The Past Month on TV #33

There’s much to see in this month’s packed overview, including a pair of BBC miniseries (as promised last month), a couple of comedies, the camp joy of Eurovision, and the return of Westworld. Plus, a word about the bloodbath that was the recent US renewal/cancellation season.

The City and the City
The City and the CityThe first screen adaptation of a novel by acclaimed British sci-fi/fantasy author China Miéville, The City & the City is a police procedural set in the unique location of twin cities Besźel and Ul Qoma, which occupy the same geographical space but inhabitants (and visitors) are forbidden from seeing the city they’re not in. When I first heard the pitch I assumed it was a Doctor Who-y sci-fi thing — that the cities were slightly out of step in time or something, and literally existed in the exact same space. Instead, they’re side by side, sometimes overlapping — there are places where the left-hand side of a road is in Besźel, the right-hand side in Ul Qoma. Residents are trained from birth not to see the other city. Apparently it’s partly an analogy for how we mentally block out unsavoury things in our own cities, but that doesn’t really come across in the screen adaptation, which is more focused on the murder mystery and its implications — it’s connected to a mythical third city, Orciny. In this respect it reminded me of Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49: our hero ends up investigating a very-secret, potentially dangerous organisation that may or may not exist, and whether or not they find it… well…

This production makes for a dense, demanding drama, throwing you in at the deep end with all sorts of terms and jargon that treats the world as real, challenging you to keep up and work it all out as it goes. There’s no hand-holding here. I guess that explains its low ratings on IMDb and the raft of “people were, like, totes confused by David Morrissey’s new drama!” articles that accompanied its airing. In terms of what it is “about”, the visual style very much evokes ’80s Soviet countries in Besźel, with secret police and dated, rundown cars and gloomy yellow-brown palette; while Ul Qoma is characterised by blues, glass and steel, LCD screens — a modern metropolis, but with different kinds of oppression. It’s very timely in its depiction of far-right nationalist groups being ascendent vs those seeking unification and tolerance being crushed — I wonder if that’s why it got made now, or if it’s just a fortunate coincidence.

Not everyone’s going to get on with The City and the City’s challenges, but there’s something here for those prepared to attempt the trip. Put it this way: after it finished, I popped on Amazon and ordered the book.

Ordeal by Innocence
Ordeal by InnocenceThe BBC’s latest Agatha Christie adaptation finally reached our screens after a delay for extensive reshoots (to remove a cast member accused of sexual misconduct, not on this production). It’s a grim tale of abuse and, of course, murder, but classy work by director Sandra Goldbacher kept it more in the tone of the Beeb’s excellent And Then There Were None and away from the dirge of their Witness for the Prosecution. It’s buoyed further by strong work from a star-studded ensemble cast — there are many names here who could (and, indeed, do) headline their own series or movie. (Nothing against Luke Treadaway, who’s very good, but why he’s in the key art (pictured right) when they could’ve included, say, Alice Eve, Eleanor Tomlinson, or Matthew Goode, I don’t know.)

I’m only really familiar with Christie from screen adaptations, but it seems to me her rep for writing fundamentally-lightweight game-like murder mysteries comes from her ‘series’ — the books starring Poirot, Miss Marple, and Tommy and Tuppence — because her other work seems to be serious and quite dark. Maybe that’s just the route these recent adaptations have gone down, I don’t know, but it certainly differentiates them from the jolly tone of the next-most-recent Christie adaptations (2015’s Partners in Crime and ITV’s Marple, which ended in 2013). Though they also adapted Ordeal by Innocence as an episode of Marple back in 2007, so what do I know?

Westworld  Season 2 Episodes 1-4
Westworld season 2Last month I wrote a mostly praise-filled review of Westworld’s first season, but if I’d been reviewing it in smaller chunks then my comments on the first four episodes would’ve been very, very different — I know, because after episode four I happened to draft a paragraph about how, while it wasn’t bad, it was kind of a slog (most of that paragraph survived into my published review, actually). I’ve been trying to bear that in mind as season two gets underway, because once again it exhibits flashes of greatness amid a feeling that it’s really going nowhere fast. But in season one this was the setup phase, introducing characters and places and concepts and threads that would begin to come together and pay dividends as their purpose was revealed in the season’s second half. Hopefully they’re playing a similar game here. Equally, I hope they haven’t overcooked it — Westworld became notorious for the it-was-under-your-nose-the-whole-time reveals it pulled in the final few episodes, and if they’re trying to do that again but without as good a set of ideas, well, we’re all just going to be disappointed.

Episodes  Season 5
Episodes season 5A whole seven months after its US airing (and nearly three years since we saw the last series), the final run of this UK-made UK/US-coproduced sitcom finally reached British screens (a far cry from the days when that took less than 24 hours). Originally about a pair of UK sitcom writers struggling to remake their successful British series for the US market, Episodes is fairly removed from that format at this point — it’s just about the characters now, and mainly their trials and tribulations with each other rather than the whims of the US network TV system.

I’m not sure that this was the funniest season, but at this point it seemed mainly concerned with wrapping up the lives of its characters, at least as far as we’re concerned (I mean, it didn’t kill them all off or something). So, unsurprisingly, the final season isn’t a great jumping-on point, as it mainly continues and resolves storylines and relationships hanging over from previous seasons. The final instalment even indulges in a series of time jumps to get us to an endpoint that is so predictable (but not unpleasant) that I reckon writers David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik probably had it planned from the outset. Whether all that time-hopping was economical storytelling or because they didn’t leave themselves enough episodes to let it play out in full, you be the judge. Anyway, Episodes at its best was almost sneakily great, and remains very good to the end.

Eurovision Song Contest  Lisbon 2018
Eurovision 2018There was drama to spare at this year’s Eurovision. Firstly, China were banned from showing it due to messing around with the semi-final broadcast (they censored tattoos, homosexual dancing, and Pride flags); then, on the big night itself, the jury voting was neck-and-neck right to the final country… before being completely upended when the public votes were added.

But most talked about of all was a stage invasion halfway through the UK’s performance. In case you didn’t see it, a protestor ran on stage, grabbed the mic off the singer, tried to blurt out a message of some kind, before being hustled off stage, and then our act carried on with the rest of the song. Everyone was duly impressed by her fortitude, the UK’s odds of winning surged… and then we did crap in the voting anyway, because the rest of Europe still hates us. They also hate Russia, as evidenced by the crowd once again booing the nation for merely appearing during the voting. Apparently they’ve no such problems with Israel, though — their song may’ve had a popular feminist message, but it was also mired in accusations of cultural appropriation, and then there’s the whole Palestine thing too. We’ll see how much handwringing there is about that this time next year…

Across it all was Graham Norton’s sassy commentary, which is the one benefit of being a UK Eurovision fan. Here are some of his best bits from this year — my favourite was #27.

Also watched…
  • Brooklyn Nine-Nine Season 3 Episodes 18-20 — First it was cancelled, and I thought, “well, at least being two seasons behind means I’ve got plenty of episodes left for now.” Then it was uncancelled, and I thought, “noice.”
  • Car Share Unscripted — A special all-improvised edition of the commuting-based sitcom, which proves that, if your characters are likeable enough, just hanging out with them for half-an-hour is all you need. Next month: the series finale.
  • Friday Night Dinner Series 5 Episode 1 — Another great sitcom! I’m a couple of episodes behind, though. I was reading the other day about someone who caught up by bingeing nine episodes in one go. I can believe that.
  • Lucifer Season 2 Episodes 11-18 — Well, at least being a season behind means I’ve got a fair few episodes left for now, but I’m still disappointed it’s been nixed.
  • Not Going Out Series 9 Episodes 5-7 — I still like Not Going Out, but I feel like it’s not as funny as it used to be, too often getting involved in over-complicated plots rather than just being the gag machine it once was. Maybe that’s rose-tinted glasses for earlier episodes; maybe Lee Mack’s struggling for ideas after nine whole series — who can say?

    Cancellation season
    Brooklyn Nine-Nine — the most important cop show. Ever.Cancellation season has been and, I think, gone in the US, and this year was a particularly bloody one. The big news as far as Twitter was concerned was Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which caused such a ruckus that multiple other networks were interested and it found a new home within 24 hours. Lucifer also caused a bit of a stir, though there’s no sign of hope for that yet. Similarly afflicted were Designated Survivor (which was decently addictive enough that I binged through season one in just ten days and have been holding back on season two to do the same; apparently Netflix, who have the rights outside of the US and Canada, are contemplating a continuation) and The Expanse (which I haven’t started yet but has been on my radar thanks to Ghost of 82’s review), as well as a couple of other moderately-high-profile shows that I don’t personally watch. I guess the networks must have some really good pilots in the offing for next season… or, more likely, not. Well, you never know.

    Next month… time to say do svidaniya to The Americans.

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  • The Past Month on TV #32

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Next month… straight on to Westworld season two.

  • The Verbose Monthly Update for March 2018

    As the year reaches its quarterway point, my eponymous goal has (not for the first time) passed the halfway point. That and other equally delightful observations from my March viewing now follow…


    #37 Sausage Party (2016)
    #38 Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (2016)
    #39 In & Out (1997)
    #40 The Jungle Book 3D (2016)
    #41 Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016)
    #42 Where the Wild Things Are (2009)
    #43 Happy Death Day (2017)
    #44 Death at a Funeral (2007)
    #45 Annihilation (2018)
    #46 Death at a Funeral (2010)
    #47 Transformers: The Last Knight 3D (2017)
    #48 The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984)
    #49 Black Narcissus (1947)
    #50 Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword (1964), aka Zatōichi abare tako
    #51 Hot Tub Time Machine (2010)
    #52 Victoria & Abdul (2017)
    #53 Benji (2018)
    #54 Cars 3 3D (2017)
    #55 It Comes at Night (2017)
    #56 The Hangover Part II (2011)
    #57 Rocky (1976)
    #57a The Silent Child (2017)
    Happy Death Day

    Annihilation

    Benji

    .


    • This month’s 21 new feature films see me sail past the halfway mark.
    • I viewed #50 on 22nd March, which is the second earliest I’ve reached that milestone (behind 2016, when it was on 6th March).
    • 21 is the same number of new films as last month, both of which are ahead of January, so it again raises the 2018 average, from exactly 18 to exactly 19.
    • It also surpasses the rolling average of the last 12 months, but it’s only a sliver higher than March 2017, which means it only increases the average from 15.1 to 15.2.
    • The 2018 Oscar winner for Best Live Action Short Film, The Silent Child, becomes the first short I’ve watched this year. (The previous low for number of shorts watched in a year was 2014, with just two, so I only need to watch a couple more in the next nine months to avoid that fate.)
    • This month’s Blindspot film: Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus, which I selected because it was on TV shortly afterwards and it’s always nice to a tie a review to something. But then I had conflicted feelings about the film, so no review yet while I continue to ponder it.
    • This month’s WDYMYHS film is the Best Picture Winner that inspired a nation, apparently: the original Rocky. Now, just six more of them to go…



    The 34th Monthly Arbitrary Awards

    Favourite Film of the Month
    There wasn’t a single 5-star film this month, but I do have a solid array of 4-star-ers to choose from for this award. Similarly, while there were a couple of very acclaimed features amongst my March viewing, I think the movie I most enjoyed was Groundhog Day-meets-Scream horror flick Happy Death Day, which I can’t help but feel has been somewhat underrated.

    Least Favourite Film of the Month
    There were also very few disasters this month. That said, I did finally get round to Where the Wild Things Are and was thoroughly disappointed. However, while that may’ve been the greatest gulf between my hopes and the reality, I’m still going to plump for the remake of Death at a Funeral in this category — I may’ve had low expectations, but it still didn’t meet them.

    Most Prolific Director of the Month
    I watched three films directed by Frank Oz this month — not deliberately, it was just one of those random coincidences. He’s only directed 12 films, so that’s a full quarter of them. They were: In & Out (which has been available to stream on Sky Cinema for years and goes on my “to watch” long-list every time I get a subscription; this year, it actually made it, on Oscars Sunday (if you’ve not seen the film, it was appropriate viewing for the occasion)); Death at a Funeral (for a while I’ve wanted to watch both this and its remake side by side, and one each was available on Netflix and Sky Cinema while I happened to have both services (a rare occurrence)); and, finally, The Muppets Take Manhattan (because I’m gradually making my way through all the Muppet movies (this is the third)). Review spoiler: I gave them all 3 stars.

    Most Number of Film Series I’ve Been in the Middle of Watching at Once (Probably)
    While I was watching Rocky towards the end of the month, I realised that technically meant I’d embarked on watching the Rocky series; and that made me realise how many film series I’m in the middle of right now. Not counting ones that we’re all in the middle of while we await further instalments to be released, but including rewatches as well as first-time viewings, I reckon I’m currently partway through fourteen different series (“series” being anything that’s a trilogy or greater). Those include, in alphabetical order: the Back to the Future trilogy, Die Hard, the Disney canon, the Hangover trilogy, James Bond, Jaws, the Man With No Name trilogy, Mission: Impossible, the Muppets, Rocky, Shrek, Terminator (though I only really intend to follow up December’s viewing of The Terminator with T2 in 3D and then stop, so maybe it shouldn’t count), Twilight, and Zatoichi. Phew! (And I still feel like I’ve forgotten something…)

    The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
    For much of the month my review of much-discussed Netflix “original” Annihilation was in pole position here, but in the last week it’s been pipped by my monthly TV column — the first time that’s bagged the award this year, but (based on last year) surely not the last.



    After last month’s larger-than-average selection, this one is half as big… but that still leaves me slightly ahead of target.

    #11 Bad Boys (1995)
    #12 The Jungle Book (2016)
    #13 Bad Boys II (2003)

    Like The Love Punch last month, The Jungle Book earns a speedy rewatch by being all-round family entertainment (and by being freshly added to Netflix the day we watched it, too). Similarly facilitated by a streaming service, I’ve been intending to rewatch and reassess the Bad Boyses for a while, and the opportunity presented itself while I had Sky Cinema to watch the Oscars.

    Next month, hopefully I’ll get back to my Shrek and Mission: Impossible series rewatches. Plus, perhaps a Marvel or two before Infinity War arrives.


    Marvel Cinematic Universe: Episode XIX.

    The Past Month on TV #30

    So, this TV overview is a little later than normal — a full nine days, in fact — but I guess no one notices that but me, so let’s get on with the shows:

    Strike  Series 1
    Strike: The Cuckoo's CallingAdapted from the series of novels by Robert Galbraith — the mystery-writing pseudonym of one J.K. Rowling — you might’ve assumed this would’ve followed in the footsteps of the author’s other literary series and have Hollywood come a-knocking. Maybe they did, but TV is a more natural home for the material: it’s a decent low-key murder mystery with appealing lead characters, which is the sort of stuff that can generate TV ratings but doesn’t spell box office nowadays (well, unless it’s Murder on the Orient Express, with its $350 million worldwide gross, but that’s a different kettle of fish). While the general shape of the drama is familiar from, well, every other TV detective show, Rowling’s well-known interest in social issues regularly comes through — not least in its two main characters, one of whom is a war veteran living with the realities of an amputation, the other a talented woman finding equality in the workplace. I suppose that’s all very timely.

    The series’ biggest challenge is not whether it’s original or not (that’s clearly not a problem), but may be whether it can keep itself going long-term. Rowling isn’t the type to let other writers dream up new stories for her characters (the path that ends up fuelling most initially-book-based detective shows), but she’s not exactly pumping the novels out either: this first series adapted the initial two books; an adaptation of number three starts tomorrow; and… that’s all she’s published, for now (there are reportedly plans for ten more books). Will Strike end up with a Sherlock-esque production schedule? Or will it just quietly disappear when viewers and/or the cast lose interest after a couple more adaptations? Only time will tell…

    The Good Place  Season 2
    The Good Place season 2Having blown the doors off its own enjoyable premise with a clever twist at the end of season one, I was worried The Good Place had left itself with nowhere to go in the future. Fortunately, that isn’t the case. A cleverly-structured double-length opener burns through what I thought would be the entire second season’s plot, and then the second episode burns through even more ideas at a rate of knots. Where most sitcoms find an idea and milk it for all it’s worth (that’s the “situation” part, after all), The Good Place is restlessly inventive.

    That said, it does begin to settle into a new status quo, and at that point it goes off the boil a little. It’s still funny, but not so much as the first season was, and by standing relatively still it’s not as exciting. But then, a little over halfway through, it begins to tear it all apart again, and we’re off on a wild ride where you don’t quite know where things are going to end up — there are several episodes that most other shows would’ve been more than happy to make their finale, but The Good Place just keeps up the “and what happens after that?” barminess. But it does have to end eventually, of course. It doesn’t have a massive twist to rival the end of season one, but then trying to top that would be a fool’s errand. No, instead it sends the show spiralling off in a whole new direction. Superb.

    Absentia  Season 1 Episodes 1-6
    AbsentiaStana “Beckett from Castle” Katic stars in this mystery-thriller, an Amazon exclusive in the US and UK (and everywhere else there’s Amazon Video, I presume). She plays FBI agent Emily Byrne, who was declared dead in absentia after she disappeared while on the hunt for a serial killer. Six years later, she turns up alive, apparently having been held captive all that time — even though the main suspect was convicted of her murder and has been in prison. Events quickly take a turn where her former colleagues wonder if Emily was in on it too, meaning she has to go on the run to prove her innocence. Of course, none of those people ever stop to wonder what she’s actually been up to for six years (it’s not like the killings continued), or why she’d decide to fake her comeback now, or… all sorts of other things. A subplot with her kid — who was too young to remember her, and now has a new real mom because his dad remarried — has emotional potential, but goes a bit too swimmingly at first and then is soon abandoned in favour of shoot outs, and unearthed skeletons (both figuratively and literally), and all that mystery-thriller stuff. So this isn’t one to think about too much, in any respect, but it’s passably entertaining as a pulp thriller. I’m going to stick with it until the end, at least, but I kinda hope it doesn’t try to end on a cliffhanger — I’m not sure I want a whole other season (or two, or three, or more).

    The X Files  Season 11 Episode 1
    The X Files season 11The second season of The X Files since its revival only recently started airing in the UK, but we’ve caught up as far as episode three now. Well, the broadcasts have — I’ve only watched the first episode, and it was so goddamn terrible I’ve not had the heart to continue. (I will, I’ve just not mustered the motivation yet.) Said opener was My Struggle III, continuing the series’ never-ending mythology arc plot, which last season (two years ago now!) was covered in My Struggle I and My Struggle II. Well, at least the mythology episodes are clearly marked these days — there’s a My Struggle IV later in the season, for our sins.

    Anyway, the problems with My Struggle III are manifold, but the key one is that it’s confusing. Partly that’s because it plays heavily off what happened in Part 2 — which, as I say, was two years ago now — and partly because it all builds on the entire history of the series’ overarching storyline, which is long and complex and I haven’t even seen all of. (Someday I need to sit down and properly watch the entire show, all 218 episodes of it. Goodness knows when.) But even allowing for that, this was a bad hour of television — poorly made, with strange stylistic choices (what was with all that random voiceover from Mulder?) Ugh. But hey, I guess most of the season will be standalone monster-of-the-week episodes; and while that as a format has fallen out of favour in the past couple of decades (everybody loves serialisation now), I think it’s what The X Files has always done best.

    The Man from U.N.C.L.E.  Season 1 Episodes 1-4
    The Man from U.N.C.L.E. season 1I’ve had this knocking around waiting to be watched for yonks after I picked up the complete series DVD set on offer. (“For yonks” being “since 2015” in this case.) I remember seeing some episodes as a child and enjoying them, though I don’t remember any specifics. I guess they were from the show’s later, crazier, full-colour years, because these early black-and-white adventures don’t quite chime with that vague sense-memory of what the show should be. That said, although they start out almost serious (as ’60s spy-fi goes, anyway), by just a couple of episodes in there’s already a kookier side on display. Anyhow, I expect the best is yet to come.

    Murder on the Blackpool Express
    Murder on the Blackpool ExpressThis one-off feature-length comedy aired at the end of last year, presumably timed to tie-in with the theatrical release of Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express — as the spoofing poster highlights, of course. (Who thought I’d wind up referencing that film twice in a TV column nearly four months after it came out? I really ought to get on with reviewing it…) Truthfully, that poster is probably the best thing about this. There’s a large cast, all recognisable from a host of British sitcoms, but half of them go underused. Those that do have a part to play get material that’s fairly amusing, amid a plot that’s somewhere between predictable and too mad to be guessable. It was funny enough on balance, but it didn’t live up to its full potential.

    Also watched…
  • The Brokenwood Mysteries Series 3 Episode 1 — Murder with a Kiwi accent.
  • Castle Season 8 Episodes 16-22 — Murder with an American accent.
  • Death in Paradise Series 7 Episodes 3-7 — Murder with a Caribbean accent.
  • Vera Series 8 Episodes 2-4 — Murder with a Northumberland accent.

    Things to Catch Up On
    Altered CarbonThis month, I have mostly been missing Altered Carbon, Netflix’s cyberpunk murder mystery. Reviews looked to be mixed, so I haven’t actually decided whether to bother with it or not. Two series I will definitely (intend to) get round to, but I’m saving up to binge once they’re done, are: BBC Two’s starry political thriller Collateral (led by Carey Mulligan, John Simm, Billie Piper, and no doubt some actors who haven’t had significant roles in Doctor Who. FYI, it’s coming to other counties as a Netflix “Original” next month); and the latest run of Scottish detective drama Shetland (the last series of which was covered in the early days of this column).

    Next month… the MCU returns to Netflix in the unique shape of Jessica Jones.

  • The Past Month on TV #29

    After the bustle of Christmas TV, it’s been a quieter January on the box here at 100 Films Towers. Nonetheless, I did catch up with one of the best series of 2017 — possibly of all time…

    Blue Planet II
    Blue Planet IIDespite the massive hype, I missed this when it aired. I say “missed” — I always intend to watch these big natural history shows, then never get round to them. I confess, it was new tech that persuaded me: after I saw it was all available in UHD on iPlayer, I had to give that a go. And…

    Wow.

    That’s the only word for it, really. Well, it isn’t — “stunning” would be another one. Incredible. Wondrous. Mind-boggling. I’m talking about both the UHD photography and the series itself here. In the latter camp we can also add educational, and informative, and eye-opening, but those are kind of a given — it’s a BBC David Attenborough series, of course it nails that part. Attenborough’s script and delivery strikes the perfect balance between acknowledging the creatures’ intelligence and personalities without slipping into anthropomorphising them. But many of the creatures and places we’re shown are almost unbelievable. Never has that old chestnut “we know more about the surface of the Moon than the oceans” seemed more true. James Cameron is planning to explore the alien life in Pandora’s oceans in Avatar 2, but he’s going to have to go some way to imagine anything more alien than what’s to be found in our real depths. I wonder if he’s seen this? He should. Everyone should.

    If that wasn’t enough, the visuals are awe-inspiring. The vibrant colours of some of these creatures were incredible, unquestionably enhanced by the wider spectrum of HDR. The level of detail the extra resolution seems to afford made it all feel very real too — creatures like dolphins and sharks don’t show gaudy colours, but the texture and sheen of their bodies felt like you could reach out and touch it.

    I wish you could see this in HDR...Now, I didn’t do a comparison to the regular HD stream, so I can’t really say how much better the UHD made things, but I do have a few observations. Related to it looking “more real”, after viewing I saw a good resolution photo taken for the series of one creature (this chap) which didn’t seem to capture the texture of its body in the same way the episode did. That could be the added effect of motion vs a still photo, but it could also be the extra detail from 4K. And talking of comparing still images, when a UHD episode was selected it displayed the iPlayer menu in UHD/HDR too, so I was able to do a direct comparison of each episodes’ key image. In particular, the one pictured above (from episode five) really showed off the vibrancy of HDR.

    Finally, the making-of bits they have at the end of every episode looked more muted than the main show, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s because they were finished at HD rather than UHD. But that’s not to say those segments looked bad. So while I feel fairly sure the HDR image was better to at least some degree, I’m also certain that at least some of this marvellousness would come across in regular ol’ 1080p — quality does filter down with image resolution, and they’ve done such sterling work here.

    Anyway. Like everyone else, I can’t recommend Blue Planet II enough to anyone… but doubly so if you have a chance to see it in UHD with HDR.

    Little Women
    Little WomenAs I mentioned last time, I’ve never seen or read a previous version of Little Women, but apparently this new one was pretty faithful so I figure I’m all learned about it now. The biggest change appears to be in the ages of the four eponymous heroines: in this version they look to be about the same age, in their late teens or early 20s at the start, but in fact they should be 16, 15, 13 and 12. Quite different. A challenge for adapters, though, because the story covers a timespan of five or more years (by my reckoning). Other films have dodged this by casting two actresses in some roles, but this adaptation sought to avoid that. It has its cons (an early petulant act comes across very differently if done by a 12-year-old versus a c.17-year-old, I think), but it is what it is.

    Anyway, setting that point aside, it seems quite clear why the book has endured in popularity. (Or, if you prefer, books — in the US it’s one novel with a Part 1 and Part 2, but in the UK it’s separated as Little Women and Good Wives. This version adapts both.) There’s a certain tweeness and sweetness to it — it’s about four sisters who are poor but not that poor and all love each and do fun homely things and have romantic entanglements and so on and so forth — but it’s laced with enough seriousness and sadness (to say more would be spoilersome) to add a bit of welcome grit. Plus the big central romance doesn’t pan out how you might expect. Actually, it develops with a solid dose of realism that more romance-based storylines might benefit from.

    This particular adaptation shines with the typical high quality of a BBC drama, with a recognisable elder cast (Emily Watson, Dylan Baker, Michael Gambon, Angela Lansbury) being equalled by a quartet of newcomers and almost-newcomers as the girls — including Maya Hawke, who looks scarily like her mother, Uma Thurman. (Once you’ve seen it, you can’t unsee it. Seriously, it’s like they’ve used time travel to cast a young Uma Thurman.)

    Also watched…
  • Bright — Well, some people counted it as TV. Review here.
  • Death in Paradise Series 7 Episodes 1-2 — As sunny, breezy, and predictable as its island setting. Reliably lightweight and cheery viewing for dreary January.
  • The Great Christmas Bake Off — For a show just about people competitively baking that I watched in the middle of January, this was surprisingly heartwarming and Christmassy. (Not watched the New Years special yet because the trailer looked strangely disappointing.)
  • Not Going Out The True Meaning of Christmas — The plot may be predictable, but writer-star Lee Mack keeps the jokes coming thick and fast.

    Things to Catch Up On
    McMafiaThis month, I have mostly been missing the BBC’s pair of big, grim January dramas, McMafia and Hard Sun. They both seem to have received a very mixed reaction (not that I’ve been following too closely because, y’know, spoilers), but both have intriguing setups: the former a drama about the global business of the Russian mafia inspired by a non-fiction book; the latter a pre-apocalyptic sci-fi/crime thriller from the creator of Luther.

    Next month… no specific idea, to be honest. But I’ve got the latest seasons of The Crown and Peaky Blinders waiting to be binged, and plenty of Arrow and The Flash to catch up on.

  • 2017: The Full List

    2017 — the 11th year I’ve been doing this 100 films challenge, and the fifth consecutive year I’ve surpassed that goal. Below is the full list of new films I watched this year, all linked up to reviews and that. (“And that” being my “coming soon” page for the dozens of films I’ve not actually reviewed yet.)

    My “Full List” post is an annual tradition round these parts, of course, but this year it undergoes its biggest change of format since 2012, when I switched from listing my viewing in chronological (aka numerical) order to listing it alphabetically, and also added the “as it happened” section. This time, however, it’s an even bigger change — the biggest change to this annual tradition ever, in fact.

    I’ve got rid of the statistics.

    “What, completely?” No, of course not — as regular readers will know, they’re the best part of the year! (They’re my personal highlight, anyway.) Now they’ll be in their own post. Frankly, I don’t know why I haven’t separated them off sooner. Tradition, mainly. Anyway, I think they belong there. Expect that post tomorrow.

    In the meantime, there’s also a new addition to this post: TV reviews. As this was the first full year I’ve run my “Past Month on TV” column, and as there’s an ever-growing consensus to consider television on an equal footing with cinema as a narrative visual art form, and as that’s a position which I broadly agree with, it felt only right that I included my TV reviewing in this big ol’ list of reviews.

    So, time to crack on with things. As this post is just a long list of words and pictures, if you don’t fancy the scroll (or the swipe, if you’re on one of them newfangled touchy-screens) here are some handy links to jump to whichever bit might interest you:



    Below is a graphical representation of my 2017 viewing, month by month. Each of the images links to the relevant monthly update, which contain a numbered list of everything I watched this year. This is also the only place where I’ve listed the 52 films of my Rewatchathon. There’s other exciting stuff in there too, like my monthly Arbie awards.












    And now, the main event…


    Alternate Cuts
    Other Reviews
    Shorts
    Alien: Covenant

    Babe: Pig in the City

    Black Swan

    Candyman

    Death Note

    Don't Breathe

    The Driver

    Get Out

    Ghostbusters

    Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2

    Hidden Figures

    Jackie Brown

    Kubo and the Two Strings

    Logan

    Moana

    Moonlight

    New Tale of Zatoichi

    Robin Hood: Men in Tights

    Rurouni Kenshin

    Sing Street

    Star Wars: The Last Jedi

    That's Entertainment

    Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me

    War for the Planet of the Apes

    Your Name

    Mad Max: Fury Road - Black and Chrome

    The Terminator

    Hotel Chevalier

    .

    Across 16 ‘monthly’ columns I reviewed a significant amount of television this year, and so I thought I should include it in my wrap-up. But rather than just link to 16 posts each containing a grab-bag of programming, I thought it would be more useful to list every series I commented on and then link to the relevant post(s). That also shows up just how much TV I watch…


    Tomorrow (hopefully): analysing all of the above in exciting statistics!

    Soon: ranking all (well, some) of the above in my lists of the best and worst films I saw this year.

    My Top 5 Most-Read New Posts in 2017

    Last year I published a Top 5 of my most-read new posts in 2016, mainly to point out that I had no idea why the post that was #1 was #1. This year there’s no such oddness, but as I found it an interesting(-ish) exercise nonetheless, here we go again…

    This year, all five of my most-read posts are from my TV review column. I don’t know if the TV-reviewing blogosphere is just less saturated than the film one (I’d wager not) or if the fact I combine multiple series in each post has a massive impact on their popularity (more likely), but they’re what get the biggest numbers for new content.

    But this is a film blog (it’s in the title), so this year I’m doing two top fives: the genuine top 5 most-read new posts in 2017, which is also the top 5 most-read new TV-related posts, and then the top 5 most-read new film-related posts.

    Without further ado:

    The Top 5 Most-Read New Posts in 2017
    (aka The Top 5 Most-Read New TV-Related Posts in 2017)

    5) The Past Month on TV #21
    including Game of Thrones season 7 episodes 2-5, Top of the Lake: China Girl, Twin Peaks season 3 episodes 11-14, Line of Duty series 3 episodes 4-6, Peaky Blinders series 2, The Bletchley Circle series 1 and 2, The Musketeers series 3 episodes 1-3, Sherlock’s pilot, and Wallander series 4 episodes 2-3.

    4) The Past Month on TV #13
    including A Series of Unfortunate Events season 1, Sherlock series 4, Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, Peter Pan Goes Wrong, the Arrowverse crossover Invasion!, Elementary season 5 episodes 1-3, Outnumbered’s 2016 Christmas special, and the Vicious series finale.

    3) The Past Fortnight on TV #22
    including Marvel’s The Defenders season 1, Game of Thrones season 7 episodes 6-7, Twin Peaks season 3 episodes 15-16, Designated Survivor season 1, and Rick and Morty season 1 episode 1.

    2) The Past Month on TV #16
    including Doctor Who series 10 episode 1, Marvel’s Iron Fist season 1, The Flash / Supergirl crossover episode Duet, The Crown season 1, Line of Duty series 2, Twin Peaks season 2 episodes 1-9, 24: Legacy season 1 episodes 5-8, Broadchurch series 3 episodes 4-8, and Unforgotten series 1.

    1) The Past Month on TV #15
    including 24: Legacy season 1 episodes 1-4, Broadchurch series 3 episodes 1-3, the 89th Academy Awards, Luther series 4, Peaky Blinders series 1, Twin Peaks season 1, Death in Paradise series 6 episodes 7-8, Elementary season 5 episodes 10-13, and Let’s Sing and Dance for Comic Relief series 1 episodes 1-2.

    The Top 5 Most-Read New Film-Related Posts in 2017

    In 6th to 9th place were more TV posts. The following ranked 10th to =13th overall.

    =4) iBoy / Thor: Ragnarok
    Netflix original iBoy was released all the way back in January, so had 11 full months to rack up hits. Marvel’s latest adventure, Thor: Ragnarok, came out just over two months ago, but quickly surpassed iBoy… only for iBoy to close the gap again in a small last-minute resurgence, weirdly. They both have hundreds of hits too, so it’s a helluva coincidence they should wind up with exactly the same total.

    3) Logan
    The second (and last) superhero movie in this top five. Like everything in this list, my review was posted shortly after it hit cinemas — people love new releases.

    2) Dunkirk
    Christopher Nolan’s almost-arthouse WW2 IMAX-shot epic is, according to most, one of the best films of the year and a frontrunner in the imminent Oscars race. Whether that explains why it got so many hits back in July, I don’t know. It might explain why it got nearly ten times as many hits in December as it did in November, though.

    1) Alien: Covenant
    Ridley Scott’s second attempt at launching a new trilogy in the Alien universe met with a mixed reception across the board, but excelled in this category at least. It can’t’ve hurt that I posted my review a couple of days before it even came out in the US — if there’s one thing people love more than reviews of recent releases, it’s reviews of things that aren’t even out yet. It hasn’t experienced a recent increase in interest like Dunkirk either, with 70% of those hits acquired in the first two weeks after I posted it. It’s also already my fourth most-read film review of all time. Who’d’ve thunk it?

    One final observation…

    Looking back at my most-viewed posts in individual months, in 2015 Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone came top in ten months and Chamber of Secrets in the other two. Then in 2016 Philosopher’s Stone was my most-viewed post every single month. But in 2017 it’s been top just four times. Fair play, that’s still far more than any other individual post (TV #15 and TV #22 are joint second with two apiece), but it’s gone from being unassailable to being regularly bested. There were even three months — a whole quarter of the year — when it didn’t make the top five.

    The days of those two Harry Potter reviews accounting for an obscene proportion of visitors to this blog seem to be over… to be replaced by people looking for TV reviews. Funny old world.

    The Past Christmas on TV

    Ah, Christmas — it could be called “the season of TV” here in the UK. (Apparently Christmas Day telly is Not A Thing in most/all of the rest of the world. What do they do, actually interact with their family?! Madness.) Consequently, although it’s only two weeks since my last TV overview, my list of stuff watched that could go in this post included 26 different programmes. That’s all those one-off specials for you. From that long, long list, here are the ones I felt like writing about…

    Doctor Who  Twice Upon a Time
    Doctor Who: Twice Upon a TimeAnother year, another divisive Doctor Who Christmas special. It’s the third time that the Christmas Day spectacular has to serve double duty by writing out the programme’s lead actor, and it follows the format set out by David Tennant’s swan-song The End of Time and Matt Smith’s finale The Time of the Doctor by being a very inward-looking fan-focused edition. I’m not sure that’s the right tack to take on Christmas, quite frankly, when the show’s playing to a wider audience of more casual viewers than normal. Former showrunner Russell T Davies and immensely popular leading man Tennant had earnt that kind of indulgence by the time they exited, and the series was pretty much the biggest thing on British TV at the time, so most of those so-called “casual viewers” were actually regular watchers of the show anyway. I’m not convinced exiting showrunner Steven Moffat and departing Doctor Peter Capaldi are quite in the same position.

    Oh, but what does it matter? Capaldi’s been brilliant, and is brilliant here again. It was great to see Pearl Mackie back as the wonderful Bill, even if her return felt like a massive fudge about. How you felt about Clara’s cameo really depends on your opinion of Clara (I wasn’t surprised she cropped up; I also wasn’t bothered). David Bradley was absolutely spectacular as a recreation of the First Doctor, originally played by William Hartnell, who Bradley managed to evoke without doing a flat impression or a disrespectful re-envisioning. I’d love him to pop up again in the future, but that would make this a bit less special. The actual plot was a bit of nothing, though it led to a lovely conclusion on the battlefields of World War One — oh, and how good was Mark Gatiss in an almost thankless little role as a WW1 soldier? His reaction to the news that there would be a World War Two was heartbreakingly understated.

    And so, after Capaldi’s overwritten exit speech, we come to Jodie Whittaker’s debut as the Thirteenth Doctor. “Oh, brilliant,” was all she could say before she was kicked out of a crashing TARDIS — just as Tennant, Smith, and Capaldi all were immediately post-regeneration. We’ll have to wait until the autumn to get a proper handle on her interpretation of the role. Under the guidance of a new showrunner, Chris Chibnall, hopefully it’ll be worth the wait.

    The Miniaturist
    The MiniaturistThe BBC’s two-part adaptation of Jessie Burton’s 2014 bestseller promised to be a supernatural treat, though in that respect the trailers were somewhat misleading. Set in 17th century Amsterdam, it’s about a girl who marries a wealthy merchant, but finds his strict and secretive household is not all she’d hoped. He buys her a dolls house as a wedding gift and she commissions a miniaturist to produce items for it, but she soon starts to receive things she didn’t order — things which suggest the miniaturist somehow knows people’s secrets, and can possibly see the future… In actuality, The Miniaturist is more of a period drama, albeit one with lashings of Gothic that were right up my street. It was beautifully made, with a fantastic eye on the costumes and locations, and cinematography that evoked painting of the era. There were strong performances too, particularly from Anya Taylor-Joy (yes, her out of The VVitch and Split), once again brilliant as the initially delicate but increasingly confident lead, and Romola Garai as the merchant’s overbearing sister.

    There were some striking revelations and twists along the way (even if we guessed a few of them), but where the narrative really struggled was as it moved towards its conclusion. Weirdly divided into ‘halves’ running 90 and 60 minutes respectively (did they accidentally make it half-an-hour too long, or half-an-hour too short?), the second episode felt like it was merely playing out the obvious repercussions from the first episode’s cliffhangers and reveals. The answers about the titular character were particularly underwhelming. Thematically, there was something there about being the master of your own destiny, but if that’s what they wanted to convey then I didn’t think it was played out as effectively as it should’ve been. A real mixed bag, then: I loved the overall style and many individual elements, but a disappointing second half failed to stick the landing.

    A Christmas Carol Goes Wrong
    A Christmas Carol Goes Wrong
    A follow-up to last year’s magnificent Peter Pan Goes Wrong (see the “also watched” section), this sees the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society attempt to redeem themselves by gatecrashing the BBC’s new production of A Christmas Carol. Cue a parade of slapstick, farce, puns, tomfoolery, and general merriment. Last year’s production was adapted from an already successful stage show, while this is a brand-new production, which perhaps explains why it doesn’t feel as meticulously fine-tuned as Peter Pan. It’s still funny (though, as the Twitter reaction proved, this style of comedy isn’t to everyone’s taste), but it didn’t surpass last year’s instant Christmas classic.

    The League of Gentlemen  20th Anniversary Specials
    The League of Gentlemen“Oh God, I’d forgotten,” says one character early in the first instalment for almost 15 years of BBC Two’s pitch-black comedy series. He’s been confronted with some other returning characters, but I have to say that the sentiment kind of sums up my reaction to a lot of this revival, in two ways: firstly because I had to keep rummaging in my memory to make connections back to a series I haven’t watched for a decade and a half, and secondly because the hilarious grotesquery of the League came crashing back. Revivals of once-great comedies can be a mistake — they’re often little more than an exercise in nostalgia; and this one is certainly aimed at fans, as the vast majority of it continues or riffs off stuff from before — but, in spite of that, it still felt fresh and edgy, not like a gang of middle-aged men reliving past glories (the other thing that goes wrong with revivals). So it was all really rather good, and it’s gone down very well too. Officially it’s a 20th anniversary special rather than a fourth series, but might we see more? I think it would be welcomed.

    Comedy roundup
    300 Years of French and SaundersSo much comedy, so much of it a passable time-killer that I have little else to say about. The highlight was probably 300 Years of French and Saunders, an excellent celebration of the comedy double act, reminding us of many of their greatest hits alongside a few nice additions. It made me want a whole highlights series repeating all their many hilarious film spoofs. Shakespearean satire Upstart Crow offered a neat riff on one of the better-remembered storylines from modern Christmas classic Love Actually, which it executed with surprising subtly (or, at least, I had to point out the references to my fellow viewers, which was followed by half-an-hour of scouring through Richard Curtis’ film for the relevant scenes). I enjoyed the pilot for Tim Vine Travels Through Time back in September, so was delighted to see a Christmas special in the schedules. It’s good clean silly fun. The same can’t quite be said of Mrs. Brown’s Boys. I only ever watch it at Christmas if I’m around other people who are, but I always laugh more than I feel I should. Other than that, I also chuckled (to one degree or another) through festive editions of Gogglebox, Have I Got News For You, Live at the Apollo, Michael McIntyre’s Big Show, QI, and Travel Man, plus the annual Big Fat Quiz of the Year, one-off Miranda Does Christmas, and a Romesh Ranganathan standup special.

    Black Mirror  White Christmas
    Black Mirror: White ChristmasBlack Mirror series four was released last Friday, but I haven’t even watched series three yet. Well, I did only watch series two just before series three came out, so I guess I’m catching up at a set speed. One of the obstacles (kind of) was this, the show’s only Christmas special — you can’t watch a Christmassy Christmas special any time other than Christmas, can you? Of course, I could’ve watched it last Christmas, but shh. Originally airing at Christmas 2014 (so I’m only three years behind), the feature-length edition introduces us to a couple of blokes isolated somewhere on Christmas Day telling each other a trio of technology-inspired tales that (surprise!) turn out to be connected after all. It nails Black Mirror’s best-known qualities: future technology that’s incredibly plausible due to being just slightly more advanced than our own, the way it considers how such marvellous innovations would actually be used and affect us as human beings, and particularly how it might go horribly, horribly wrong. Merry Christmas!

    Also watched…
  • The Dresser — This adaptation of Ronald Harwood’s superb play, starring Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Anthony Hopkins, was actually on over two years ago, we just finally got round to watching it now. Should I have counted it as a film, perhaps?
  • The Galaxy Britain Built — The centrepiece of BBC Four’s Star Wars Night, a new documentary on the British designers and craftsmen who contributed so much to the look and feel of a galaxy far, far away — and continue to do so today, in fact. You’re welcome, geekdom.
  • The Highway Rat — I normally devote a bit more time to discussing these animated specials (previous ones include The Gruffalo, Room on the Broom, and Revolting Rhymes, all brilliant), but I was a bit underwhelmed by this year’s offering. The actual animation was as beautiful as ever, but the story and writing left something to be desired. Hey-ho.
  • Peter Pan Goes Wrong — Sadly this highlight of last Christmas wasn’t repeated this year, but my parents still had it recorded so I got to see it again. Last year’s review is here.
  • Snow Bears — This was an odd one. The BBC are normally so good at nature documentaries, yet this took a bunch of different bits of footage and mixed them up into a fictionalised narrative, and did it so obviously that they had to put a disclaimer at the start. Some cute stuff with bear cubs, mind.

    Things to Catch Up On
    Little WomenI may’ve watched 26 different programmes, but there’s still an awful lot I’ve missed. Like the BBC’s new three-part adaptation of Little Women — I’ve never read it or watched another version, so here’s my chance to get cultured. Less worthy but no less lovely, there’ve been a couple of Great British Bake Off specials featuring contestants from the BBC years even though it’s now on Channel 4. Gasp, indeed. And despite that long list up above, there’s still a handful of comedy specials I’ve got to catch up on, like Not Going Out, Would I Lie to You?, and even some not featuring Lee Mack. There’s bound to be something else I’ve forgotten — I’ll have to go through the Radio Times, again…

    Next month… New Year, new shows!

  • My Continuing Adventures in the Brave New World of 4K UHD, Part 37

    In my ongoing adventure of “trying to work out if 4K is any good or not”, I finally got round to doing a direct comparison: some scenes from The Punisher episode one, which I compared in 4K with Dolby Vision (through my TV’s Netflix app) to 1080p (through my Amazon Fire TV Stick).

    And holy moly if I didn’t really see the difference.

    In 4K, The Punisher’s got gritty, grainy visuals. In 1080p, that quality all but disappeared, just smudged away. And the colours… I watched in 4K first, and during a particularly dark scene I tried to note how distinguishable different colours and shades were in shadowy areas. I needn’t have bothered: in 1080p it was all just black. So, in conclusion, the difference in both areas (resolution and colour range) was, to be honest, considerably more pronounced than I was expecting.

    Dolby Vision

    Now, a few caveats. This conspicuous a change is undoubtedly due in part to how much bandwidth Netflix bothers to use, and therefore how much compression is being applied. It seems that for 4K they devote about three to four times more bandwidth than for 1080p (and even that’s about half what a Blu-ray goes at). This may not have affected the colours, but it likely explains why the 1080p stream lacked so much of the fine detail seen at 4K.

    Also, there’s always the potential that my TV’s settings were affecting things. HDR and Dolby Vision use a dedicated set of picture settings, which have to be setup separately from those used for regular playback. I’ve optimised both sets as best I can, but there’s always the possibility I did one better than the other. There’s also the fact that I was using different devices. Maybe the Fire TV Stick is just less good at streaming Netflix than my TV’s app? (If I could force the Netflix app to play in lower quality then I’d’ve done the entire comparison there for fairness, but I don’t think that’s possible.)

    Finally, to drag a different series into the debate, I also watched Stranger Things 2 in UHD with Dolby Vision. Most of the time it looked fine, but every once in a while the colours in a shot would look completely screwy — usually too blown out, like someone had whacked the brightness up to silly levels, sometimes erasing detail in the process. Now, what Dolby Vision does is adjust the picture settings on a shot-by-shot basis to optimise every individual moment (rather than just use a blanket setting for the whole movie, which is what standard HDR does). Presumably that’s why the picture went funny on individual shots rather than for whole scenes. I’m far from an expert on these things, but I believe part of how Dolby Vision does this is to do with metadata, and apparently metadata can just go missing. Perhaps this is what happened. On the other hand, I went back and checked some of the most egregious moments on a different day and they retained the same problem. Who knows what was going on, then, but it’s obviously less than ideal. (If the same thing happened during The Punisher, I didn’t notice it.)

    Stranger Things 2 HDR

    So, after all that, I’m still not 100% convinced about UHD and HDR… but I can’t deny there was a marked improvement when comparing The Punisher, particularly during very dark scenes. Heck, even if the difference is just a fluke of how I’ve set up my TV, it proves that paying for the 4K option on a Netflix subscription is worth it. But purchasing a 4K Blu-ray player, which I’d also need to be region free, along with the prospect of having to rebuy some films again… that’s a lotta dough.

    I should probably do a Netflix UHD to 1080p Blu-ray comparison, really. Next time…

    The Past Month on TV #27

    A slightly earlier than normal TV review this month, to get ahead of all the Christmas telly — but there’s still plenty to discuss…

    The Punisher  Season 1
    The PunisherThe fourth live-action iteration of Frank Castle, Marvel’s murderous anti-hero (and people moan about Spider-Man reboots), debuted in Daredevil season two and was greeted so positively that now he’s got his own spin-off series. And “spin-off” is not an inaccurate descriptor, because this very much launches out of the events of Frank’s storyline in Daredevil — which makes it all the more annoying that Netflix care not for “previously on”s: Daredevil season two was over 18 months ago; a little refresher would be nice.

    You see, the plot revisits the Punisher’s origins: his family were killed in the crossfire of a gang shoot-out, leading him to kill the criminals responsible. He thinks that mission is complete, but the season begins (more or less) with him discovering new intel that suggests his family’s murder may not have been so random, and it links back to his actions when he was in the military. This also serves as a launchpad for the series to tackle other war-related issues, primarily the psychological wellbeing of veterans. With such serious themes it’s perhaps no surprise that there’s very little here that’s outright comic-book-y here — no superpowers, for sure; not even veiled references to the big names of the MCU movies, which we’ve had in every other Marvel Netflix show. In fact, if it weren’t for the fact the series is so obviously spun out of Daredevil and has the Marvel logo at the start, you could be forgiven for thinking it wasn’t a Marvel show at all.

    Some people think this removes the Punisher’s USP. In and of himself he’s just a violent man out for revenge — action cinema is stuffed to bursting with such anti-heroes. What makes Frank unique is he’s that kind of character but in a world where super-powered and super-moral people exist. So would The Punisher have been more interesting if, instead of a very grounded military conspiracy storyline, it had something to do with Frank clashing with superpowered people? I don’t know. It certainly would’ve been a different show. As it stands, this may be a show for people who don’t typically like Marvel shows. So was Jessica Jones before it, but this is for different people who don’t like Marvel shows — people like Jason Statham, maybe.

    Jon BernthalIn the title role, Jon Bernthal is fantastic. You can absolutely believe him as a revenge-driven psychopath capable of killing anyone and everyone, but also as a kind-of-charming strong-but-silent type with a heart and moral code who will definitely do the right thing. I’ve seen some critics and viewers opine that now is the wrong time for a series about a hero who just murders indiscriminately. I say those people definitely haven’t watched this Punisher. Although the plot is a conspiracy thriller, the series invests a lot of time in the emotional world of Frank Castle, making him human and moral rather than just a single-minded murder-machine. Bernthal makes what could be a very one-note role into a plausible human being; one who you believe might be able to find redemption and leave someday. And maybe that makes him even more tragic — he could find it; it’s possible… but likely? There’s the rub. As it’s also trying to engage with issues facing combat veterans once they return home, it makes for a clearly different, more serious flavour for an MCU production. How successfully it explores these weighty issues is more debatable.

    Many of these Marvel shows take their whole first season to fully complete the hero’s origin story, but The Punisher is stuck with the fact that Castle already became The Punisher during his Daredevil appearance. So do they just ignore that story shape? No, of course they don’t — they shift it on to the villain! Therefore any comic book fan who knows what one character will ultimately become (no spoilers here!) is constantly teased with possibilities throughout the season until, eventually, as we should’ve known from the start, the transformation occurs in the finale. Why not really surprise us: do the transformation earlier and then wrap a character up within one season, rather than leaving them dangling for a possible next time? Comic books have to leave things dangling — they will all run for ever and ever; there can be no permanent solutions — but these TV series will end — whether it’s after a single season, or two, or five, or ten, they are without exception finite. That means you’re allowed to wrap a character up and move on to others.

    So, The Punisher is not an unmitigated success, but it does lend another flavour to the Marvel-Netflix landscape. I certainly hope we get to see more of Bernthal’s take on the character in the future.

    Detectorists  Series 3 Episodes 2-6
    Detectorists series 3The third and final series of BBC Four’s sitcom about a couple of mates whose hobby is metal detecting was every bit the equal of the first two runs, which saw the show place on my list of 10 Favourite TV Series of the Last 10 Years back in February. Its brilliance lies in how perfectly weighted it is: the characters are quirky, but also normal; their problems are grounded and realistic, without being glum and unduly serious; it’s frequently hilarious, but without slipping into gurning ‘Comedy’ territory; it’s kind and gentle, but without being dull; and it’s all very lovely and kind-hearted, without being twee or saccharine. It’s also beautifully put together by writer-director (and star) Mackenzie Crook — the storyline across the series was precisely constructed, and the photography is often a gorgeous showcase for the English countryside. A real gem that will be missed, though at least it came to a perfect conclusion.

    The Good Place  Season 1 Episodes 3-13
    The Good PlaceI only heard about this after its Big Twist was much-discussed online, so starting it was an exercise in knowing there was a big reveal awaiting. Fortunately, that knowledge doesn’t overshadow everything that comes before it. For those who still aren’t aware of it (especially as it’s only on Netflix on this side of the pond), it’s about a woman (Kristen Bell) who dies and goes to Heaven only due to an admin error, so she tries to better herself so that she’s deserving of her place. Other complications emerge as the season goes on, but that’s the premise. There’s a lot of plot for a sitcom — although it’s not necessarily immediately obvious, it tells a 13-episode story; this makes Netflix quite a natural home for it, actually, as it’s not your typical “every episode is fundamentally standalone” sitcom. But it’s also very funny in amongst all that, mining not only the characters and their foibles, but also the uncommon situation they’ve found themselves in. The shocker in the finale is just the icing on the cake. I hear season two has gone off the boil somewhat, but I’ll find out for myself once it’s all wrapped up.

    Also watched…
  • Armchair Detectives Series 1 Episode 1 — Game show in which contestants watch a murder mystery scene by scene and attempt to guess the perpetrator. It’s a fun idea (who doesn’t ‘play along’ while watching a whodunnit?), but it’s hampered by the dirt-cheap quality of the drama. That’s to be expected on a daytime game show budget, but still…
  • Bounty Hunters Series 1 Episodes 3-6 — If you saw the James Corden comedy-thriller The Wrong Mans, this is tonally very similar to that — not quite as elegantly done perhaps, but still pretty decent. If you like comedy-thrillers and haven’t seen The Wrong Mans, watch that first.
  • The Flash Season 4 Episodes 3-6 — After complaints about it getting too grim and self-serious, they’ve endeavoured to return The Flash to the lighter tone of its first season, in the process practically turning it into a comedy. I often find these CW superhero shows kinda laughable anyway, so, a little to my surprise, that’s working for me.
  • The Musketeers Series 3 Episodes 9-10 — Sad to (finally) reach the end of this fun action drama. The third series wasn’t quite on a par with the first two (the result of new showrunners, undoubtedly) but it still had its moments. It leaves a swashbuckling void in the schedules that I doubt anyone will bother to fill.
  • Would I Lie to You? Series 11 Episodes 1-4 — Is this the best panel show on TV? Could well be. Its genius lies in the elegant simplicity of its concept, a game anyone can play (and we can play along with at home), plus the sharp and quick wits of regulars Rob Brydon, David Mitchell, and Lee Mack. Almost a dozen series in and there’s no sign of the hilarity waning.

    Things to Catch Up On
    Blue Planet IIThis month, I have been missing so much stuff. There’s been the fourth series of Peaky Blinders on BBC Two (which concludes this week, so we’ll whizz through it sometime in the new year); the season season of The Crown on Netflix (also waiting for the new year now); the same streamer’s first ever miniseries, Godless; the immensely acclaimed Blue Planet II (now available in UHD on iPlayer, too!); and I’m behind on Arrow and The Flash so haven’t reached the four-show Arrowverse crossover. And those are just the ones I can remember right now.

    Next month… is January, but sometime before that I’ll likely review some Christmas TV.