The Past Fortnight on TV #46

I’m throwing off the usual monthly format of these TV reviews to keep up with coverage of Game of Thrones. This time: the Battle of Winterfell and its aftermath. Next time: the series finale!

Also this fortnight: new BBC fantasy sitcom Ghosts, the first (sort of) episode of Columbo, the latest editions of Mark Kermode’s Secrets of Cinema and Thronecast, and more of the best tales from The Twilight Zone.

Game of Thrones  Season 8 Episodes 3-4
Game of Thrones season 8Almost two years ago, just hours after Game of Thrones’ seventh season finale aired, I tweeted the following:

Crazy(?) Game of Thrones s8 prediction: army of the dead defeated in ep2 or 3; humans return to bickering amongst themselves for 3 or 4 eps.

Well, reader, I’ve been feeling a bit smug for the past couple of weeks, I must admit. It was quite widely known that the big battle between the living and the dead at Winterfell was coming in episode three, but it seemed like a lot of people expected it to be a victory for the Night King, with a retreat to King’s Landing in order for the final battle to happen later. I suspected differently, and I was right. That a lot of people didn’t suspect that and were consequently outraged that the Night King and his army could be defeated so ‘early’… ugh, let’s not get into that. Other than to say: this has always been a show (a) more concerned with the politicking of humans than supernatural threats, and (b) that zigs when you expect it to zag (or does neither, if your name’s Rickon). And further to that, we’re only three episodes from the end of a 73-episode story — in percentage terms, these final few episodes are kinda the epilogue; they’re about what happens after The Great War is over.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The Long Night itself was… well, it was an interesting choice of episode title, firstly, considering the Long Night is already an event in Westeros’ history and is rumoured to be the title of the in-production spin-off series. (It also sent Wikipedia editors into a tizzy, but what else is new?) More pertinent controversy was found in the way the episode was shot, i.e. very dark. Too dark for a lot of people to see, in fact. Many blamed the cinematographer, but it seems to me it was more likely HBO’s compression wiping out detail in the blacks — many other viewers who watched the episode from higher-quality sources (including myself) found no problem seeing it on correctly-calibrated televisions. And, when watching a decent copy in good viewing conditions, much of it actually looked spectacular — the darkness was effective for conveying the scariness of the events being witnessed, and it was punctuated with some beautiful moments from firelight or moonlight.

The Battle of WinterfellContent-wise, the episode was one long battle — the longest ever in film or TV history, apparently. More isn’t always more, mind. While I didn’t find it boring or drawn-out, it also wasn’t perfect. The battle tactics left a lot to be desired, something spotted by lay-viewers, never mind the “how it should’ve been done” articles by professional military tacticians that followed the broadcast. And the way things played out, a lot more deaths were warranted. Quite a few key characters did fall, and even more faceless masses, but the way it was staged made it a miracle that so many people escaped unscathed. There are three episodes left — you need characters to fuel the story, and major characters left to be sacrificed later too — but that doesn’t mean you have to stage it so everyone effects an improbable escape. There’s a balance to be found between “it looks like they’re all about to die” and “it seems literally impossible everyone would’ve survived those last-minute odds”. But hey, this isn’t the first time the show has succumbed to this, and there was a lot else to like: lots of effective individual sequences within the battle, great callbacks to previous lines and events, some heroic sacrifices, and a perfect ending. (I’m really not going to talk about some dickheads’ reaction to that.)

So, with the presumed Big Bad defeated with three feature-length episodes still to go, next week’s The Last of the Starks was tasked with both showing the aftermath of the battle and charting a course into the series’ endgame. As it turned out, it was much more than that, with major events all of its own. This is where the reduced episode count rears its ugly head for me because, much like in season seven, I feel like they’re rushing certain events just for the sake of getting the series finished, not because it merits a picking up of the pace. There were things in episode four that felt glossed over or skipped past; things which merited a bit more time and focus. If anything, this felt like two episodes glued together — and out of the three 80-minute episodes the show has now done (the other being the season seven finale), I’ve felt that way about two of them. Why not add another 15 to 20 minutes of scenes and split this episode in two? It wouldn’t be unnecessary padding because, as I said, there was a load of stuff just raced past. I wanted to see Arya and Sansa’s immediate reaction to the news about Jon; and Tyrion’s, for that matter. I felt like there was a lot more to be done with Missandei’s storyline this episode — in my imagined two-part version, she would’ve been captured at the end of the first episode and there’d be scenes between her and Cersei before her ending. And, yeah, I wouldn’t’ve minded seeing Jon say goodbye to Ghost properly (a massive topic of discussion on social media this week).

The Last of the StarksIt’s frustrating because I liked the tone of the episode overall — as I said, the return to human conflict and schemes; also a lot of the individual scenes between characters and so on. But it needs more room to breathe. It’s especially galling after the exceptionally spacious first two episodes this season, which did exactly that. They’ve said these last two seasons have fewer episodes because of the time and money needed to film the massive battle sequences, but that’s a thin excuse. It’s clear HBO would’ve given them however much money they asked for, and allow them however much time they needed — we’ve had to wait almost two years for this final season, remember. So it doesn’t seem so ridiculous to think that this episode (and, as I said, last season’s finale) could’ve had another chunk of scenes added (which would’ve ‘just’ been characters talking, really) and been split in two. I don’t care about raising the overall episode count (though that doesn’t hurt), I just care about giving these characters and storylines their due.

Well, I guess it is what is now, but it’s a shame. Hopefully the final two episodes can bring things to a good conclusion — not necessarily a joyous one, because this is Game of Thrones after all, but one that feels suitable and satisfying. Based on the show’s current track record, I’m worried I’ll approve of where it ends up but think it was too hurried getting there. It feels like there should be more than a mere two episodes left to wrap all this up.

Ghosts  Series 1 Episodes 1-3
GhostsThis new sitcom from the writing and performing troupe behind the original TV iteration of Horrible Histories and the Sky One fantasy comedy Yonderland is pitched as a more adult-focused series, but it’s not exactly 18-rated stuff, just a little cheekier than they might’ve done before. Anyway, it’s about a young couple who inherit a crumbling old mansion, which is home to the ghosts of various people who’ve died there down the centuries. As the couple attempt to make a life for themselves and restore the place on a budget of nothing, the ghosts cause various issues, while also having problems of their own — turns out being dead isn’t the end of your emotional woes. I wouldn’t say Ghosts is the most hilarious sitcom you’ve ever seen, but it has a definite charm. It also surprises with genuine emotion, particularly in the third episode, where we learn about the death and family of one of the more recent ghosts.

Columbo  Murder by the Book
Columbo: Murder by the BookI’ve never seen Columbo before, and despite this being the first episode (er, kind of — I believe it was preceded by two other pilots) this isn’t the start of me watching it regularly. No, I watched this for one simple reason: the director was a certain Mr Steven Spielberg, in his pre-movie days when he directed a handful of TV episodes. Unsurprisingly, such an early work contains little about its style that screams “Spielberg”, but it’s still a classily staged production, with a lot more going for its visuals than the point-and-shoot style we associate with old TV. The story’s not a bad one either, about a crime novelist who murders his co-writer following the methodology from an unused plot. He thinks he’s a clever bugger who’s got away with it easily, but Columbo seems to see through him right from the start. Well, I’m not sure dumping the corpse on your own front lawn is the best way to go about claiming “it wasn’t me.”

The Twilight Zone  ‘Best Of’
With still no sign of the new Twilight Zone making its way to a UK platform, here’s another selection of some of the best episodes of the original 1959-64 series, as determined by cross-referencing the opinions of IMDb voters and an article I happened to stumble across on Screen Crush. (My previous such overviews can be found here and here.)

The Hitch-HikerFirst up, season one’s The Hitch-Hiker is another Twilight Zone tale where we can’t be sure if the protagonist is experiencing paranoia or the supernatural — undoubtedly a recurring theme for the series, almost to the point where it’s less a “theme” more just a fact of its format. Anyway, this particular reiteration is effectively unnerving, with a scenario that’s relatable — you can just imagine how it would feel if you kept seeing the same hitchhiker by the side of the road, always somehow ahead of you, always staring at you with a despondent look… it gives me chills just thinking about it. Director Alvin Ganzer gets good mileage out of that element too, creating some effective shocks. Aside from that the execution isn’t top notch though, with Rod Serling seeming to have taken too much inspiration from the original radio play (by Lucille Fletcher) in his inclusion of some over-explanatory narration. The trademark twist ending is both altogether guessable for the savvy viewer, but also doesn’t really explain a whole lot.

Two from season two next, including another of the series’ most famous episodes, Eye of the Beholder (spookily, it’s referenced in Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!!, which I happened to watch last night). It’s an episode with a message, but that feels a long while coming because most of the episode clues you in to where the twist is coming from thanks to how it’s shot. Anyway, it’s a commentary on appearances and the segregation of otherness; that the enforcement of “normality”, of conformity, isn’t good. Here it’s being enacted by some totalitarian state, but that’s just a firm example for the sake of analogy — society does it anyway in our real world. The twist ending underscores this point by adding that normality, or beauty, or whatever you want to call it, is all relative anyway. It’s a worthwhile message, but even at a short 25 minutes parts of the episode felt padded.

Nick of TimeI was more taken with Nick of Time, written by the reliably superb Richard Matheson. Starring William Shatner as a superstitious honeymooner, it’s a neat little tale about a cheap fortune telling machine that might actually predict the future. As well as a genre tale about the perils such a machine might pose, it’s really about superstition and belief in fate vs. self determination — a strong moral life lesson bundled in a quirky supernatural fable. That’s Twilight Zone at its best, really. Similarly, season five’s Living Doll is another of the series’ most genuinely unnerving episodes. Telly Savalas stars as a man whose own insecurities make him paranoid and abusive towards his wife and stepdaughter. When the kid gets a new talking doll, it begins to taunt and threaten him, but only when no one else is around to hear. Again, it’s very creepy, but has a point to make beyond that.

Finally for now, it’s back to season two for The Obsolete Man. As I mentioned at the start, I’ve been using two different “best of” lists to guide my Twilight Zone viewing, and this is the biggest disagreement between them thus far (though there are 18 other episodes with bigger differences, so it’s all relative). Whereas IMDb’s consensus-voted opinion says this is the 10th best of all 156 episodes, Screen Crush only ranks it in the middle of the list, at 68th. It’s an initially simple story about the evil and cowardice of totalitarianism: in the opening scene, a man is sentenced to death for being of no use to a fascist regime. However, he has a cunning little plan up his sleeve. As a drama it’s clearly born of an era that was still directly reacting to Hitler and Stalin, but it’s all the more pertinent today as Western societies tip dangerously towards the kind of horrendous ideologies we used to fight, blithely ignorant of the lessons of history. Many Twilight Zone episodes have aged in the sense that the narratives can seem straightforward and guessable to the modern viewer (thanks to endless imitation and our exposure to more stories of this type), but the moral lessons remain depressingly relevant over half a century later.

Also watched…
  • Mark Kermode’s Secrets of Cinema Disaster Movies — Another one-off edition for this excellent series, a Bank Holiday special about that old staple of Bank Holiday TV schedules. Kermode (plus co-writer Kim Newman) is as insightful as ever about the similarities and connections between these movies across the decades. I hope we get another full series, but if it’s set to continue only as occasional specials, well, that’s good too.
  • Thronecast Series 8 Episodes 3-4 — I don’t know if the booker got better or just got lucky, but this picked up considerably with some improved guests. Not that I disliked the people on the first two episodes, but the ones here seemed more knowledgeable and chattier. Episode 4 was particularly good. Fingers crossed the final two editions are equally worthwhile post-episode viewing.

    Things to Catch Up On
    Lucifer season 4This fortnight, I have mostly been missing the fourth season of Lucifer, which just returned as a Netflix exclusive. I’ve not watched season three yet, though, so that’ll be a little while off. I’ve also successfully managed to avoid any spoilers about Line of Duty’s recently-concluded series (touch wood). I’ve got a plan to binge it in a few weeks’ time (so, not in my next TV roundup, but should be the one after) — hopefully nothing will blow its secrets between now and then!

    Next fortnight… at the end of Game of Thrones, you win or you die.

  • Ready Player One (2018)

    2018 #183
    Steven Spielberg | 140 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    Ready Player One

    Steven Spielberg’s latest foray into the style of popular moviemaking he helped create in the ‘70s and ’80s — the summer tentpole action-adventure mega-blockbuster — is an adaptation of a novel so bedded in the popular movies of the ‘70s and ‘80s that the whole thing is a bit too meta: it’s a movie obsessed with the brilliance of ‘80s pop culture, made by one of the primary creators of that culture. At least Spielberg insisted that all references to his own work be cut, otherwise it could’ve become a mite self-congratulatory. Though it does mean that Spielberg becomes conspicuous by his absence in a Spielberg movie. Oh, it’s enough to make your head spin…

    The plot, then: in the year 2045 the real world is a mess, so people spend most of their time in the virtual reality playground of the OASIS. When the game’s creator died, he left behind the first in a series of challenges, and whoever completes them will inherit the OASIS itself. (If you’re thinking, “isn’t that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory but with video games?”, I guess we’ll chalk that up as just another reference. (If you’re thinking, “isn’t that Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory but with video games?”, tsk, go read more Dahl.)) Unfortunately, no one’s even been able to crack the first clue… until someone does, of course, because this is an action-adventure blockbuster, not some existential mood piece on the futility of trying to please the dead… or, you know, something. Anyway, cue lots of whizzy CG antics, with CGI that’s actually allowed to look like CGI because it’s all set in a CG environment — I bet the animators were thrilled when that brief came along, because who doesn’t love their job being made easier?

    What other car is an '80s lover gonna choose?

    Unfortunately, the same amount of effort seems to have gone into the screenplay. Some of this no doubt stems from the original work: the world of 2045 makes no plausible sense (check out the ghost of 82’s review for more on this theme), and there’s the least convincing romantic relationship outside of a George Lucas movie. Worst for me was something a screenplay can readily fix, the dialogue, but which here is frequently full of clunky, hand-holding exposition. This rears its head not just when establishing the film’s world and its rules, which would be bad enough, but also for relatively minor and easily-followed plot points throughout. It’s like the film has been written so even a goldfish could follow it — you don’t need to remember the start of a sentence because its end will explain the same thing again. Equally ill-considered is the movie’s apparently pro-gaming stance. Certainly, a lot of gamers seem to have embraced it as a film that understands their culture; and yet its final message is, “go spend more time in the real world, ya nerds!”

    And yet, I mostly enjoyed it. It may not hang together if you engage your brain, but as a bit of fluff it’s largely a fun virtual romp. There are more Easter eggs than a Cadbury’s warehouse in January, which are fun for geeks like me to spot, and those whooshy visuals are even more entertaining when viewed in 3D, which (as Blu-ray.com’s review put it) is “a compelling demonstration of why the format is worth keeping alive.”

    Watching other people play video games

    But, even though I liked it overall, I can’t help feeling it was a bit of a waste of Spielberg’s time. It’s not that he’s done a bad job — he’s still a god amongst men when it comes to crafting a blockbuster movie — but I also think the end result lacks a certain something that his best work contains. I don’t really know why, but for some reason I feel like he should’ve spent the time it took to make this doing something else, and left this film to be helmed by someone… less important. I mean, there are a lot of other filmmakers who could’ve done a fine job with the material, and wouldn’t have felt the need to cut all the book’s references to Spielberg’s films either.

    4 out of 5

    Ready Player One is available on Sky Cinema as of this weekend.

    The Post (2017)

    2018 #125
    Steven Spielberg | 116 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA & UK / English | 12 / PG-13

    The Post

    Perhaps the timeliest historical movie ever made, The Post is, in its plot, about the publication of the ‘Pentagon Papers’, a leaked report that examined decades of US government decisions about the Vietnam war; but, thematically, it’s about press oversight of a government lying to its people to cover up their own wrongdoing, including trying to forcibly stop the press from performing that role — sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Not to mention that it also concerns itself with matters like whether sources who leak classified information are whistleblowers or traitors, and attitudes towards women in positions of power in the workplace.

    For various reasons related to these elements, it’s attracted a lot of comparisons and accusations. For example, some have criticised it for being about a case in the ’70s rather than one in the present day. I guess allegory is tricky for some people to understand… Or, alternatively, that any such parallels were accidental, as if experienced director Steven Spielberg wasn’t aware of them. I think the film went from script to screen in just nine months for a reason…

    Then there’s the inevitable comparison to Spotlight, another recent newspaper journalism-themed true-story movie, and a Best Picture winner to boot. Those who thought Spotlight was exceptional tend to think The Post doesn’t measure up. Personally, I thought Spotlight was good, but I didn’t love it as much as some others. I would hesitate to say The Post is better than it, but I would be equally as hesitant to say it isn’t as good. Arguably Spotlight is a better movie about journalism, focusing as it does on the everyday legwork and procedure that go into putting together a major story, whereas The Post has more on its mind than just the facts of how reporting works. There are also many comparisons to All the President’s Men, but I’ve still not seen that so can’t comment fairly (there is this rather excellent trivia/connection, though).

    Reading the papers

    Relatedly, some people think this film should’ve been about the New York Times, as they were the paper that first broke the Pentagon Papers story and initiated the legal case it all led to (and, later, they were the only paper awarded a Pulitzer Prize for the publication). There’s certainly an argument for that being the real story, but, conversely, that would be to assume the focus of this movie is solely the publication of the Pentagon Papers. In fact, The Post is the story of Katharine Graham and the Washington Post, and how the Pentagon Papers changed them both. It’s the story of an underdog-like local paper making an (inter)national mark by doing something at odds with a legal ruling — the fact they chose to back-up the Times by publishing too (even if the action was instigated as much by friendly rivalry/jealousy as it was by “freedom of the press” ethics) is an important point in itself.

    It’s also the story of a woman — a business owner at a time when women didn’t hold such roles; and not a woman who confidently elbowed her way in either, but one who found this position thrust upon her — going from meek and overpowered to confident in her own mind and running the show. I’ve read reviews that think this latter element is somehow forced on the film, as if the makers didn’t notice it until halfway through and only decided to draw it out when they reached a shot near the end where Streep walks past a crowd of other women with admiring expressions. That’s not the case, obviously — that’s simply not how movies are made — and that arc is clearly in mind from the very first scene where we meet Graham. Meryl Streep is excellent in the role, which is easily the film’s most fully-realised character. Everyone else is certain of themselves and what they believe is the right thing to do, but over the course of the film she goes from quiet, uncertain, and reliant on her trusted advisor, to believing in her own instincts and standing up for them. It’s a clearly-charted but believable journey.

    A man's world

    Nonetheless, it’s somewhat hard to divorce The Post from the context of when it was made — the way it reflects the current climate in American politics and the news coverage thereof. But then, is that a problem? Are works of art not as much about the time in which they were made as the time in which they’re set? I guess that’s a whole other debate. That said, it carries a message that would be important in any era, about the need for reasoned, responsible, independent oversight of those who govern us.

    4 out of 5

    The Post is available on Amazon Prime Video UK from today.

    Drew: The Man Behind the Poster (2013)

    2017 #127
    Erik Sharkey | 97 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English

    Drew: The Man Behind the Poster

    If you don’t know the name Drew Struzan, there’s a fair chance you know his work: he’s the poster artist behind the likes of the Back to the Future trilogy, almost everything Indiana Jones related, many iconic Star Wars posters (including the primary art for the prequel trilogy), and so many more. Even when not painted by Drew himself, his style has been a major influence on blockbuster posters across the board, even in today’s era of Photoshopped collages. Nonetheless, you may wonder if the topic can really support a feature-length documentary. How much is there to say? Turns out, plenty.

    It starts out, as the title might suggest, in the form of a biography — rather than just looking at Struzan’s famous posters, it talks about his days as a struggling artist; literally starving, choosing to spend his limited money on paint rather than food. Once it reaches his move into film posters it goes more topically, covering a series at a time. He started on B-movies, which led to doing a poster for Star Wars’ 1978 re-release, which led to Indiana Jones, which was his big breakthrough: his poster for Temple of Doom established him as the Indy artist, and he went on to do video covers, book covers, and the rest.

    Painting Menace

    Despite the biographical start, the film is really an appreciation, if that were a genre, but a well-deserved one. There are stories about how the posters were commissioned, or designed, or painted, or whatever, but also about their impact, effect, and significance, and what it’s like for filmmakers to work with Struzan. In that regard the list of interviewees is impressive, including the likes of Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Frank Darabont, Guillermo del Toro, and more. Their presence speaks not only to the awe-inspiring people Struzan has done posters for, but also how much they admire him. As Spielberg says, he was trying to make a movie that would live up to the art they’d later commission from Drew.

    Movie posters are just advertisements, really; certainly in the minds of executives — I mean, why else are the Marvel ones overloaded with every possible character and location featured in the movie? But to the public they’re more than that. Michael J. Fox makes the point very well right at the start of this film: the poster is the first part of the story; it’s where the film begins for the audience. There’s definite truth to that — the ad creates an expectation, and the resultant film has to match it. With Struzan’s work, the bar was never set higher.

    4 out of 5

    Fandango (1985)

    2017 #22
    Kevin Reynolds | 91 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 15 / PG

    Fandango

    In this coming-of-age comedy drama, pitched as “celebrating the privilege of youth”, a group of college buddies — two of whom are about to be drafted into Vietnam — go on a final road trip to celebrate their graduation and defer the impending seriousness of adulthood.

    Fandango began life as a student short made by writer-director Kevin Reynolds that just featured the skydiving sequence. That was seen by, of all people, Steven Spielberg, who liked it enough that he gave Reynolds the money to develop a feature film around the idea. But when he saw the finished result, Spielberg distanced himself from it — he even had his name taken off the credits. No idea why — it’s a super movie. If we’re being picky then its structure is a little episodic, but the scrapes the gang get into are linked by arcs that chart their characters’ development, which is where the film has it’s heart. It’s also resplendent with nice little touches, like well-composed shots (for a first timer, Reynolds clearly knew what he was doing), poignant character moments, and some occasionally profound dialogue, too. A sequence that sees the guys fighting with fireworks in a graveyard, foreshadowing the war several of them are about to head off to, is a particular standout.

    Boys will be boys

    Kevin Costner, tearing through Texas as a free-spirited college flunk-out wearing one-armed sunglasses, an increasingly grubby tailcoat, and a shit-eating grin, has never seemed cooler. That almost masks the fact that it’s also a very good performance, actually. It might’ve been forgotten under some of the blockbusters he did, and some of the crap in more recent years, but the guy can act. The lead cast surrounding him is equally as likeable — it genuinely feels like hanging out with a ragtag gang of college mates on their last hurrah. The final act stretches credibility pretty darn thin with what those guys are able to pull off, but it’s nonetheless a suitably emotive finale.

    I’d never even heard of Fandango until the ghost of 82 recommended it to me last year, which is possibly the end result of Spielberg having disowned it. The history of cinema is no doubt littered with these little gems that, for whatever reason, only resonated with some people at the time. One of the real benefits of the blogging era is that we can recommend them on.

    4 out of 5

    Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)

    2017 #129
    Joe Dante, John Landis, George Miller & Steven Spielberg | 97 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 12 / PG

    Twilight Zone: The Movie

    I can’t remember when I first heard of Twilight Zone: The Movie — certainly not until sometime this millennium — but I do remember being surprised I hadn’t heard of it before. Why wasn’t it more often talked about? After all, here’s a film based on a classic TV series, directed by some of the hottest genre filmmakers of the time: John Landis just after An American Werewolf in London; Joe Dante just before Gremlins; George Miller fresh from Mad Max 2; and, most of all, Steven Spielberg, coming off a run that encompassed Jaws, Close Encounters, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T. I mean, Jesus, even if the movie wasn’t great then surely it should be well-known! It was only later still that I learnt about the infamous helicopter crash. Couple that with a mediocre critical reception and relatively poor box office results, and suddenly it’s no wonder no one ever talked about the film. My viewing of it was primarily motivated by attempting to complete the filmographies of Spielberg and Miller, but I’m glad I did because, on the whole, I rather enjoyed it.

    As the original Twilight Zone was an anthology series, so is the movie — hence having four directors. Although the original plan was to have some characters crop up in each segment, thereby linking them all together, that idea didn’t come off. The end result, then, is really just five sci-fi/fantasy/horror short films stuck together — composer Jerry Goldsmith is the only key crew member to work across more than two segments. The advantage of that as a viewer is, if you don’t like one story, there’ll be another along before you know it. Because of that, I’ll take each part in turn.

    The Trump Zone

    The film begins with a prologue, directed by John Landis, featuring Albert Brooks and Dan Aykroyd as a driver and a hitchhiker chatting about classic TV and scary stories. Although obviously the shortest segment, it’s good fun and sets a kind of comic tone — not one the rest of the film follows, to be fair, but it’s kind of effective in that it has a knowing wink to the audience: “we all know The Twilight Zone is a TV show. Now, here are four stories from it.”

    Landis also directs the first full segment, Time Out, the only one of the four not adapted from an original TV episode. Basically, it’s about a Trump supporter. You might not have noticed that if watching before last year, for obvious reasons, but viewed now it’s kind of hard to miss. What’s depressing it that the point of the film is this guy’s views are outdated in 1983, and yet you have Trumpers spouting the same shit in 2017, three-and-a-half decades later. That aside, as a short moral parable it’s effective. It doesn’t have the ending that was scripted (thanks to the aforementioned tragedy), I think the conclusion it does have is actually more appropriate. It feels kind of wrong to take that view, because the only reason it was changed was that terrible accident. Obviously it wasn’t worth it just for this segment to have a better ending, but there it is.

    Scary kid? Check.

    Segment two, Kick the Can, is Spielberg’s, and anyone familiar with his oeuvre — and the criticism of it — will see that right away: it’s shot in nostalgic golden hues and contains positive, sentimental moral lessons. In fact, it’s so cloyingly sweet, it’s like a parody of Spielberg’s worst excesses. It was originally intended to be the last film in the movie, and you can see why: it would’ve formed a positive, upbeat finale to the picture. I’m not sure why they moved it — possibly because they felt it was the least-good. That’s what a fair few critics believe, anyway.

    Personally, segment three was my least favourite. This is Joe Dante’s short, titled It’s a Good Life, and is about a woman who accidentally knocks a boy off his bike, gives him a lift home, and finds a pretty strange situation therein. I found it to be kind of aimless; weird for the sake of weird. It’s prettily designed and shot, with bold cartoon colours, but if I watched the film again I’d give serious thought to just skipping it.

    The final segment remakes arguably the most famous Twilight Zone episode: Nightmare at 20,000 Feet. It’s about a paranoid airplane passenger on a turbulent flight, who thinks he sees a monster on the wing. Naturally, no one believes him. I’ve not seen the original version so can’t compare, but director George Miller and star John Lithgow do a fantastic job of realising Richard Matheson’s story, loading it with tension and uncertainty — is it actually all in the passenger’s head? And if it isn’t, can they survive?

    Fear of flying

    On the whole, I liked Twilight Zone: The Movie more than I’d expected I would. Nonetheless, as a series of shorts, it’s destined to be a footnote in the career of all involved (even Landis has done a fair job of moving on from the controversy — as I said, I hadn’t even heard about it until relatively recently). The only truly great segment is Miller’s finale, but the others all have elements that make them worth a look.

    4 out of 5

    Jaws (1975)

    The 100 Films Guide to…

    See it before you go swimming.

    Country: USA
    Language: English
    Runtime: 124 minutes
    BBFC: A (1975) | PG (1987) | 12A (2012)
    MPAA: PG

    Original Release: 20th June 1975 (USA)
    UK Release: 26th December 1975
    Budget: $7-12 million (sources vary)
    Worldwide Gross: $470.6 million

    Stars
    Roy Scheider (The French Connection, All That Jazz)
    Robert Shaw (From Russia with Love, The Sting)
    Richard Dreyfuss (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Poseidon)
    Lorraine Gary (Jaws 2, 1941)

    Director
    Steven Spielberg (The Sugarland Express, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial)

    Screenwriters
    Peter Benchley (The Deep, The Island)
    Carl Gottlieb (Jaws 2, The Jerk)

    Based on
    Jaws, a novel by Peter Benchley.


    The Story
    As the seaside resort of Amity Island prepares for the lucrative 4th of July weekend, a series of violent shark attacks threaten the lives of residents and holidaymakers alike.

    Our Heroes
    Police chief Martin Brody is the one lumped with having to work out how to stop a man-eating shark, battling both small-town politics as well as the underwater predator. Eventually he’s aided by Matt Hooper, a young shark expert, and Quint, a salty old shark hunter.

    Our Villain
    A 25ft great white shark, with a taste for human flesh.

    Best Supporting Character
    Amity’s Mayor just wants what’s best for his town and its people — which, in this case, is having the beaches open for July 4th, whether people might get eaten or not.

    Memorable Quote
    “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” — Brody

    Memorable Scene
    A group of young people sit on the beach at night drinking. The eyes of a boy and girl meet. They race off towards the sea, stripping as they go. She gets into the water first, while he’s too drunk to get his clothes off. She messes around in the ocean while he passes out on the sand. Then, she notices something underneath the water — something that grabs her — and… well, it doesn’t end well.

    Memorable Music
    John Williams’ famous, simple main theme is the definitive musical interpretation of approaching terror. When Spielberg first heard it, he thought it was a joke. Later, he said it was half of what made the film so successful.

    Making of
    Three mechanical sharks were built for the film, but no one thought to test them in water before taking them on location. They kept malfunctioning, causing a constant headache throughout production — because of them and other issues of shooting at sea, the film’s 55-day schedule ended up taking 159 days, and the $3.5 million budget ballooned to as much as $12 million. On the bright side, Spielberg had to work out how to shoot material around the unavailability of the sharks, which led to him taking a Hitchcockian approach of showing the ‘monster’ as little as possible, which was ultimately a benefit to the film’s effectiveness.

    Next time…
    Jaws was the highest grossing film of all time, so naturally there were a series of cash-grab sequels. As far as I was aware they were universally condemned, so I’d never paid them any heed, but I recently read a review that made me think I should give them a go. It said Jaws 2 wasn’t actually all that bad, Jaws 3-D was trashy fun, and Jaws: The Revenge… well, in for a penny, in for a pound, I guess. Incidentally, the last one is the film of which star Michael Caine famously said, “I have never seen it, but by all accounts it is terrible. However, I have seen the house that it built, and it is terrific.”

    Awards
    3 Oscars (Editing, Sound, Original Dramatic Score)
    1 Oscar nomination (Picture)
    1 BAFTA (Music (also for The Towering Inferno))
    6 BAFTA nominations (Film, Director, Actor (Richard Dreyfuss), Screenplay, Editing, Sound)
    1 Grammy (Original Score Written for a Motion Picture or Television Special)

    Verdict

    It’s easy to start discussing Jaws in terms of it being the first summer blockbuster, or its troubled production, or the effect it had on audiences’ desire to go swimming. But divorced from all that, as a film in its own right, it’s a thrilling adventure movie — a man vs. a shark, when it comes down to it. It’s so packed with memorable shots and moments — be they horrific shark attacks, improvised one-liners, or precisely calibrated jump scares — that it’s no wonder it made Spielberg’s name. Personally, I feel the pace flags a bit once the three men get on a boat and go shark hunting, which slightly holds me back from completely loving it. Quibbles aside, it’s still a classic of suspense.

    The BFG (2016)

    2017 #51
    Steven Spielberg | 117 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | USA & India / English | PG / PG

    The BFG

    The writer/director team behind E.T. reunite for another tale of a young kid befriending a strangely-proportioned otherworldly creature who can’t quite speak English properly and has an acronym for a name. This one, of course, is adapted from Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s book, here rendered into live-action — or, for a large part, realistic computer animation — by director Steven Spielberg.

    If you don’t know the story, it concerns insomniac orphan Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), who one night spots a 24ft giant outside her window. Wary of her informing the rest of the world of his existence, he snatches her up and carries her off to giant land. Despite Sophie’s fears, he doesn’t eat her, because he’s actually the Big Friendly Giant (Mark Rylance, motion captured) — but his fellow giants are a different story. Led by Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement, also motion captured), they bully the comparatively tiny BFG and are a constant threat to Sophie’s life, so she concocts a plan, which involves a trip to see the Queen (Penelope Wilton).

    For all its CGI — and, in creating a fantastical other-world adjacent to our own, there is a lot — much about The BFG feels pleasantly traditional, almost like a throwback to kids’ movies of a couple of decades past. This is partly the re-teaming of Spielberg and screenwriter Melissa Mathison, I suppose, but perhaps also the decision to retain the novel’s original 1982 setting. Not that you’d know it for most of the running time, until the Queen makes some telephone calls to “Nancy and Ronnie” (Reagan) and “Boris” (presumably Yeltsin, though that means someone’s got their eras mixed up); references that, coming quite near the end of the film, made me pause in the realisation that it wasn’t just set today (the reference to Boris made me assume the Queen was phoning our foreign secretary).

    Window dressing

    More than dated references, though, the throwback feel is thanks to the pace. I’d hesitate to call The BFG slow, but it’s certainly gentle for a good long while. I don’t think it needs to be a fast-paced thrill-ride, but a little extra speed early on, bringing the luxuriant two-hour running time down closer to the 90-minute mark, might’ve been beneficial. There’s certainly magic and wonder to be found throughout, which are very important aspects of a story like this, but I do wonder if kids might get a bit fidgety nonetheless, which would destroy the effect.

    There is a lot to admire, however. The production design is superb, the giants’ environment full of stuff pilfered from the human world and re-appropriated into useful things — a ship for a (water)bed, for example, or a road sign for a tray; in one sequence, cars and trucks become roller skates. It’s all realised with startling detailed CGI. Okay, you’re not going to mistake the giants for upsized real humans (which kinda makes me long for a Hook-era version of the film, when they would’ve done it all for real with optical effects), but look at the small details — the texture of the giants’ skin, for example — and it looks phenomenal.

    More importantly, the acting is pitched perfectly. Clement and his cohorts manage to be both menacing and comical by turns, Wilton brings easy class to the Queen, and Rafe Spall has an amusing little supporting role as a palace footman. However, Rebecca Hall is utterly wasted in a strangely nothing-y part as the Queen’s assistant — I can only presume this was either one of those “I love the book so will take any role” situations or one of those “my part was mostly cut” situations.

    Big star, little star

    But the real stars are the two leads. Ruby Barnhill was the result of a months-long search for the perfect Sophie and it was worth the effort. Called upon to be confident, scared, awed, and ingenious, Barnhill’s performance is precisely calibrated — “subtle” would perhaps be overselling it, but she lacks the histrionics you get from weak child actors. She’s overall charming, which is important in engaging us in the relationship between her and the BFG. In the giant role, Mark Rylance is, of course, sublime. He may have been recreated in the computer, but all of his personality shines through, his expressions and mannerisms both believable and familiar if you’ve seen him in his corporeal form. It’s one of the best-yet advocacies of so-called “performance capture” (where the actor’s whole performance is captured by those grey jumpsuits with little dots on, as opposed to just “motion capture” where it’s only their physical moves being digitised and supplemented by animators — both are the same process really, it’s just someone coined a different term to indicate when more of the actor’s own work is retained).

    Considering the level of challenge The BFG clearly presented to Spielberg (in the special features he talks about how at times he was unsure how to make the movie, with all the tough requirements of different scales, etc; he and his team actually spent a whole summer making the movie in previsualisation before they did it for real the year after), it’s something of a shame that it’s destined to be regarded as a minor work in his canon. I’m not going to argue it deserves a greater status among his venerable output, but it would be a shame for it to go ignored because of that.

    4 out of 5

    The BFG is available on Amazon Prime Video UK as of this week.

    100 Films @ 10: Most Represented Directors

    It’s 100 Films’ 10th birthday at the end of the month. To mark the occasion, I thought in the run-up to it I’d publish some lists based on the last ten years of my blog, because who doesn’t love a list?

    How many lists have I got? Why, 100 of course!

    …haha, no — that would be ridiculous. There are ten — one for each year of 100 Films. And each one has ten items on it. Ten times ten is… why, it’s 100! What a coincidence.

    For the first list, I’ve put opinion aside for pure facts: these are the ten directors who’ve been most-reviewed on this blog. That excludes films only featured in my 100 Favourites series — this is just their work that has been covered as part of my ‘main’ blog.

    It may be worth noting that, because it’s purely based on statistics, this isn’t a list of my ten favourite directors… though as they’re ones I keep watching movies by, I guess it’d be a fair starting point.

    10
    Christopher Nolan

    Christopher Nolan has made nine feature films, and seven of them are reviewed here. Throw in an extra one for the IMAX version of The Dark Knight and his short documentary, Quay, and he edges ahead of runners-up John Carpenter, Ernst Lubitsch, George Miller, and Billy Wilder.

    9
    Tim Burton

    The next four directors are technically tied, but I’ve found a way to differentiate them. First: the Burtonesque Tim Burton, whose eight entries can be split into six main-list films and two reviews of things I’d already seen (Batman and Batman Returns).

    8
    Ridley Scott

    Next, the man we can probably thank for all the Director’s Cuts we get these days, the more classical of the two Scott brothers, Sir Ridley Scott. He also has eight, of course, which factors in six main-list films, one alternate cut that I nonetheless counted on my main list (Blade Runner: The Final Cut), and one non-main-list film (Alien: The Director’s Cut).

    7
    Zack Snyder

    Our third eight-film filmmaker is everyone’s favourite “visionary” director of superhero movies (right?), Zack Snyder. All eight of his films were on the main list, though two of them were alternate versions (the extended cuts of Batman v Superman and Watchmen).

    6
    Clint Eastwood

    Simple and straight-up, much like the man himself, Clint Eastwood has a pure eight films.

    5
    Steven Soderbergh

    The top five heads into double figures, with ten films for one-time enfant terrible and now retiree Steven Soderbergh.

    4
    Martin Scorsese

    Perpetual awards season snubee, Martin Scorsese also has ten feature films, but edges ahead thanks to his part in anthology film New York Stories.

    =2
    Roy William Neill / Steven Spielberg

    Unlike other directors on this list, there’s no reasonable way to differentiate this pair. You may not know the name Roy William Neill, but he helmed eleven of the fourteen Sherlock Holmes films starring Basil Rathbone, and those four years of work have landed him near the top of this list. Conversely, Steven Spielberg is probably the most famous film director working today, if not ever, and his eleven films span 44 years, stretching from his first (1971’s Duel) to his most recent Oscar nominee (2015’s Bridge of Spies).

    1
    David Fincher

    Topping the list is my go-to pick for favourite director, David Fincher. He’s helmed ten movies, but I’ve reviewed twelve — that’s eleven main-list features (including the Assembly Cut of Alien³) and one extra for the marginally-extended director’s cut of Zodiac.

    Tomorrow: when directors re-cut.

    Schindler’s List (1993)

    100 Films’ 100 Favourites #80

    “Whoever saves one life,
    saves the world entire.”

    Country: USA
    Language: English, Hebrew, German & Polish
    Runtime: 195 minutes
    BBFC: 15
    MPAA: R

    Original Release: 15th December 1993 (USA)
    UK Release: 18th February 1994
    First Seen: VHS, c.2001

    Stars
    Liam Neeson (Darkman, Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace)
    Ben Kingsley (Gandhi, Iron Man 3)
    Ralph Fiennes (The English Patient, The Grand Budapest Hotel)

    Director
    Steven Spielberg (Amistad, Lincoln)

    Screenwriter
    Steven Zaillian (Awakenings, Moneyball)

    Based on
    Schindler’s Ark, a Booker Prize-winning novel (released in America as Schindler’s List) by Thomas Keneally.

    The Story
    In occupied Poland in the early days of World War 2, German businessman Oskar Schindler opens a factory supplying the German military, staffed by Jewish workers. As the Nazis begin to close the ghettos and ship Jews to concentration camps, Schindler uses his connections and profits to surreptitiously save as many as he can.

    Our Hero
    Oskar Schindler is a self-interested businessman, womaniser, and member of the Nazi Party. Initially employing Jews merely for financial reasons (they’re cheaper than Polish workers), his innate humanity begins to come to the fore.

    Our Villain
    Nazis! But in particular Amon Goeth, the sadistic commander of the Paszów labour camp, who’s fond of executing Jews at random, amongst other horrors. Nonetheless, Schindler has to deal with him to ensure the (relative) safety of his workforce.

    Best Supporting Character
    Schindler’s contact on the local Jewish Council, Itzhak Stern, who becomes essential to making his business a success, and facilitating his operation to save the workers.

    Memorable Quote
    “I could have got more out. I could have got more. I don’t know. If I’d just… I could have got more.” — Oskar Schindler

    Memorable Scene
    During the destruction of the ghetto, Schindler sees a little girl in a red coat (the one splash of colour in the body of the film), wandering alone through the devastation. Later, as the Nazis burn piles of the dead, corpses are ferried to the pyres on small wagons. On one, Schindler sees a small body in a red coat… (There’s a good piece on the psychology of why these scenes are so effective here.)

    Technical Wizardry
    Spielberg chose to shoot in black-and-white to match actual documentary footage of the era, which was how he ‘saw’ the events. It was also shot without storyboards, Steadicams, cranes, or zoom lenses, and about 40% was filmed using handheld cameras, to emphasise a documentary feel. For a similar level of realism, Spielberg originally intended to make the film entirely in German and Polish with English subtitles, but changed his mind because he thought he wouldn’t be able to accurately direct performances in foreign languages.

    Making of
    Acting as producer, Spielberg initially tried to attract another director because he felt he wasn’t capable of doing the story justice. Martin Scorsese turned it down because he felt it should be done by a Jewish director, and Roman Polanski rejected it because it was too personal (he lived in the Krakow ghetto, only escaping on the day of its liquidation, and his mother died at Auschwitz). Finally, there was Billy Wilder — depending which version you believe, he either wanted to direct but Spielberg was already prepping the shoot, or he actually convinced Spielberg to direct it. Ultimately, Spielberg waited ten years between acquiring the rights and making the film, when he finally felt capable of tackling it.

    Awards
    7 Oscars (Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing, Score, Art Direction-Set Decoration)
    5 Oscar nominations (Actor (Liam Neeson), Supporting Actor (Ralph Fiennes), Costume Design, Sound, Makeup)
    7 BAFTAs (Film, Supporting Actor (Ralph Fiennes), Director, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing, Score)
    6 BAFTA nominations (Actor (Liam Neeson), Supporting Actor (Ben Kingsley), Costume Design, Make Up Artist, Production Design, Sound)

    What the Critics Said
    “If E.T. The Extraterrestrial is Steven Spielberg’s fantasy masterpiece, and Jurassic Park is his commercial masterpiece, then Schindler’s List is certainly his artistic masterpiece. It’s an extraordinary work of vision and passion that raises even the gifted Spielberg to a new level of artistry. And like all great works, it elevates everyone who views it.” — Dennis King, Tulsa World

    Score: 96%

    What the Public Say
    “It’s very, very hard-going and not an easy film to watch, but its importance is unparalleled. You sit there for three hours feeling uncomfortable – because these monstrosities really happened, because we live in a world where people are capable of these acts of inhumanity – and you still can’t even begin to imagine what it must have really been like, to live through that, to see your family and friends shot dead in the street or transported away en masse to the gas chambers. And yet, despite all that, you end the film feeling inspired. Someone made a difference.” — Millicent Murdoch, Millie’s Movie Reviews

    Verdict

    Schindler’s List wasn’t Spielberg’s first ‘serious’ film, but I think it shows a marked increase in quality over his good-but-flawed previous efforts, The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun. Liam Neeson gives a commanding performance as the imperfect hero, while Ralph Fiennes finds what little humanity there is in Goeth (and there isn’t much) to pull him short of being an Evil Nazi caricature. The stark black-and-white cinematography acknowledges the incomprehensibly horrific events, while Spielberg’s divisive penchant for sentimentality seems well-matched to the tale, offering a measure of hope from humanity’s darkest days.

    What’s in #81? What’s in #81?