The 2020 List: April

66April in lockdown leaves me reaching the grand total of 66 already – without trying, really. I watched a few old faves during this month (notably Ben Hur and Kingdom of Heaven) and one or two not-so-faves (Rise of Skywalker, take a bow) that don’t qualify for inclusion here. On the whole though I sailed through the month distracted by reading and too many hours working from home, so really, I don’t know what number I’d be up to if I’d seriously tried to hit the Shelf of Shame, say, or a few of those boxsets on Netflix and Amazon that keep tempting me.

Best TV show was of course Better Call Saul season five, which was absolutley brilliant and I really should write a review. Suffice to say episodes eight and nine were some of the tensest, edge-of-your-seat dramas I’ve seen in ages, and while my work colleague was left rather nonplussed by the episode ten finale I was impressed by how well it set things up for season six. Mind, I’ve read we may have to wait two years for it to arrive. Ah, Covid19- the gift that keeps on giving.

On the movies front, it gets a bit trickier- I think the best one was probably 21 Bridges, partly because it came as such a surprise and seemed a welcome throwback to saner, more down-to-earth thrillers of old (individual mileage will vary on that, I’m sure).

TV Shows:

50) Friday Night Dinner Series Four

57) Friday Night Dinner Series Five

58) Devs

61) Better Call Saul Season Five

63) After Life Season Two


49) The Pirates of Blood River

51) Hustlers

52) Rocketman

53) Flight to Mars

54) Steve McQueen: The Man and Le Mans

55) Seat 25

56) Angel Has Fallen

59) James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge

60) Yesterday

62) 21 Bridges

64) Extraction

65) Safety Not Guaranteed

66) Timetrap



Scruffy Eddie

P1100099 (2)Mark this as another casualty, Lockdown fans- this the current sorry state that Eddie is in, one week past his grooming session that was cancelled due to Covid19. I’ll have to trim his eyeline this coming weekend but thats about as far as I dare go for now. Westies are not to be trifled with.

(His grooming session has been postponed to May 27th in the hope that the Lockdown will be relaxed enough by then. If not, I may have to man up. It won’t be pretty. Fingers crossed for May 27th then!)

After Life Season Two

afterlife2bI have this love/hate relationship (to be clear, its mostly the latter rather than the former) with Ricky Gervais that is akin to that between me and James Cameron, and I’m more likely to avoid a film or tv show because I see Gervais involved. Its possibly resulted in me missing out, but what can I say? Its just chemistry or something, irrational as it might be, and he has gotten filthy rich enough without me so he’s on a winner anyhow. To me, his success and popularity has been mystifying, but hey ho.

So thats why last year’s first season of After Life was such a shock and surprise to me, because it turned out to be so bloody brilliant. It was a view shared by the public at large, because it proved incredibly popular on Netflix and has resulted in this second series. I suspect that this success proved as surprising to Gervais as anyone, because that first season was remarkably self-contained and its clear that the biggest weakness of this second series is that it feels almost an afterthought, at worst a needless reprise.

When it works, this second series works, and its surprisingly poignant and effecting; at other times it fails, particularly some of its humour, which increasingly resorts to bad language for laughs, and feels terribly lazy and awkward. Its almost as if Gervais isn’t certain where the popularity of that first season lies: was it the “death is easy, life is hard” subtext, the drama of grief, or is it the reckless, breaking-social-niceities abandon of Gervais’ character’s interactions with others?  I have a suspicion that this second season may have been rushed into production too soon, and that it results in an uneven show that lacks the sophistication it warrants. But to be clear, when it works, the show is quite beautiful and powerfully moving. I’m just not certain it knows what it really wants to be, or where its balance truly lies.

Maybe a third (and final?) series may nail that balance, we’ll just have to see.

The time-travelling hijinks of Safety Not Guaranteed and Timetrap

safety2Time-travel movies, eh? I’m always a sucker for this mini-genre of films but you’d think I’d know better: two time-travel movies in one night makes for a rather dizzying double-bill. First up, Safety Not Guaranteed, starring  Mark Duplass (of the great Paddleton) as Kenneth, a grocery worker whose classified ad looking for an assistant for time traveling into the past gets the attention of Jeff (Jake Johnson) a staff-writer of a magazine who sees the proposterous story as opportunity to look up an old high-school romance and takes two interns along for the scoop. This film is as light-hearted and quirky as its plot suggests, and while it perhaps doesn’t really work its nonetheless got a certain charm. Its success comes from the characters and performances- Mark Duplass is no surprise, but Jake Johnson certainly won me over as a brash sleazy-journo who doesn’t realise he’s having his own midlife crisis. As the film progresses, one begins to wonder if there might be some truth to Kenneth’s time-travelling claims and his fledgling relationship with intern Darius (Aubrey Plaza) has a certain chemistry that adds a romcom appeal. Throw in a coming-of-age subplot for the second intern, Arnau (Karan Soni) and a few suspicious FBI agents who are more Men in Beige than MIB and yeah, its rather fun in a daft, easy-going sort of way.

timetrapLess fun is the far more seriously-intentioned (ironically, considering its strictly b-movie/exploitation title) Timetrap, in which a bunch of teens investigating the disappearance of their professor get lost in caves that are, er, unstuck in time. Its one of those movies whose high-concept intentions really isn’t helped by its strictly tv-movie cast playing beautiful young things who are too thick to see the blindingly obvious. I have to wonder what the casting-sessions were like: Andrew Wilson as Professor Hopper is a poor-man’s Aaron Eckhart and Brianne Howey as Jackie is obviously a young Anne Hathaway sub. To be fair, maybe it wasn’t intended but it looked so obvious to me that I was continuously distracted by musings of how casting is such a lost art.

Timetrap is one of those… well, lets be charitable, lets refer to it as a film-  Timetrap is one of those films that has a premise that is initially intiguing but which becomes increasingly preposterous as it goes on, and unfortunately the film just takes itself increasingly seriously as it does so, stumbling into farce before the end. Whilst avoiding spoilers, I would just like to point out how much I hate films depicting ‘average joes’ being totally nonplussed by events that would have everybody losing their minds, and this thing has people being cured of, er, certain death and then flying off to far-future Mars at the end. Its actually quite frustrating, because some sequences are done quite well, its just that as it goes on, the whole film just seems to absolutely lose its shit. I remember stifling at titter at the caveman sequence in Altered States back in the day, but there’s moments in this that are like, that sequence times ten. By the time Timetrap ends, you’re just thankful its over, whereas with how Safety Not Guaranteed ends, you feel you’d quite like to know what happens to the characters next, which is, like, the best way to feel at the end of a movie, yes?

Safety Not Guaranteed is currently streaming on Netflix, and if you’re feeling brave, so is Timetrap.

21 Bridges

21bIt seems a bit daft to praise a film for being an old-fashioned thriller, and perhaps to make allowances for any minor shortcomings because for once here’s a film without lots of CGI or action-packed caped capers- but you know, there was just something so endearingly comforting about this film: sure I could guess some of the ‘twists’ and some of the casting seemed to telegraph some of those twists, but on the whole this was thoroughly entertaining and such a breath of fresh air it was easy to make such allowances.

As night falls on New York City, two obviously military-background criminals Michael (Stephan James) and Ray (Taylor Kitsch) perform a heist on a closed restaurant that escalates quickly in all the wrong ways- the restaurant’s storeoom is full of millions of dollars worth of uncut drugs and the two perps have to shoot their way out when cops apparently stumble on the heist. They leave a bloody trail of destruction that leaves seven officers dead and a citywide manhunt closing the city down until 5 a.m. Summoned to the scene, Andre Davis (Chadwick Boseman), a cop with a perhaps unfair reputation for being a ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ kind of law enforcer, is given the task of hunting down the two cop-killers – but Andre is immediately suspicious that not everything seems to add up.

Directed by Brian Kirk, whose resume of television shows includes episodes of Game of Thrones, Hard Sun, Penny Dreadful and Luther, this is a taut, relentlessly entertaining film with some brilliantly staged action sequences. Its paced quickly enough to mask some of the plot contrivances but not enough to make it as obvious as, say, a JJ Abrams flick does. Quite often I caught myself comparing it to Die Hard or Witness, it was that good- well, maybe that was me getting a little carried away, but I really did enjoy it. It seemed so refreshing to see something so traditional as a police thriller with a great cast and a simple, direct plot in an era in which we are assaulted by OTT superhero flicks or ludicrously explosive blockbusters.

Dare I suggest its the perfect Friday-night-in movie for our trying times?

21 Bridges is available on DVD and Blu-ray and streaming on Amazon Prime.


Jaws 4K: This looks better

jaws4kb…not so sure its five quid better, but yeah, I quite like this new steelbook design for the 4K edition of Jaws. I suppose they couldn’t do any worse than the standard edition design (the slip of which may be a lenticular cover, too, which may explain the design). So anyway, here’s me with a perfectly fine (gorgeous, even) Blu-ray steelbook and I’m being tempted by this edition. Its Jaws, afterall, but bad enough triple-dipping from DVD to Blu-ray to 4K UHD but then adding insult to injury by double-dipping steelbooks? What is the world coming to? Oh well, this would be the last time, right?

James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge

deep1I watched this because I stumbled upon it somewhere in the depths of Amazon Prime’s still rather clumsy interface; turns out I watched this so you don’t have to: my loss, your gain, its one of THOSE reviews I suppose.

I don’t know what it is about James Cameron: he’s made some of the most popular films of our generation, whether it be films I don’t particularlly like (Aliens) or films that I recklessly adore (The Abyss), his films are still a huge part of the cultural zeitgeist, and then, of course, there is Titanic, which is something else entirely, but yeah, he’s one of the most successful and popular directors working today. He’s one of those directors who, if he’s working on a new movie, you sit up and take notice. Hell, he was almost single-handedly responsible for all those expensive cinema visits watching 3D films over the last decade and all those 3D TV’s sold. Its a wonder we can ever forgive him.

Its just that, somehow away from his movies, he’s so instantly irritating; just the sight of him bugs me. I don’t know why; maybe its suppressed jealously of the Man on Top of The World. Its not that I’m belittling his achievements (my last paragaraph hopefully explained that) because hell, his record speaks for itself, and I’m sure he is possibly a very nice guy at heart. Ruthless, maybe; I just have the feeling a Very Sweet Guy would never be able to get a James Cameron movie made, and maybe thats a part of it; he reminds me of Nick Nolte’s character in The Thin Red Line, who I always describe as “one of the worlds biggest bastards” but I suppose that gets the job done.

He seems something of a geek; you can tell that just from the films that he makes and the tv shows he’s been involved with, and I imagine that if he sat me down to tear me a new one about this post we’d possibly end up having a very pleasant conversation about our favourite movies. I don’t know what it is: possibly its my introvert Englishness at odds with his loud brash Americanness (is that such a thing?)  but my God he winds me up whenever he looks at a camera and opens his mouth. And God help me, this documentary has him on camera a lot, and yes he does open his mouth volumously, so yes, it was quite an experience.

Yet I love The Abyss. How can I have such an inherently instinctive irritation regards a guy who made one of my favourite movies? I know there are many issues with The Abyss. yes it is very flawed and yes it features toe-curdling dialogue that makes George Lucas seem a veritable poet, but when I saw it at the cinema many moons ago and later the improved DC edition on VHS way back when it was an engrossing experience like few others.

This documentary, with Cameron taking a brand-new submersible on a record-breaking attempt to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, should be right down my Abyss-loving alley. Well, maybe heres the thing-  while I watched this thing on Amazon Prime, this doc has been released on Blu-ray. Cameron hasn’t deemed it worthy bothering to authorise a Blu-ray release of The Abyss, like ever, in all the years that HD format has been out, and yet he managed to deem this doc worthier of the effort. I can see and hear The Ego playing with his expensive toys in his pursuit of a deepsea dive into the unknown, and yet… Bud Brigman’s dive languishes on non-anamorphic DVD in horrible SD? For the last several years I have refused to rewatch The Abyss because, hell, I’m making a stand for HD (and now 4K-UHD), I’ve had enough of this film in SD and I’m not going to bloody take it anymore, thankyou. I can imagine Cameron pulling me to one side “well, f–k you Smithy, here’s a movie about me on Blu-ray instead. Have you seen the 3D version?”

Here’s another thing- spoilers be damned, when Cameron eventually suceeds and hits rock bottom, as it were (“The Ego has landed” I think he announced, but I possibly misheard him) we find NOTHING. Its like the surface of the moon down there, only darker, obviously, and Cameron’s excitement at discovering a, er, hill, is almost endearing, its so funny. At least Bud found an alien city. WHICH WOULD LOOK BLOODY GREAT IN 4K UHD, JAMES (just saying).

Yesterday, Pt.2

Well, yesterday’s whimsical post hardly merits as a ‘proper’ review so here goes with a few more thoughts.

lovesongsDuring the late-seventies, my Dad had an 8-track deck fitted in our family car. It was second-hand and came with a selection of albums on 8-track: for those happily ignorant of it, the fotmat was a bulky plastic-cartridge monstrosity from the mid-sixties when it had become popular in cars, but hey, it beat listening to the radio. One of the albums that Dad had bought with the 8-track deck was The Beatles compilation, Love Songs, and this was, other than hearing isolated songs on the radio over the years,  my first real experience of hearing the bands music. I remember that summer holiday in particular, very well, Dad driving the family to and around North Wales listening to that album over and over- some amazing songs on that compilation (considering how defintive a collection it was, it always seemed odd to me that it was discontinued in the early 1980s and never released, officially at least,  on Compact Disc).

It would be many years later when I eventually bought all the Beatles albums on CD and became fully familiar with their music, but across all those albums, its those love songs, heard many years before over and over during that summer holiday, that remain the most poignant to me: they were the soundtrack of that childhood holiday and listening to those songs always brings a smile of recollection. I can’t say I’m a die-hard devotee of the band or their music- much of it is brilliant, the rest either admirable or embarrassing but never inbetween. I guess what I’m saying is, I’m a child of the ‘sixties but I was far too young to have experienced Beatlemania or the years during which the bands music was new and revelatory. The Beatles music is always something of a history lesson, of another (my parents) generation.

yestrAnyway, what has anything of this got to do with Yesterday? I’m not sure. My overall impression of the film is of how slight it was. Its really one of those films that you can tell was born of a single-sentence idea (“what if the Beatles never happened, but one person could remember them?”) and strung into a full movie. Its a clever conceit that initially is quite arresting when you consider how much of a lasting impact the Beatles has had on pop music and pop culture. Someday someone will make a film about a world in which Star Wars never happened and old geeks will gush about how much the film franchise meant to them and how much the film/s changed movies and film culture, I just hope it will have a bit more depth than this thing does.

Yesterday is fine for what it is: its a romantic comedy, liberally laced with great songs from the Beatles. But thats all it is: which is fine, as I say, thats clearly all its intended to be. I suppose my issue with the film is what it isn’t, which is my fault entirely: I just expected some revelation, some Twilght Zone-like moral twist. Not anything dark, it could have been quite life-affirming. I just expected some reset button returning Jack Malick to the real-world suddenly wiser about what is really important (i.e. his best freind Ellie), as if the Beatles songs were teaching him something other than how to become rich on someone elses talent.

I thought that last theme was brilliant by the way: maybe the film  is really some subtle allegory for how so much modern culture is built on the talents of those who came before: hell, its like some incisive commentary on JJ Abrams whole career for a start, and the whole Hollywood machine making reboots and remakes and belated sequels ad nauseam. I like to think that was deliberate and quite brilliant, on which level Yesterday is pure subversive genius, but thats really just me pulling one of the stunts of that Shining documentary Room 237 and its marvelously deranged theories.

Danny Boyle has stated that 40% of the films budget was spent on acquiring the 17 somgs that they used in the film. Considering how the film ultimately served as a pure love-letter to the band and what the music meant to those who remembered it in a world utterly devoid of said music, its rather sad that some seriously wealthy individuals or music moguls insisted on taking that money. Yesterday tries to say that music can aspire to be something ‘more’ and should be for everyone, but such noble sentiment feels undermined as the real world maintains that this still comes at a price, afterall.



Yesterday (alt.)

All our troubles seemed so far away
Now it looks like Covid’s here to stay
So, time to watch Yesterday

Danny’s half the man he used to be
There’s no story that I can see
Oh, Yesterday its so lazy

Where the plot has gone, I don’t know, I couldn’t say
But there lots of songs, not much else, in Yesterday

Actors have such easy parts to play
Now I need a place to hide away
‘cuz Ed Sheeran’s in Yesterday

Where the plot has gone, I don’t know, I couldn’t say
But there lots of songs, not much else, in Yesterday

Such costly Royalties to pay
No money left for the screenplay
But, people love Yesterday
Mm mm mm mm mm mm mm

Devs: The emptiness of Causality?

devAlex Garland continues to be one of the more interesting writers/directors working today- frustratingly, of course, his recent films have all suffered difficulties; Annihilation being sold straight to streaming via Netflix in territories outside the United States, while Ex Machina had a switch in theatrical distributor that did it few favours.

Leaving movies behind him, Garland seems to have found new and exciting freedom and opportunity in television:  Devs, currently airing here in the UK on BBC2 and available in its entirety on iPlayer, is a deeply thoughtful and intellectually challenging tech-thriller, entirely written and directed by Garland – presumably ensuring he was afforded complete creative control. Deeply thoughtful, it is also graced with some gorgeous photography and art direction, with some arresting and quite chilling imagery (there are few moments that literally set the hairs on the back of my neck standing on end): its ironically, perhaps, very cinematic. Like both Ex Machina and Annihilation, its cinematic with ideas, and compliments those two films (particularly the first) very well indeed, with questions about identity, freewill and the nature of Reality.

What anyone really takes away from the series, though, likely depends on what they think of the series finale. Devs is a one-off, with Garland clear he does not envisage a second season being likely. On the one hand, its refreshing to watch a series and not be left with a tease for another season next year- instead, across its eight episodes the show has a definite beginning, middle and end. The issue is of course, after eight hours of deepening mysteries and tantalising possibilities, that some viewers might be left frustrated by how Devs concludes, especially when one considers that it demands some work from the viewer to interpret what they are seeing and what everything means.

Devs is definitely, deliberately high-concept.  Its a dark tech-thriller about Quantum computing, the dichotomy of freewill in a deterministic universe, the alternatives inherent in multiverse theory, virtual time travel…  its certainly rich with ideas and has lots of twists. Its like the absolute antithesis of stuff like the recent Star Trek: Picard. It also looks great, too, sumptuously designed and directed with a great cast and interesting characters, so again, yeah, the absolute antithesis of stuff like the recent Star Trek: Picard.

I really enjoyed it (binged it over three nights) and would love to expound upon what I think it was all about, what the ending really meant, etc. but as the series is still being aired over here I think I’ll refrain from this for awhile, at least until the comments section (if anyone has seen the whole thing and want to chip in with their thoughts please do). Suffice to say it really is very, very good and deserves to be seen by as many people as possible- certainly it would be nice for Garland’s work to get a wider audience this time around. So yes, I’d heartily recommend it, and hopefully it will lead to more such projects in future.