The Past Month on TV #21

Another busy, busy month — I should’ve split it into fortnights again.

Anyway, read on for reviews of Top of the Lake: China Girl, the latest instalments of Game of Thrones and Twin Peaks, ‘old’ shows like Line of Duty series 3 (from all the way back in 2016) and Peaky Blinders series 2 (from even longer ago: 2014), and even more bits & bobs too.

Game of Thrones  Season 7 Episodes 2-5
Arya's as surprised as the rest of usThe first of this month’s quartet of trips to Westeros, Stormborn, demonstrated better than the premiere the whip-crack pace the show is now moving at. To pick one example: Arya re-encountered Hot Pie and learnt that Winterfell was back in the hands of the Starks, changed her plans to journey there instead of King’s Landing, and encountered Nymeria (her wolf last seen way back in the second ever episode), who now leads a pack of wolves and, basically, rejected Arya. All those developments previously would’ve taken Thrones a good four or five episodes to get through, but no more. There are benefits to this, of course — no more longueurs — but the worry is Dan & Dave are rushing for the sake of rushing; because they told themselves this story would be done in 73 episodes and they’ve kind of had enough after the best part of a decade working on it. Still, it’s not as if it’s bad, it’s just faster. And where the episode promises exciting reunions and first meetings left, right, and centre, we can be assured they’re just around the corner.

Almost literally, as Jon Snow, hot off deciding to go visit Dany at the end of the previous episode, rocks up to Dragonstone in The Queen’s Justice for the long-awaited meet-up between aunt and nephew — not that either of them know that. The show doesn’t even make us wait all episode for it, kicking right into it. And, again, things move every onward, as cunning plans are executed, thwarted, and bettered. It’s been reported that this season has the same budget as normal, despite having three fewer episodes, and that clearly shows on screen with epic battles almost every week.

Jon and Dany, sitting in a tree...The most epic so far came in The Spoils of War. Apparently it’s been dubbed the Field of Fire — if there’s one thing Game of Thrones is consistently good at, it’s giving its big events cool monikers. (The “Field of Fire” is also an event from the series’ backstory, I believe, so maybe some of the reviews I read just got confused.) But it’s not just cool shots of fiery destruction that make this episode so satisfying: it’s the way that changes the game. Not to mention characters coming together after so long apart, both on the battlefield and not. That two girls talking in a crypt can be as thrilling as a dragon blowing shit up is… well, how character investment works, I guess. Some reckon this is the series’ best-ever episode. I wouldn’t go that far, but it is right near the top.

By comparison, Eastwatch was almost a calm affair. Okay, that might be an exaggeration; but there were no epic battles this week (just a cliffhanger teasing one next time). It continued to contribute to this perhaps being Thrones’ most satisfying season ever though, with yet more long-awaited reunions, a couple of pretty major revelations, and some great skullduggery and counter-skullduggery. It also held fan-pleasing moments aplenty, my personal favourite being Davos’ meta one-liner. If it doesn’t stand out as an all-round all-time classic like the episodes surrounding it, that says more about them than it does this quality instalment.

Top of the Lake: China Girl
Top of the Lake: China GirlElisabeth Moss, star of both Mad Men, a series partly about the sexual politics of the ’60s workplace, and The Handmaid’s Tale, a series about the sexual politics of a world where women are baby-making slaves, returns as Det. Robin Griffin for a second run of Top of the Lake, which is now a series about the sexual politics of present-day Australia.

Set four years after the first season, China Girl sees New Zealander Robin back at work as a police detective in Australia. The inciting incident happens on Bondi Beach, but this is not the world of sunny tourist hotspots or chirpy vets: it’s the body of an Asian prostitute, brutally murdered and shoved in a suitcase, then dumped to rot in the ocean. And it gets grimmer from there. Meanwhile, Robin seeks a connection with the daughter she gave up for adoption at two days old, who is now a headstrong and over-assured seventeen-year-old blindly falling into something way out of her depth.

After a first episode that seems somehow tentative, as if it’s considering on the fly whether it should be a second season or a standalone narrative with the same protagonist, China Girl quickly resolves into its own beast: with vital groundwork laid in that sometimes stilted first hour, it hits the ground running as soon as episode two (making me wonder if, with further hindsight or a rewatch, the first episode wasn’t so awkward after all). Over its remaining five hours, China Girl increasingly impresses as dark, difficult, uncomfortable, challenging, and powerful drama. It’s also laced with surprising humour, and it’s a bit pretentious too. I can see why it was a hit at Cannes.

Elisabeth Moss and Gwendoline ChristieThere are some great performances in there too, mainly from the female characters — no surprise, really, considering creator and co-writer/co-director Jane Campion is clearly interested in exploring women’s place in the world. Moss carries things, with Robin competent but combative at work (she needs to be, as the Australian police force seems stuck in the ’70s with its gender politics) even as her personal life is a tumultuous mess. Nicole Kidman gets to play it kooky as the adoptive mother of Robin’s child, who’s gone all spiritual and lesbian recently. The most entertaining is Gwendoline Christie as an enthusiastic constable who latches on to Robin, eager to be her protégé. She brings the bulk of the humour, with great lines and moments aplenty, but also brings emotional depth when needed.

The whole thing ends with a degree of ambiguity rather than a killer blow, answering all the plot mechanics but seemingly less clear on how it wants to conclude its important themes. Nonetheless, for me it was an order of magnitude more interesting than the good-but-kind-of-woolly first season, and therefore a lot better than it too.

Twin Peaks  Season 3 Episodes 11-14
Two CoopersI must be honest with you, dear readers: the longer this Twin Peaks revival goes on, the less I feel I’m enjoying it. It works best when Lynch is trying to out-Lynch himself. Those episodes are crazy and borderline nonsensical and insanely challenging to what constitutes filmed entertainment, but at least they’re interesting; and if you don’t get it you can dismiss it as “it’s Lynch, innit”. It’s actually the ‘normal’ stuff — the investigations and machinations in South Dakota, Las Vegas, and Twin Peaks itself — that are beginning to get on my wick. Again, at times there are moments of clarity or inspired weirdness, but in between sits a morass of sludgy plotting and wilfully obscure characterisation. It’s starting to nudge the series from “revelatory experiment” into “noble failure” territory, for me.

That said, there was a definite uptick at the end of this month’s viewing, with Part 14 providing a lot of long-awaited developments and forward momentum for the plot (plus one of my favourite of the end-of-episode performances at the Roadhouse, Lissie’s Wild West). Perhaps everything will finally come together in the remaining few episodes after all? Or perhaps everything will slow down again and we’ll be done the wiser come the end of Part 18. Only time will tell…

Line of Duty  Series 3 Episodes 4-6
Line of Duty series 3As I noted last month, the third series of Line of Duty seems to be the one that attracted the most adulation. I was reserving judgement until I’d finished, because at the halfway point I wasn’t finding it superior to the brilliant second series.

For those still unaware of the show, it’s about a police anti-corruption unit, and in this six-parter they were looking into an officer who shot a suspect and covered up the circumstances. That wasn’t all that was going on, however. Line of Duty pretends it’s about a new case each series but, really, it told one big story across its first three runs. I wonder if that’s why some have hailed this one as its best: it finally brings all those long-brewing arcs to a head. Unsurprisingly, the bulk of the resolutions come in the feature-length finale, which is certainly a striking episode. Nonetheless, I’d argue series two was better overall — I felt it had a greater sense of mystery, palpable tension throughout, and the plot was more unpredictable. Still, I don’t wish to do the third series down — being second-best to that is no mean feat.

Peaky Blinders  Series 2
Peaky Blinders series 2The second series of BBC Two’s period crime drama jumps forward two years to find everyone’s favourite Brummie criminals running such a successful business that they intend to expand their operations to London, by sticking their oar into a turf war between the Jews (led by Tom Hardy) and the Italians (led by Noah Taylor). Meanwhile, Sam Neill’s copper is back with a vengeance, teaming up with the Irish to blackmail Blinders kingpin Cillian Murphy into performing an off-the-books assassination for the crown.

Peaky Blinders’ second series ups the ante from the already excellent first, pitching its leads into a more dangerous world where they’re not the major force to be reckoned with. As its stories unfurl over six hours (without needing to resort to wheel-spinning), you begin to wonder how they can possibly escape the various binds they find themselves in. It all builds to a payoff-filled finale, even though things don’t go quite to plan… Where that will take things in the third series will be interesting to see. (For more up-to-date fans than me, the fourth series is due later this year.)

Also watched…
  • The Bletchley Circle Series 1-2 — ITV’s short-lived drama (just seven episodes across two series), about former Bletchley Park codebreakers using their skills to solve crimes in ’50s London, is chiefly notable for its intelligent and capable female heroes. The first series is good, but I felt like the second was beginning to struggle to sustain the conceit — just how many criminal conspiracies were these ladies going to stumble upon?
  • The Musketeers Series 3 Episodes 1-3 — the last season! Sob! If you like swashbuckling excitement and have let this show pass you by, do find a way to catch up on it.
  • Sherlock Pilot — finally got round to watching this unaired pilot (it’s included as a special feature on the series one Blu-ray). I was under the impression it was something of a disaster, but it really isn’t. The direction isn’t as flashy as the final show (but is otherwise fine), and obviously it’s half-an-hour shorter, but other than that it’s all very similar.
  • Wallander Series 4 Episodes 2-3 — an adaptation of the final novel, in which the Swedish detective investigates a case relating to a shameful incident in his country’s past while battling early-onset dementia. It’s a superb idea for a story — the once-great detective battling his deteriorating mental faculties. This being Wallander, it tackles the concept from a more personal, emotional perspective, rather than a Memento-esque plot-driven one, but is no worse for it. It’s a sad end for the character, but an affecting one for his series.

    Things to Catch Up On
    Torchwood: Aliens Among UsThis month, I have mostly been missing Torchwood: Aliens Among Us. Although ‘just’ an audio drama from Big Finish, it’s being marketed as the series’ official fifth season, picking up after the events of 2011’s (disappointing) Miracle Day. A full 12-episode run, it’s coming out in three box sets — although part two isn’t out until October and part three until February, part one came out last week. Obviously, I’ve not listened to it yet. Hopefully next time…

    Next fortnight… another earlier-than-normal edition, as Netflix gets defendered and Game of Thrones reaches a feature-length finale. Yes, already.

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  • 100 Films @ 10: Favourite TV Series of the Last 10 Years

    This may be a film blog, but you’d be a fool to deny the rise in quality and significance of TV series in the past couple of decades, to the point where a lot of mainstream TV is arguably of higher quality than mainstream movies. So it seemed only appropriate to include it in my celebration of the last ten years.

    We’ve all heard about how we’ve reached ‘peak TV’, and with so much television we’ve all missed something we should’ve caught — many things, probably (my list of “stuff I haven’t seen any/enough of” would probably be longer than this one). Nonetheless, here are ten of my favourite TV series that were on at some point during the last decade.

    10
    The Great British Bake Off

    There are all sorts of prestigious dramas I could’ve put in this position — things I’m much more likely to revisit, too — but there’s more to TV than that. Just because we’re not going to buy something in a box set and critically (re)analyse it for years to come doesn’t necessarily mean it has no value. Of course, if you don’t get the appeal of Bake Off then I’m not sure anyone can explain it to you. I mean, who could’ve predicted that a bunch of people in a tent baking cakes while a pair of comediennes make gently naughty puns would become the biggest thing on British TV? If that makes it sound undramatic… it is. Well, apart from bingate. But that’s actually why it works so well (and why so many people actually hated all the fuss provoked by the aforementioned dumping of a baked Alaska) — it’s just lovely. And surprisingly entertaining with it. Or it was until the producers got greedy and shuffled off to Channel 4, potentially shattering the alchemical mix that made the show work. Oh well.

    9
    Detectorists

    This understated BBC Four sitcom about the lives of a group of people who enjoy metal detecting (a hobby whose participants are not “detectors”, they’re detectorists) is quietly one of the best comedies on TV in recent times, both very funny and rather touching. Starring, written, and directed by Mackenzie “Gareth from The Office” Crook, it’s nothing like that series and all the better for it. It also includes a great performance from co-star Toby Jones, whose Lance starts as a somewhat-pathetic supporting turn but reveals many layers by the end.

    8
    Mad Men

    The critically-acclaimed story of ad men in ’60s New York, Mad Men is a rich and frequently abstruse drama that on the surface looks almost soapy but quite clearly is nothing so shallow. It works best in the long run, slowly accumulating character moments and events in ways that pay off down the line, resulting in some stunning scenes and episodes. It’s only so low on this list because it seemed to waver a bit in later years, and I’m still not sure how I feel about its ending. (On the bright side, it didn’t go thoroughly off the rails like, say, Dexter.)

    7
    Outnumbered

    At the risk of sounding like one of those music groupies who are all “I liked their early stuff, before they got famous,” I remember when Outnumbered was buried late at night and it seemed like no one watched it, but those of us who did hoped against hope for a second series because it worked so well. It later morphed into a mainstream staple, but deservedly so — its semi-improvised “kids say the funniest things” format created a veracity that even the best scripted sitcoms fail to match. As the kids have grown it’s become more traditional, I suppose, but retained a smart eye for the absurdism of real life.

    6
    Romanzo Criminale

    Little seen in the UK (or anywhere outside Italy, perhaps) because it was buried on Sky Arts just as the craze for European crime TV was taking off, this Italian gangster saga is consequently an underrated specimen of quality continental drama. Telling one epic story across two seasons and 22 episodes, like many of the best series its effectiveness comes less from individual episodes and more from the way events and complexities build over time. Fortunately Arrow have released it on DVD, so anyone with curiosity (and a spare £30) can see what they’ve been missing.

    5
    Sherlock

    Apparently Benedict Cumberbatch’s interpretation of the Great Detective is the most popular British TV character in the world now. I guess that’s in spite of the criticism the series has regularly attracted across its last two runs. Of course, the ratings continue to be massive, so it must be doing something right. The idea of updating Holmes and Watson to the present day seemed foolhardy at first, but with a clever attention to the canon, a raft of cinematic visual tricks, and a top-drawer cast, they made something that worked really rather well. There are a couple of duff episodes, true, but I think they’re more than outweighed by the successes. Hopefully said success — which has helped propel the leads into the realm of movie stardom — won’t prevent us getting more in the future.

    4
    Torchwood: Children of Earth

    Doctor Who’s ‘adult’ spin-off had a rocky start when it first launched in 2006, with a series that had been rushed into and through production and resulted in a few… iffy decisions. The second season improved its consistency, and those two original runs certainly have their fans, but it really got good when it changed its format for this third run. Children of Earth is an almost-standalone five-episode miniseries about an alien race coming to Earth and demanding we hand over all our children, with a fantastic performance from future Doctor Peter Capaldi as a politician embroiled in the discussions about whether to appease them. Torchwood would return to its muddled quality with the attempt at a follow-up miniseries, US co-production Miracle Day, but for five nights in the middle of 2009 it was one of the very best sci-fi miniseries ever produced.

    3
    Doctor Who

    Every era of Doctor Who has its ups and its downs, its fans and its detractors. For example, every five-or-so years Doctor Who Magazine runs a reader survey to rate every story in the show’s history out of 10, and every single story gets at least some 10s, and all but one or two get some 1s as well. Nowhere are these extremities better exemplified than season 21, which ends with The Caves of Androzani (the #1 story in DWM’s 2009 poll) followed by The Twin Dilemma (perpetually placed last in pretty much every poll ever). But for the purposes of this list we’re talking about the revived show’s third series (the first one without Billie Piper) through to the most recent Christmas special (the one with a superhero). That encompasses the beloved and divisive second half of the David Tennant/Russell T. Davies era, as well as most of the divisive and beloved Matt Smith/Peter Capaldi/Steven Moffat era. For my money, any series that can produce the likes of Human Nature/The Family of Blood, Blink, the climax of Utopia, Time Crash, Voyage of the Damned, Midnight, Turn Left, The Waters of Mars, The Eleventh Hour, The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone, Amy’s Choice, Vincent and the Doctor, A Christmas Carol, The Doctor’s Wife, The Girl Who Waited, Hide, The Crimson Horror, The Day of the Doctor, Listen, Mummy on the Orient Express, Flatline, The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion, and Heaven Sent deserves a spot in my top ten.

    2
    The Americans

    A couple of weeks ago, US network FX released a trailer for The Americans’ forthcoming fifth season that unashamedly celebrated its increased critical standing, with quotes from half-a-dozen or so media outlets expressing the same fundamental sentiment: it’s “the best show on television”. It’s about a pair of Russian spies operating undercover in the US in the ’80s, who also try to maintain some kind of normal family life with their two teenage kids — who don’t know their parents are spies. Oh, and the FBI agent who’s hunting for them has just moved in over the road. Sounds kind of hokey put like that, but in practice it’s anything but. And like several other shows on this list, it works best in the long term, as things build, echo, and characters have to deal with long-brewing consequences. It works as a spy thriller, but also as a character-driven exploration of what makes people tick. There are just two seasons left to go, both commissioned (thank goodness), and if they can just stick the landing it’s surely destined for a place in lists of all-time greats. So why isn’t it my #1? Well…

    1
    Game of Thrones

    Here’s another show whose place in the all-time pantheon is sure to be claimed or dashed by how it ends, a point which is also exactly two seasons away — what are the odds? Of course, even if it ballses it up, Thrones’ legacy is assured in some ways: it’s basically the biggest TV show in the world right now, certain to remembered as a cultural touchstone of the 2010s. I’ve given it the edge on my beloved Americans primarily for two reasons: the penultimate episode of the last season, and the last episode of the last season (which I wrote about at greater length here). To summarise, they’re two of the greatest individual episodes of TV ever made. Thrones does all the long-brewing cumulative stuff too, but there’s nothing else on TV that can pull off a satisfying Big Moment in quite the same way.

    Tomorrow: back to the movies… the bad, bad movies…

    The Past Month on TV #13

    When I started this TV coverage almost a year ago I promised short reviews, but with three major releases falling under its purview this month — plus a big crossover and the best thing that was on TV this Christmas (and sundry other bits to mention too) — I find myself with quite a bit to say…

    A Series of Unfortunate Events (Season 1)
    A Series of Unfortunate EventsI’ve never read A Series of Unfortunate Events, the 13-book cycle of faux-gothic novels by Lemony Snicket that recount the terrible lives of the Baudelaire orphans as they are stalked by the scheming Count Olaf. I am, however, a verified fan / defender of the 2004 movie adaptation (I even included it in my 100 Favourites series last year) — one of few, it seemed, because the movie wasn’t a huge hit and, though it only adapted the first three of the books, no sequels were forthcoming. So I was most excited when it was announced Netflix were re-adapting the books for the small screen — and, fortunately, the new version turns out to be (aside from a few wobbles) a veritably fine drama.

    The biggest of those wobbles is getting started. The series has a very particular tone and style, and that does take some getting used to. Indeed, some people will never click with it. You may well have already heard it described as “a cross between Wes Anderson and Tim Burton”, a summation which I’m afraid can’t be improved upon or reasonably substituted with another because that is precisely what it is like. If you do decide to sample the programme (assuming you haven’t already, because if you already have then any advice about what you should consider doing if you do watch it would be inherently pointless because you already have), I would recommend treating the first two episodes as a feature-length double-bill. Although delightfully structured to serve as individual segments (there’s a nice surprise at the end of episode one, even if you’re familiar with the story from other media, and a cleverly staged recap/flashback at the top of episode two), I feel like it might take the full opening story to completely settle into the tone and style the show is shooting for and — I think, on balance — hitting.

    One of the big points in its favour are the scripts, which are infused with wit — not just gags in the dialogue, but at times the very structure and construction of the piece.* It also makes good repeated use of one of my favourite comedic techniques, unnecessary repetition, as well as making good comedic use of one of my repeated favourite techniques, unnecessary repetition. I suppose one might describe the style as arch, and that will not be to all tastes, but it was to mine. A lengthy sequence in episode two dedicated to explaining the difference in meaning between “literally” and “figuratively” certainly helped sway me. It’s delivered by Snicket himself, who, in the form of Patrick Warburton, regularly appears on screen to elucidate and comment upon events. I wasn’t sure of Warburton’s casting at first, but he leaves behind the kind of likeable dullards he usually plays to nail Snicket’s verbose, florid declarations and keen intelligence.

    Creepy Count OlafAs Olaf, Neil Patrick Harris has the difficult task of being both comically inept and genuinely menacing, as well as appearing in any number of disguises (well, four). Opinion seems divided on whether he manages this better than Jim Carrey in the film, but, well, that’s opinions for you. Personally, I thought he was very good. The extra screen time here (what was done in 108 minutes of film is granted 299 minutes of TV) means he has to work at a different level and pace to Carrey, and I think there are multiple moments where he nails it. Similarly, some may think the child actors are guilty of vigorously flat delivery of their lines, but I think this is just another aspect of the Wes Anderson-esque style — as the viewer (and, possibly, the cast) become more accustomed to the material, so the quality of the performances (and/or the perception thereof) improves.

    Another thing I want to mention is its pacing as a TV series. Netflix’s usual all-at-once release strategy encourages binge-watching, this we know, but it also encourages what I’m going to call “binge storytelling” — that is, series that are designed to be viewed in their entirety, like very long movies. Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that Unfortunate Events breaks this mould (it’s adapted from four novels, so not being one long story is inherent), but a viewer might naturally expect the season’s eight episodes to consequently play like four movies split into halves. Not so. Rather, it plays like a series made up of two-parters. That’s a very fine distinction, perhaps, but there is a difference. To try to explain what I’m getting at from another angle: it isn’t structured as four movies that have had to be split in two to fit the format, but as eight one-hours where each pair present a change in location and guest cast, even as several narrative threads flow across them all. See? Well, don’t worry if not. Instead, just enjoy the theme song — which changes slightly every episode, therefore encouraging that episodic viewing. I’ve found it to be a total earworm. Look away! Looook awaaay!

    The sorry seafrontI think most would’ve thought A Series of Unfortunate Events was dead on screen after the film, but this series (and the reaction to it) suggests Netflix have been vindicated for deciding to revive the property. Let’s hope they have the common sense to do the right thing and commission the two more seasons needed to complete this sorry tale. In the meantime, I’m very favourably disposed to read all the books…

    * Incidentally, fun game on social media / comment sections: spot the people who are utterly baffled why both screen adaptations of Unfortunate Events have treated it so comically. Seems some people didn’t get the joke when they were kids. ^

    Sherlock (Series 4)
    Sherlock series 4Sherlock comes to an end (for now) with another variable and divisive series. That’s actually the way it’s been received ever since the start (for all the people who think it only lost its way in the third run, there were plenty who slated various parts of it during the first and second series too), so I don’t think we should be so surprised. For my part, I enjoyed it on the whole.

    Opener The Six Thatchers seems to be widely despised, though for the life of my I can’t work out why. Okay, there’s the death at the end, but that was a somewhat inevitable eventuality and it’s fairly well handled. If you’re going to write off something just because it kills off a character you like… well, you need to grow up, frankly. I’m sure that’s not the only reason there are people who dislike the episode, though. Personally I enjoyed all the espionage action stuff. Sherlock has always been about adventures rather than cases and this is surely in-keeping. Anyway, it’s not a perfect episode, but it’s certainly not worse than, say, series one’s The Blind Banker.

    The Lying Detective also has its detractors, but on the whole was much better received (seems to be people who hated Six Thatchers enjoyed Lying Detective and vice versa, as a rule). Between Toby Jones’ excellent, creepy performance, the riffs and reflections of certain real news stories, and the well-done adaptation of a memorable Conan Doyle original, plus the series’ visual and narrative tricks being executed just about as well as ever, I’d actually argue it’s one of the programme’s very best episodes.

    But then we come to the finale, The Final Problem, which is (if you’ll excuse the pun) a problematic tale. Bits of it work magnificently, like Moriarty’s arrival and the Molly scene, but other sections are severely lacking in logic (even allowing for the heightened world of the show) or are inert — ironically so: Sherlock, John, and Mycroft spend the middle of the episode moving, but as they’re just being led from game to game it comes to very little end. It feels like it needed a good script editor to give it a going-over and give it a clearer impetus. And as for the finale, with the magically-timed arrival of another DVD from Mary… ugh. The idea behind the final montage is nice, but why not have, say, Mrs Hudson narrate it?

    Rathbone PlaceSherlock’s commitment to being a fast-paced, audience-challenging adventure drama that strives to be constantly engaging and entertaining is definitely commendable, and a welcome contrast to much of the slow, dour TV drama we tend to produce over here — even if the end result is sometimes messy or unpopular. With events in-show leaving our heroes reset to a more familiar Holmesian situation, here’s hoping the big-name cast can be tempted back for a few more adventures in a couple of years.

    Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life
    Gilmore Girls: A Year in the LifeNine years on and Gilmore Girls graduates from being considered a twee comedy-drama on disparaged network The WB to a major cultural event, thanks to it being produced for the arbiter of all modern televisual culture, Netflix. Instead of 22 42-minute episodes of network TV we get four feature-length instalments, though it’s still very much a series: the pros and cons are shared across the board.

    Pros: at its best it’s still funny, quick-witted, kooky, and sometimes even emotional. It’s a nostalgic visit to old friends, with a nice line in surprise cameos from old characters (even if you know they’re in it, most of them suddenly appear in a scene, hence “surprise”). Cons: at its worst its hero characters aren’t wholly supportable and its narrative choices come overburdened with thematic tin-eared-ness. I’ve always liked that the characters aren’t as perfect as they think they are, but I’m not sure the show knows the characters aren’t as perfect as it thinks they are. It’s hard to know exactly how deep the delusion goes: character-deep, which is kinda clever and maybe even more sophisticated than some people give the show credit for; or writer-deep, which is a little… sad? Unfortunately, there’s plenty of evidence it’s the latter (we’re constantly told of Rory’s prior success but see little evidence to suggest she’s actually capable of it).

    Still, what the show sometimes lacks in realism (be that social or psychological) it makes up for with its fast-paced pop culture banter (not always as on display here as normal, I must say) and delightful kookiness. In the latter camp, an extended selection of songs from Stars Hollow: The Musical seems to get a lot of flack, but I thought it was a consistently amusing highlight. Yes, it’s an over-long aside from the main action, but that’s the kind of thing you can do when you’re given double-length episodes and creative freedom. Conversely, the finale goes overboard with this increased liberty.

    Final four wordsBizarrest of all is the problematic ending. Thematically, A Year in the Life begins to look like it might be about moving on, new horizons, that kind of thing — indeed, I kind of expected it to end with Lorelei moving out of Stars Hollow. But the climax — the infamous final four words… well, you could see the development as a signal of a fresh start (very literally, new life), but it doesn’t play that way. Given Rory’s personal story (her career and relationships falling apart) and situation (single, living at home), it’s less a new path forward and more a depressingly regressive loop. If you’re interested in a fuller dissection of these issues, allow me to recommend this review and, in particular, this discussion at The Verge, which both have a pretty good handle on it in my opinion. And if you want a way to reconcile the early cute perfectness with the divergent behaviour of characters as the series rolls on, this fan theory from Cracked is imperfect but fun.

    A Year in the Life is never Gilmore Girls at its best (there are highs, but most work thanks to “its fun to have them back” nostalgia), but it does reflect the show at its worst. Flawed characters are great for drama, but only if the show is aware of their flaws. Lost amongst all its zany fun, I’m not convinced Gilmore Girls actually understands its protagonists as well as it thinks it does.

    Peter Pan Goes Wrong
    Peter Pan Goes Wrong
    Christmas seems so long ago now, doesn’t it, but it’s okay: the best thing that was on TV during the festive season isn’t all that Christmassy, and if you missed it and you’re in the UK it’s still available on iPlayer for a little while yet. If you’re outside the UK, I don’t know if there’s anywhere you can see it (legally), but it’s worth seeking out. Based on the stage show, it does what it says on the tin: it’s about an amateur production of Peter Pan that goes wrong. Farcically, hilariously wrong. It’s the kind of thing that’s far, far funnier than you feel it should be — and I know I’m not alone in saying this because it went down a storm on Twitter too. And the theatre company that originated it have several other shows — here’s hoping the BBC make them a Christmas fixture.

    The Flash / Arrow / Legends of Tomorrow Invasion!
    Arrowverse - Invasion!
    The Arrowverse’s three-night crossover masquerading as a four-night crossover (Supergirl had one scene, which they repeated in Flash anyway) was certainly a hit for The CW in terms of ratings. Quality-wise… well, it was about on a par with the individual series as a whole, which is to be expected I suppose. It was quite neat that the episodes of Flash and Arrow managed to feel like instalments of their own show as well as part of the crossover — especially Arrow, which was also marking its 100th episode — though that was to the detriment of the overarching story: the alien threat that drove the piece was occasionally sidelined, then hurriedly wrapped-up in a frantic final episode. That last part was ostensibly an instalment of the less-popular Legends of Tomorrow, but their regulars only had a little something to do before being shoved aside in favour of characters from the more popular shows. As I don’t watch Legends anymore I can’t say it bothered me, but I almost felt bad for them. I presume there’ll be another such crossover next season, but hopefully next time they’ll fully embrace it: focus on giving adequate time to the story that brings them all together, rather than trying to concurrently maintain the series’ individuality.

    Also watched…
  • Elementary Season 5 Episodes 1-3 — you can never have enough Sherlock Holmes.
  • Outnumbered 2016 Christmas Special — another contender for the best comedy of the season. I liked that it wasn’t a big-fuss return, just another vignette from the lives of the Brockmans.
  • Vicious Series Finale — conversely, this was as odd and kind-of-funny / kind-of-terrible as it always has been. A fitting way to end, then, I guess.

    Things to Catch Up On
    TabooThis month, I have mostly been missing Taboo, the BBC’s dark new period drama starring Tom Hardy and written by Steven Knight. I’m sure I’ll get round to it soon, but then I’ve been saying that about Peaky Blinders (you know, the BBC’s dark period drama written by Steven Knight and sometimes starring Tom Hardy) for years and still haven’t even started it. Its scheduling on BBC One on Saturday nights feels thoroughly at odds with how it looks (surely midweek BBC Two?), but putting a proper drama on our highest-profile channel on its highest-profile night seems to have been a popular move, so what do I know?

    120 days until new Twin Peaks

    Next month… Studio Ghibli’s first TV series comes to Amazon Prime… but it’s quite long and it doesn’t look that good, so I’m not sure I’ll bother.

  • The Past Christmas on TV

    Christmastime: it’s all about family, food, presents, sweets, more food, alcohol, a bit more food, some kid who was born a while ago, and also food. But most of all, it’s about TV. Oh dear Lord, so much TV.

    Is it just me and my insanely broad and forgiving interests, or has there been more TV to watch this Christmas than normal? Every day in our copy of the Radio Times’ “legendary” Christmas issue seems alight with highlighter markings, an endless parade of visual entertainment to… well, to add to the list of stuff to watch later on catch-up, mainly. But I did actually watch some of it, and here is what I thought.

    Doctor Who The Return of Doctor Mysterio
    Doctor Who: The Return of Doctor MysterioThe controversial Steven Moffat era of nuWho is headed towards its end, but before his final full series next year there’s this penultimate Christmas special. There have been 12 of them now and they’re always divisive: some people think they’re too Christmassy, some that they’re not Christmassy enough; some like that they’re standalone adventures suited to a broader audience, but other times they’re not standalone enough… Each year presents a different mix of these elements, pleasing some and alienating others.

    This year, Doctor Who taps into the zeitgeist by finally tackling superheroes, with a riff off classic-styled Superman. Personally, I thought it was the best Christmas episode for years — a fun, exciting, witty, entertaining romp, that captured the tone of the superhero genre but gave it Doctor Who’s typical gently-irreverent spin. The tone was perfectly suited to Christmas day.

    But was there too much or too little Christmas in it? Well, I’ve seen critics put it in their top five Who Christmasses purely because there wasn’t much Christmas, and Letterboxd fans write it off purely because there wasn’t enough Christmas. When you’re the showrunner of Doctor Who, you literally can’t win.

    The Great Christmas Bake Off
    The Great Christmas Bake Off“Proper Bake Off” came to an end with what felt a little like a joyous celebration of the series’ unique charms, as well as its highs and lows. Considering the two festive episodes were shot before the controversial move to Channel 4 took place, that’s almost impressive. It’s hard to imagine GBBO without the alchemical mix of Mel, Sue, Paul and Mary, and these episodes showed the format on fine form. And then the BBC went and snuck in that perfectly-edited 60-second tribute to the whole thing. Who knew a programme about baking cake could be so good? Or make some people so emotional

    Bob Monkhouse: The Last Stand
    A few months before his death in 2003, Bob Monkhouse gave a one-off gig to an invited audience of fellow comedians which has apparently gone down in comedy legend. I’d never heard of it before, but there you go (I had the same thing with the joke in The Aristocrats and its alleged notoriety, so I won’t say I’m surprised). This was the first time that gig has been televised in a full form, and I confess I’d paid it no heed until it was trending on Twitter. Thanks for that recommendation, Twittersphere, because it’s a very good show: Bob tells jokes, tells stories, and interviews Mike Yarwood in front of an admiring audience who aren’t aware it’s probably his last gig — but, with that hindsight, the themes of sharing a lifetime of wisdom and finding contentment are obvious.

    Grantchester
    GrantchesterThe problem with Christmas specials of on-going shows is you’re sometimes left with on-going plots that must be acknowledged, and Grantchester has a particularly major one with its hero’s life-long love leaving her husband while pregnant. If you don’t watch, it’s set in the ’50s, so this kind of behaviour is the greatest scandal known to man. The special leaps into this without even the by-your-leave of a “previously on”, so I pity any non-regular viewers made to sit down in front of it on Christmas Eve. But it’s an immensely popular show with big ratings, apparently, so who can blame ITV for wanting it in their always-underpowered Christmas schedule? I imagine it fared better than Maigret did the next night…

    Revolting Rhymes
    Revolting RhymesThe team behind previous Christmas specials The Gruffalo, Room on the Broom, and Stick Man returned this year with a two-part adaptation of Roald Dahl’s retold fairy tales. Dahl’s individual tales have been intelligently remixed into a pair of stories (one per part, of course), with a framing narrative that actually contains a neat cliffhanger twist at the end of part one. Maybe it just caught me unawares because I wasn’t expecting it, but I thought it was very effective. Anyway, Dahl’s witty rhyming couplets are retained, delivered by a well-chosen cast, not least Dominic West as a smooth, charming, suspicious Wolf. The claymation-ish visual style of the CG animation is familiar from the makers’ previous films, but as polished and well-applied as ever, with some beautiful details. It makes for a visual treat to equal the excellent words they have to work with.

    The Witness for the Prosecution
    The Witness for the ProsecutionI thought And Then There Were None was one of the highlights of last year’s Christmas schedule, turning Agatha Christie’s most popular novel into a dark, slasher-movie-esque thriller, the first English-language adaptation to remain faithful to the original’s glum ending. I don’t know if this year’s Christie is faithful to her original short story, but it isn’t to the play adaptation (at least as I know it from the excellent film version). It seems to have deliberately followed in And Then There Were None’s tonal footsteps, shooting for a bleak tale about the fundamental darkness of human nature. Instead it’s diluted the satisfying mystery and removed the tension, with a two-hour running time feeling ponderous and its cinematography trying for atmospheric but instead hitting murky. Some people don’t approve of Christie-esque narratives that make a guessing game out of murder, but if you want you can always write your own gloomily realistic meditation on the nature of evil rather than co-opting her work into a grim treatise.

    Comedy round-up
    WILTYThere’s always a lot of special episodes of comedy shows on over Christmas, with varying degrees of success. I thought this year’s Live at the Apollo was woeful, with Romesh Ranganathan the only truly bright spot in 45 minutes of flat observations and unfunny daftness. Conversely, Would I Lie To You? proved to be as good value as it always is, thanks to the quick wit of the regulars plus Tom Courtenay’s affected (I presume) dodderiness. Mock the Week’s clip show format was perhaps improved by the fact I didn’t watch the most recent series, while the imperfect Insert Name Here makes a nonetheless welcome return. In the comedy gameshow sub-genre, Alan Carr’s 12 Stars of Christmas was the kind of trash I’d never watch at any other time of year yet stuck with for all five hours and kind of enjoyed (helped by watching on catch-up and fast-forwarding the really repetitious bits), while the David Walliams-fronted Blankety Blank revival provided as much charm as the format ever has. And normally it wouldn’t count as comedy, but this year’s run of Celebrity Mastermind began with CBBC puppet Hacker T. Dog as a contestant. At least he didn’t win.

    Also watched… (stuff that wasn’t Christmassy)
  • Castle Season 7 Episodes 22-23 — the last episode feels very much like someone thought they might get cancelled. After the quality of this season, I don’t blame them.
  • Class Series 1 Episode 8 — it’s been an uneven series, but the tease for season two’s big plot is very intriguing. Fingers crossed for a recommission.
  • The Grand Tour Season 1 Episode 3 — in which they actually do a version of the Grand Tour.

    Things to Catch Up On
    OutnumberedMy list of Christmas TV to get round to remains pretty extensive. There are all those regular series that insert a seasonal episode — The Grand Tour (that’d be the episode with Richard Hammond’s ice cream comments that you might’ve heard about), Paul O’Grady: For the Love of Dogs, Yonderland (not that I’ve watched any of the latest series), QI, Inside No.9 (which I’ve never watched before, but the special sounds good)… And there are series coming back for one-offs too, like Outnumbered and Jonathan Creek (which I loved during its original run but have been surprisingly lax about watching in the last few years). I’ve also not yet caught a couple of this year’s animated adaptations, Michael Rosen’s We’re Going on a Bear Hunt and Raymond Briggs’ Ethel & Ernest (which I figure will count as a film). Documentaries like Lego’s Big Christmas and West Side Stories also sit on my list, likely to get forgotten. There’s Sky1’s big Christmas Day drama, The Last Dragonslayer (which I wager I’ll also count as a film); Eric Idle’s comedy musical science thing, The Entire Universe; and Charlie Brooker’s 2016 Wipe, which apparently manages to make 2016 funny (I’ll believe it when I see it). Finally, I always save Channel 4’s The Big Fat Quiz of the Year for either New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day, because that just seems more appropriate.

    Whew!

    (And to think: this doesn’t even mention all the big specials for things I don’t watch.)

    Still To Come
    Sherlock series 4Things are beginning to wind down now… but as far as TV schedulers are concerned “Christmas” lasts until at least January 1st, so there are a couple of big hitters left. The biggest of all is a new, potentially final, run of Sherlock. No idea what the quality will be like, but expect lots of handwringing on social media and huge ratings either way. On New Year’s Eve there’s stage adaptation Peter Pan Goes Wrong, which I’ve heard such good stuff about it’s probably going to be a disappointment, and a Winnie-the-Pooh documentary that I’m going to watch even though it’s presented by Alan Titchmarsh. Next week (which you could argue is still part of Christmas if you have very forgiving holiday leave) sees lots of police shows kicking off, if that’s your thing: Death in Paradise, Endeavour, Midsomer Murders, No Offence, Silent Witness, Unforgotten… even Brooklyn Nine-Nine. And in the sphere of movies on TV, tonight you can choose between the network premiere of Captain America: The Winter Soldier on BBC One at 8:30pm and the subscription premiere of Captain America: Civil War on Sky Cinema at 8pm, an almost-double-bill (I mean, you can’t watch them both live) that I only note because of the “huh, well there you go” factor.

    Next month… Sherlock returns.

  • Sherlock: The Abominable Bride (2016)

    2016 #1
    Douglas Mackinnon | 89 mins | TV (HD) | 16:9 | UK / English | 15

    Screened in UK cinemas simultaneously with its TV premiere (and coming to the big screen in various other countries over the next week or so, too), the latest episode of the BBC’s modern-day Sherlock Holmes series is actually a standalone adventure set in the character’s original Victorian time period.

    The rest of this review will be spoiler-filled, but before I get into that I’ll say this: if you’re someone who’s a Sherlock Holmes fan but not keen on Sherlock and are wondering if the changed temporal setting means this special might be of interest to you, then I think it’s fair to say it won’t.

    1895: detective Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his sidekick / companion / chronicler Dr. Watson (Martin Freeman) learn of the case of Emelia Ricoletti, who committed suicide by shooting herself in the head in public… and then later that evening murdered her husband. Despite the intriguing impossibility of the crime, Holmes’ thoughts are for some reason preoccupied with his deceased nemesis, Prof. Moriarty…

    It would’ve been a bit weird if Sherlock completely abandoned everything that has marked the series out for an aside of an adventure in Victorian London, and so it is from the start. While there is certainly a different feel — not just the obvious trappings of horse-drawn carriages, candlelight, costuming, and so forth, but in the way the characters speak and behave — it’s still spun from the same cloth as the regular series. These are recognisably the Holmes and Watson we commonly know as Sherlock and John, surrounded by versions of Mrs Hudson, Mary Watson and Inspector Lestrade that aren’t so very different from their present-day incarnations.

    The case they find themselves embroiled in is a little more period than usual, however, with lashings of Gothic and some of the trappings of a Christmas ghost story. The episode is co-written by series creators Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, and anyone familiar with Gatiss’ wider work can clearly see his influence here. Moffat brings his trademark fast-paced intricately-tricksy plotting, for which individual viewers’ mileage varies greatly: some find it genius, some find it tedious. Is it clever, or does it just think it’s clever? Is it impossible to follow, or were you just not paying enough attention? As to the first question, I think it’s a bit of both; as to the second, I think the episode ultimately answers everything, but you might need to realise a few things for yourself.

    Much of The Abominable Bride is a lot of fun. The mystery is fairly engrossing, though we’re frequently sidetracked into character interplay — such is Sherlock’s way. There are many entertaining scenes of this, however, not least Holmes and Watson’s arrival at the Diogenes Club and the state of the version of Mycroft they find therein. Douglas Mackinnon’s direction is atmospheric, retaining the series’ usual flashy, whizzing editing and camerawork at times, and incorporating suitably horror-esque elements at others. Anyone after a fully traditional take on a Victorian Holmes and Watson can always revisit Jeremy Brett — here we have Victorian Holmes through the filter of Sherlock, and it works.

    Until the last half-hour or so, anyway, when the modern version suddenly comes crashing in. At first it seems like a clever interlude; a little reminder of the true time period for this version of the characters, and a tease for season four. But it quickly transpires that, no, this episode isn’t actually a wholly standalone aside from the main series — Gatiss and Moffat have found a way to integrate it into continuity. For me, this is where the special begins to come apart at the seams; not because I inherently object to this integration, but because from that point on the episode begins to jump back and forth between the present, the imagined past, and various other dream-state asides. It’s almost entirely justified by the beautifully-shot Reichenbach Falls sequence, but a spot of cinematographic prettiness doesn’t really excuse the way the story goes a little haywire. The least successful part of all, for me, is that it calls into question the solution for the case we’ve just been presented with… but then doesn’t get round to offering another, meaning you kind of feel like the case hasn’t been solved, even though it presumably has been, with the first solution. I think.

    All of which kerfuffling makes The Abominable Bride a tricky beast. From the promotional trailers and blurbs, it may’ve looked like a standalone Victorian Sherlock Holmes adventure that happens to star the cast of the present-set Sherlock — hence why I felt it worth offering that clarification back in paragraph two, because, despite not being connected to a full series (the next one of which will probably appear in exactly one year’s time), in reality this is Episode 10 of Sherlock — and, tonally, feels like it.

    As someone who enjoys Sherlock Holmes in his proper era but is also a fan of this modern day version (I would say “a big fan”, but I’m not one of those people), I’d rather they’d played this a little more straightforward. Not a lot — it’s still under the umbrella of Sherlock after all, and the era-transposed stylistic flourishes in the first hour-ish worked very nicely in my opinion — but the mixed-up mishmash of the final act dilutes the effectiveness of the entire experience. There’s fun and thrills to be had along the way, but in another form it could perhaps have been a Sherlockian classic in its own right.

    4 out of 5

    Sherlock: The Abominable Bride is available on the BBC iPlayer for most of January. It’s in cinemas worldwide over the next few days, including in the US on the 5th and 6th. An extras-filled two-disc special edition is out on the 11th.

    The Hound of the Baskervilles (1981)

    aka
    Приключения Шерлока Холмса и доктора Ватсона: Собака Баскервилей
    Priklyucheniya Sherloka Kholmsa i doktora Vatsona: Sobaka Baskerviley
    The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson: The Hound of the Baskervilles

    2015 #14
    Igor Maslennikov | 146 mins | DVD | 4:3 | Soviet Union / Russian | PG

    The Hound of the BaskervillesSherlock Holmes has appeared in more films than any other fictional character (yep, even those Marvel ones that are everywhere), which also means that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Great Detective has been portrayed by a staggering number of actors. “Who’s the best?” debates usually settle around Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett and, these days, Benedict Cumberbatch, though there are ardent fans of Douglas Wilmer, Peter Cushing, Robert Downey Jr… I could go on. In certain rarified circles, however, the “Sherlockian’s Sherlock” is, believe it or not, a Russian: Vasily Livanov, who starred in five popular (in their homeland) Russian miniseries/TV movies between 1979 and 1986 that some regard as definitive adaptations. We even gave him an MBE for them in 2006, so I guess he’s state-recognised.

    The most famous Holmes adventure of them all, The Hound of the Baskervilles, was the subject of the third series, a two-part feature-length adaptation. (So yes, technically it’s not a film, but it’s the length of a film and it’s ever-so filmicly made, so I’m counting it.) The story, if you don’t know it, sees Devon gent Sir Charles Baskerville dying and his Canadian heir, Henry Baskerville (Nikita Mikhalkov), coming to England to inherit the estate. However, Sir Charles’ physician, Dr Mortimer (Evgeny Steblov), fears the old chap was murdered, and that it’s somehow connected to an ancient legend of a dog-like beast that roams the moors and torments the Baskerville family. Who better to investigate such phenomenon, and the potential threat to the new Sir Baskerville’s life, than famed detective Sherlock Holmes and his trusty sidekick, Dr Watson.

    Mr Sherlock HolmesAs many a Holmes fan will know, Baskervilles is not the best choice to get a handle on an actor’s interpretation of Holmes. Written by Doyle in the period after he’d killed Holmes off because he was tired of writing him, but before he later brought him back to life (as it were), presumably the author was still a bit bored with his creation, because Holmes disappears for a good chunk of the tale — in this adaptation, cited by many as the most faithful yet made, he’s in roughly the first and last half-hours, leaving a 72-minute stretch in the middle where he doesn’t appear at all. From what we do see of him, Livanov portrays a nicely understated Holmes. Clearly fiercely intelligent, but without the terseness of Cumberbatch’s version or the somewhat-jolly-hockey-sticks take of Rathbone. I’m compelled to get hold of the rest of the series to see what else he had to offer. (Sadly, only Baskervilles has reached UK DVD, but English-friendly imports are available. It’s also been released on Blu-ray, but I believe without English subtitles.)

    The weight of the tale falls on Dr Watson, played here by Vitaly Solomin, who starred alongside Livanov in all his adventures. His is an excellent version of the character. Hopefully the Nigel Bruce-inspired image of Watson as a bumbling, useless sidekick has faded now, thanks to a couple of decades of strong interpretations from the likes of Edward Hardwicke, Ian Hart and Martin Freeman, but when this was produced it was presumably still de rigueur. Faithful to the original stories, however, Solomin’s Watson is highly competent; not expert at applying Holmes’ incredible deductive methodology, but nonetheless capable of maintaining an investigation in Holmes’ absence. Whatever Livanov’s merits, I’d happily watch the rest of the adaptations for Solomin’s Watson.

    Dr Watson and Sir HenrySeveral other cast members manage to be both faithful to the novel and different to how their characters are usually depicted on screen. For instance, Dr Mortimer is usually played as an older gent, but is quite young in the novel — this is a rare (the only?) instance of that being followed. It’s the first time I’ve seen him played as being a bit shifty and suspicious, too. It benefits the storytelling here, because there really aren’t many suspects — it’s abundantly clear whodunnit, even if you don’t know, because there are no other options! Perhaps most memorable from the supporting cast is “internationally acclaimed actor/director” Nikita Mikhalkov as Henry Baskerville. The role is usually played as young, handsome, keen and brave (in the Rathbone version, Richard Greene even gets top billing in the role, and his incarnation is at the centre of a played-up romantic subplot). Here, Henry is a little older, prone to drinking, readily amused in a larger-than-life fashion, frequently baffled by events, somewhat cowardly, and most often used for comic relief.

    There’s certainly a stronger strand of humour than I recall from either the book or any previous adaptation (though I’ve not seen the Peter Cook/Dudley Moore comedy version, which one would hope is funnier), but it’s all texture with Sir Henry rather than a narrative driving force. It also plays down the supernatural or Gothic side of things, which other versions tend to ramp up — the Rathbone film and the 2002 BBC TV movie both insert a seance sequence, even, which works so well that I’d forgotten it wasn’t actually in the novel. It’s a good addition partly for the atmosphere, but also for playing up the sense of community amongst the small band of characters. Here, everyone feels very isolated and rarely seen — there are even scenes where they’re surprised to actually run into one another. Holmes solves the caseThere’s more of an emphasis on people spying on each other suspiciously, which at least is rather appropriate to a murder mystery.

    Indeed, I suppose this adaptation plays the story mostly as a detective mystery, if that’s not too obvious a thing to observe. Hound is far from the strongest mystery in the canon, mind, especially as presented here, with the the list of suspects seriously depleted by that absence of community. On the bright side, it makes up for it by having the ultimate revelation seem like proper detective work by Holmes. Normally the reveal hinges on him happening to spot a telling painting, an explanation that is implausible enough even without the element of happenstance. Here, the painting merely suggests a motive and a new line of enquiry to prove that theory. Nonetheless, the final summary contains a goodly number of “I don’t know, Watson”-type answers to dangling motivations/practicalities/etc. Anyone after a solid murder mystery, rather than a detective-led adventure, should look elsewhere.

    The film itself is very well made. There’s some gorgeous cinematography by Dmitri Dolinin and Vladimir Ilyin; in particular, the cold morning on which Dr Mortimer examines Sir Charles’ body, mists drifting around some of the village houses, and anything on the moor in evening light, like when Watson finally finds Holmes. Also, just generally, it’s often very filmically shot — a shallow depth of field can pay dividends. The Russian city used as a double for Baker Street and its surroundings doesn’t look the least bit like Victorian London, though in fairness they’ve done their best to hide that, Yep, that's totally Britainincluding scattering iconic red VR post boxes around willynilly. The Russian countryside probably doesn’t look very much like Dartmoor either, but its qualities work for the story: very desolate, barren, bare trees, waterlogged dirt tracks for roads, rubble strewn around, the buildings rundown… All very atmospheric for a Gothic horror-tinged mystery, and far superior to the picture-postcard look of some adaptations.

    Sonically, Vladimir Dashkevich’s score is succinctly described as quirky, with a main theme that’s very pompously British (apparently based on a familiar piece from the BBC World Service, which the Russian audience would therefore immediately identify with Britishness), but graduating to some quite contemporary riff-y guitar stuff later on.

    (Unfortunately, the UK DVD is a little messy. For all the lovely film-ness of much of the PQ, there’s occasionally some nasty video/digital artifacting. Similarly, the subtitles are mostly fine but with sporadic lapses. A few lines are missed, and homophonic substitutions abound: “here” for “hear” (several times), “stake” for “steak”, “to” for “too”, and the second vowel in “Sheldon” changes a few times to boot. Shame.)

    Russian Hound of the Baskervilles UK DVD from Mr BongoThe Hound of the Baskervilles has been filmed far too many times (a quick search of IMDb throws up a couple of dozen versions, for starters), which makes it tricky for any version to stand out from the crowd. This one picks up bonus points for reportedly being the most faithful of them all, backing that up with some strong performances, atmospheric locations and classy direction by the series’ regular helmsman, Igor Maslennikov. It’s not perfect, but then I can’t think of an adaptation of Baskervilles I’ve seen that is. Is it the best Baskervilles? It depends what exactly you want in the mix, but I think you’d have to say it’s a contender.

    4 out of 5

    This review is part of the Russia in Classic Film Blogathon. Be sure to check out the many other fantastic contributions collated by host Movies Silently.

    The House of Fear (1945)

    2014 #11
    Roy William Neill | 66 mins | DVD | 4:3 | USA / English | U

    The House of FearAdapted very loosely from the early Conan Doyle story The Five Orange Pips, this outing for Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes and Nigel Bruce’s Dr Watson sees them summoned to Scotland to investigate the suspicious deaths of the members of a club, where each killing is preceded by an ominous postal warning.

    Previous commenters on this fine establishment have flagged up The House of Fear as among the best of the Rathbone films, including one declaring it his “outright favourite”. I have to say, I didn’t like it that much. That said, something has given me the impression it’s considerably better than the short story that inspired it; though there’d be disagreement from Doyle, who ranked it among his 12 favourite Holmes adventures, and Mark Campbell of The Pocket Essential Sherlock Holmes, where the story rates 5-out-of-5. Either way, the film version presents an intriguing mystery, with some good moments — including, if you like Watson’s comedy bits, a mercifully not-drawn-out skit with an owl.

    However, it felt to me like it wasn’t really going anywhere until Holmes suddenly figured it all out at the end. Certainly he draws on clues encountered along the way, but even then most of those come late on. Detecting by candlelightWhile the club having seven members does mean there’s a fair few suspects, it also means it takes a long time to get through them all being bumped off! It doesn’t sink so low as to be deemed repetitive, but does border it.

    Not among my personal favourites of the Rathbone Holmeses, then, but not without its merits.

    3 out of 5

    Sherlock Holmes (2010)

    2010 #45
    Rachel Lee Goldenberg | 89 mins | DVD | 12 / PG-13

    Sherlock HolmesFrom the company that brought you such pinnacles of cinematic excellence as AVH: Alien vs. Hunter, Snakes on a Train and Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus comes the latest in a long line of cheaply-produced blockbuster cash-ins, this time tied to… well, I think you know. (While I’m at it, I encourage you to look at their website — the sheer volume of these ‘mockbusters’ they’ve produced now is almost impressive.)

    You wait decades for a new Sherlock Holmes film and then two come along at once. One is the Guy Ritchie-directed Robert Downey Jr-starring genuine blockbuster moneymaker. The other is thankfully not the rumoured Sacha Baron Cohen/Seth Rogen/Judd Apatow/other faintly irritating people (I forget who was involved) comedy vehicle, but instead a direct-to-DVD cash-in from mockbuster kings The Asylum. Yes, I’d rather this version, thanks.

    I’ve not seen an Asylum film before, but I hear this is one of their best. It’s not exactly “good” by any reasonable definition, but as “cable TV movie” quality goes I’d say it trumps the dull Case of Evil. And dull this certainly isn’t — sea monsters! dinosaurs! dragons! air battles! If you thought Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes looked disrespectfully blockbusterised, it seems positively Brettian by comparison.

    Watson and camp short-arse HolmesBut, in The Asylum’s favour, their Sherlock Holmes doesn’t hide what it is. Yes, it’s called simply Sherlock Holmes rather than Sherlock Holmes and the Implausible CGI Monsters, but at least said monsters are plastered all over the DVD cover (both US and UK). If you see that and still expect something faithful to Conan Doyle, more fool you. That said, at times it’s surprisingly faithful to Doyle’s spirit. There’s some decent-ish investigation and deduction, the story structured like a mystery rather than an action-adventure.

    But you can’t escape the dinosaurs, sea monsters and dragons, or the various steampunk elements introduced towards the climax. And so your enjoyment probably depends on your expectations. Some of the acting’s poor — not least Ben Syder’s camp short-arse Holmes, sadly — and the CGI’s weak, looking like a ’90s syndicated TV series. The direction occasionally lacks competence and a couple of action sequences are pointlessly repetitive.

    Sherlock Holmes and the Implausible CGI MonstersAnachronisms abound, the best being the first: the film opens in London, 1940, the middle of the Blitz, and the opening shot foregrounds the Millennium Bridge. I don’t think you have to be too familiar with London to know when that was built. Elsewhere we get intercoms on houses, incongruous light switches and period inaccurate telephones, just to mention a couple. It’s shoddy, yes, but almost part of the fun.

    But, for all the faults, there are positives. It’s still not “good”, but it is often “quite fun”. Thoroughly daft, certainly, but — provided you don’t demand too much — quite entertaining because of it.

    3 out of 5

    Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ modern-day re-imagining of Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock, starts at 9pm tomorrow on BBC One.

    Tomorrow night, my review of the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes.