The 2020 List: February

Hey, another month already. As usual, some good stuff (file Joker under that) and bad stuff (well, Nude Nuns with Big Guns, obviously). Weird month really- really quite bizarre. Even now I’m looking at the list and wondering what the hell was all that?

March looks interesting, though- Dr Sleep for one is a film I’ve been looking forward to, and Le Mans ’66 even more so. On the tv front we’ve got the return of Westworld and Altered Carbon and the grand finale of Star Trek: Picard (I’m REALLY curious about how they are going to wrap that thing up). And of course more Better Call Saul, possibly the best show on tv at the moment (if only those guys could work such magic on a genre show).

TV Shows:

13) Still Open All Hours: Season Six

21) Sex Education Season Two

25) The Thick Of It Season One

28) The Thick Of It Season Two

29) The Thick Of It Season Three


14) The Mercy

15) Pet Sematary (2019)

16) Phantom Thread

17) Fighting with My Family

18) Joker

19) Toy Story 4

20) Mr Jones

23) Nude Nuns with Big Guns

24) The Domestics

26) The Favourite

27) Fedora

30) UFO

Saving Picard

picard4…seems to be impossible, at this point. What on Earth is going on? I watched the sixth episode last night, so we are cruising into the final stretch now, theoretically building to the grand conclusion, but you wouldn’t know it on the strength of what went on this week- we seem to have been treading water, as far as any narrative goes, since the first episode. Little of any substance has really happened, we haven’t uncovered any further layers of the central mystery, characters have come and gone without moving anything forward. All the characters seem to be stepping around huge gaping plot-holes. One character killed another character in the med-bay at the end of episode five, something witnessed by the holographic doctor, but guess which character isn’t quizzed about the death- yep, the holographic doctor, who previously kept on popping up every time somebody got tense or nervous but who has conveniently been out of sight since the death. I mean, you are investigating a death in med-bay, you’re going to ask the med-computer or holo-doc, right? Its enough to make me yell at the screen, its so stupid: you just accept the word of the woman who was there, you don’t suspect she might be lying?  Coincidence piles upon coincidence: a character escapes prison by tunnelling through a floor, and although a Borg cube must have hundreds of levels, she literally emerges out of the ceiling on the level where Picard is standing, and handily there just happens to be a Borg Stargate (hey, franchise crossover!) nearby so they can make an escape to a planet light-years away. Curiously though while the Stargate is being activated,  another character on Picards spaceship transports into the room to assist Picard without anyone realising that if they can transport in, then surely they can transport out without relying on some magical Borg gizmo.

I think I’ve finally deduced whats fundamentally wrong with this show though- like Star Trek: Discovery (which was always more Star Wars than Trek, much like the JJ Abrams Star Trek reboots), this series seems to be written by writers who know very little, if anything, of Star Trek. Moreover, it is produced by people who don’t actually like Star Trek. Its incredible really, that a franchise such as this can be handed over to creative types who are possibly the most ill-suited for it. Its like the suits/money-men just think anyone can make a Star Trek series as long as its got ‘Star Trek’ slapped on the title, as if the title is enough and the actual content purely incidental.

Yet perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising. I will always contend that the recent Disney Star Wars films have been made by people who don’t understand Star Wars or its mythology/lore, and also the current Dr Who series on the BBC is being made by creatives hellbent on turning that series into an anti-Dr Who, saddling it with all sorts of political agendas in place of coherent storytelling or drama. Maybe my thoughts about the talent-pool being weakened by just too many genre shows/movies being made across too many platforms at present are just being proven right, but each episode of Picard  has been so bad, with such terrible dialogue and character decisions and leaps of logic and chance, that it feels like fan fiction. Worse than that, its  inferior fan fiction

Feeling the Leviathan’s Wake

leviI’ve recently finished Leviathan Wakes, the first of the nine-book series that forms The Expanse. Partly its to fill the empty expanse (see what I did there?) in my life as I wait for season five of the show to drop on Amazon (hopefully before the end of the year), and partly its to sate my curiosity about what the original books are like, compared to the series.

As it turns out, the series is very faithful to the books by the evidence of this first entry. Can’t imagine many original readers being annoyed by any changes. I must admit I was rather surprised at how much of a page-turning potboiler it turned out to be. The book lacked the slow start and world-building that the series featured, with some characters appearing in the first series of the show not in this book at all, but clearly due to turn up in the second and third books. In some ways I found this a little disappointing, and I actually think the television incarnation might actually be an improvement on the book, because I quite enjoy all that world-building and exposition. It did seem odd, having been used to reading the Game of Thrones books, the sheer density of which dwarfed the HBO series even when it that series followed the decidedly sedate pace of the books. I suppose some readers might actually find the lack of possibly irritating explanations of how the Epstein Drive works or the detailed planetary politics going on in the background etc as being a bonus. I suppose I’ll have to see if the following books fill in some of those details.

Weekly Saul? That’s why 1982 was so great.

bcs1Netflix dropped season five of Better Call Saul yesterday and in a surprise move (well, it surprised me) it comprised of one episode only, with episode two promised for today (Tuesday) and the remainder of the ten-episode season dropping on a weekly basis. There was me girding my loins for a week-long binge of the entire season, putting off books/chores/films/other television shows to enable me to do it, and Netflix pulls this stunt. Weekly episodes? That’s so 1982.

But of course, its a good thing really. It means the show ‘lasts’ longer and stays relevant longer at work as we (well, the two of us watching it) discuss it while getting a coffee. So there’s progress. Lets all go back to the way television used to be, maybe that’s the future after all. Amazon are doing the same thing here in the UK with Star Trek: Picard, albeit that’s been mandated by CBS over in America where the show airs on a weekly basis on the CBS All Access service. I quite like this way of staggering a release like this as opposed to dumping the whole lot in one go. My head loved going through all of season four of The Expanse over one weekend, but my heart knows it would have been better released on a weekly schedule. My head thinks I’m an idiot sticking with Star Trek: Picard, but my heart says its easing the agony watching it weekly doses on Friday nights while winding down from a long day at work. So its win-win.


Fedora and the Shelf of Shame

fedora1Welcome to the first (and hopefully not last) instalment of the Shelf of Shame, a series of posts where I finally get around to watching discs that have been sitting on the shelf for far too long. I’m starting with the Billy Wilder film Fedora, released on Blu-ray/DVD here in the UK by Eureka, a disc I bought several months ago and hadn’t gotten around to watching. There’s films that have been sitting on that shelf of shame for much longer than that, several years some of them (Betty Blue is one that springs to mind, which I bought back in 2013, shudder), but as a keen admirer of Billy Wilder’s filmography it didn’t seem right for this film to be on the shelf of shame for any longer.

That being said, I bought this one knowing very well that Fedora is not one of the best Wilder films, but even one of Wilder’s lesser films is better than those of most other directors. Wilder is rightfully a legend in cinema history- with films like Double Indemnity, Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, Ace in the Hole to his name…. even one of his ‘lesser’ films, Avanti!, qualifies as a personal favourite, so Fedora had to be worth a shot, no?

At the beginning of Fedora, we witness a frantic-looking woman throw herself from a station platform into the path of an approaching train, instantly killing herself.  The woman is legendary film actress Fedora (Marthe Keller), an icon of Hollywood of old, and as crowds of adoring fans visit her body which is lying in state prior to a lavish funeral, waiting in the line is down-on-his-luck film producer Barry ‘Dutch’ Detweller (William Holden). Through the device of a voice-over and flashbacks, Dutch tells us his story, of events just two weeks prior, when he had tracked down the reclusive movie star to a remote island in the Mediterranean. Dutch had written a script based on Anna Karenina, and was trying to get a deal to make it into a film, one of the conditions of his backers being that he should get Fedora out of retirement to take the starring role in the romantic tragedy.

Dutch knew Fedora from many years prior, having met her on a movie set in his youth back when Fedora was at her Hollywood prime, a huge movie star, and she and Dutch had shared a one-night liaison. Having tracked her down to a remote island in the Med, Dutch hoped his past liaison with her might enable him to convince her out of retirement. The Fedora he found hiding away from the public eye on the remote island was as beautiful and ageless as he remembered from all those years ago, but acted furtive and nervous, finally claiming she was being held captive on the island by the Polish Countess Sobryanski (Hildegard Krief) that owns it. Before Dutch could free her from the clutches of the countess and her associates, Fedora was taken from the island hideaway to France, where she would commit suicide just several days later, as we saw at the beginning of the film.

In many ways, Fedora as a film really doesn’t work. Its sequences on the romantic Mediterranean lack the wistful romance of Wilder’s superior Avanti!, and most viewers will quickly deduce the films central ‘twist’ long before it is revealed. But there is something else going on in Fedora, and part of it is no doubt a shared theme with Wilder’s early classic Sunset Boulevard, another film about a reclusive Hollywood legend that also starred William Holden, and also was told through flashbacks and Holden’s narration. It all combines into a curious symmetry and a suspicion that there are layers of meaning that escape us (indeed, most likely not even there) but yet still tantalise.

fedora2Fedora dates from 1978, and is Wilder’s second from last film, and yet feels older than it is, clearly old-fashioned even in 1978. This is deliberate, as the film is a somewhat bitter love letter (how typical of Wilder) to Hollywood of old, the director far removed from the Coppolas and Spielbergs and Scorceses and other young turks that were taking over. “It’s a whole different business now! The kids with beards have taken over! They don’t need scripts, just give ’em a hand-held camera with a zoom lens!” cries Dutch forlornly at one point, and you wonder if its Wilder wailing through him. The new corporate studio system in place when this film was made was already far different to Old Hollywood (it is to Hollywood’s shame that Wilder could not get this film made in Hollywood, instead relying on European investors).

Through its love/hate eulogy for Old Hollywood, and the power of film to immortalise and at the same time destroy, the film weaves quite a spell. While it is far from Wilder’s best work, there remains something utterly bewitching about it. Its not a great movie, but remains quite a good one. Fedora isn’t really about that ‘twist’ and is really more about its atmosphere, its languid pace, its performances (albeit two of them undermined by some very dodgy dubbing, unfortunately). For me I think its greatest asset is its central terror of growing old and being utterly defeated by the past- its likely unintentional, but Fedora’s nightmare in this film was possibly the same that could have haunted Wilder himself in the twilight of his career, his importance and worth in Hollywood in the era of Star Wars quite unfair.

The Favourite

fave2My issues with this film are many, but perhaps best exemplified by the image above; examples of the chapter headings that run through the film. I gather its a design approach that ran through the films advertising and poster design. To say its irritating would be an understatement, particularly as this is applied to the credits/titles that bookend the film. I’ve attached this snapshot here  of some offave the end-credits (apologies for the quality but I did it on the spur of the moment). This film is so hellbent on ‘saying’ something, and being needlessly sophisticated at it, that it even manages to reduce simple credits to almost hieroglyphic quality; at some points quite indecipherable. No doubt somebody (the director?) is chuffed with themselves regards how clever and edgy and different it all is but it infuriated me throughout. The Favourite seems to be one of those films that has a ‘message,’ which is fine, but then labours that message in as obtuse a way as possible. I would imagine its one about how power corrupts, or how three women trying to survive/thrive in a mans world are forced to turn upon one another to do so. Its not lost on me how the women are pretty much portrayed as decent (at least initially until that power thing sets in) and intelligent and all the men as venal and stupid, but hey ho its the times we are living in, that stuff sells now. It certainly wins awards at any rate.

The soundtrack, and much of the sound design in general,  is appalling. At one point towards the end I actually paused the film thinking either a plane was going to crash nearby or my central heating was about to explode, but instead it was some rising dramatics in what apparently qualifies as the score. What were they thinking? Well its just the same as those credits, being ‘sophisticated’ for the sake of it, and arthouse sensibilities disappearing up its own navel. Ridiculous.

If I were looking for positives, well, the performances from the leads, particularly Rachel Weisz, are very good (I’m a bit conflicted on Emma Stone, if I’m honest). I have written before regards good period dramas being pretty much like science fiction films, to me, in that they offer other worlds, the past as genuinely foreign to us as any imagine future. The settings are convincing but appear quite alien, the characters look and act in alien ways, following strange social etiquette and demonstrating odd belief-systems and traditions… its all very, well to labour a point, very alien and this film manages that with its slightly screwed representation of 17th Century England. I found this part of it quite appealing and enjoyed the strangeness of it all, as I often think film-makers trying to create a compelling and convincing ‘future world’ would do well to examine the example of good period-set films. I think its something David Lynch did well in the 1984 Dune and of course Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner succeeds so well largely because of its nods to 1940s fashions and film noir.

On the whole though all the artifice in this film turned me off, which is annoying because I think ultimately all that style for the sake of it and arthouse nonsense ill-served the leads, who deserved better.

A CS-80 Masterclass

Forgive me another YouTube link, but this one’s pretty special. This is a one-hour demonstration of the legendary Yamaha CS-80, most famous for its use by Vangelis in so much of his music, particularly during the Nemo days and albums like Spiral, China and the soundtracks Chariots of Fire and Blade Runner, portions of the latter being played  midway through the video leaving me amazed. Imagine sitting down with Vangelis at his Nemo Studio in London, as Ridley Scott must have done, and seeing/hearing him play that iconic Blade Runner score…I remember reading stories of Vangelis’ assistant redressing Nemo to establish mood and atmosphere for when the maestro was creating a particular piece of music or an album. Must have been spine-tingling, for instance, when he was performing the first movement from Soil Festivities, say, or Rhapsody from his collaboration with Irene Papas, Rhapsodies. What I would give to be there and to have witnessed it. All in a days work for the Greek maestro, I imagine, but something quite inspiring and astonishing to me.

You couple Vangelis’ mastery of the CS-80 with his vast collection of percussion instruments that filled Nemo and… well, magic is not the word, the recordings speak for themselves and his music back then formed the soundtrack for most of my life since. Timeless, gorgeous sound, and so much of it from this remarkable… do you call it a machine, or instrument?

Vangelis made the CS-80 his own, and funnily enough, it is commented upon by the presenter of this video that one of the only negatives regards the machine is that its so hard to play it without someone remarking “that sounds like Vangelis”. Frankly I think that is possibly the highest praise one could receive but I imagine some musicians would be infuriated by it.

If nothing else, the CS-80 goes to show that progress isn’t always, well, progress, and that in many ways this instrument remains unequalled. Mighty indeed. This is a fantastic video, absolutely fascinating stuff.

Should have prayed harder: Nude Nuns with Big Guns

nuns1Hmm, this one I need to explain.

I blame my mother-in-law, bless her. No seriously, this was all her fault. Well, I say ‘her fault’, but anyway, here’s the story: we were paying her a visit the other day, and, well, she’s been buying some movies of late, via mail-order. Not over the internet you understand, but via a catalogue/flyer through the letterbox from the retailer Zoom, she’s been ordering cheap DVDs, war movies of all things, but hey, whatever. So anyway, we over there and she was talking about the last few DVDs she’s watched and she tells me about one called ‘Nude Nuns with Big Guns‘.

“Well,” she admits, “It wasn’t what I expected.”

Just the title was enough to provoke a giggle from me. “What,” I asked her, “what exactly did you expect?” I picked up the DVD case and shook my head, started to lose it, frankly, it was so funny. Well, I haven’t laughed quite that much in quite awhile. It felt good, you know? Its obvious I should laugh more, you know, with someone rather than at someone or a movie etc. but life hasn’t really been like that of late. How strange that I only notice something like that when writing something down like this.

Norma is 77 and she’s a gentle lady widowed nearly a year ago, and she’s been ill during the last few months, and she’s just managing to turn things around, find her feet with the new ‘normal’ that is her life now. Well, ordering films like ‘Nude Nuns with Big Guns‘ is some kind of normal.

So anyway, I’d never seen this film but with a title like that, how could anyone resist? Of course, that’s the whole reason why the film has that title, it has little else- the title is everything, which is a pity. A film with a title like that shouldn’t just be self-knowing, or winking at its audience, it should have a few twists, pull the rug from under the audience somehow, subvert expectations, offer some commentary even if its your basic ‘hey-this-is-a-Tarantino-Rodriguez-spoof‘ kind of thing. Instead this is literally naked nuns with big guns, that’s all this thing is- even expecting very little you’ll still be disappointed, and it wears the description ‘exploitation movie’ with a very capital ‘E’.

nun1Sister Sarah (Asun Ortega) and her sisterhood have been abused by their corrupt Church whose leaders are in partnership with the despicable El Chavo’s ‘Los Muertos’ biker gang, using the Church as a cover for making and distributing drugs and running sleazy brothels. Beaten and nearly killed by a forced drug overdose, Sarah has a (drug-induced?) vision of God setting her on a righteous mission to save her sisters and persecute the infidels who have sullied Gods Church and terrorised the area. The Lord’s work requires arming herself like a Holy Rambo and smiting all those that deserve it, especially the priests that dump Sarah’s lover, Sister Angelina (Aycil Yeltan) into the sex-trade.

In style, its obviously aping the Grindhouse films of Tarantino and Rodriguez; Planet Terror, Death Proof, Sin City and Machete– its no accident that Nude Nuns with Big Guns dates from 2010, just around that period that those films were causing such a stir (2005 – 2010). Its almost ironical that Nuns makes those films look so good in comparison, that it reveals a sophistication, say, in Planet Terror (a guilty fave of mine) that perhaps might have escaped viewers who thought it looked cheap and lazy. Fair enough, Nuns is obviously a VERY cheap indie film -it cost something ridiculous like $85,000 which wouldn’t get you a title sequence on a Tarantino film these days, but that’s no excuse for the film not tipping its hat to the audience a little more (indeed, it would seem the very excuse TO tip the hat to forgive that very awkward cheapness). I think this is what disappointed me the most- it should have been ridiculously funny, but whatever humour is in this film falls flat. Sister Sarah should have been cracking knowing one-liners like a Holy Dirty Harry or something, and all the excess of the breasts and guns (there’s LOTS of boobs, guns and sex) should have been delivered as self-knowingly and irreverently as it obviously deserves, but instead its almost alarmingly serious. Witty one-liners and winks in the script cost nothing and is where low-budget films can really shine compared to the pedestrian studio-mandated limits of bigger-budget films.

I’m hardly a religious person, but the way the Church is portrayed in this film is beyond irreverent, its almost blasphemous and offensive and could insult more religious-minded viewers. They might not be the intended audience anyway but a little more respect would have left a better taste to the proceedings, something a sense of humour would have facilitated. Its all so very deadpan, so very serious. I suppose the director, Joseph Guzman would argue it is indeed all tongue in cheek and humorous and not intended to offend but if so he failed. Any one-liners they do try to drop in (“Listen up! There’s a vigilante on the streets going around and killing the bad guys. In case you guys forgot, we are the bad guys!”) fall flat- either delivered badly by an obviously limited cast of low-rent thespians or directed and edited badly. The music score is unusually good quality, but slips into a Sin City parody as it progresses, only further cementing what the film is trying to be.

I suppose one has to allow for the films limitations in budget and cast, but that said, there is a cynicism to the whole thing that wore me down. Its naked Nuns, its guns, its boobs, its sex, its drugs, its… well, as if that would just be enough somehow. Maybe it is to the adolescent crowd, and I imagine this film may have fans (somewhere) but really, well, some films are so bad they can even be fun, like guilty pleasures (Life Force, yay) but others are just, well, bad. This is one of them.

Oddly enough, my mother-in-law says she doesn’t want the DVD of this back. Destined for the Bin of Shame, then.




Time Stand Still

This is a beautiful and poignant tribute to the late Neil Peart of Rush, who passed away a few weeks ago. Time Stand Still has always been my favourite Rush song; I remember buying the single on 7-inch vinyl back in the day prior to the Hold Your Fire album getting released. As usual with the best of Neil’s lyrics, particularly those that are reflective, something in this song strikes a chord in me, and has reminded me in all the decades since of the fragility of existence and every moment. I think the song always deserved more attention and wider listening beyond its rock-group origins, and  you never know, maybe this lovely tribute from The United States Army Band ‘Pershing’s Own’ will enable Neil’s work to get heard wider afield. Here’s my token effort towards that.

On a more sombre note, on the original YouTube page this video is on, currently 82 idiots have given it a ‘thumbs down’. After what has happened this weekend here in the UK regards celebrity Caroline Flack taking her own life, its another reminder of the inhumanity of humanity (I was no fan or advocate of Flack, but one has to shake ones head in apathy at how the unkindness of the world manifests itself).

Mr Jones

mr jonesA pretty grim and depressing film, mainly because of how timely it seems to be. This is a film that examines the lies of politics, the schemes of bureaucracy, and the power (or lack of) of truth- and moreover the importance of that truth. In a world in which truth seems to be defined by what is being repeated often enough by those in power, and in which investigative journalism seems to be becoming increasingly marginalised, films such as this are all the more important and welcome.

James Norton is in particularly fine form here -indeed, I don’t think I’ve seen him better- as Gareth Jones, a courageous Welsh journalist who risked his life and liberty to investigate and bring to the world’s attention Stalin’s Holodomor- a man-made famine decried afterwards as an act of genocide -within Soviet Ukraine between 1932 and 1933, in which millions of Ukrainians perished. The sequences within the wintry wastes of the Ukraine, with Jones walking dumbly past frozen bodies along the road, or his horror as he finds dead people in abandoned houses, are brutal and harrowing. The real horror, however, is in the reaction of Western powers: if I were charitable, I would suggest that they were distracted by Hitler’s rise in Germany and what that spelt for the immediate future of Europe, but on the other hand, its a damning indictment of the necessary evils and blinkered vision of diplomacy, history offering us a bleak hindsight.

I wouldn’t suggest this film is perfect- indeed, its possibly far from it, mainly its perhaps being just too earnest in its efforts to denounce the wrongs of those who should have known better or acted differently,  and in championing the bravery and efforts of Gareth Jones, whose passion for truth would ultimately doom him just a few years later (the film alleges his murder was an act of revenge by Soviet Intelligence). Those sequences of wintry apocalypse in the Ukraine wastes are the gripping centre-point of the film, and nothing afterwards measures up to them- indeed, its those wastes that linger in the memory like some distraction through the remainder of the film and afterwards. Like Peterloo, another film that reveals a possibly forgotten part of history,  Mr Jones doesn’t really feel worthy of the task (although this film is much better than that one).

It could also be argued the editing of the film undermines it, that the film is too long – and interludes with George Orwell and his Animal Farm are well-intended but ill-judged and awkwardly implemented, perhaps better left on the cutting-room floor- but ultimately this films subject matter is so worthy it feels churlish to really criticise its shortcomings. Yes, its blatantly a ‘message’ movie, a lesson from history that feels like it stumbles when it should really soar, but it certainly deserves to be seen and allow us to reflect on the times we are living in.

Mr Jones is available on digital platforms and DVD and Blu-ray.