The 2020 List: October

Its dark, its Halloween, and as I type this, our Prime Minister has announced that England is going back into lockdown from Thursday. Yikes.

So forgive my reticence to be jolly about my October viewing, in which I succeeded in watching more television shows, something that I targeted, managing five seasons of shows, and also managed to get my 2020 total up to 185, leaving a whole two months remaining in which to reach that magical 200. I’d confidently suggest that total was in the bag, really, but lets not count our chickens just yet- this year, of all years, its quite clear we should expect the unexpected, plan for the worst, hope for the best as we go into November and Lockdown: The Sequel (lets just hope it doesn’t turn out to be a Trilogy).

With that sentiment, here’s the list of October’s viewing:


173) Utopia Season One (2020)

175) The Boys Season Two

176) Das Boot Season One

179) The Marvellous Mrs Maisel Season One

184) The Queen’s Gambit


171) Bad Education (2019)

172) Ready or Not (2019)

174) One, Two, Three (1961)

177) The Curse of la Llorona (2019)

178) A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019)

180) Whiplash (2014)

181) Bombshell (2019)

182) Fanboys (2008)

183) Parasite (2019)

185) October Sky (1999)

The Abort Button

The Personal History of David Copperfield

The Walking Dead: World Beyond

A Beautiful October Sky

october2To misquote Ray Bradbury, first of all, it was October, a rare month for Rocket Boys. 

It was October, 1957, and Sputnik changed the world. It changed the lives of some American boys in Coalwood, West Virginia, a backwoods town centred on its old coal mine that was living on borrowed time. The sight of Sputnik in the night sky and the dawn of the Space Age signalled the End of Days for Coalwood, the relentless march of Time heralding the inevitable end of the 1950s. Watching Sputnik traversing across the October night sky gave Homer Hickam (Jake Gyllenhaal), a glimpse of an exciting world outside his hometown of Coalwood,  the possibility of a life different to everyone else in the town, who seemed to have lives mapped out before them, sons following fathers into the mine. Inevitably Homer’s ambitions created friction with his father John Hickam (a typically splendid Chris Cooper) who was the mine superintendent who loved his job, the mine and took immense satisfaction in how it kept the town alive. John expected his son to follow in his footsteps and could not understand why Homer would seek another life, his head in the sky in a town where all attentions were upon the dark bowels of the Earth. 

October Sky is a wonderful, life-affirming sugar rush of a movie, and a male weepie in the tradition of Field of Dreams: its one of those films for fathers and sons. The fact that the film is based on a true story, specifically a book, Rocket Boys, written by Homer Hickam himself, only makes the film all the more poignant. I generally have a problem with films that begin “based on a true story” because that often means very little, with films taking all sorts of liberties, but the hell with that- the cynic in me is sulking in that dark corner over there and he ain’t coming out for this post. October Sky is great. 

The film was directed by Joe Johnston, of Jumanji and Rocketeer fame (not to mention his work for ILM on the original Star Wars films, his name etched into my head back in the heady days of my youth reading The Art of Star Wars and seeing his artwork as an effects illustrator). He’s something of a hero to the twelve-year old geek in me, and his attachment to this film as director is one of the reasons I wanted to see this film for such a long time. Why exactly it took over twenty years for me to get around to it… well, its just one of life’s mysteries. The additional synchronicity that when I did finally get a round to it, it was actually in October… well, I guess Ray Bradbury would enthuse upon the rightness of that better than I ever could.

octoberThe period details are lovely, there is a wonderfully evocative feel of the time and place, from the cars, the clothes, the period songs playing over the radio, the sense of innocence in an American town so isolated from the bigger world, something really that still seems true for many old industrial towns of America today. There is always, of course, something of the Lost World about that, too, of an Industrial Heartland, and all the homegrown traditions that come with it,  that has largely disappeared from America (as it has here in the UK, too). The fate of Coalwood was the fate of many American towns, as well as the mining towns here in the UK and a coal mining industry and way of life lost completely. One can sympathise and understand John Hickman’s desire to maintain the way of life that made sense of his own life and his whole community –  and understand the stirring sensations his son feels as he looks up at an October sky suddenly full of possibilities. 

The film is a warm story about friendship -John recruiting his schoolmates to help him in his adventure of amateur rocketry – that shares much of the effect of films like Stand By Me, a lovely ensemble piece that is heartfelt and feels very true. There is also a nice sense of community, as people around them start to assist them, drawn into John’s passion. The acting is generally superb, the cast excellent- everything feels real, and everyone looks real (perhaps Laura Dern is the weakest link, looking perhaps a little too Hollywood in a film where most everyone looks so wonderfully ordinary, but that’s more of an issue with casting than Dern herself, who is perfectly fine). Sharing in this sense of the ‘ordinary’ and even the  mundane, the visual effects from none other than ILM are indeed surprisingly subtle while being uniformly excellent.

Accompany that with a fine score by Mark Isham and you have what is essentially a perfect little movie. This is a great little film, and anyone who loved Field of Dreams will really get such a lot out of this.


The Marvellous Mrs Maisel Season One

mrs1The Emmy-award winning The Marvellous Mrs Maisel seems to have been a media darling over the last few years and was, from what I remember,  one of the first real successes for Amazon’s Originals, a show that proved that Amazon could compete with the likes of Netflix. As is my usual wont I’ve come to it rather late, with three seasons already up for streaming by the time I finally got around to it. 

Turns out its really quite good- as someone who loved Mad Men, which rather shared Mrs Maisel‘s period setting,  this show was right up my street. Regards that period setting -in this case late 1950s New York, which actually predates Mad Men by a few years- it looks utterly divine, absolutely gorgeous. Of course as I wasn’t around back then to experience it first hand, but it certainly looks damned authentic, and rather more ambitious in scope than Mad Men, featuring more exteriors. There is something irresistible about 1950s New York; the decor, the clothes, the cars, the smoky atmosphere, the wonderful songs of the period that feature in the soundtrack; its all rather romantic and fantastic and larger than life. For someone like me in the UK, there’s something quite sexy and beguiling about it, something of a lost, magical world.

Central to the shows appeal – far and above that wonderful period detail of its setting- is the fantastic performance of Rachel Brosnahan as Miriam Maisel, a housewife who turns to stand-up comedy in the wake of her unfaithful  husband leaving her. Brosnahan has a long list of credits in television behind her, but nothing that I have seen – my worst offence being House of Cards, which I really should get around to- so as far as I was concerned, watching her was like seeing an unknown in an incandescent performance that surprised and amazed in equal measure. With a very fine supporting cast that includes Tony Shalhoub (Monk) and Michael Zegan (Boardwalk Empire) the show absolutely fires on all cylinders. The writing is slick, the one-liners sharp and the art direction, as I have noted, quite sublime. The show does falter slightly with a few nods to predictability – there’s certainly few shocks and surprises here- but that really is just a nod to it being what it is; warm, funny, life-affirming comfort food.

Just the ticket for a Covid 19 Autumn then, which makes leaving the three seasons ’till now a really fortuitous accident.

Last Week

                                              Great Scott! Those Mattes!

Well there goes another week in the mad tumble towards what some people are still hoping will turn out to be Christmas. Regular readers may have noticed a wee drop in the number of reviews being posted lately- its partly because I’ve been turning my attention to watching television shows this month, which obviously take more time to watch than a movie does. This week, though, much of my time has been taken up with other distractions, including watching Back to the Future and its sequel, the imaginatively titled Back to the Future Part II which have just been released on 4K UHD (I’ll likely get around to the third entry sometime today). Visually these films are rather more problematic than some catalogue releases on 4K UHD, which I gather is partly down to the filmstock used at the time and the optical effects, which is a particular problem with the second entry. I remember watching the film at the cinema and being wowed by those visual effects, particularly the flying cars (at the time seeming much more sophisticated than the flying car sequences in Blade Runner) and the clever split screen techniques. Watching them on this 4K presentation, some shots still impress but goodness some are pretty terrible, really: in some places the optical effects leave the flying cars looking like smudgy animation and at other moments almost pasted on like cut-outs. I don’t know if its a degradation of the original elements, or an inevitable consequence of 4K resolution and HDR making mattes etc much more problematic, but some of that once so impressive stuff looks fairly dire now and quite distracting. If anything, it makes those flying car sequences in Blade Runner all the more impressive as they seem to hold up much better (probably a case of the more simple shots being easier to realise back then, or the digital trickery that was applied to the restoration for the Final Cut).

I do have to wonder though about how this film originally looked in the cinema, my memories of it- were we so much more forgiving? Or is it something to do with how we watch films now on these 4K panels. Back when I saw the film it was blown up on a huge cinema screen, and yet still seemed to hold up better than now on my unforgiving OLED- or is it really just how I’m remembering it? Was my old VHS copy, say, simply much more low-resolution, low-contrast and therefore much more forgiving itself, too?

Fortunately the films themselves remain quite fun and endearingly old-fashioned- once all blockbusters were made this way; there’s a sense of innocence to them that was possibly cynically calculated for all I know, but nostalgia certainly clouds over some of the bad points. In some ways Part Two seems eerily prescient- the middle section looking rather uncannily Trumpworld- I’ll never see those alternate 1985 sequences the same way as I used to.

But thinking of how the films effects turned out some thirty years later on 4K UHD, and how problematic these BTTF films have been on home video over the years (some purists reckon the Blu-rays were unwatchable), made me think about home video and owning films. I remember a time when owning a film was impossible, frankly, and a time when expensive early VHS tapes were sold (I recall seeing a copy of Jaws in a cardboard slipcase for sale for something like £76 in a posh department store in 1982). Eventually films could be found more cheaply, early examples being the Cinema Club range I remember seeing in Woolworths. One of the latter included 2001: A Space Odyssey, a copy of which I had for Christmas one year.

But of course it wasn’t really a case of owning the movie, not properly. That copy of 2001 I had was on a pan and scan, horribly fuzzy VHS- if Kubrick himself ever had the misfortune to watch a copy I’m sure he would have been mortified. Which makes me wonder how film-makers re-watch their films and what they really think of some of the home video editions over the years, but that’s really another conversation entirely.

So anyway, it wasn’t really owning a copy of the film properly- more like owning a second-rate approximation of 2001. One could argue that of all the formats, the only version where I came really close to owning a genuine proper copy of Kubrick’s epic is the 4K UHD released late last year, which looks utterly gorgeous and certainly far superior to how those Back to the Future films look in 4K. Which is where filmstocks used over the years, and how certain prestige films were shot over the decades, complicate matters (Vertigo, for instance, is a revelation in 4K UHD).

Some great, classic films, some of which are my favourites, have been released on 4K UHD over the past few years, surely the last home video format we’ll ever be asked to buy, and which some of us are fortunate to watch on pretty large, sophisticated 4K panels. Returning to that £76 copy of Jaws I looked at in that department store so many years ago, I’m pretty confident it looked bloody horrible compared to the excellent 4K UHD disc of the film that came out earlier this year. Are we REALLY owning definitive copies of our favourite films now, ironically at the end of physical media?

“We can’t call for help. We can’t call Michael.”

std3Well, maybe this wasn’t ALL bad. It was unrelentingly stupid though. This is a catch-up episode for all those wondering what happened to the Discovery and her crew while we watched The Chosen One’s adventure last week, so if nothing else, it strangely benefited from not featuring The Chosen One at all, except at the end when she typically turned up in order to save everybody again, because, you know, she’s The Chosen One and everyone is useless without her. No lie, the title of this post is a direct quote from the show when the Discovery has crash-landed on the alien planet and the crew realise they are on their own.  

As for that, the show immediately had me ready to throw my remote at my telly (my tv is looking worried every time I watch this show). Last week The Chosen One in her Iron Man -sorry, Time Travel- suit, fell out of a wormhole, crashed into a spaceship during a space battle and fell from space and smashed down onto the surface with nary a scratch, but the Discovery, a giant spaceship, loses its shit as it falls down to the planet for a crash landing, suggesting that The Chosen One is more powerful and durable than a starship.  The entire plot of this episode involves the crew desperately trying to repair the totally fracked-up starship lying dead on the surface, no communications, no sensors, no engines- but fortunately this is a crew of A-listers so no Dry Dock required, this thing can be repaired in about six hours (totally fracked up but repaired in six hours) as long as they can get the locals of the planet to replace one broken gadget that looks like a Space Vase. 

Ironically, as this episode is one of the better Discovery episodes if only because it focuses on the Discovery crew/supporting cast instead of the insufferable Burnham, I struggle to really elucidate upon it because for the life of me I don’t even know their names. After two whole seasons, I don’t really know any of their names or characters, an indication of just how poor the writing of the show has always been, and indeed how much it has steadfastly focused upon The Chosen One to the detriment of others.

As usual, the show looks pretty, something helped no end by further location shooting in what I assume is Iceland, augmented by really nice visual effects adding virtual alien skylines and alien structures. This is one of my major frustrations of this show- it is obviously expensive and looks gorgeously impressive at times, but its so undermined by bad writing and execution. It reminds me rather of Prometheus, a similarly gorgeous film that blunders abysmally whenever anyone opens their mouth to speak. Its just the same here- banal dialogue, woefully silly sentiments. Two of the crew go off the ship to recruit some locals to fix the broken Space Vase and they soon see a native in the distance- instead of calling out for help, they choose to simply follow the mysterious cloaked figure who could be a ruffian for all they know, across the wintery tundra to an alien outpost that might be a trap…  It all looks perhaps a little bit too video-gamey but it is awfully pretty-looking but my goodness its so stupid, with Ensign Tully (the podgy ginger one) wracked with self-doubt repeatedly babbling nonsense to quell her nerves while her commander (whatever his name is) calmly reassures her endlessly.

Anyway they make freinds with the locals – one of whom, like the sad git last week spending 40 years in his literal waiting room, has been waiting faithfully for the noble Federation to save their asses from criminal thugs who inevitably threaten our Discovery bunch. Fortunately Michelle Yeoh, Discovery’s resident bad-ass, turns up at literally the right moment to save the day (such lazy writing) and they are given a personal transporter gadget to return straight to the ship (yeah more lazy writing) and the repaired Discovery attempts to leave before being consumed by an alien ice creature (no lie) but they are struggling until another spaceship fortuitously arrives just in time (again, yet more lazy writing) and what do you know, the mysterious spaceship is commanded by their lost friend Michael Burnham, yep The Chosen One has saved the day again. The writing here is typically abysmal in its attempt to raise tension, I mean, literally a tractor beam suddenly picks up the Discovery and “Coms are back online!” and “Shields are back online!” followed by “Weapons armed and ready!” and the commander, Saru has to decide to fight or chat and his decision to chat is immediately vindicated when The Chosen One appears on the other end of the line. 

std4So I suppose everything is reset now and next weeks episode will resume the Chosen One Saga, and the episode really sank when Burnham’s face appeared on the communication screen to announce she was saving everyone, but at least this had its moments while it lasted. The lead criminal  Zareh (Jake Weber) is a definite highlight, a character that is interesting and hopefully will be a returning bad-guy. Star Trek: Discovery is one of those shows that, bereft of interesting leads/characters (other than perhaps Michelle Yeoh, who is unfortunately always curtailed by the lousy writing  (“What you call pain, I call foreplay!”)), is only enlivened by interesting guest actors who tend to steal the show.


Whiplash (2014)

whip1I thought this film was terrifying. Seriously, I shrug off and laugh in the face of the grisliest of horror films (to be fair, they are often all just dafter the gorier they get) but this film about a young jazz-drummer wannabe being terrorised and bullied by his music teacher was absolutely horrifying. I still get uneasy chills thinking back to J K Simmons’ monstrous Terence Fletcher. His performance really got under my skin, so much so that thinking back on the film feels like a panic attack in itself. I can’t explain it, I feel nervous just writing this down. Scariest. Film. Ever. Its like one of those anxiety dreams that just intensifies as it progresses, my dream-self increasingly losing control as it descends into nightmare. While the film does unfortunately descend into exploitation territory at moments, possibly inevitably so really, considering what it depicts, nonetheless it is such a shocking exercise in relentless tension.  

Disturbingly, when Fletcher confides his reasoning to our unravelling hero Andrew (Miles Teller) “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job’” he grunts, one almost has to applaud him. He believes that praise and nurture are ultimately defeating, only from great suffering can one create a genius and Great Art. Those that fail (and he has destroyed the lives of students before) were simply unworthy, easily forgotten, and although he not yet managed to discover and bully a student capable of legendary greatness, at least he can say he tried. The sheer bloody hubris of the monster: he has the simplicity and perfection of Giger’s Alien. 

I’ve come to this film rather late, as the director Damien Chazelle went on to La La Land and First Man afterwards, films which I both enjoyed, and I’m not certain why it took me so long to get around to it-  Whiplash was clearly well-regarded, so its not like I was not curious. Maybe I knew deep down that it would get under my skin. Its a pretty amazing film, although I’m cautious regards stating that I really enjoyed it, it seemed such an ordeal in tension and I’m not sure I’ve quite recovered. 


Pity the Fanboys

fanb1I so wanted to like this; a comedy about a bunch of Star Wars fans who take a cross-country trip to break into Skywalker Ranch in 1998 so that their dying friend can see a rough cut of The Phantom Menace before he dies. Its a story about friendship and a shared love for Star Wars, a triumph of geekdom in a cold harsh world that shatters childhood dreams, a film about realities of adulthood and lost youth.

Or rather, it should have been. I’m not sure what it actually turned out to be, except that it wasn’t particularly funny, and wasn’t as involving and genuinely heartfelt as it could have been. The irony that the Grail these fanboys are after turns  out to be a pretty lousy movie (and that perhaps in the face of their geeky friendship and shared love of Star Wars, that doesn’t even really matter) is hardly touched upon. Maybe they’ll make a reboot someday about a bunch of fanboys on a road-trip to steal the only pre-release cut/copy of The Last Jedi will land the irony when they destroy it and save fellow fans the horror.

For some reason, the film chooses to degenerate into highlighting a geeky feud between Star Wars fans and Star Trek fans, persistently going back to this old joke as if to add some manic comedy action to the plot, add some pace to it. If anything this risks alienating the geek fanbase you’d think this film was being made for. Certainly the film works best when we laugh with our geek heroes rather than laugh at them, and the humour perhaps really shouldn’t lean towards humour at the expense of them. There is a tendency for the POV to be from an ‘ordinary’ non-fan perspective, ridiculing the fandom, which seems like a lazy joke.

While Fanboys was obviously made with the best of intentions (at least I hope it was) it is largely a misfire. Its enlivened by some nice cameos (William Shatner! Carrie Fisher! Billy See Williams! Kevin Smith! etc!) but they just feel all the more wasted in the end, because none of them are actually asked to do much or really inform the reason for their cameos (I did like the “I know” joke that sweetly highlights the Carrie Fisher cameo, and of course, just seeing her again is both lovely and sad, too). I mean, how do you waste a legendary ego like William Shatner with a one-scene cameo?

There’s a great Fanboys movie to be made someday, but I really think that to do it right, it might be more like Stand By Me in tone and execution, albeit starring middle-aged guys rather than kids or young adults; serious but warmly affectionate, a story about  lost childhood and a shared love for something that thrives utterly apart from Corporate billions, Box Office or critical infamy.  Just call it Class of ’77 and go with it, how can you lose?

Somebody call my agent, lol!

Re-discovering The Chosen One

stdHere we go again folks, with another season of Star Trek: Discovery, the lamentable Trek series that has alienated franchise fans possibly even more than The Last Jedi did Star Wars fans. So here we go. 

Michael Burnham is The Chosen One. She literally saved all life in the Galaxy (hallelujah baby) from an AI menace in season two that threatened to wipe out all organic life or some such nonsense (not the same AI menace that menaced humanity in Star Trek: Picard earlier this year but hey, the future seems to be rather troubled by wannabe Skynet’s). The Chosen One has now been thrown nearly 800 years into the future because she’s now The Chosen One to save the Federation after its, er, fallen apart in the intervening years thanks to some  preposterous ‘burn’ nonsense that nuked all its starships instantly.

Remember, this Chosen One saved all life in the galaxy before Kirk came around and took the limelight, but is curiously  a character who nobody ever heard of in all the Star Trek‘s ever made or written. The fact that she’s also the half-sister of Spock, who Spock never mentioned in all those years he featured in the various Trek incarnations…well, you’ll possibly see my problem. Its like the next Star Wars movie suddenly revealing that  Padmé Amidala (what do you mean, ‘who?’) actually had triplets not twins and that Luke and Leia had a sister called Lucy and thus we can benefit from yet another Skywalker Saga (Disney call my agent, ‘cos I’m copyrighting that goldmine of imagination).

I know, I know, I can positively see you rolling your eyes. Reading someone moaning about continuity or mythology of a genre show can be pretty tiresome, specially as regards a franchise as long-running as Star Trek or, say, something like Dr Who. Its a hopeless task I suppose, and I’m certain most fans of any particular franchise would allow some leeway, but if you’re going to do something Trek, you should at least sow some indication of actually trying. The guys behind Discovery seem hellbent on alienating what would traditionally be expected to be its core audience, which has always seemed odd, but maybe that’s just something borne of laziness. But nonetheless, at least treat it with some respect.

 The people behind Discovery really don’t respect its core franchise fanbase. I really don’t think they consider them at all, in all honesty.

So anyway, what’s The Chosen One been up to? Well, she’s fallen out of a Wormhole into The Future in her Iron Man suit, sorry, Time Travel suit and she just happens to have arrived near a planet (which is handy, because space is, like, 99.9% empty space and is mostly the void between stars so, you know, better near a planet than middle of nowhere without a space ship, what are the odds?) and hey, talking about space ships, there’s a space battle that just happens to be going on between two ships and The Chosen One crashes into the one being chased and -bang- she wrecks it but naturally her Iron Man suit, sorry, Time Travel suit is built to withstand massive space collisions even if space ships aren’t (the poor bastard crashes to the surface totally buggered) and not only that, but its also built to survive high-g re-entry into a planets atmosphere and, yes indeedy, a crash-landing at those incredible velocities into solid ground with the wearer hardly suffering a, er, achy achy back. Its like the goddam show is daring you to throw the remote at the screen and kill your telly.

std2Oh sod it that’s enough already. I can’t be bothered with the rest, especially the prologue that ripped off the opening of the BSG reboot,  with an amateur Federation wannabe spending 40 years -40 goddam years!- like some moron going to the office every goddam morning without a day off waiting for someone to walk in and save the Federation. Yeah guess who’s that someone. Go on, have a guess.

I’ll see you after episode Two.

The Curse of la Llorona (2019)

curseIf one were to consider all the different genre of film, there’s a very good argument that the genre saddled with the worst films is that of horror. Which may seem a little odd, as the genre is also possibly the most popular film genre over the years – Westerns had their time, as did Musicals, but horror films have been pretty constant for all the decades of film. Perhaps the most forgiving fan-base then, which is just as well, because…

Alas, The Curse of la Llorona turns out to suffer the curse of bad horror movies. as its quite cringe-worthy rubbish. Nothing really works- the premise is beyond daft (and to be honest, makes little sense, even though it is supposedly based on a real Mexican legend- maybe it was lost in the execution/translation). The acting is as dire as the script- both typical of strictly b-movie fodder with no apparent pretensions otherwise. As far as direction is concerned, its a film that focuses entirely on jump-scares and loud quick-cuts to unsettle audiences, losing entirely any real sense of tension and horror. Its one of those films throughout which I was desperately detached and the only good thing about the film was that, typical of this genre, it was mercifully short.

You don’t see too many three-hour horror movies, although there are times that they are so interminable that the feel like three hours long. About the best I can say about this film was that, it did indeed feel pretty short and I’m confident quite forgettable.