Godzilla: City on the Edge of Battle (2018)

aka Gojira: Kessen Kidō Zōshoku Toshi

2018 #156
Hiroyuki Seshita & Kôbun Shizuno | 101 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | Japan / English | PG

Godzilla: City on the Edge of Battle

The 31st official Godzilla film from Japan’s Toho studio is the second part of their anime trilogy. Released theatrically in Japan, it’s a Netflix exclusive in the rest of the world — which is probably for the best, because it means we don’t have to pay money specifically for this shite.

Picking up where the previous film left off, City of the Edge of Battle is set on Earth 20,000 years in the future, where a 300-metre-tall Godzilla (the largest ever, fact fans) rules the planet. I could go into the rest of the backstory, but we’ll be here for a paragraph or two — you can either watch the first film or, better yet, save yourself a couple of hours and just don’t bother with any of it. But anyway: in this instalment, the party that have landed on Earth to defeat Godzilla discover a tribe of humans (or, possibly, just a human-like species) who have somehow survived Godzilla’s reign. They in turn lead them to the remains of Mechagodzilla, a failed project by alien chums to help defeat Godzilla. Left alone for 20 millennia, the mech’s “nanometal” has grown into an entire city, which they now hope to use to defeat Godzilla.

There are some neat sci-fi ideas in this trilogy — aside from the Battlestar Galactica-esque stuff I talked about last time, there’s some interesting notions about how the planet might’ve changed and evolved over 20,000 years without us, and a city that’s grown itself has potential — but promising concepts alone are not enough to overcome the clunky dialogue, dull visuals, unmemorable characters, turgid philosophising, and sauntering plot. And if you’re here for the eponymous big guy, once again he doesn’t even get involved until over an hour in, just in time for the final big action sequence. That’s so badly done, it requires constant narration from the human command centre to explain what’s supposed to be going on. It would make as much sense as an audio drama as it does as a film.

Look, Godzilla is in this film! (Eventually.)

Another way this second film suffers is that many actions are built on motivations that were established and explained in the first film, but which aren’t restated here — and they were easy to miss in the first one anyway, because it was overloaded with exposition and jargon. It should be no surprise that this sequel is no better in that regard, justifying my decision to watch it in English this time. It did seem weird to switch language part way through a trilogy, but it’s not like any of the characters were memorable enough that I associated their voices with them, so why not? Well, I always feel I should watch anime in its original Japanese, for purism’s sake, but English is just easier — especially when the amount of made-up jargon flying around made the first film something of a chore to read.

I didn’t really enjoy the first film, but generously gave it 3 stars on the basis that it wasn’t completely terrible and had some ideas with potential. This sequel squanders most of that. I still like the mythology they’ve loaded into this universe — the conflicting ideologies of the different species on the spaceship; the situation on Earth when they return (the human-like tribe; the self-built city-with-a-brain) — but it’s all bungled in the execution, coming out as gloop that is, at best, barely intelligible, and, at worst, flat out boring. And if there wasn’t already more than enough backstory, mystery, and potential conflict to be going on with (which there was), City on the Edge of Battle throws a ton more into the mix. But hey, maybe the third film will actually generate some excitement if it has to rush to wrap all that up?

2 out of 5

Godzilla: City on the Edge of Battle is available on Netflix now. The final film is scheduled for release in Japan in November, and worldwide in early 2019.

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The Past Month on TV #35

In this month’s TV review: wah gwaan in Luke Cage season two, and “what’s going on?!” in Westworld’s finale.

Luke Cage  Season 2
Luke Cage season 2The ninth season of the MCU on Netflix takes us back to Harlem for the continuing adventures of the eponymous bulletproof black man. It’s hard to imagine a more timely superhero for America (maybe if he was an immigrant too), not that the series’ is actually all that concerned with such issues, aside from passing nods and references. Instead, it’s more of a gangster crime drama: the still-standing season one villains, underworld power couple Mariah and Shades, intend to go legit by selling their illegal gun business, using the profits to invest in social projects for Mariah’s beloved Harlem. Standing in their way is Bushmaster, a superpowered patois-speaking Jamaican gang leader, who has a long-held grudge against Mariah’s family — and he’s come for retribution.

This focus on the conflicts between the villains has led some critics to reckon that Luke Cage has been sidelined in his own show. That’s true to an extent: because we’re privy to Mariah, Shades, and Bushmaster cooking up and executing their separate schemes, Luke is left to kind of wander around, trying to figure out stuff we already know. At the very least, the series is as interested in its villains as in its heroes — I reckon if you totted it up, Luke and Marian’s screentime would be pretty comparable. On the bright side, this is a very character-driven season — it’s as concerned with who these people are and how they’re changed by events, rather than just the mechanics of the plot — and Luke is certainly no exception. For one, his estranged father is in town — a superbly nuanced turn from the late Reg E. Carney (who the season is dedicated to, appropriately), which lends a different perspective again.

Plus, picking up and running with a theme from the first season, Luke is now famous as “Harlem’s hero”, but this is going to his head a bit, negatively affecting his relationship with Claire. The series does a good job of reflecting the celebrity status of superheroes, something the other Marvel films and series haven’t really touched on. If these events were even vaguely real, there’s no way Luke Cage could hang out in Harlem without being noticed. So now there’s an app to track his whereabouts, merchandise, sponsorship offers, his actions make headlines, and wealthy fans are willing to pay for him to make personal appearances. Luke espouses an ambivalent relationship to all this: he’d rather it wasn’t happening, but it does have its uses — and those prove seductive.

Rulers of HarlemMike Colter remains a likeable lead, but, again, it’s a villain who steals the show: as Mariah, the brilliant Alfre Woodard is perhaps the best thing about the whole series. Her performance is consistently fantastic, selling every twist and turn of character the writers throw at her. The season is as much about what events do to her as it is about Luke. She isn’t entirely alone, though: there are plenty of great performances, and scenes to showcase them, throughout the season. Occasionally there are some really bloody terrible ones though, like the time detective Misty Knight and her captain argue loudly about a shared secret while they’re in a room full of other cops. Is that bad writing, bad acting, bad direction, or all of the above?

And sometimes the good stuff is spread a bit thin. There are points, especially midseason, where it feels so goddamn slow. Or maybe not slow, but long. Episodes seem to just keep going. One is called On and On, like some kind of joke at our expense. This is the case with so many of these streaming shows, though — most of them need more plot and/or tighter storytelling. I guess part of the problem is the 13-episode diktat, which presumably the showrunners have no say over. It’d be better if they could make the season the length it needed to be, rather than spin wheels to make it last as long as it has to. That said, most Luke Cage episodes use the full hour “time slot”, and a couple run over it, so if maybe they’ve kind of reclaimed the padding…

Talking of other shows, the last time we saw Luke Cage in Luke Cage he was headed off to jail, but he starts this season free as a bird. Oh, and another major character is missing an arm. MCU fans will know that, since the last season, The Defenders happened, in which we saw these major changes to these characters’ status quo. There are vague nods at explaining some of that for anyone who skipped the team-up miniseries, but, really, it assumes you’ve watched it; and that ‘issue’ crops up again later in the season, with a couple of guest appearances by characters from Iron Fist. If you’re not interested in any of the other Marvel/Netflix series and don’t want to invest eight hours to find out a couple of linking story points (because The Defenders’ main plot has nothing to do with Luke Cage’s storylines), then maybe you need to read a plot summary on Wikipedia or something.

Heroes for hireThe flip side to all that is that this interconnectedness will perhaps be comic book fans’ favourite thing about the show — the way it casually references other series, or suddenly brings their characters in for a guest spot, is just like how comic books operate. It’s pretty constant too: barely an episode goes by without a significant reference to or cameo appearance by someone from another Marvel/Netflix show; and these aren’t all mere Easter eggs, but sometimes quite important or vital pieces of plot or character development.

For all its variability, Luke Cage finds its groove as the season goes on, and the final few episodes feel like an improvement (though I’d still contend they’re longer than they need to be). It all builds to a finale that feels almost low-key — I mean, there’s war on the streets and a lot of minor characters die, but that’s almost incidental, because it’s all about the characters, their relationships to each other, and how those find (or fail to find) closure. No spoilers, but it ends in a really intriguing place for season three. That’s not been officially commissioned yet, but surely it’s inevitable. It’ll be interesting to see where they take things next.

Westworld  Season 2 Episodes 8-10
Riding into the sunset (metaphorically)And so Westworld’s sophomore run rides into the sunset, and I think it’s left behind more questions than answers.

When the show’s first season finally came to expose its secrets, there was a lot of oohing and ahhing — the twists and reveals, whether you’d guessed them or not, retroactively made a lot of sense, and suggested a good deal of cleverness on the part of the writers. Season two’s finale, on the other hand, seems to have been met with a collective “…huh?” Even plenty of people who enjoyed it confess to not understanding everything that was going on, while others have just given up at this point.

Personally, I’m somewhere in between. There’s a lot to like and admire about the closing hours of season two, not least the production values: the show looks fantastic, and the acting is top notch. But I won’t dismiss the argument that the writers have disappeared up their collective arse, because there’s a lot of tricksiness and jiggery-pokery going on here that is sometimes hard to unravel — a stark contrast to the end of season one, I think, which managed to make the games it had been playing clear. Perhaps in their bid to outwit Reddit users, Westworld’s second season seems to have been jumping through hoops merely to be cleverer than its viewers, and I’m not sure that’s paid off.

Dark DoloresExhibit A is the “Hale was Dolores all along” revelation. It’s a neat twist, almost up to season one levels, were it not undermined by the season’s own structure: Hale hasn’t been Dolores all along, and the muddled timelines make it hard to recall how many scenes we’ve had with “Halelores” (as the writers apparently dubbed her). In fact, one of the ways they hid her in plain sight was to limit her screen time: apparently she only popped up in episodes three and seven. Those scenes are littered with subtle clues to her identity, however, though I guess the Redditors missed them — probably because they couldn’t keep track of which timeline we were in either.

There’s so much else going on here that I don’t even know which bits to pick out. I guess that’s part of the problem: with so many conclusions saved up until the finale and then all stuffed in at once, there’s just too much to digest and process in one almighty hit. One of my long-held suspicions has definitely been confirmed though: despite the plot of the series’ movie inspiration, co-creator Jonathan Nolan isn’t really interested in making a thriller about a robot rebellion at a technologically-advanced theme park, but instead has set out to make Person of Interest 2.0, for good or ill. That’s only going to become more apparent next season, I think, which is set to leave the titular park behind entirely. It’ll be interesting to see how many viewers it takes along with it…

Things to Catch Up On
Preacher season 3This month, I have mostly been missing Preacher’s third season, which started this week. Well, I only watched the first two episodes of season two in the end, so I’m very far behind. There’s also another Marvel TV series, Cloak & Dagger (which is passingly referenced in Luke Cage, apparently). That’s releasing new episodes weekly (on Amazon Prime this side of the pond). So many of these weekly shows I now wait to be complete before I binge them, but then I don’t get round to it (cf. Star Trek: Discovery, Black Lightning, etc). Finally, I happened to spot there had been a French sci-fi series called Missions on BBC Four, just before it disappeared from iPlayer, so now I’ve got all of that downloaded too.

Next month… you know, I have no idea. I know it’s the summer, but there must be something coming up? Maybe I’ll finally take the chance to dig into my massive backlog.

Anon (2018)

2018 #95
Andrew Niccol | 100 mins | download (HD) | 2.39:1 + 1.78:1 | Germany / English | 15

Anon

Sky Cinema’s latest acquisition in their attempt to establish a “Netflix original”-style brand is, ironically, also a Netflix ‘original’… just not in the UK (in the US, it was released on Netflix last week). It’s also probably their most promising grab yet… although when its forerunners are Monster Family and The Hurricane Heist, that’s not saying much. But this is a new sci-fi/thriller from the writer-director of Gattaca, so that’s gotta be worth a look… even if he has spent most of the intervening two decades making some, shall we say, less-well-regarded movies.

It’s set in a near future where everyone has ocular implants that feed a constant stream of data, like non-stop augmented reality, identifying people and places, putting digital adverts on the side of buildings, and so on. These devices are connected up to a central network that allows what everyone sees to be monitored and played back when needed — for example, if a crime is committed. It’s the ultimate eyewitness, literally. When someone’s murdered, the police can just play back the last few moments of the victim’s life to see the killer. But when bodies start turning up whose final moments have been tampered with, detective Sal Frieland (Clive Owen) finds himself on the trail of an off-the-grid hacker (Amanda Seyfried) with the ability to alter records — and when the entire system is based on the notion that what’s recorded is unequivocal truth, her skills are a massive potential threat.

Mad skillz

Many a lazy review has described Anon as “like a Black Mirror episode”, which is not wholly inaccurate but is getting to be a stale descriptor — Charlie Brooker didn’t invent high-concept dystopian sci-fi about the dangers of future technology, so why wheel out the comparison every time anyone else dares venture into the same ballpark nowadays? Nonetheless, that is the ballpark Anon is playing in, but mixing speculative sci-fi with an equal dose of hardboiled noir to keep things spicy.

That’s not my only problem with other reviews, though, many of which have put forth low scores and negative reactions. I saw some of them in advance of my viewing, so while watching I kept thinking, “it must go badly wrong later, because so far it’s great.” Well, that moment never came. I wouldn’t say the film is perfect — some parts, especially later on, are a tad hurried, meaning more clarity of motive would be nice — but, for me, the whole worked. There are some interesting sci-fi ideas (all the stuff about being able to trust what you see, including a standout extended sequence where the hacker messes with Sal’s head), plus it feeds some ever-relevant commentary on privacy and surveillance, with the added texture of a noir-shaped plot and atmosphere for good measure.

In fairness, there’s clichéd stuff too, though I’m not sure how much it should bother us. For one example, it’s not much of a spoiler to say that Sal has a “dead kid” backstory, something which is a bit overdone at this point, but your mileage will vary on how much that stuff bothers you — while some of us just think it’s a tired trope, for others it seems to completely ruin the film. Conversely, I read someone criticise it for using “noir clichés” and just thought “that’s called genre, kid”. I also saw a review which decided the film was worth 1-out-of-10 just because there was a scene where they were smoking indoors, so there’s no accounting for what different people will consider important in their assessment of artistic quality.

Gunning for other reviewers

In my opinion, Niccol and co have offered up a well-realised near-future world — not necessarily fully imagined (it’s never explained how we got to a point where everyone has these implants, seemingly enforced by law, but that doesn’t really matter), but the way the tech is depicted and how it affects everyday life is very believable. We’re thrown into the deep-end of this environment, with just enough exposition to keep up, before the film quickly moves onto the intriguing mystery that challenges the rules of this world — and considering we’ve only just learnt the rules, being able to get straight to how they’re being circumvented is impressively economical storytelling. It’s also a neat setup for having to go back to old-fashioned cloak-and-dagger-type detective work in a modern setting — this future is so high-tech, the only way to stop the criminal from detecting the operation against her is to put Sal undercover using no-tech communication.

It’s a really well made film, too. The locations are suitably evocative — the police buildings are defined by huge brutalist concrete slabs — which have been attentively framed and shot, without show-off-y camerawork. Then there’s the on-screen graphics during the point-of-view shots, which are detailed and thorough in their content, design, and execution. Their plausibility lends an automatic verisimilitude to the whole situation. And the POV shots had another nice surprise in store…

Brutal

Regular readers may recall that I’m a fan of a good variable aspect ratio, so it was a pleasant surprise to find that Anon features that technique — it’s unusual to see it outside of huge-budget films that have been shot/formatted for IMAX, and even then there’s no guarantee the multi-ratio version will be widely available (cf. Marvel only including them on 3D Blu-rays; Brad Bird not allowing Ghost Protocol to be released with it at all). In Anon, the ‘drama’ scenes are presented in your movie-standard 2.35:1, but it expands to a screen-filling 16:9 every time we see through someone’s eyes. These changes are very effective. The film employs the technique early and then often, so it doesn’t have the “wow” factor that some IMAX films achieve even when viewed at home, but it’s suitably immersive. Indeed, this would probably play really well on a vision-filling IMAX screen. The fact I wouldn’t have a chance to see it even if it did get IMAX showings means I’m not too sad it’s a direct-to-streaming release.

That said, it’s kind of a shame Sky snapped it up over here. This is anecdotal evidence I know, but I know far more people with Netflix (like, pretty much everyone nowadays) than with Sky Cinema (I’m not sure I know anyone but me, actually, and I only subscribe occasionally), and I’d like to be able to recommend this to people, especially so as to go against the grain of the criticisms that I feel have been unwarrantedly negative. Well, obviously I can still recommend it, but how useful is that if people aren’t going to get the chance to see it on the basis of that recommendation?

Who's that girl?

Nonetheless, recommend it I shall. Perhaps Anon can’t equal other works at the top-tier of its genre, but I feel some have been unfair in writing it off. Any familiarities in the shape of its plot are in aid of creating that noir atmosphere, while the sci-fi concepts are reasonably considered and executed. For fans of the genres involved, it’s definitely worth a look.

4 out of 5

Anon is available on Sky Cinema from today.

ManHunt (2017)

2018 #94
John Woo | 109 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | China & Hong Kong / Japanese, English & Mandarin | 15

ManHunt

John Woo’s latest movie is now “A Netflix Film” in the UK, US, and presumably some other territories too. After almost 15 years spent making period dramas, it’s a return to the contemporary action-thriller genre that made his name. Whether it represents a return to his previous quality… well…

ManHunt introduces us to Du Qiu (Hanyu Zhang), a Chinese lawyer for a Japanese pharmaceutical firm, credited with saving the company when he won a court case three years ago. Now he’s leaving to head to America, but the company’s president tries to persuade him to stay by sending a sexy lady to wait at his house. Unfortunately for Du, when he wakes up the next morning she’s dead and he’s the prime suspect. Soon he’s on the run to clear his name, with hot-shot cop Yamura (Masaharu Fukuyama) on his tail, though he’s not convinced of his target’s guilt. That’s just the start of it — why would someone want to frame Du for murder? Well, it gets complicated…

For the first half of its running time, ManHunt is a baffling experience. Not so much because of the plot — though that sets so many wheels in motion that one must pay attention — but because of how it’s put together. One major problems is the way it casually mixes together multiple languages, leading to some flat translations (that’s being kind — maybe the screenplay, which comes courtesy of seven screenwriters, was unexciting to begin with) and clunky line delivery. But hey, this is an action movie, so we can forgive some iffy performances. A greater barrier to enjoyment comes in the form of Taro Iwashiro’s underpowered, plinky-plonky score. That might be fine during chatty scenes, but it continues into the early action sequences, robbing them of pace, dynamism, and excitement. It’s a thoroughly bizarre choice that undermines the film’s raison d’être.

Not chuffed to be cuffed

With its unoriginal innocent-man-on-the-run story and disengaging production quirks, it’s tempting to give up on ManHunt before the half-hour mark. However, director John Woo does begin to sneak in some of his trademark flair. One particularly good bit sees Yamura and his new partner visit the crime scene to go over what they think happened. Woo mixes together their reenactment with flashbacks in interesting, increasingly overlapping ways… until the sequence ends with the female officer getting hysterical, the old-fashioned-ness of which undercuts the sequence a little right at the end.

As the various plot strands kicked off at the start begin to come together, the film becomes increasingly worth watching. If you can make it through the first half, the second begins to revel in its own silliness. It stops mattering that everyone has to deliver dialogue in at least two languages but none of them can actually act in more than one. It stops mattering that the plot barely makes sense — in fact, it actually improves the crazier it gets. A framed man on the run? Yawn. A pharmaceutical company searching for a secret formula to perfect the currently-lethal super-soldier drug it’s testing on homeless people, which is in the possession of the widow of a former employee they killed for alleged corporate espionage, and using drug-enhanced hitwomen to do its dirty work while corrupt addict cops cover up the indiscretions of its president’s son? Awesome. And the action finally kicks into gear too, gradually shifting first into having some good moments, then into whole sequences that are worth your time. Is it all too little too late? Kinda. But at least it rewards those prepared to stick with it.

Sharing is caring

In many ways I should give ManHunt just 2 stars, but that would be to ignore the fact that I’m glad I watched it. But if a 3-star rating is any kind of recommendation, here it’s a very cautious one.

3 out of 5

ManHunt is available on Netflix now.

The Past Month on TV #32

Turns out I watched lots of great TV series this month, so here are several big ol’ reviews to try to explain what was so good about them…

A Series of Unfortunate Events  Season 2
A Series of Unfortunate Events season 2Abandon your vapid, facile distractions and set aside your very fine dramas, because it’s time to indulge in some vicarious fearsome disaster with the return of Netflix’s venerable family delight — a phrase which here means: A Series of Unfortunate Events is back.

This season adapts volumes five to nine of Lemony Snicket’s thirteen-tome investigation into the terrible events that befell the Baudelaire siblings following the death of their parents; specifically, the many nefarious schemes of Count Olaf and his troop of miscreants as they endeavoured to steal the Baudelaire fortune. Although we left the Baudelaires feeling alone in the world — seeing as Olaf had managed to off each of their appointed guardians in turn, and the banker charged with finding them fitting accommodation is, well, incompetent — these episodes see the trio finding new friends and learning that secret forces are working in the shadows to keep them safe… though why they’re doing that, and who they are, is only slightly less mysterious than the inexorability of Count Olaf’s vendetta against the Baudelaires.

Season two retains all the best qualities of the series’ first run, remaining witty, intelligent, satirical, literate, surprisingly attuned to genuine emotion, nicely scattered with meta-jokes, and manages to deliver all of this at a rate of knots that risks you missing one excellent moment while you’re still laughing at the last. What we get considerably more of here — much more than I was expecting, even — are answers. Reading between the lines (i.e. trying to avoid spoilers), I get the impression the book series left many things unresolved. Maybe the TV adaptation will too by the time it’s done, but at the moment it’s dishing out new information on the regular. It makes for an exciting game as a viewer, connecting up the snippets of info that are doled out, piecing together the bigger picture. There’s also some solid character development, on both sides: it seems there’s more to Olaf than just moustache-twirling villainy, while one story sees the Baudelaires indulge in an ends-justify-the-means betrayal that does them no favours later on.

Not at all theatricalNeil Patrick Harris is having a whale of a time as Olaf and all his varied aliases, while the apparent earnestness of child actors Malina Weissman and Louis Hynes is clearly well measured for effect rather than poor work. There’s an array of memorable guest performances this season as well, from Kitana Turnbull, fantastically horrid as Carmelita, a little-goody-two-shoes teacher’s-pet bully the Baudelaires encounter in the opening two-parter; to Lucy Punch as an obsessive fashionista; to Sara Rue as a new inductee into the secret organisation trying to help the Baudelaires. Best of all is Nathan Fillion, born to play the fast-talking dashing hero who gets a ton of the best lines. If there’s a downside, it’s that we don’t see enough of some people. Unlike most kids’ fare (and, let’s be honest, some stuff made for adults), this isn’t a show where good is always rewarded and bad behaviour always punished, and that means some people may be shuffling out before we’ve had as much as we’d like. I guess the clue was in the title…

It all ends on a bit of a damp squib cliffhanger. I mean, the series itself is in good shape: there are lots of mysteries left, with answers tantalisingly close, and most of the main cast are headed to a key location that’s pregnant with promise. But it’s undermined slightly with a big character reveal that doesn’t quite come off — they don’t reveal who the character actually is on screen (I guessed wrongly who she was meant to be, in fact), and while they’ve cast a moderately famous actress, she’s not famous enough for her mere presence to count as a reveal — and they put the kids in a moment of jeopardy that’s entirely empty — no one believes season three is going to begin with the two leads falling off a cliff to their death, do they?

But, really, these are minor complaints in a show that continues to hit almost all the right notes. Fortunately season three is already in production, so hopefully there won’t be too long to wait for what should be a vehemently final denouement.

Westworld  Season 1
Westworld season 1With season two imminent (it begins tomorrow, people!) I finally got my behind in gear (it’s only taken 18 months) and missioned my way through the first season of HBO’s reimagining of the Michael Crichton film. I imagine that’s the last time I’ll be mentioning the original movie in this review, because while the TV series takes the basic premise and some of the iconography of the original, it has much bigger, deeper, broader ideas on its mind.

For thems that don’t know, it’s about an immersive theme park — the titular Westworld — populated by robots, known as “hosts”, who imitate humanity with near-unerring accuracy. Guests pay a fortune ($40,000 per day) to effectively time travel, spending their time in the park as if it was the real Wild West, except with the freedom to do as they please with complete impunity — the hosts can’t hurt the guests, but the guests can kill, maim, or shag anything they like. And boy, do they. But the hosts seem to be developing, evolving, moving beyond their programming. The series follows both the adventures of some guests in the park and the activities of the team behind-the-scenes, trying to keep the show on the road and work out what’s going wrong. But most of all it follows a handful of hosts, who repeatedly live the same day on a loop, their memories wiped so they don’t realise it… unless, of course, that wiping isn’t 100% effective…

Despite all the praise it attracted, I took a while to warm to Westworld. The first four episodes felt like a bit of a slog. There are good, even great, scenes and performances in those opening hours, and of course it’s introducing all the potentially interesting concepts and themes; but, much like the hosts, I felt like it was slowly going round in circles at times, and I felt little drive to push on and find out what happens next. I think I must finally know what it feels like to be one of those people who think Netflix shows don’t go anywhere fast.

More human than humans?During its production Westworld hit the headlines because they shut down production for a while to retool the scripts and hone the story. Maybe this was why. If so, it paid off, because from the fifth episode things pick up considerably. Developments and twists really kick the mysteries into gear. Scenes between characters begin to carry more meaningful dialogue and affecting emotion. There’s even some action to give it a nice adrenaline kick at times. Rather than feeling like it’s ambling nowhere in particular, you feel like showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy have some very particular things in mind, but good luck guessing what they are because there are many surprises in store: however close you think you are to uncovering Westworld’s games, someone always has something else up their sleeve. It develops an almost Game of Thrones-esque ability to pull surprising but plausible developments out of ‘thin air’.

It was interesting to observe that from the outside, actually. Famously, the series pulls off some pretty big tricks that are revealed in the final few episodes, but the hive-mind of Reddit figured most of them out well in advance. (Indeed, they also figured out some of what was going to happen in season two, leading to rewrites.) Therefore I’d had some of the twists and developments spoiled before viewing, or I’d learnt enough to figure them out easily for myself; but there were others… well, I guessed almost everything, I think. I’m not trying to brag — I know I’m far from alone in making those deductions. But it made me think: did I just have a leg up to get there, from hearing what other people had figured out? Or are loads of us super-duper clever and so ‘beat’ the show? Or is the show not as clever as it thinks it is? Maybe it’s a bit of all of those things. Audiences are so sophisticated nowadays, so used to looking out for clues and twists, especially in programmes that demonstrate or suggest a propensity for them, that actually pulling the wool over viewers’ eyes is nigh impossible — especially when your biggest fans are basically crowd-sourcing solutions.

Who's in control?The other most striking thing about the show are the performances. It’s like an acting masterclass: there are numerous fine performers here, and they’re all doing their best work. Ed Harris, Anthony Hopkins, Thandie Newton, Evan Rachel Wood, Jeffrey Wright… they’re all so magnificent that I don’t know who to single out without going on forever. And that’s not to undersell the rest of the cast either, many of whom would be said to excel in most other shows, but here there’s just so much raw talent on display.

So, over the course of the season I went from finding it a bit of a drag (I didn’t even like the theme music) to being completely enthralled (now I can’t get the theme out of my head). And season two is sure to spin off in all sorts of new directions, as the trailers confirm. I won’t be waiting 18 months to watch it this time.

Archer  Season 5 Episodes 1-5
Archer ViceHere in the UK, animated spy-comedy Archer originally aired on Channel 5, until they started really titting about with the scheduling, which is what led me to drop off watching. It’s all on Netflix nowadays though, so I’m finally getting back into it.

This fifth season made huge changes to the show’s basic setup, even giving itself a new title in the process: Archer Vice. Obviously such a big reenvisioning generated lots of chatter at the time, some of which I overheard, and from the way people were talking about it I expected a ground-up reboot. That’s not really the case. Yeah, the situation has changed (instead of working for a spy agency they’re now trying to become drug dealers), but it’s all the same characters and the same style of humour. So, it depends how vital you think the “sit” is in “sitcom”, because while the backdrop is technically entirely different, everything else about the show is still in the same vein. In other words, it doesn’t feel like a reboot, just like the same show but with a huge change to the status quo. It almost proves Archer was never really about the spy stuff (which, as neat a hook as it was, it wasn’t) — as with most sitcoms, the “sit” is almost irrelevant: it’s the characters that matter. Now, all of that said, maybe these aren’t entirely the show’s finest episodes, but it’s still very funny. As I always say about comedy, what more do you need?

Line of Duty  Series 4
Line of Duty series 4Another superb performance from Thandie Newton here, as the subject of AC-12’s latest internal affairs investigation. She’s convinced she’s arrested a notorious serial killer known as “Balaclava Man”; our faithful heroes reckon she’s cut corners, overlooking serious concerns about the evidence; the higher-ups who were exerting pressure on her to close the case would rather it all just went away. And as is the Line of Duty way, some shocking early developments send things spiralling in different directions. After the programme had become increasingly mired in its multi-season meta-arc last series, culminating in an extra-long finale which brought much to a head, it’s refreshing to have a brand-new case… for most of the series, anyway. For all those last-minute connections, the real star here remains Newton, with a nuanced portrayal of a copper who starts out professional and certain she’s doing the right thing, then disappears off down a rabbit hole of increasingly serious indiscretions to keep her initial beliefs on track, before eventually revealing her true character by the end. I suppose there are some similarities to Keeley Hawes’ role in series two — a clever female detective running rings around AC-12 thanks to her cunning and intelligence — but when the performances are this good and the plots this knotty, does it matter?

Lucifer  Season 2 Episodes 1-10
Lucifer season 2While I very much enjoyed the first season of Lucifer, the second one ups the ante. This is mainly thanks to the addition of Tricia Helfer to the regular cast as a great antagonist: everything she does is motivated by what she thinks is best for Lucifer, but that’s not at all the same as what he wants. It makes for a different dynamic than you see in most series, where bad guys do bad things, however many shades of grey the writers pretend to find in them. Plus, although it continues to take the form of a case-of-the-week cop show, it’s putting increasing emphasis on both ongoing story arcs and the fantastical elements. It makes for a nicely balanced, addictively watchable show. The Devil has all the best tunes, indeed.

Also watched…
  • Episodes Season 5 Episode 1 — The long-awaited final season of the Matt LeBlanc sitcom finally made it to UK TV this month. For various reasons I’ve only watched the first episode so far, so I’ll (probably) say more about the whole season next month.
  • The Silent Child — The Oscar-winning short film screened on UK TV this past month, and is still available on iPlayer. Review here.

    Things to Catch Up On
    The City and the CityThis month, I have mostly been missing the BBC’s miniseries adaptations of China Miéville’s The City and the City and Agatha Christie’s Ordeal by Innocence, both of which I’ve been saving up to watch in a more condensed fashion once they’re finished. The Christie ended on Sunday but the Miéville is only halfway through. Anyway, I imagine I’ll cover both next month. Also released this past month was Netflix’s big-budget reboot of Lost in Space, which I would’ve watched if I hadn’t been missioning my way through Westworld this past week. That might be here next month also. And finally, the last-ever season of The Best Show On TV™, The Americans, is underway in the US. Again, I’m saving it all up ’til it’s done, but I do intend to watch it promptly so as to avoid finale spoilers — my real hope is to time it just right so that I can watch the finale the day after it airs in the US, but we’ll see. Said finale isn’t until May 30th, so whatever happens I won’t be reviewing that until June.

    Next month… straight on to Westworld season two.

  • Benji (2018)

    2018 #53
    Brandon Camp | 87 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.40:1 | USA / English | PG

    Benji

    Aww, look at the cute lickle doggie! And all the cute tricks and stuff he can do!

    “5

    Okay, more seriously…

    One of Netflix’s latest original movies (they’re releasing 700 this year, so there’ve probably been another 154 since this came out a couple of weeks ago), Benji is a reboot of the ’70s/’80s dog movie franchise, arguably best remembered because its 1987 instalment, Benji the Hunted, earnt a “thumbs up” rating from Roger Ebert the same week he gave Full Metal Jacket a “thumbs down”. I don’t know if I’m going to be giving any classic movies a poor rating this week, but I’m definitely giving the new Benji a big thumbs up.

    The film begins as it means to go on: with misery. (Seriously, this is quite a gloomy, peril-filled film alongside all the cute canine antics.) On a dark and stormy night, a dog warden snatches a mother and her three young pups, accidentally leaving one behind. He tries to give chase, but can only look on forlornly as his whole family is carted away. Aww! He sets off along the road, growing up on his travels, and eventually finds himself in New Orleans. There he stumbles into the lives and hearts of two kids, Carter (Gabriel Bateman) and Frankie (Darby Camp), who decide to name him Benji. They live with their mom (Kiele Sanchez), who’s struggling to make ends meet and keep her kids happy since the death of their father (see, more misery). Anyway, the kids get kidnapped and Benji’s the only witness to where they’ve gone, but the silly humans can’t follow his hints properly, so Benji sets off to rescue his newfound family by himself.

    Benji's on the case

    Benji isn’t half bad for a kids’ movie. And while it is undoubtedly a kids’ movie, it can get quite dark and serious at times — well, quite a lot of the time (it’s a PG for a reason) — but there’s a good storyline and some strong themes. It’s not super realistic (I mean, you read my plot description, right?), but it mixes in just enough real-life hardship to sell itself. There are decent performances too, including from the two kids, who I’ve seen other reviews criticise. I mean, they’re not going to be troubling next year’s Oscars, but they’re not bad. Certainly, I’ve seen poorer turns from child actors in proper adult movies, and definitely ones that have been more irritatingly objectionable. The choice to set the film in New Orleans is a nice one as well, offering a different and distinctive flavour to the usual stomping grounds of New York or L.A.

    But that’s all gravy to the real reason we’re here: the dogs. My introductory joke was, actually, kinda serious: Benji himself is a clear 5-out-of-5, both super cute and super smart. Yes, I know the film’s edited to make him preternaturally clever (there’s an awesomely daft sequence where he thinks back over everything he’s seen and comes up with a plan), but the tricks he performs without the aid of editing show that he’s a damn well trained doggy. Variety’s review writes about the Kuleshov effect, which is “the basic principle of film editing, established by Soviet filmmaker Lev Kuleshov nearly a century ago, that audiences attribute emotion to a blank face according to the shot immediately before or after”, and how Benji uses that to make the dog give a ‘performance’. Director Brandon Camp applies that technique more than once, I’m sure, but Benji’s got enough tricks at his disposal that such artifice isn’t always necessary to build character. Also, blimey can that dog run!

    Run, Benji, run!

    Okay, if dogs don’t tickle your fancy in any way then there’s nothing for you here; but as a lover of dogs — and particularly little scruffy ones like Benji — this film was a near-constant delight. It’s pretty great entertainment for kids too, though don’t stick it on unless you’re prepared for them to want a Benji of their own afterwards.

    4 out of 5

    Benji is available on Netflix now and forever.

    Coincidentally, Full Metal Jacket will be reviewed later this year as one of my “What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen” films.

    The Villainess (2017)

    aka Ak-Nyeo

    2018 #35
    Jung Byung-gil | 124 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | South Korea / Korean | 18

    The Villainess

    After taking bloody revenge on the people who killed her father, skilled combatant Sook-hee (Kim Ok-vin) is arrested and then forcibly recruited into a secret government agency who want her murderous skills. In exchange for ten years of her life and abilities, she’ll get a new identity and her freedom. As Sook-hee adapts to her new situation, flashbacks fill us in on her past — and the role it still has to play in her future.

    There are obvious similarities to Luc Besson’s Nikita in that setup, but, frankly, I haven’t seen that movie in a long time, so I’m afraid you’ll have to look elsewhere for a more in-depth comparison than “hey, this is a bit like that!” The Villainess isn’t selling itself on the freshness of its premise, anyway — to most potential viewers, the primary attraction is the freshness of its action sequences. On that, it delivers, and then some.

    It starts as it means to go on, opening with an eight-minute tightly-choreographed (fake-)single-take mostly-first-person killing spree. It’s a giddy display of violence that’s sure to entertain those of us who are so inclined. Many more hyper-kinetic, just-as-awesome action sequences follow over the next couple of hours. A motorbike chase that is also a sword fight (!) was a particularly memorable one for me (as I mentioned in last month’s Arbies). That’s also done in a ‘single take’ — if there’s one thing director Jung Byung-gil loves, it’s a fake single-take action sequence. If there’s another, it’s spurting blood — apparently if you strike anyone anywhere you’ll hit an artery and the red stuff will be squirting all over the place.

    A sword fight... on bikes!

    While the action scenes will be the focus for many viewers, there’s also a surprisingly effective emotional story at the film’s core. It even stops being an action movie for a bit in the middle to become a kind of romantic drama, which sounds ridiculous, but it works. There are plenty of twists and revelations involved in the storyline, so no spoilers here, but I will say it’s ultimately a pretty bleak film — it goes places I don’t think many straight-up action movies would dare. Well, certainly not Hollywood ones, anyway.

    And none of that is to say it betrays its action roots — this isn’t one of those films that’s trailed like an action movie but, actually, only has a couple of stunts and is mostly something else. No, this really, really pays off just as a two-hour adrenaline kick; but it’s also, simultaneously, something more complicated. Put both sides together and I think there’s a good chance this will, deservedly, become regarded as a genre classic.

    4 out of 5

    The Villainess is available on Netflix UK from today.

    The Past Month on TV #31

    Murder abounds in this month’s reviews: Jessica Jones and Cormoran Strike are both on the trail of killers with a personal connection; Shetland’s top cop has deaths old and new on his hands; and Lucifer offers weekly homicide with a fantasy spin.

    Meanwhile, the only thing getting murdered on Nailed It are the recipes.

    Jessica Jones  Season 2
    Jessica Jones season 2When the first season of Jessica Jones debuted 28 months ago it was practically a cultural phenomenon. Its fresh, unique take on the superhero genre marked it out as noteworthy even at a time when there are innumerable other films and series in that space. A large part of that was the intelligent and grounded way it engaged with some thorny issues, making it a critical darling and attracting audience admiration too. So I’ve been a little surprised that no one really seems to be talking about season two. Perhaps it’s just me and my little internet bubble, but since the flurry of pre-release reviews I’ve heard nary a whisper. I’m sure there must be reviews and recaps out there, which I wasn’t seeking out so as to avoid spoilers, but I didn’t stumble across any either.

    Anyway, this season sees Jessica and co on the trail of the secretive medical organisation who gave her superpowers. I suppose saying any more than that might count as spoilers, depending on your point of view — they structure these seasons like novels, or long movies, meaning explaining the setup for the overall narrative can see you giving away things that don’t happen for three or four episodes. I mean, for example, in season one Kilgrave didn’t even appear until something like episode three or four, and wasn’t a major presence for another couple of episodes. A similar thing goes on this season. Some people criticise this form of storytelling on a fundamental level, wanting a more episodic approach, but it’s how these shows function — if you don’t approve of it, their very form will always offend you. You either give up on them, or take it at face value and roll with it. Sometimes it does make it feel like they’re moving too slowly, but there is a structure to the thing when viewed as a 13-hour whole.

    It’s a worthwhile caveat to note that I watched the season in five multi-episode clumps over the course of five days. You definitely get a decent chunk of story when you watch several episodes back-to-back. It would play differently if spread more thinly, I’m certain, but whether that’s a negative (making everything feel slower) or a positive (allowing more time to process each beat of plot and character), I couldn’t say. Nonetheless, I would say that giving the pace a kick up the arse wouldn’t hurt.

    This season's best thingAnd that’s not to say these series never work in episodic form. For instance, events at the start of episode five, AKA The Octopus, see Jessica begin to force herself to be a better person. It’s one of the season’s strongest episodes, in part because of this burst of character development. Okay, it’s a bit blunt, in that she’s told she needs to improve and we see her consciously trying, but it pays off in a scene where she has to be empathetic to question a mentally-impaired witness. It’s not only Jessica who benefits from development: supporting cast members like Malcolm, Trish, and Jeri get meaty subplots to tuck into. Jeri’s is the best — indeed, her storyline might be the strongest bit of the entire season. There’s a fantastic, nuanced performance from Carrie Anne Moss — it feels like they’ve really worked to make use of her in a storyline that’s far more emotional and nuanced than what she’s had previously in these shows.

    Conversely, Trish’s storyline feels slapdash. She falls off the wagon… until she runs out of her new drug, after which she’s fine. Well, more or less, because then they make it all about how she’s envious of Jessica’s powers. That’s a fine thread to pull — it’s been there all along — but some of the steps she takes as a result… it feels a bit much. Fundamentally it’s a good idea for her subplot, but I’m not sure it’s been well enough executed.

    As for the main story thread, although the season starts off in the mould of a superhero thriller (like most of these Netflix/Marvel shows), around the halfway mark it morphs into a family drama. A family drama where people have superpowers, and get shot, and debate the ethics of murder and running away to non-extradition countries, but, y’know, some families are unique. It also does the material the courtesy of digging into it. Several times the season reaches what looks like an ending, and in other shows would be, then pushes past it into what happens next; the psychological reality for these characters. That’s what the whole season is about, really: these characters as people, not as heroes or villains or whatever.

    Heroes, villains, or just people?For me, it lost its way a bit again in the final pair of episodes — there are still really good bits, but others feel like a wearisome rehash of plot beats familiar from other superhero/thriller series. Eventually it comes to a good ending — there’s a surprising resolution to the plot, plus an epilogue that lays some intriguing hints for a third season (an inevitability, surely?) — but the faffery of episodes 12 and 13 to get us there… there were more streamlined ways to do this, I think. Or, considering the mandated episode count they have, more interesting ways to have spent the time. So it’s not perfect, but it’s still one of the best of the half-dozen Netflix/Marvel shows.

    Strike  Career of Evil
    Strike: Career of EvilThe latest Strike adaptation (and the last for at least a couple of years) was the best so far, I thought — a mysterious, reasonably complicated case, and plenty of character stuff for our likeable pair of heroes, too. The latter is certainly a big part of the series and its appeal, sometimes to the detriment of the actual investigation storyline, I suspect. By which I refer to the fact that some fans of the books have complained that the series isn’t devoting enough time to each adaptation, necessitating big cuts to the plot to fit into just two hours. I’ve not read them myself, and such editing didn’t feel noticeable during the first series, but Career of Evil did feel a little hurried at times. It’s hard to deny that the BBC have raced through their adaptations a little too fast. And now we have to wait goodness-knows-how-long to find out if Robin manages to stay married to her new husband. At the start I thought this would be a series that avoided the clichéd will-they-won’t-they between the male and female leads, but clearly it isn’t. Really, I don’t care too much if they get together or not, but her husband’s a bit of a dick and I look forward to her ditching him.

    Shetland  Series 4
    Shetland series 4In almost the polar opposite to Strike, Shetland is no longer based on the books that inspired it (even though I believe there are one or two they’ve not adapted), and it takes a whole six episodes to tell its story. Actually, I feel a bit daft calling Strike’s case “complicated” now, because it’s as nothing to this series of Shetland, which sees DI Perez and his team struggling with both a 23-year-old cold case, which has resurfaced because the convicted murderer has just been awarded a mistrial, and a new murder with clear echoes of the first. If that wasn’t enough, the investigation leads them to Norway, where both the suspicious activities of an oil drilling firm and the plotting of a far right nationalist group come into play. Shetland has always had a bit of Scandi Noir about it (must be something to do with the cold northern environs), but it strays even further into that territory by, you know, actually going there.

    All this while dealing with the continued fallout of events from last series in a respectful, mature, understated, and relevant manner. It might look like “just a cop show”, but there’s some depth here; and when everything finally comes together and the truth is revealed in the final episode, there are some revelations and developments that really hit home — it’s sad and horrifying, without wallowing in it or going tonally overboard. Good news: a fifth series has already been commissioned.

    Nailed It!  Season 1
    Nailed It!Not a reality show about manicurists (that’s what it sounds like, doesn’t it? If I was making a reality show about manicurists I’d be annoyed this took my title), but rather Netflix’s answer to The Great British Bake Off (possibly literally: they were miffed they didn’t get a chance to bid for it when it went to Channel 4). It’s not about super-skilled amateur bakers, though, but rather normal folk who attempt the kind of grand bakes you sometimes see online… and fail miserably. It’s like that bit of An Extra Slice where they look at viewers’ photos, only turned into a whole programme. It’s also very American — brash, loud, fast, unnuanced… It’s also the way it’s shot and edited, very much more like American reality series than British ones, but I shan’t bore you with a Media Studies-esque explanation of that.

    So, for all those kinds of reasons, the first episode nearly put me off, but I stuck with it and it turns out it’s quite fun once you get used to it. It’s not as nice as Bake Off, but they’re not mocking the contestants either. Sure, they want them to mess up (they’re given ludicrously tight deadlines and bloody hard bakes), but it’s in a spirit of fun. Another difference between the UK and US shows: on Bake Off taste and decoration are equally important, leaning towards the former; on Nailed It, they do taste the bakes, but all that really matters is how they look. I mean, if you could distill what the rest of us think of as Americanism into a baking show…

    Lucifer  Season 1
    LuciferHaving finally finished Castle last month, there was a gap in our viewing schedule for a light crime-of-the-week cop show. Lucifer seemed to fit the bill. For one thing, it’s been knocking around for a few years now, meaning there’s a nice backlog of episodes to get through. Loosely inspired by a DC comic, it’s about the actual Devil quitting Hell and setting up a life in Los Angeles, where — for one reason or another — he ends up helping the police investigate murders. Meanwhile, he enters therapy, and there’s an angel knocking around who wants to drag him back to Hell. The series nicely balances the bog-standard US-cop-show case-of-the-week stuff with the ongoing fantastical subplots, powered by a cast of engaging characters with conflicting motives. Best of all is the lead, Tom Ellis, giving a deliciously charming and slightly camp turn as the Prince of Darkness himself as he tries to become a better person. I’m not sure the series has really made any waves (especially on this side of the pond, what with it being an Amazon Prime exclusive here), but it’s really rather good. I mean, it’s not going to be challenging Quality TV for greatest-of-all-time status — it’s still a case-of-the-week buddy show when you boil it down — but it’s done well and a lot of fun.

    Also watched…
  • The 90th Academy Awards — A solid but uneventful ceremony this year, I thought; a bit like everyone was playing it safe after last time.
  • Absentia Season 1 Episodes 7-10 — I was quite positive about this last month, but the second half of the series squandered my goodwill. It got a bit too daft, and the characters were too stupid (especially the husband). If it gets recommissioned I’m not sure I’ll bother.
  • The Great Stand Up To Cancer Bake Off Series 1 Episodes 1-3Bake Off’s channel change means it’s on its third charity, with its most unwieldy title yet. Watching celebrities fail at baking is still just as amusing though.
  • Not Going Out Series 9 Episodes 1-2 — Some people seem to write this sitcom off without a second thought, I guess because from the outside it looks a bit old-fashioned. Maybe it is. But it makes me laugh pretty consistently — what else do you want from a sitcom? Plus, this year’s second instalment, Escape Room, was a great bottle episode.

    Things to Catch Up On
    13 CommandmentsThis month, I have mostly been missing The X Files season 11, which finished earlier this week in the US (and comes to the same end here in the UK with a double-bill on Monday). I watched (and reviewed, natch) its first episode last month, but that was so uninspiring that I haven’t yet bothered to continue. I’m expecting the rest of the season to be an improvement (not that I’ve read any reviews — I’m just basing that on the show’s own form), but still, here we are. Other than that, I can’t think of anything new that I’ve missed; although I did happen to see an ad on Channel 4’s app for Belgian import 13 Commandments, which they reckon “makes Se7en look like Sesame Street”. As Se7en’s my favourite film, I feel I should give that a shot, but I don’t know when I’ll find time for its 13 episodes.

    Next month… Look away! Netflix’s vile family dramedy returns for a second series of Unfortunate Events.

  • Annihilation (2018)

    2018 #45
    Alex Garland | 115 mins | streaming (UHD) | 2.39:1 | UK & USA / English | 15 / R

    Annihilation

    Many column inches (and even more tweets) have been penned about Paramount’s decision to relegate director Alex Garland’s second third film straight to Netflix outside the US, Canada, and China, so I presume the pros and cons of that move have been thoroughly discussed elsewhere. Personally, I’m on the fence: it’s disappointing not to see intelligent sci-fi being given a shot at the box office, but I’m one of those people who’s 50/50 on whether I go to see it or just wait for disc/streaming/etc. (I’ve not even seen The Shape of Water, for example, although that’s partly due to a dearth of convenient screenings during its brief theatrical appearance. Conversely, I did go to Arrival.) Anyway, it is what it is at this point, so let’s move on to the film itself.

    Loosely based on the acclaimed novel by Jeff VanderMeer (reportedly Garland read the book once then wrote the screenplay from memory), it follows biologist, academic, and former member of the Army, Lena (Natalie Portman), whose soldier husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) went missing a year ago during a secretive mission. After he suddenly reappears, apparently with no memory of his time away but with some severe medical problems, the couple are scooped up by a military organisation investigating Area X, a top-secret quarantined zone affected by an unexplained phenomenon known as the Shimmer. Various teams have been sent inside the Shimmer, but Kane is the only person to ever return. As his health deteriorates, Lena, desperate for answers, joins the latest squad to venture inside. That’s where stuff gets crazy…

    Squad goals

    The first thing Annihilation made me think of was Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival. The connection was initially triggered by the score: the ambient soundtrack by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury reminded me so much of Arrival’s that I had to check this wasn’t a last work by Jóhann Jóhannsson. Once I spotted that, the other similarities in the story leapt out: they’re both thoughtful sci-fi parables about a female university lecturer being co-opted into a military operation to investigate a strange extraterrestrial presence on Earth, while also remembering her family life in flashbacks.

    Despite Paramount’s insistence that the film was too intelligent for non-US audiences (you can take a moment to laugh at that notion if you like), Annihilation is perhaps more accessible than Arrival, at least initially. Whereas Villeneuve’s film played like a character drama, Garland’s has a strong adventure-movie vein, also laced with elements of the horror genre. It’s still not a mile-a-minute thrill-ride, but, if you wanted, you could engage with it on the level of a quest through an alien event, encountering strange phenomena and creatures, with events of life-threatening jeopardy. However, for all the original sci-fi ideas, it does also touch on weightier, more human psychological issues — as the Empire review summarised it, “depression, grief and the human propensity for self-destruction.”

    All the better to eat you with

    Naturally this material is carried by the cast. Portman makes for an interesting lead. Clearly damaged by grief, she’s quite a cold figure, which may distance her from some viewers in the way it does from some of her team mates. But there’s more to it than that, and Portman delivers subtle nuances that hint at more beneath the surface. The rest of her all-female squad — played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, and Gina Rodriguez — all have distinct personalities, all get brief subplots and moments, and they’re mostly managed with an equal level of understatement. Perhaps the best is Thompson, whose calm, gently heartfelt performance is quietly superb, and even more striking as it marks a huge contrast to her star-making turn in Thor: Ragnarok just a few months ago. As a pair of films to be a calling-card for her skills, one could barely ask for more.

    A lot of disappointment about the lack of a theatrical release stems to not being able to see these visuals on a cinema screen; not being able to experience the audio with a cinema sound system. Well, that partly depends on your own setup at home, of course. Setting that aside, though, while there are certainly some very striking visuals, it wasn’t as consistently stunning as some reviews made it sound. I’m not saying it wouldn’t benefit from the big screen, especially if you’re particularly fond of that experience, but I didn’t feel I was missing much scale by watching at home. I felt similarly about the sound design, though I do say that as someone with a 7.1 system. For spectacle, the intricate and colourful end credits are the most striking bit — I’m certain they benefitted from my viewing the film in 4K HDR.

    Scared of the dark?

    However you get to see it, writer-director Alex Garland has crafted another sci-fi mystery/thriller that engages on multiple levels. For me it was somewhat damaged by the hype, perhaps a result of US reviewers frantically urging people to get out and see it to prove that Paramount’s lack of faith was a mistake. While I didn’t instantly love it in the same way as, say, Arrival, or Garland’s debut, Ex Machina, it’s undoubtedly a fascinating, thought-provoking slice of science-fiction — and a much-needed critical success for the “Netflix Original” brand after a couple of recent duds. I’d also say it places Garland ahead of genre contemporaries like Neill Blomkamp and Duncan Jones as a filmmaker to keep an eye on. Okay, he’s not quite Denis Villeneuve, but he’s a lot closer than the others.

    4 out of 5

    Annihilation is available on Netflix in most of the world now.

    Mute (2018)

    2018 #31
    Duncan Jones | 126 mins | streaming (UHD) | 2.00:1 | UK & Germany / English & German | 15

    Mute

    For those in the know, Mute was probably one of the most anticipated movies of 2018. The new film from writer-director Duncan Jones, who made waves with his excellent debut, the low-key sci-fi mystery/drama Moon, and backed it up with the strong sci-fi thriller Source Code, this was his return to that genre after an ultimately futile aside into studio blockbuster-making with Warcraft. More than that, it’s a passion project that’s been gestating for 16 years, rejected by everyone else and now only made possible by Netflix. Greatness was expected. Unfortunately, instead it’s been met with critical derision (11% on Rotten Tomatoes) and audience apathy (5.4 out of 10 and dropping on IMDb; 2.2 out of 5 on Letterboxd and heading in the same direction). Empire’s review perhaps summed it up best: “a crushing disappointment… sadly, almost tragically, not worth the wait.”

    Set in near-future Berlin, the setting is probably the best part of the film. It’s extrapolated from the present to give a very convincing world, where technology has advanced in ways that already feel just around the corner. The production design also owes a huge debt to Blade Runner, though clearly on a lower budget. That doesn’t mean it isn’t effective, just familiar. It’s not quite as nihilistic as Blade Runner, though — again, this is our world a few years hence, and there are still malls and diners and libraries and other such mundanities.

    Leo's looking

    The protagonist is Leo (Alexander Skarsgård), a bartender getting by in a world not built for him: he’s Amish, meaning he avoids using most technology, and he’s mute, thanks to a childhood accident. As the story unfurls he has to engage with a bunch of tech for the first time, and when he comes up against devices that are only voice-controlled then he’s got a problem. I’m not sure if this is designed as a social commentary on how some people struggle now and it’ll be even worse in the world to come, or if it’s just a convenient way to put more obstacles in Leo’s path. I’m tempted towards the latter, but that’s okay. It seems his muteness is a barrier to some viewers, with critics describing him as a blank canvas, either unknowable or personality-free. I think that’s a bit harsh, but Leo does fall into the familiar bracket of the “strong, silent type”. He can’t express himself vocally, obviously, but rather than that leading to him letting his emotion out in other ways he seems to have repressed it. I got the impression that he was now having to deal with certain feelings, and how they’re expressed, for the very first time.

    That’d be because Leo is now in love, with Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh), a blue-haired waitress at the club he works in. Naadirah clearly has secrets, both from Leo and from us, and when she goes missing Leo has to venture into the seedy underworld of future-Berlin as he tries to track her down. If the overt Blade Runner stylings hadn’t already clued you in, this is very much a noir detective movie, full to the brim with dark people and dark deeds. It gets grim indeed at times, more thematically than visually (though there are a couple of scenes of surgery, if that’s your particular bête noire), and this is where one begins to wonder if Jones has full control over his film’s tone.

    Gone girl

    That’s not much of a problem in Leo’s storyline — I’d wager you could recut Mute to focus on him entirely and create a more straightforward future-noir tale — but rather in the concurrently-told B-plot. This side of the film focuses on Cactus Bill (Paul Rudd), an army surgeon who deserted and now plies his trade for gangsters, hoping to afford passage back to the US for himself and his daughter. Bill works alongside his best mate Duck (Justin Theroux), and much of their half of the film plays more like a hang-out movie, just spending time with the characters as they go about their business. As they mooch around sharing comical buddy banter, it’s a definite tonal counterpoint to Leo’s story. That’s not necessarily a problem unless you want a straight-up serious noir, but later Bill and Duck’s thread diverges into some heavy territory; stuff that some viewers would find distasteful no matter what, but which is made more so as their chirpy-funsters act is allowed to roll through it.

    For this reason I thought Mute was more effective in its first hour-or-so than in its second. Others disagree, calling it either slow or disjointed, because the links between Leo’s and Cactus Bill’s storylines are not immediately evident. I didn’t think the pace was a problem: it’s gradually drawing you into this world, setting out the mystery and then peeling back more layers as Leo begins his hunt. It’s not as dreamily atmospheric as Blade Runner 2049 in this regard, but it’s closer to that than to an action-thriller, which makes me tempted to say pace issues are a viewer problem rather than a film one. In the first half, at least, because by the second it does seem to go on a bit. As for the disconnect between the storylines, it didn’t bother me at all. Links are actually established early on, and you know these two halves are going to come together eventually — that’s how narrative structure works.

    After surgery drinks

    The idea some reviews are peddling that “maybe everyone else rejected the Mute screenplay for a reason” is disingenuous. If a decent exec wanted to make this kind of movie (i.e. a mid-budget sci-fi noir) then they definitely could have seen its potential. But few studios are interested in that kind of work anymore, for reasons that barely make sense, and so the film ended up passed to Netflix. One wonders if their hands-off approach is part of the problem. People complain about studio interference, and clearly that can scupper projects, especially ones with unique voices, but execs who are good at their jobs do improve movies. Jones has said that, after Netflix bought the project, they just gave him the money and let him make whatever; and they gave him final cut too, so when the finished film came in and they weren’t sure about it, they just went ahead and released it as-was. Maybe if someone had helped him develop the project better, had helped him even out the tone, or tighten up the pacing, we’d be looking at a great movie right now.

    Instead, I don’t think the Mute we’ve got is anything like as unremittingly terrible as some reviews would have you believe, but it is a tonally strange film. I’m not sure it works as a whole, but bits really do. I wouldn’t dismiss the idea of it becoming a cult classic, and maybe in a couple of years we’ll all be reevaluating it. Before its release Jones did say it would be a Marmite film — that some people would love it and others would absolutely hate it. Broad reception is undoubtedly hewing to the latter end of the spectrum; and while I’d love to be the former instead, there are too many inconsistent oddities for me to embrace it. I think it may someday be worth a revisit though, which is not something you can say about a genuinely bad film.

    3 out of 5

    Mute is available exclusively on Netflix now and forever.