviously, they used the correct title in Saudi.)

    11) I have no idea what a woodchuck is.*

    So there you go. Thanks again to Michele of Timeless Hollywood, and I look forward to reading my nominees’ answers.

    * I wrote that before I looked up the picture above, so this fact is now a lie.

    Kingdom of Heaven: Director’s Cut (2005)

    2015 #9
    Ridley Scott | 194 mins* | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | UK, Spain, USA & Germany / English | 15 / R

    Kingdom of HeavenRidley Scott’s Crusades epic is probably best known as one of the foremost examples of the power of director’s cuts: after Scott was forced to make massive edits by a studio wanting a shorter runtime, the film’s summer theatrical release was so critically panned that an extended Director’s Cut appeared in LA cinemas before the end of the year, reaching the wider world with its DVD release the following May. The extended version adds 45 minutes to the film (and a further 4½ in music in the Roadshow Version), enough to completely rehabilitate its critical standing.

    The story begins in France, 1184, where blacksmith Balian (Orlando Bloom) is something of a social pariah. Offered the chance to head off to fight in the Crusades, Balian… refuses. But then something spoilersome happens and he thinks it might be a good idea after all. When he eventually arrives in Jerusalem, he finds a kingdom divided by political squabbling, quite apart from the uneasy truce with the enemy. You know that’s not going to end well.

    Kingdom of Heaven is, in many respects, an old-fashioned epic. It’s a long film not because the director is prone to excess and didn’t know when to cut back, but because it has a lengthy and complicated story to tell. It isn’t adapted from a novel, but the structure feels that way, spending a lot of time on characters and what some might interpret as preamble — it’s a long while before the movie reaches Jerusalem, ostensibly the film’s focus, and it completes the arcs of several major characters along the way. The scale of such stories isn’t to everyone’s taste, but, well, what can you do.

    A strong cast bolsters the human drama that sometimes gets lost in such grand stories. Bloom is a perfectly adequate if unexceptional lead, but around him we have the likes of Michael Sheen, David Thewlis, Alexander Siddig, Brendan Gleeson, and Edward Norton (well done if you can spot him…) There are even more names if you look to supporting roles. Most notable, however, are the co-leads: both Liam Neeson, as the knight who recruits Balian, and Jeremy Irons, as the wise advisor when he gets to Jerusalem, bring class to proceedings, while Eva Green provides mystery and heart as the love interest. Of everyone, she’s best served by the Director’s Cut, gaining a whole, vital subplot about her child that was entirely excised theatrically. It’s the kind of thing you can’t imagine not being there, and Scott agreed: it seems the chance to restore it was one of his main motivators for putting together a release of the longer version.

    It is very much a Ridley Scott film, too. The way it’s shot, edited, styled… you could mix bits of this up with Gladiator or Robin Hood and you might not realise you’d switched movie. As a student of film it frustrates me that I can’t put my finger on exactly what qualities define this “Scott style” — and it’s a specific one to his historical epics, too, because it’s less present (or possibly just in a different way) in his modern-day and sci-fi movies — but I’m certain it’s there. I guess it’s the way he frames shots, the mise-en-scène, the editing, the richness of the photography… The quality of the end result may vary across those three movies, but Scott’s technical skill is never in doubt. (I’d wager Exodus is the same, but its poor reception hasn’t exactly left me gagging to see it.)

    Similarly, I can’t quite identify what’s missing from Kingdom of Heaven that holds me back from giving it full marks. It’s a je ne sais quoi edge that I just didn’t feel. I do think it’s a very, very good film, though; one that would perhaps well reward further viewings.

    4 out of 5

    A version of Kingdom of Heaven is on Film4 tonight at 9pm. Their listings suggest it’s the theatrical cut, though if that’s true then they’ve put in an hour-and-a-half of adverts…


    * For what it’s worth, I actually watched what’s now called the “Director’s Cut Roadshow Version”. This was released as the Director’s Cut on DVD, but in the early days of Blu-ray it couldn’t all fit on one disc, so they lopped off the overture, intermission, and entr’acte and still labelled it the Director’s Cut. As of the 2014 US Ultimate Edition, however, those missing bits have been optionally restored, with the set containing ‘three’ versions of the movie. ^

    Underworld: Rise of the Lycans (2009)

    2012 #4
    Patrick Tatopoulos | 92 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | New Zealand & USA / English | 18 / R

    Underworld: Rise of the LycansIt never seems to have been fashionable to admit to liking Underworld, the 2003 urban-Gothy-fantasy-actioner about vampires vs werewolves (here, Lycans) in the modern day, but I’ve always quite enjoyed it. It’s far from perfect, that’s for certain, but it has a kind of style-over-substance charm that I quite enjoy.

    The 2006 sequel, Underworld: Evolution, is very much Part 2 of the story, but moves away from the urban settings to an array of more traditional Eastern European forests (albeit shot in Canada, I believe) and increasingly intricate myth-based storytelling. But still with guns. It’s also more full of creature makeup and gore (enough to bump the certificate to an 18 after the first film’s 15), and it’s not as good — Underworld may not be wholly groundbreaking (there’s a fair dose of The Matrix in there), but it felt less familiar than its sequel.

    This third film is a whole different kettle of fish. With the first film’s dangling story pretty much wrapped up by the sequel (there’s room for more, but the main thrust is done with), this entry jumps back in time several hundred years for an origin of sorts, fleshing out flashbacks and backstory from the first two films. Unfortunately, we learnt pretty much all we needed to know in those flashbacks, and so in terms of both story and world-building Rise of the Lycans has little to add to the Underworld franchise. I suppose you could treat it in the style George Lucas wants us to take the Star Wars prequels and watch it before the first two films, but I don’t think it really fits there either — Scary Michael Sheenbeing set in medieval/dark ages times, this has a very different, more traditional feel than the urban original film… albeit with lashings of CGI.

    In fact, it probably has most in common with the cycle of fantasy films we’ve received post-Lord of the Rings. There’s swooping shots of towering castles, werewolf armies storming the walls, over-designed armour, all that kind of stuff. It makes for passable fare, and I suppose if you watched it before the other two films you might be surprised with where the story ultimately goes. That said, the one twist aside — and it’s the kind of twist the studio would only have allowed a modern filmmaker to get away with because it was established in the backstory of another film — everything’s pretty standard and predictable, just with more (CG) blood and gore than you’d normally find (I’m surprised they didn’t push to bring it down to PG-13 territory).

    The cast is led by two supporting actors from the preceding films, Bill Nighy and Michael Sheen. Nighy hams it up exquisitely, but placing him centre stage makes it a mite less fun than it was in the past. Sheen brings quality to any part and we get no less here. Rhona Mitra, being the franchise’s obligatory ass-kicking-girl (replacing Kate Beckinsale, whose character comes in to play much later in the fictional world’s timeline), is fine. I’ve seen an awful lot worse.

    Camp Bill NighyIn the director’s chair for the first (and, to date, last) time is special effects whizz Patrick Tatopoulos, who does a fine job of producing an action-fantasy film. There’s nothing remarkable about it but it largely works, though it’s a little bit on the dark side at times. I don’t know why so many films do this, incidentally — we’ve reached an era where people are mostly watching films in cinemas where the bulbs are under-lit to save money, or at home in probably less-than-ideal conditions, with various lights on and a screen left on factory settings. I wouldn’t mind if these dark movies looked fine once you were properly calibrated, but most of them are still ever so dark. Why do they think this is a good idea? Especially when you flick into 3D (which, fortunately, this film was just ahead of.)

    But I digress. If you’re the kind of fantasy fan who was switched off by the urban antics of the first Underworld, this more traditional swords-and-monsters effort may appeal to your sensibilities. Otherwise, it’s really one for franchise devotees only, telling a tale you’ll know in a bit more detail. And for that, it’s not bad.

    3 out of 5

    The fourth film in the series, Underworld: Awakening, which picks up the story twelve years after the end of the second film, is in cinemas in the UK and US from today.

    Unthinkable (2010)

    2011 #28
    Gregor Jordan | 93 mins | TV (HD) | 18 / R

    UnthinkableStar Wars’ Samuel L. Jackson, The Twilight Saga’s Michael Sheen and The Matrix’s Carrie-Anne Moss star in this low-key thriller from the director of Buffalo Soldiers, Ned Kelly and The Informers. Sheen plays an American Muslim who alleges he has planted bombs around the country; after he is captured, Moss’ FBI team are brought in to locate the bombs; Jackson is a black-ops interrogator brought in to get the truth out of Sheen — by any means necessary. Including — or, perhaps, especially — illegal ones.

    I say it’s a “low-key thriller” because, though the stakes are high, the vast majority of the action takes place in a deserted high school commandeered as a temporary military base, where Moss’ team work out of re-appropriated classrooms and Jackson conducts his interrogation in a sort of one-way-glassed torture tank placed in the gym. So there’s no 24-style thrills as people rush around the city/country hunting out bombs — Unthinkable is wholly reliant on the script and performances to draw us into its story, and its debate.

    The debate in question is torture, and whether it’s excusable, and under what circumstances, and how far it’s OK to go. Though it’s grafted on to a story, it’s pretty clear that screenwriters Oren Moverman and Peter Woodward are as much, if not more, concerned with the issues at play than with the story they’re telling; the story, rather, I said it's NOT like 24is a decently dramatic way of drawing out and considering these issues. In my opinion, it works; at least, works well enough.

    For some reason, Rotten Tomatoes only cites two professional reviews for Unthinkable (don’t know why, I know there are more — one’s quoted on the US DVD cover for starters), but the chosen pullquotes seem to sum up the opposing reactions I’ve spotted elsewhere, and indeed the opposing reactions a film such as this is predisposed to provoke. On one hand, one might find it “an entertaining and thought-provoking drama,” as does David Nusair of Reel Film Reviews; on the other, one might consider it “a clumsy polemic that bounces between the boundaries of stage-play debate and torture porn spectacle as everyone argues over ethics,” as does Sean Axmaker of Seanax.com. I’m far more inclined to agree with the former, and now intend to take Mr Axmaker’s four contentions one at a time as a handy way of shaping some more of my thoughts.

    a clumsy polemic

    As I’ve already insinuated, Unthinkable isn’t particularly subtle in its foregrounding of the torture debate. The thing is, a polemic requires it to be an “attack on someone or something”, A form of debatewhich I don’t think Unthinkable is — I think it argues both for and against torture. Perhaps if the viewer is firmly entrenched in one viewpoint then the film will seem to support it to a polemical level; or perhaps they’d read it the other way, and see it as a polemic against their viewpoint. I don’t know which, though, because I don’t think it comes down hard on either side.

    stage-play debate

    I think such criticism also does it a disservice; or does the theatre disservice, because it seems implicit in this comment that something limited in the way a stageplay would be can only be simplistic and unworthy. Unthinkable takes place in a limited number of locations, true, but not so limited that it feels forced. Nor is it so flatly directed as to feel like a filmed play, nor are the performances theatrical in the negative sense.

    torture porn spectacle

    This is just rubbish. “Torture porn” has become an overused phrase; something readily grabbed to bash a film with. I’m not saying the sub-genre doesn’t exist, and I’m not saying it’s a good thing, This isn't what it looks likebut Unthinkable is not a torture porn film. Yes, it contains torture, and some of it is shown in some degree of detail, but it does not depict it as brutally as it could, and it does not revel in it. This isn’t torture for the audience’s enjoyment, this is torture as a point for debate — “is it allowable to do this to another human being to get results?”, etc. Which brings us to:

    everyone argues over ethics

    And? As I said, Unthinkable doesn’t try to hide that it’s a debate on torture, but nor does it use it in place of a plot. This isn’t an essay pretending to be a film.

    There are, apparently, two cuts of Unthinkable. I watched it on Sky Movies and they showed the extended version, which is also the one on DVD/BD (or maybe they both are), which I can only imagine is the director’s preferred version. The only difference is an extended ending. Why a shorter one even exists is baffling, because that final shot is essential. There are films where an ambiguous ending fits — I’ll happily line up to argue in their favour should such a line be necessary (first example that randomly pops into my head: In Bruges) — but it wouldn’t work here, in my opinion, and so the final shot becomes a necessary tie-off. Looks painfulIt’s much more important than simply answering a lingering question — it unequivocally presents the ultimate outcome of the characters’ actions. Like the rest of the film, it doesn’t seek to tell you whether this is right or wrong, but shows you where such decisions lead. Moralising is left up to the viewer. (Apologies if this is vague, but I don’t want to spoil it.)

    Unthinkable has been largely missed as a direct-to-DVD effort, despite its moderately high-profile cast and relevant themes. It’s an effective thriller based around a debate that is perhaps simplistic, but also thought-provoking. It’s easy to dismiss torture in the abstract, but there are endless “what if”s and “how far”s that can change things. But should they? And so on…

    4 out of 5

    Wilde (1997)

    2007 #90
    Brian Gilbert | 112 mins | TV | 15 / R

    WildeStephen Fry leads a starry British ensemble in this biopic of poet, novelist, playwright and genius Oscar Wilde. The film focuses not on Wilde’s literary achievements and public life, but on his private relationships with various men, and in particular his obsession with the young Lord ‘Bosie’; of course, eventually, all of these things collide.

    Fry is perfectly cast as Wilde and Jude Law is suitably horrid as the spoilt, stroppy and thoroughly dislikeable Bosie, whose selfishness brings about Wilde’s downfall. Also worthy of note is the ever-excellent Michael Sheen in a smaller but vital role; he’s a criminally under-acknowledged actor.

    4 out of 5