The Silence (2019)

2019 #58
John R. Leonetti | 90 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Germany & USA / English & American Sign Language | 15 / PG-13

The Silence

A 15- / PG-13-rated horror movie in which the world is under attack from creatures who hunt and kill via sound, and we follow a family who attempts to survive by hiding in a remote farmhouse, aided by the fact they’ve all learnt sign language to communicate with their deaf teenage daughter.

If you’re thinking “wait a minute, that’s a description of A Quiet Place,” you’re right, it is. It’s also a wholly accurate summary of this new direct-to-Netflix film.* Yes, really, they are that similar. At first glance it seems utterly ludicrous that Netflix would release such a blatant rip-off, especially just one year after the previous film; but, as ever, there’s a little more to it than meets the eye: The Silence is based on a novel published in 2015, and filming began back in September 2017. It seems it got unlucky, and is now doomed to be dismissed as no more than a shameless rip-off. But while it’s not The Silence’s fault that A Quiet Place beat it to the punch, it is the film’s own fault that it’s not very good.

The real problem here seems to be the screenplay. John R. Leonetti’s direction is fine, if unremarkable, and there are decent performances, particularly from leads Kiernan Shipka and Stanley Tucci, but they’re all saddled with a poorly rendered narrative. Early on, backstory is dumped via some random teenage-diary-level voiceover narration, making sure to shoehorn in some information that we then never actually need to know. One part of that asserts something along the lines of “everyone has a story of where they were when it happened; this is our story,” and then just minutes later we cut away to an event happening that’s completely unconnected to the main story. To make matters worse, it only does that once. It’s like they could only come up with one other idea for what might be going on during this disaster.

Just going for a nice family walk

The way The Silence handles its deaf character is another case in point, especially when contrasted with A Quiet Place. The latter embraced its deaf character and the family’s sign language communication (far more of the dialogue was signed than spoken), whereas The Silence sees to be doing its best to avoid or cover for that fact: she only went deaf when she was 13, so she still speaks, and she can lip-read so well people that other people don’t always bother signing to her either. There’s a bunch of little moments that undermine it as well. For example, at one point she has a video call conversation with her boyfriend, when for reasons of both situation (she’s sat in the back of the car with her family) and character (she’s deaf) it would make more sense for them to be texting. But later, the film flips all this on its head: once they full accept they need to stay as quiet as possible, they start mouthing things and signing all over the place, but the film doesn’t bother to subtitle it… although, ironically, if you turn on the hard-of-hearing subtitle track, it is subtitled. What a mess.

Even coming in the wake of A Quiet Place, The Silence had a chance to mark itself out by telling a slightly different story: here the event is just beginning, so we’re witnessing the stuff the other film skipped over. Except A Quiet Place skipped it for good reason: we’ve seen this “the apocalypse begins” rigmarole in many films before. The Silence doesn’t have any significantly new perspectives on it. Eventually it introduces a cult of religious nutters to threaten the family, but it does so with less than half-an-hour of the film left, consequently racing through to a conclusion at breakneck speed. It’s weirdly rushed after the almost methodical hour that preceded it.

It’s not an unmitigated disaster — there are moments that work, and Shipka and Tucci are both very watchable — but the overall concoction is poor, with shortcomings that are only emphasised by how well it was done in A Quiet Place.

2 out of 5

The Silence is available on Netflix now.

* Unless you’re in Germany, where it’s instead getting a theatrical release next month. ^

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The Highwaymen (2019)

2019 #48
John Lee Hancock | 132 mins | streaming (UHD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

The Highwaymen

There’s a fair chance you know the story of Bonnie and Clyde thanks to the acclaimed 1967 movie (or the 2013 miniseries, or one of the other fictional depictions, or just their general notoriety), but what about the story of the guys who got ’em? For all the Robin Hood-esque heroism that was conveyed upon them by the media at the time and then cemented in subsequent fictional retellings, they were still murder-happy criminals. The Highwaymen sets out to do its part in rectifying this by introducing us to Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner) and Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson), a pair of retired Texas Rangers who were reinstated in early 1934 to track down Bonnie and Clyde and put an end to their crime spree.

Netflix has self-described the film as “The Untouchables meets Public Enemies” (they’re doing the job of reviewers for us!), and, while I’ve only seen one of those movies, I don’t think they’re far wrong. Netflix are well known for commissioning projects that are similar to other stuff people like (reportedly their first-ever original, House of Cards starring Kevin Spacey and produced/directed by David Fincher, came about because statistics showed viewers liked to watch the original BBC series, movies starring Spacey, and movies directed by Fincher), but this feels like one of the most blatant examples I’ve personally seen. Movies like Live by Night and Road to Perdition also came to my mind whilst watching, but it’s not limited to specific examples — it just feels like other movies set in about the same period about the same kind of thing. Well, we might blame Netflix’s data-centric thinking for that, but it’s actually nothing new in Hollywood.

Men of the highway

As a work in its own right, The Highwaymen is a solid period investigative thriller. It’s distinctly lacking the youthful verve and excitement of the ’67 film, which matched the youthfulness of its killer couple, replacing it instead with a slow-ish, world-weary methodicalness, which again matches its central pairing. That could be deliberate, or it could just be another instance of the recurring problem that Netflix-originated content is slower than it needs to be. When police procedurals are slow because they’re focusing on the exacting, gradual accumulation of evidence and data that leads to the downfall of the bad guys, that can be a good thing, and there’s an element of that here; but at other times it just feels a bit tardy. What it lacks is a sense of urgency, which you’d think the hunt for ceaseless murderers would have. We’re told these villains need to be stopped ASAP, and we see them continue to commit crimes as our heroes are still hunting for them, but we never really feel any sense of desperation to get the job done. Hamer and Gault kinda toddle along, as if they know it’s going to take two hours of movie-time to complete their mission so why rush?

It’s not helped by a seeming indecisiveness about what the movie wants to focus on. It’s torn between being a portrait of aged lawmen who may be past their time and a straight-up recounting of the hunt for Bonnie and Clyde. The former is a theme it only touches on in fits and spurts, often in scenes that feel shoehorned in just to address that subject. I’m not sure it had much to say about it either. It doesn’t come to the conclusion that the old ways are the best, or that they’re not relevant anymore; or that these guys still have their skills, or that they don’t anymore (early on there’s a scene where Costner realises he isn’t as accurate with a pistol as he used to be; that never comes up again) — they’re old, they’re tired, and… that’s it. As for the investigation, I presume it’s been depicted fairly accurately — the film has the feel of a story that’s been structured and paced this way because it’s based on truth. Of course, as we know from many other “true story” films, that’s a foolhardy assumption to make. Still, the final ambush was staged exactly where it really occurred out of a desire for historical accuracy, so it’s not wholly unreasonable to suggest that extends to the rest of the film.

Gunning for Bonnie and Clyde

One fascinating aspect of this particular case is how much the public were on the side of the criminals, and have been since (when The Highwaymen’s trailer debuted, I saw plenty of comments from disgruntled viewers hoping the film would acknowledge how underhanded the cops were in how they finally got Bonnie and Clyde! As if it somehow wasn’t fair to just shoot dead these crooks who had killed multiple other law enforcement officers, and innocent civilians, without similar fair warning). Perhaps unavoidable, the outlaws’ celebrity is another theme the film touches on, but only loosely. The populous should probably have been terrified of this viciously violent gang, but that they instead exalted them had a lot to do with the social situation at the time, i.e. the Great Depression, where the banks were the enemy, and Bonnie and Clyde did rob banks. Unfortunately, it’s again a thread that’s not fully unravelled; another facet the film notes is interesting but doesn’t bother to do a whole lot with.

Visually, there’s nothing to complain about here. It’s handsomely shot by John Schwartzman, with suitably open vistas that in themselves evoke a less urbanised time, where outlaws might still be hiding in the back of beyond. There are also scenes in towns and cities that clearly had enough budget to create a large-scale feel for the period. The film reportedly cost just under $50 million, the kind of budget movie studios don’t assign anymore, but it shows why it can pay off: this doesn’t need to be a $100 million blockbuster, but it does need enough cash to dress streets and extras for the setting. Netflix are one of the few still prepared to put money into such endeavours, and it is welcome.

Elsewhere, the film’s musical score was one of the main things that reminded me of Road to Perdition, so I was amused when I saw it credited to Thomas Newman, who also composed Perdition. I’ve commented before how I sometimes like his music but other times think he sounds a bit to similar to, well, himself (his work on Skyfall distracted me by sounding like what he did for A Series of Unfortunate Events), so maybe this shouldn’t be a surprise.

On the road to somewhere. Probably Perdition.

Despite all those niggles I’ve listed, The Highwaymen is actually a solid viewing experience. It may not do anything original or execute elements as well as it could have, but Costner and Harrelson are engaging performers to follow around, and the story is inherently interesting enough to hold attention — it may’ve been slower than necessary, but I was never bored. The film has been described in some circles as a “dad movie”, a phrase that was also bandied around about another Netflix original earlier this month, Triple Frontier. I guess it’s being used in a reductive and dismissive sense, but, well, so what? I’m not a dad, nor of the age range being intimated by the expression, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a decent men-on-a-mission movie either.

3 out of 5

The Highwaymen is available on Netflix now.

Triple Frontier (2019)

2019 #39
J.C. Chandor | 125 mins | streaming (UHD) | 2.11:1 | USA / English, Spanish & Portuguese | 15 / R

Triple Frontier

Former US soldier Santiago ‘Pope’ Garcia (Oscar Isaac) is struggling to make a difference as a consultant to a South American police force when his informant (Adria Arjona) finally gives him the location of powerful drug lord Gabriel Lorea (Reynaldo Gallegos), who’s hiding deep in the jungle surrounded by ill-gotten gains to the tune of many millions of dollars. Deciding the cops are too corrupt to handle this, Pope reaches out to his old military buddies — commander and strategist Tom ‘Redfly’ Davis (Ben Affleck), pilot Francisco ‘Catfish’ Morales (Pedro Pascal), and brothers Ben and William ‘Ironhead’ Miller (Garrett Hedlund and Charlie Hunnam) — to take on one last ‘off the books’ mission: kill Lorea and pocket the money for themselves. But they decide it’s too immoral so stay at home and do nothing.

Not really! Of course they agree to do it, risking their lives and their moral code for a big payday they all desperately need.

On the one hand Triple Frontier is a standard men-on-a-heist actioner, and a lot of people seem to have dismissed it as such. On the other, however, there’s quite a lot of different things going on here. Almost too many, in fact, as arguably the film doesn’t have time to explore them all. There’s a distinct thread about the treatment of veterans in the US — that these guys have been used up and spat out, and now struggle with their mental health and/or to even make a living in regular society. It also ties this into some “warrior code” mentality, which I’ve heard said is quite a realistic depiction of the mindset these kinds of guys have in real life, but does come across as a bit macho bullshit at times here (there’s a scene where they’re camping in the jungle, bemoaning that they’re the last of their kind, etc).

Men mid-mission

As well as these themes, there’s some surprise genre mash-ups going on, too. Nothing too radical, but the film doesn’t play out as I expected (vague-ish spoilers follow). At the start, it’s has almost a Sicario vibe, particular in a sequence where Pope leads a violent raid on a gang hideout. Then it gets stuck into what the trailers promised: a bunch of military professionals pulling off a heist. Naturally, it doesn’t all go according to plan (no good heist movie has everything go according to plan!), and as the guys struggle to make their escape the film makes a hard turn into Treasure of the Sierra Madre territory, which I did not see coming. It doesn’t dig into the psychology of greed anything like as much as that film, but as the team trek through the jungle and feud amongst themselves, the film takes on a “jungle adventure” aspect I wasn’t expecting. This is where I think those claims of it being just a “standard” kinda military-men-on-a-mission movie are particularly wide of the mark.

Apparently the film has been struggling through development since 2010, presumably after screenwriter Mark Boal won his Oscar for The Hurt Locker. That film’s director, Kathryn Bigelow, was originally attached (she’s still credited as a producer), and the film also bounced around a couple of different studios (before winding up at Netflix) and churned through a long list of possible cast members (according to IMDb, they include the likes of Tom Hanks, Johnny Depp, Denzel Washington, Sean Penn, Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Wahlberg, Will Smith, Tom Hardy, Channing Tatum, Mahershala Ali, and Casey Affleck).

Ben Affleck, pictured with his ties to the DC Universe

I feel like it ended up in a pretty decent place, however. The five guys are believable as ex comrades, and it’s all very well put together, with slick but not flashy direction from J.C. Chandor, helmer of the excellent All is Lost, plus Margin Call and A Most Violent Year, neither of which I’ve seen but I’ve heard are good. Triple Frontier does nothing to besmirch his rep. It’s crisply shot by DP Roman Vasyanov — like the direction, not excessively flashy but still strong, including some great aerial stuff. Apparently this is the first film to use the full 6.5K resolution of the ARRI Alexa 65 camera, which is why it retains the camera’s unique aspect ratio of 2.11:1. In truth, it doesn’t make much difference, because it’s near as dammit the 2:1 that’s so popular among other Netflix productions, but that works for me.

Triple Frontier doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but I think some of the commentary dismissing it as mere standard fare has done it some disservice. As a heist/action movie it’s more than competent, with some turns and developments that keep it surprising and fresh, and visuals that reward seeing it on the best-quality screen you can.

4 out of 5

Triple Frontier is available on Netflix now.

The Past Month on TV #43

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Roma (2018)

    2019 #25
    Alfonso Cuarón | 135 mins | streaming (UHD) | 2.39:1 | Mexico & USA / Spanish & Mixtec | 15 / R

    Roma

    Oscar statue2019 Academy Awards
    10 nominations

    Nominated: Best Picture, Best Foreign Language Film, Best Director, Best Actress (Yalitza Aparicio), Best Supporting Actress (Marina de Tavira), Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Production Design, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing.

    Drawn from writer-director Alfonso Cuarón’s memories of growing up in the Colonia Roma neighbourhood of Mexico City, Roma is the story of what happens to a middle-class family’s housemaid, Cleo (played by newcomer Yalitza Aparicio), over the course of ten months in 1970 and 1971. It’s also one of the best-reviewed films of the year, winner of BAFTA’s Best Film award (amongst others), and a frontrunner for the same at tonight’s Oscars. No pressure, then.

    Roma has already attracted a reputation for being slow and difficult to engage with for ordinary viewers — the very definition of an arthouse movie; and it’s in black and white with subtitles, just to compound the stereotype. There’s no doubting it has a measured pace, and the viewer needs to be prepared for that. It sets its stall with the opening credits, which fade in and out slowly over a static shot of paved flooring being washed by soapy water that flows across it like waves on a shore — and that’s all we see, for several minutes. From there, much of the move unfurls in wide shots, with slow pans or no movement at all, inviting the viewer to search the frame for details and significance. Note that it’s not nominated for Best Editing…

    Cleo the maid

    At first it’s difficult to see the point of all this, which is where accusations of it being boring stem from. Nothing seems to be happening, just people going about their lives and jobs; a “slice of life” narrative taken to the extreme. What’s missing from that view is context, and as the film goes on we get that — looking back at earlier scenes with the knowledge of what happens later, it’s more possible to see what Cuarón was going for. For example, there are two scenes side-by-side which are barely notable in themselves and certainly have no immediate connection — the father of the family going away on a business trip, and Cleo going to the cinema with the guy she’s been seeing — but when you know what happens later, these scenes are clearly back-to-back for a reason, with a clear connection. One might say juxtaposed, but they’re less being contrasted, more mirrored. There’s quite a lot of that kind of subtle, often exclusively visual mirroring throughout the film — it’s no coincidence that opening shot looks like waves.

    This is a film that rewards perseverance, then. It doesn’t work for everyone, but for some the way it slowly inducts us into this family’s life builds to great emotional payoffs come the events of the final act. After a whole lot of very little, it suddenly gets very dramatic and heart-wrenching. You’d have to be pretty cold not to feel anything for the characters given some of the things that transpire, but how much of a connection is developed between them and the viewer is, I think, very much a matter of personal experience. Based on online comments, some find the finale emotionally cathartic, and end up sobbing their heart out; others find Cleo’s silence to be distancing, making her true character and feelings inaccessible, and by turn neutering the film. I find myself sympathetic to both points of view. The film, and the characters, are certainly understated, but I don’t think they’re wholly shut off. Put another way, I wasn’t in tears by the end, but I felt I understood something of these people and their reactions to what had occurred.

    Departures

    One thing I wasn’t prepared for by anything else I’ve read about the film (which, admittedly, wasn’t much) was how much… slightly odd stuff there was. Not full-blown Lynchian weirdness, just things you don’t really expect to see. A surprising focus on dog shit, for example. A martial arts display with some very, er, jiggly full frontal male nudity. A Norwegian New Year’s Eve song performed in front of a blazing forest fire. Walls of pet dog’s heads mounted like hunting trophies in a macabre display of affection, but with the sheer disturbingness of that seeming to go uncommented on. Cuarón has said 90% of the movie comes from his own childhood memories, so I guess he had an interesting time of it…

    At the very least, Roma is a technical masterpiece. Shot by Cuarón himself (because Chivo was unavailable), it looks thoroughly gorgeous — crisp, textured, always perfectly lit, be that by the nighttime glow of a city or misty morning air, with some shots that look like molten silver caressing the screen. Cuarón is the frontrunner for the cinematography Oscar, marking the first time it will have gone to a director lensing his own film (assuming he does win, of course), and it seems to be very much deserved (in fairness, I’ve not yet seen any of the other nominees to compare).

    But while everyone talks about the photography, very few people seem to mention the immersive sound design, and I think that’s just as worthy of attention. Roma is also nominated tonight for Sound Mixing and Sound Editing, categories that are often dominated by blockbuster-type films due to their energetic soundscapes — its competitors include the likes of Black Panther, Bohemian Rhapsody, First Man, and (somewhat ironically) A Quiet Place. I doubt Roma will overcome their bombast, but in its own way it’s just as effective, generating a world around you with its enveloping audio. I guess this is partly the problem of it going direct to Netflix, though — most people who see the film will listen to it through TV speakers, or, at best, a stereo sound bar. However, it’s proof that surround sound isn’t just for action movies, and that it’s worth having a system in your home, if you can.

    Journeys

    On the whole, Roma exudes the feel of a quality piece of Art, with a capital ‘A’ — it’s beautiful to look at, slow and heavy and opaque in its storytelling, with (perhaps) some deep message about human experience that’s left for the viewer to discern. Is it the best picture of 2018? Well, I mean, if you like that kind of thing… Should it win tonight? That depends what you think the Oscars should be rewarding, I guess. It’s not an unworthy champion in an artistic sense, but is something else — something artistic in a different way, and also more accessible — even more deserving of being crowned The Best? That’s always the tug-of-war when it comes to Best Picture, I suppose. It’s certainly not my favourite movie from last year (and I wouldn’t necessarily expect it to make 2019’s list either), but I still admire much of it.

    5 out of 5

    The 91st Academy Awards are handed out this evening. In the UK, they’re on Sky Cinema Oscars from 12:30am, with highlights on Sky One tomorrow at 9pm.

    High Flying Bird (2019)

    2019 #14
    Steven Soderbergh | 90 mins | streaming (UHD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15

    High Flying Bird

    Steven Soderbergh’s ‘retirement’ continues with another shot-on-iPhone movie (following last year’s psychological thriller Unsane), this time going direct to Netflix. Whereas Unsane made a virtue of its iPhone cinematography to heighten a disquieting, untrustworthy atmosphere, High Flying Bird forges ahead with no such baked-in excuse for its visual quality. However, similarly to Unsane, the fact it was shot on an iPhone is almost incidental, noteworthy mainly just because it’s unusual. But more on that later.

    The movie is about Ray (André Holland), a basketball agent struggling to keep his players in check during a lockout… and already you’ve lost me, movie: I had to look up what a lockout is. I’m not much of a sports person, and I’m pretty sure we don’t have lockouts in British sports. Basically, best I can tell, it’s some kind of disagreement between the players (through their union) and the team owners, which results in games not being played when they should be, and people not being paid because nothing’s happening. So, it’s a bad thing, and it’s putting Ray in a bad situation — so he sets about trying to launch an “intriguing and controversial business opportunity”, to quote an IMDb plot summary.

    Something like that, anyway. Frankly, it took less than two minutes for High Flying Bird to leave me feeling lost and confused, as it dives into an “inside baseball” (as the saying goes) depiction of basketball right from the off. It felt like watching a French movie without subtitles, except here the language isn’t French, it’s basketball. In fairness, I did eventually get a handle on what the overall plot was, but mostly with hindsight and not ’til quite far in — my analogy still stands for what the viewing experience was like until that point.

    Lost and confused

    For fans of basketball, or at least those with some kind of knowledge of the workings of the business side of American sport, it might all be more palatable. I think there’s some good stuff in the plot and characters, but I can only say “think” because I made such a lousy fist of following what was meant to be going on half the time. The story culminates in a final twist/reveal about Ray’s actual plan. Fortunately, by that point I’d worked out (more or less) what events had happened, so I followed it — indeed, I got there ahead of it. Well, that’s because before viewing I read a comment which implied this was a heist movie (like Soderbergh’s previous work on the Oceans films or Logan Lucky), so I’d already been on the lookout for what the real con was. Nonetheless, I’m torn between whether the reveal was quite clever, or the film thinks it’s cleverer than it actually is. If I hadn’t had that heads up, maybe I would’ve been as mind-blowingly impressed as Ray’s boss seems to be when Ray reveals the real plan to him. Or maybe I wouldn’t’ve, who can say.

    Unsane suggested you couldn’t make a good-looking film on an iPhone. High Flying Bird says, actually, you can. It doesn’t all look great (especially when, for example, the shot literally wobbles from something as simple as someone putting a drinks bottle down on a table), but there are some beautiful shots in here too. Unsane almost had to make a virtue of its odd look, the weirdass visuals chiming with the story of a possibly unstable mind. High Flying Bird has no such excuses, and most of the time it doesn’t need them; though some parts do still look like a first-effort student film, which is very odd coming from a director as experienced as Soderbergh (this is the 56-year-old’s 29th feature, not to mention his 39 episodes of TV).

    Looking to the future

    While researching the film’s production I came across this interesting article at The Ringer, which uses High Flying Bird as a jumping off point to examine the history, increase, and future of using iPhones for professional projects. It basically contends that phone-shot films are the future for everything, and makes that sound reasonable. It’s reminiscent of the emergence of digital photography for movies: it was a big story back when Soderbergh shot Che with digital cameras (Criterion’s Blu-ray release has a half-hour documentary dedicated to it), but it was only a couple of years later that became standard for all major movies, and a few years after that it’s now noteworthy when something is actually shot on film. It seems inconceivable that one day they’ll be shooting an Avengers movie on a phone, but then it once seemed inconceivable you’d shoot a movie that big on digital video…

    It’s quite hard for me to give a concise opinion of High Flying Bird. I struggled through much of it, which made for an unpleasant viewing experience. But I acknowledge some of that lies with me knowing less about basketball than the film does. But then again, is it the film’s responsibility to explain to me the things I don’t know? I did get a handle on events by the end, and if I watched the film again I expect I’d follow it better, but I also don’t feel there’s much luring me back for a second viewing.

    3 out of 5

    High Flying Bird is available on Netflix now.

    Velvet Buzzsaw (2019)

    2019 #11
    Dan Gilroy | 112 mins | streaming (UHD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Velvet Buzzsaw

    The team behind neo-noir modern classic Nightcrawler (writer-director Dan Gilroy, stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo, cinematographer Robert Elswit, among others) reunite for this direct-to-Netflix genre mash-up — it’s part art-world satire, part mystery-thriller, part horror. The Verge described it as “Robert Altman’s Final Destination”, and that so succinctly articulates what the film reminded me of that I decided to just lift it. Well, just pilfering someone else’s work is in-keeping with the film’s themes, at least.

    Set in the world of high art, it stars Gyllenhaal as all-powerful critic Morf Vandewalt, whose reviews can make or break sales worth millions of dollars, plus the careers that go along with that. One person his tastes always align with is prominent dealer Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo), whose assistant Josephina (Zawe Ashton) is falling out of favour due to relationship woes. But when her reclusive neighbour dies, she finds his apartment full of striking and original artwork, which she promptly steals. Mort is bowled over by their quality, Rhodora muscles in on the sales, and soon the deceased artist is a sensation. But there’s more to his disturbing work than meets the eye, and soon people start dying…

    So far so Final Destination, but not very Robert Altman, I know. The latter comes more in the execution than the subject matter, in particular that this is really an ensemble piece — the marketing pitched Gyllenhaal as the lead, I guess because he’s the biggest and most marketable name, but Ashton’s role is at least as large and central, if not more so, for example. Plus, as well as those two and Russo that I’ve already mentioned, there are significant roles for Toni Collette (as an art buyer for a museum), John Malkovich (as an uninspired elder-statesman artist), Natalia Dyer (as an intern struggling to break in), Billy Magnussen (as a handyman who wants to be an artist), Tom Sturridge (as a rival dealer), and Daveed Diggs (as an up-and-coming artist everyone wants to sign). Before the thriller and horror elements come into play, this spread of characters makes the film seems much more like a portrait of the art world from multiple different perspectives.

    Critique is so limiting and emotionally draining

    Gilroy has specifically cited Altman’s Hollywood satire The Player as an influence on how he approached things. By complete coincidence, I watched The Player just a few days before this, and so that similarity was very clear to me. That said, Gilroy’s lack of experience relative to Altman perhaps shows through. Where The Player was very pointed and effective in its satire, Velvet Buzzsaw takes more of a vague, scattershot view of the contemporary art scene. Gilroy does have a specific theme in mind — specifically, the disjunct between art and commerce, and their negative effects on each other — which manifests in various ways (it’s part of the film’s horrors as well as its satire), but that seems slightly disconnected from the Altman-esque “different perspectives” approach. Having so many key characters does lend a slightly different feel from what you might expect, but it doesn’t lead to the same kind of forensic dissection that Altman was capable of.

    It’s just one aspect of the film that seems somewhat muddled. It’s not fatally flawed, but there are things about it here and there that just don’t seem to add up. It’s almost as if scenes had been arbitrarily removed; not ones that particularly affect the plot, but maybe ones that affect the details. For example, at one point Mort exclaims that he’s been seeing strange things recently, but the only evidence we’ve seen of that came with the thing that prompted his exclamation. These kind of vague, not-quite-right bits pop up now and then. You’d almost wonder if it had something to do with the film’s horror side, like it was trying to be disquieting, but it doesn’t correlate or connect up to the actual horror bits.

    About to connect with the film's horror bits

    And yet, despite that, it’s so good in places. In particular, it looks gorgeous, especially in UHD. That’s how Elswit has shot it, of course, but also some of the striking visual ideas Gilroy throws into the mix. His screenplay definitely has its moments also. One of Mort’s first reactions to the startling work Josephina has unearthed is that “critique is so limiting and emotionally draining,” which is just begging to be quoted in reviews. That line was in the trailer, so it’s already threatened to take on a life of its own outside the film, but it’s certainly not the only meme-in-waiting that’s thrown up. “The admiration I had for your work has completely evaporated” is another choice example. Heck, about half the rest of the dialogue is as well, never mind some reaction shots.

    Sometimes, star ratings really aren’t nuanced enough to represent one’s reaction to a film. There are bits of Velvet Buzzsaw I adored — performances, scenes, individual lines, the cinematography — at a level normally found in a five-star film. But there are other things it fumbles, like the way the story sometimes jumps as if scenes have been deleted, or the way it doesn’t seem to have an answer for some of its mysteries, or the way the trailer spoilt pretty much everything (not a fault of the film itself, I know, but still a grievance). Some of those err down towards a three-star experience. It’s quite frustrating in that respect. Overall, there’s enough I liked that I’m going to give it a four, albeit a cautious one.

    4 out of 5

    Velvet Buzzsaw is available on Netflix now.

    The Past Month on TV #42

    “Month” is a bit of a stretch, as it’s only 2½ weeks since my Christmas roundup, but let’s go with it and get things back on schedule.

    A Series of Unfortunate Events  Season 3
    A Series of Unfortunate Events season 3The third and final season of Netflix’s adaptation of Daniel Handler’s Lemony Snicket’s 13-volume series of children’s novels arrived on New Year’s Day. “Final” because they have now reached the end of book 13, and therefore the end of the tale. And that means the whole story — running just under 20 hours total, across 25 episodes — is now sat there on Netflix, available for any future viewer to watch as a complete work. We live in an era where there are far too many quality films and TV series and other entertainments vying for our precious time, but even though I’ve already seen it all (obviously), “watching it as a complete work” is something I definitely intend to do someday in the future, because it’s bloody marvellous.

    But, for the time being, back to this final batch of episodes. They begin exactly where the last lot left off — which only makes sense, because that was a cliffhanger. It’s quickly enough resolved, naturally, and we’re off into the series’ final stretch. That’s a funny one, actually: there are seven whole episodes here — an entire run for many UK dramas, for example — but it feels like we’re right at the tail of the, er, tale. So, for example, when we’re introduced to a new pair of major villains, it feels a bit late in the day for that kind of thing — surely there’s not enough time left to explore their importance? Indeed, the series basically doesn’t. It’s part of why the opening two-parter, The Slippery Slope, felt a bit something-or-nothing to me. But perhaps that’s unfair — perhaps I was just itching to reach the impending denouement, with all its long-promised answers — so perhaps they’ll fare better on a rewatch. Things pick up in The Grim Grotto, which is set mostly aboard a pair of submarines, a nice showcase for the series’ always-impressive production design. There are some neat surprises and revelations here, which turn out to be vitally important later on.

    But things really get good in the penultimate tale, the appropriately-named The Penultimate Peril. Well, I say “appropriately” — in some respects this two-parter actually feels like the show’s big finale, with many much-anticipated meetings and events taking place, plus a healthy dose of long-awaited reveals and answers. It’s all wrapped up in a tale that is gorgeously constructed, the screenplay and editing revelling in a temporally-twisted structure that helps underscore some of the series’ biggest and best messages. I thought it was absolutely stunning, especially the first half; a phenomenal finale that brings so much together while also being clever in itself.

    Is Olaf so awful?After that, we come to The End — that’s not emphasis, it’s the title of the actual finale. Every other novel in Snicket’s 13-volume series has been treated to a two-part adaptation, but The End is the longest book of them all, so it gets… one episode. A regular-length one, at that. Well, I’ve never read the books (I will someday…), so I can’t comment on why this should be, or if the programme-makers have done it a disservice, but I’m sure they had their reasons. That said, it’s even more intriguing given that the TV series manages to wrap up almost every on-going plot line and mystery, something the book series is notorious for not doing — you’d think they’d need more screen-time for that, not less.

    As an episode, The End isn’t quite as impressive as The Penultimate Peril. It’s a weird cross between an epilogue and an essential final piece of the puzzle. One thing I think the final three episodes do get right is they explain almost all of the complicated, mysterious backstory in Penultimate Peril, then bring the focus back onto the Baudelaire orphans for the finale. There’s been so much of that backstory to get into that it’s sometimes threatened to overwhelm the main plot; to make the programme all about the kids’ parents and what went on in the past. To get that explaining out of the way, then swing round to “where do the kids go from here?”, is a good move. And having just said how much the series explains and wraps up, it’s actually very open-ended, especially considering it’s explicitly designed to be a definite end. But (spoilers!) it is an end to what was explicitly the story of the series (Olaf’s attempts to get the Baudelaire fortune, plus the mysteries of VFD); it’s just that Violet, Klaus and Sunny’s lives will continue to be adventurous after that story is over. Though it does make one wonder if Handler will ever be tempted to write a sequel series someday…

    That open-ended-ness is just one of many big, potentially challenging ideas the series has presented its younger audience with. In amongst all the quirky whimsy and kids’ picture book aesthetics, the series has ultimately engaged with important and mature themes — about bad people not being purely evil and good people not being purely good; about how ‘good’ and ‘bad’ can be subjective and personal anyway; about not blindly respecting authority, or expecting it to deliver what’s right or fair… This maturity is one (of many, I think) reasons the series also works for adult viewers.

    Bye bye, BaudelairesBack at the start, it took me a couple of episodes to warm up to A Series of Unfortunate Events. I’m worried the same thing will have put other viewers off. That’s a shame. Okay, sure, some people are never going to be on board with its particular style — it’s like something by Wes Anderson or Tim Burton or someone in that respect; stylised and mannered in a way some people just don’t get on with — but I think more people need to give it a fair shot; to stick with it, knowing the early stuff is sometimes about establishing a tone and a status quo for later episodes to peel away as a facade. I’m not saying it’s perfect — there are ups and downs along the way — but, for me, I think the series taken as a whole borders on being a masterpiece. I love it, and I’m going to miss it, and that’s just one reason I’ll watch it again. So much for looking away.

    Also watched…
  • Island of Dreams — This was a proper oddity: a one-off comedy set on Sir Richard Branson’s private island, where he hosts guests including J.K. Rowling, Daniel Radcliffe, Daniel Craig, Adele, Greg Wallace, Professor Brian Cox, and Elon Musk — all played by comedians, obviously. It was… kinda funny, I guess? Apparently it’s a pilot, so maybe there’ll be more.
  • Les Misérables Episodes 2-3 — When this series started there was apparently much discussion on social media about how it was “weird without the songs”. Other than Look Down popping into my head when it first cut to the prison ships, that hasn’t bothered me too much. What I have found kinda odd, though, is seeing a familiar story told in such a different way. I don’t know why that’s weird — it’s not as if I haven’t seen a remake before, and I’ve only seen the musical three or four times (in several different versions, too). I think it’s something to do with seeing a story I only know as a musical being told as a straight-up drama, and an expanded one too, with events occurring in slightly different ways, and with whole other characters and subplots and stuff mixed in. It makes it quite hard for me to judge as a drama in its own right, though. Well, I’ll try in next month’s TV roundup, by when it’ll be finished.

    Things to Catch Up On
    The cast of Sex Education are shocked by my opinion, clearly.This month, I have mostly been missing Sex Education, Netflix’s comedy-drama about a sex therapist’s son who begins offering what expertise he’s picked up second-hand to his classmates. It attracted a bit of hype before release and has been much-discussed on social media, but I thought something looked kinda off about it… and then I saw this, which has hit the nail on the head for me. I always hate it when British programmes or films behave like UK secondary school is anything like US high school, and by the sounds of things Sex Ed has gone all-in on that ludicrous fallacy. If I do end up watching it, I feel like that’s just gonna bug the hell out of me.

    Next month… the Punisher returns for (what will presumably be) the penultimate season of the MCU on Netflix.

  • Godzilla: The Planet Eater (2018)

    aka Gojira: Hoshi o Kuu Mono

    2019 #3
    Hiroyuki Seshita & Kôbun Shizuno | 91 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | Japan / English | 12

    Godzilla: The Planet Eater

    Picking up where the previous film left off, this concluding instalment in the anime Godzilla trilogy (which also doubles as the 32nd official Godzilla movie) sees the eponymous kaiju lying dormant while plans swing into action to bring Ghidorah, a being from another dimension who’s worshipped as a god by some, into our dimension, where it will eat Godzilla and then Earth itself.

    Yeeeaaah.

    But before we get to the headline monster mash, there’s an attempt at a plot. By the end of the last film, the alliance between humans and a couple of alien raced who’d helped us out was looking a bit shaky. What once looked like it might make for a Battlestar Galactica/Babylon 5-style conflict has turned out to be nothing so developed, and in this final film it noodles along, driven by minor supporting characters we have zero attachment to; a something-and-nothing plot line that kills time until it’s summarily wiped away. Meanwhile, down on Earth, we’re treated to dozens of scenes in which the trilogy’s equally unmemorable lead characters wander around waffling Religious Studies 101-level stuff about religion as propaganda and a manipulation tool. At one point a character talks about soup as an analogy for, like, society or something, coming to the observation that “unlike the soup, we have free will.” It’s a deep philosophical movie, man. About as deep as a bowl of soup.

    All the while, we’re made to wait for the guy we came to see to wake up. Yes, Godzilla literally sleeps through the first half of the movie. Well, I can’t say I blame him.

    Godzilla vs Ghidorah

    On the bright side, it does eventually get to some good bits (that’s more than I’d say about the preceding instalment). There’s a sequence where the alien death cult religion summons Ghidorah, who initially manifests as some kind of shadow-demon that begins massacring everyone in the room, which is all quite creepy. It’s followed by a large-scale sequence where Ghidorah’s glowing energy snake-dragon form emerges from a space-time singularity and destroys the humans’ spaceship in some kind of temporally-messed-up way, which is also quite striking. You have to appreciate these individual sequences almost in isolation, because the plot they’re part of is a load of muddly claptrap.

    Then there’s the climax, in which we get to witness a mountain-sized dinosaur-ish monster with atomic breath (Godzilla) battle an interdimensional three-headed dragon-snake apparently made of glowing yellow light (the trilogy’s take on Ghidorah). It has its moments, but it’s overlong and mixes in a bunch of the cod-scientific wannabe-philosophical gubbins too, which takes the wind out of its sails somewhat.

    There have been some interesting ideas tucked away in this trilogy, both in how it reimagined the kaiju and their mythologies, and in the brand-new stuff it attempted to introduce with the alien races and their beliefs. Unfortunately, that promise has been lost under unengaging characters, poorly defined relationships, and the kind of philosophising you might expect from a Sixth Form student. It was bold to try to take the Godzilla franchise in a new direction, but that boldness feels squandered.

    2 out of 5

    Godzilla: The Planet Eater is available on Netflix now.

    2018 Statistics

    For today’s portion of my review of 2018, it’s one of my personal highlights every year: the statistics!

    For any newcomers among you, this is where I take the 261 films I watched for the first time in 2018 and analyse them in all kinds of different ways, and compare them to previous years too. It’s exciting, I promise. (Well, it is to me.)

    As a bit of a P.S. before we begin (yes, I know that doesn’t make sense), I’m now a “pro” member of Letterboxd, which means I get stats there too. They’re somewhat different to these because they also include my rewatches, a few TV bits and bobs, and things like that. They do include categories I’ve never bothered to tabulate though, like repeated actors and various crew positions and so on, so there’s that. Anyway, if you’re interested, you can check those out here.

    And now, without any further ado…

    As I previously mentioned, I watched 261 new feature films in 2018. That blows away all previous years, becoming my highest final total by 30.5% over the previous best, 2015’s 200.

    Included in that is the one extended or altered cut of a feature I’d seen before that I watched this year. The film in question was Terminator 2, which I counted as part of the main list because it was (a) in 3D, and (b) the original theatrical cut, which I’d never seen before.

    Those 261 films aren’t the whole story, however, as in 2018 I continued my Rewatchathon, in which I aimed to rewatch 50 films I’d seen before. I hit that goal exactly, meaning my total feature film viewing for last year was 311 films. That’s a 36.4% increase on the previous best, 2017’s 228.

    I also watched eight short films in 2018, which is a small number but is also the most shorts I’ve watched in a single year since 2007. They won’t be included in the following statistics… except for the one that says they are.

    The total running time of those 261 films was 461 hours and 9 minutes. That’s a little over 19 solid days! It’s way beyond the previous high, 2015’s 370 hours (aka 15½ days), though not as much of an increase as that was at the time: 2015 beat 2014 by 133 hours, while 2018 beats 2015 by ‘just’ 91¼ hours. Finally, add in the those eights shorts and the total running time of my new 2018 viewing was 462 hours and 48 minutes. (Maybe next year I’ll start counting my Rewatchathon here too…)

    Next up, a graph I’ve never done before. I thought of it in a sudden flash of inspiration in early December, at which point it felt glaringly why-have-I-never-thought-of-this-before obvious. It’s my viewing mapped out across the year, month by month. It would be interesting to do this for every previous year, to see if the shape remains roughly the same or not. (I could do that, but it would be a lot of data to re-examine. Knowing me, I’ll wind up doing it someday.) One particularly noteworthy thing on this year’s chart: April and May are my two highest months ever.

    Now, the ways in which I watched all those films. For the fourth year in a row, the year’s most prolific viewing format was streaming. It accounted for 109 films, which sounds like a big increase from last year’s 76, but because I watched so many films this year its percentage actually fell, from 2017’s 43.2% to 41.8% in 2018. That’s well down on 2016’s 57% as well, which pleases me because I own an awful lot of discs that I ought to be watching instead.

    To break the above down further, my streaming service of choice was actually Amazon (same as last year, in fact), with 37 films (33.9% of streams). Netflix was close behind on 35 (32.1%), though if I included TV series it’d be far in front. A little way behind was Now TV with 25 (22.9%) — not bad considering I only subscribe for a month or two in order to watch the Oscars. Well, I like to get value for money. Finally, there was Rakuten with nine (8.3%), all of which were individual rentals rather than through a subscription. That was mainly thanks to my parents having some vouchers that needed using up, but also a couple of UHD rentals — it’s so much easier to find 4K films on Rakuten than on Amazon, in my experience.

    The format in second place was Blu-ray. Every year I write in this stats post that I need to watch more of the stuff I buy on disc, but this year I finally made good(-ish) on that desire: I watched 82 films on Blu-ray (31.4%), a 78% increase on the average of the last four years. That’s a solid improvement, but I could still do better.

    It’s a big drop to third place, where we find a tie between TV and downloads, each with 25 films (9.6%). That represents an increase in percentage for both of them from last year, so my reduction in streaming didn’t go entirely to Blu-ray. Oh well. The graph below is for TV, because it was once so mighty in my viewing, but it’s worth noting this is the highest year for downloads ever. Not sure why — I don’t feel like I download that many films.

    In fifth place we find the once-dominant DVD, reduced to a lowly 12 films (4.6%). That’s an increase from last year’s eight, though the percentage is more or less the same (it was 4.8% last year). I’ve got hundreds of the things that I purchased in the format’s heyday but never got round to watching, which nowadays are sometimes trumped by availability elsewhere. I don’t even mean paying to upgrade to a Blu-ray — why watch something in SD on DVD when I could stream it in HD on Netflix or Amazon Prime?

    With such a high overall total, it’s no surprise that almost every format saw an increase this year. The only exception was cinema, which stormed up to third place in 2017, but now returns to bringing up the rear, as it has since 2013. I made just nine trips this year (eight for new films, plus I saw Mission: Impossible – Fallout a second time), exactly half of last year’s 18. Will it go back up again in 2019? That depends what the big screen offerings are like, I guess.

    In amongst all that, I watched 18 films in 3D (6.9%), up from 11 last year, and 14 in 4K UHD, a massive increase on last year’s one! Goodness knows what direction those numbers will go in future. I still buy 3D Blu-rays, but there are an increasing number of forthcoming titles that were released in 3D theatrically but don’t have a 3D Blu-ray scheduled. It feels like the format may be tailing off now, sadly. As for UHD, Netflix continue to favour it for their series, but only sporadically for their movies — a number of their recent high-profile acquisitions are actually only 1080p, like Mowgli and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. But I did get a UHD Blu-ray player for Christmas (though I’ve not had a chance to set it up yet), so we’ll see how that affects things.

    That brings me to the HD vs. SD comparison — or UHD vs. HD vs. SD, as it is now. HD includes virtually all my Blu-ray viewing (I actually watched one film that was in SD but included on a Blu-ray disc), the vast majority of my streamed movies, most of my downloads, 60% of my TV viewing, and all my cinema trips. For UHD, it’s mostly streaming, but with three downloads too. Meanwhile, in the SD camp there’s DVDs, the other 40% of my TV viewing, a handful of streams, one download, and that one Blu-ray. The final result is 220 films in HD (84.3%). Topped up by the aforementioned 5.4% in UHD, that’s 89.6% in HD formats. It’s up over 1% on last year for the highest it’s been since I started keeping track in 2015. It’d be nice to leave SD behind entirely, but, like I said, I still have so many unwatched DVDs…

    Talking of formats, back in 2015’s stats I tallied up how many documentaries and animated films I’d watched (as opposed to “live-action fiction”, which unquestionably makes up the bulk of my film watching), because I felt like I’d watched a lot of documentaries that year. I’ve continued doing this count each year since, but never mentioned it again because there was nothing noteworthy to say. This year, however, it seemed like I was watching quite a lot of animation, so I’ve revived it to see just how many. Well, the total was 34 animated movies. In terms of sheer volume, that’s over double the average of the last three years. As a percentage, it’s 13% of 2018’s viewing, vs. an average of 8.1% over the previous three years. So, yes, I did watch more animated movies than usual this year. (And while I’m here: documentaries were well up on the last two years too, though not quite as numerous as in 2015.)

    Turning to the age of my viewing now, and the most popular decade was the 2010s (as it has been every year since 2012) with 138 films. It’s a high number, but in percentage terms it actually represents a significant drop: it works out as 52.9%, and you have to go back to 2014 to find a time it was lower. In other words: I watched a greater number of older films. Good good.

    So, which decades benefited the most? Well, several of them saw increases from last year, with more achieving double-figure tallies than ever before, but the ’60s and ’80s fared particularly well. In second place, however, was the 2000s, though with just 29 films it was a distant second indeed; and at 11.1%, it’s actually a slight percentage decrease from last year’s 11.9%. The same is true for the decade in fifth place, the ’90s: it increased its number (from 15 to 20), but the percentage went down (from 8.5% to 7.7%).

    In between those we have joint third, where there’s the aforementioned ’60s and ’80s, each on 21 (8%). In sixth place is the last decade to make double figures, the ’70s with 17 (6.5%). Rounding things out, the ’40s had eight (3.1%) and the ’50s had six (2.3%); then, after nothing for the ’30s or ’20s, the 1910s had one (0.4%).

    In terms of languages, English was as dominant as ever, with 229 films wholly or significantly in my mother tongue; but at 87.7%, that’s easily the lowest percentage it’s ever been. Still, nothing else comes close, though for the second year in a row Japanese was second, in 23 films (8.8%). The only other language to manage double figures was French with 11 (4.2%). In total, there were 27 languages, plus one silent film. American Sign Language once again put in more than one appearance, and British Sign Language appeared in a short film too. Other more uncommon (for me) ones included relatively strong showings by Korean (six) and Hindi (four), and single credits for languages like Hebrew, Urdu, Xhosa, and Yiddish. Also, two films with some Klingon.

    As for countries of production, the USA once again dominated with 189 films, though at 72.4% that’s down quite a bit as a percentage. Second place (as ever) was the UK with 52 films, which at 19.9% also represents a drop in percentage. In third place for a second year was Japan. Last year it more than doubled its previous best, and this year it’s done it again, going from 14 to 30 (11.5%). Close behind was France on 25 (9.6%). After that there’s a drop to Canada on 12 (4.6%), and tied for sixth place are China and Italy with 10 (3.8%) apiece.

    Normally I’d run down the rest of the countries with multiple films, but there were quite a few this year. The likes of Germany (seven) and Australia, Hong Kong, and New Zealand (five each) contributed about as many as normal, but there were uncommonly strong showings for Sweden (six), South Korea (five), and Spain (also five). In all, 29 countries were involved in the production of at least one film.

    A total of 208 directors plus 17 directing partnerships appear on 2018’s main list. The former is a record, smashing the previous best of 157. The latter… isn’t. It is a tie, though. Of those 225 directing ‘units’ (I mean, what do you call them?), 29 had multiple credits, which is also a new record. Top of the pile are Giuliano Carnimeo and Sylvester Stallone, each with four — the former all Sartana films, the latter all Rocky films. Right behind them with three apiece are Kazuo Ikehiro (all Zatoichi films), Frank Oz, Ridley Scott, and Kimiyoshi Yasuda (also all Zatoichi films). A preponderance of sequels also bulk up the list of directors with two films to their name, though I won’t list the series they each contributed to. The directors, however, are: John G. Avildsen, J.A. Bayona, Ingmar Bergman, the Coen brothers, Ryan Coogler, Jon Favreau, Richard Fleischer, Spike Jonze, Richard Lester, Doug Liman, Akira Kurosawa, Christopher McQuarrie, Kenji Misumi, Hayao Miyazaki, Roger Nygard, Todd Phillips, Peyton Reed, Martin Scorsese, Hiroyuki Seshita & Kôbun Shizuno, Steven Soderbergh, Steven Spielberg, and Edward Zwick. Finally, Alan Crosland directed a feature and a short.

    For the past few years I’ve specifically charted the number of female directors whose work I’ve watched. There were 9 female directors represented in 2018’s viewing, with 8½ films to their name — the half coming from Marjane Satrapi co-directing Persepolis. As the graph below shows, it’s a pathetically small number, representing just 3.26% of my viewing. It’s an increase on the last two years, at least, but not much of one! I could undoubtedly do better if I sought out more films by female directors, but that’s kind of my point: I just watch films, and this is what happens — if female directors were better represented in the industry as a whole, the graph would automatically look healthier.

    On a somewhat brighter note, at time of writing a stonking 27 films from 2018’s list appear on the IMDb Top 250 (or whatever they want to call it nowadays). That’s my best total ever. However, because the list is ever-changing, the number I have left to see has only gone down by 20, to 49. I’m getting relatively close to the end now, though… The current positions of this year’s inclusions range throughout most of the list, from 29th (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse) to 241st (Paper Moon).

    At the end of my annual “top ten” post I always include a list of 50 notable films I missed from that year’s releases, and I continue to track my progress at watching those ‘misses’. In 2018 I watched more movies from every year’s list. To rattle through them (including the overall total seen in brackets), this year I watched: two from 2007 (36); five from 2008 (29); two from 2009 (31); three from 2010 (33); five from 2011 (38); two from 2012 (34); two from 2013 (34); one from 2014 (42); one from 2015 (33); and 12 from 2016 (42).

    Finally, in the first year of watching 2017’s 50, I saw 33 of them. For the fourth year in a row, that sets a new record for the best ‘first year’ ever, beating the 30 from 2016’s list that I watched during 2017. This year has also set a record for how many films I watched across all the lists: it adds up to 68, which tops the 60 I saw during 2016.

    In total, I’ve now seen 385 out of 550 of those ‘missed’ movies. That’s exactly 70%, up from the 63.4% I was at by the end of last year. Shiny. Though, how long this can keep improving is debatable — a couple of those lists are getting fairly near completion, and most of them include some titles I’m not at all interested in watching. Time will tell. (As usual, the 50 for 2018 will be listed in my next post.)

    To finish off 2018’s statistics, then, it’s the climax of every review: the scores.

    At the top end of the spectrum, this year I awarded 39 five-star ratings. Despite the record-breaking total, that’s not the most I’ve ever handed out (there were 40 in 2015). Did I watch less-good films? Am I stricter? Who can say? Well, it means I gave 14.9% of films full marks, which is roundabouts in my usual range (the lowest year was 11.9%, the highest 21.2%).

    Second place went, as usual, to four-star films, of which there were 122 — the most ever. Again, turning it into a percentage makes things more normal: at 46.7% it places bang in the middle of previous years (five have higher percentages, six lower, with a range from 31.5% to 53.3%). The total of 76 three-star films is also the largest number ever, but at 29.1% isn’t close to being the biggest proportionally (that’d be 2012, when three-star films made up 38% of my viewing. It was the only year with more three-star films than four-star ones).

    Bringing up the rear, there were 21 two-star films — again, that’s the most ever, but at 8% it’s actually the third smallest proportion-wise. Finally, there were just three one-star films, which sits in that category’s regular ballpark as both a number and a percentage. I don’t know what this all tells us, if anything. Possibly just that I’m a consistent marker. I guess this graph backs that up (barring the weird spike in 2012).

    Lastly, all those numbers lead us to the average score; the single figure that (arguably) asserts 2018’s quality compared to other years. The short version is 3.7 out of 5, the same as it’s been for the last three years, and 2007 and 2009 before that too — that’s exactly half of all this blog’s years. But if we go to three decimal places, we can actually rank the years. At that level, 2018 scores 3.663, which is the lowest average for five years. That said, it’s still higher than 2007-2010 and 2012-2013, which means it sits more or less in the middle of all years — 6th out of 12.

    As I was saying: pretty consistent marking. (Goodness knows what exactly went on in 2011 and ’12, mind.)

    And that’s all the stats done for another year!


    2018 is almost at an end! All that’s left is to rank my favourites in my “top 10%” list. But, having watched so many films this year, that 10% is notably bigger than usual — the list might take a little while to put together…