The Crown Season Two (2017)

crown 2Last March when I finally took the Netflix plunge, one of the reasons to do so was to watch season two of The Crown, season one of which had wowed me on blu-ray several weeks earlier. Here we are almost a year later, and I’ve only now gotten around to watching its second season. Partly this is an indication of all the other content on there distracting me, but also the strange thing about The Crown; it isn’t the most enticing thing to me in prospect, but when watching it, it gets its hooks into you and is surprisingly brilliant. On paper it should be a fairly horrid soap opera about a dysfunctional family in a modern open society paradoxically plagued by class and entitlement, and of course that’s exactly what it is, but it’s fascinating nonetheless.

Its a curious dichotomy- I am no Royalist and hate celebrity culture etc and see no reason for someone to be revered simply from chance of birth and certainly have no belief in any divine right to a life of privilege etc.  So watching this I’m always as likely to cheer Lizzie’s moral fortitude as boo and hiss at her inability to dress herself or open doors, grimace at her oaf of her husband’s self-entitled behavior or sneer at the cowering sycophants that are her aides. Its like a love/hate relationship and no show gets me grumbling/shouting at the screen as much as this one does- it’s clearly an ideal candidate for Gogglebox (I suppose it’s been a subject, but I hate reality tv with a passion too so have no idea).

But as an historical drama, mapping out, from her perspective, the events of the second half of the 20th Century, its utterly captivating and enthralling. Season two continues the series account of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II and the family and politics surrounding her and it’s a vividly convincing depiction of 1950s/1960s Britain and its place in the world. Indeed, it’s those times and those key events that are the real draw, and far more interesting than the family themselves- although, mind, there is no doubt a morbid interest in its dysfunctional machinations.

Its exquisitely made. The cast are very good, the art direction impeccable, the costumes, the sets, the visual effects hugely impressive, the music very fine (including some brilliant choices in classical music to support the very ‘School of Zimmer’ score). Its brilliant, enthralling television on a subject that should really leave me cold, and that’s the genuine magic of this show. If Netflix manage to see it through to its six-season plan, it should be a major benchmark for period drama; the recasting every two seasons of (I assume) all the cast is a brave and challenging move, mind. I’ve grown quite attached to Claire Foy’s depiction of the young Queen and will be fascinated by any issues reconnecting to the character when played by Olivia Coleman from season three onwards. Afterall, is it the character or the actress playing her that demands the most credit? Our connections to characters and the actors playing them is a curious amalgam of talent and chemistry, and just as our relationships with various incarnations of Dr Who or Batman will testify, some run hot some cold and it’s going to be interesting to see if the format and creative team behind the show is the real pull or if some viewers will turn away. For my part, I do have a particular fascination with the Britain of the 1950s and 1960s, in some ways it all seeming like some magical other planet, so strange and yet also familiar, and do wonder if the 1970s will hold the same interest.

Historical accuracy, particularly regards the intimate details of the Royal family, will always be subject to some debate, but the scripts are very well written, each individual episode very often a brilliantly constructed story all of its own,  and I look forward to season three with great interest. In some ways, The Crown seems just as much a creative juggernaut as Game of Thrones, as if obeying and subject to a whole different set of rules to other television.


Velvet Buzzsaw (2019)

velvetNetflix’ latest movie, Velvet Buzzsaw, has a great premise (basically, it is In the Mouth Of Madness replacing an author and his books with an artist and his paintings) but surprisingly, it pretty much fails dismally in its execution. One of its issues is its lack of focus- on the one hand it’s a satire on the artworld (similar parallels in how The Neon Demon was ostensibly about the world of fashion) and on the other hand, it’s a horror story about paintings, er, possessed by evil and about as hokey as some of the 1970s Amicus/Hammer horrors that might suggest.

Even the title suggests the messy state of the final film. Its a great title, sure, but there’s a sense they had the title before they had the film, shoehorning it in with an offhand reference to a character’s role in a 1980s counterculture band that has no further bearing upon the film at all, other than a tattoo featured in an awkward ‘obligatory because all horror films do it’ sting prior to the end credits.

There’s clearly a sense that the film-makers knew the story of a dead artist whose life’s work is possessed by his spirit, and that all who profit by it will die in horrible fashion, is a terribly unsophisticated premise and far below the talent involved. Its not the first horror film derailed by its talent thinking that the genre is beneath them.  It does appear that to maintain the film-makers interest there’s all this artworld commentary about millionaire dealers profiting on high-society sophisticates investing in art not because of its beauty but because of its worth, and  the shallowness that suggests. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and money corrupts all, those old tropes being the central theme of the film. One art dealer berates art critic (and film protagonist) Jake Gyllenhaal for a negative review thats costs him big money in a deal. The orbits of all these artists and dealers around the opinions of Gyllenhaal’s character is ironic, in the sense that Gyllenhaal himself, like most critics, has no apparent talent himself in the field upon which he is commentating (Gyllenhaal, by the way, is brilliant in this, and deserves to be in a better film) and that Gyllenhaal’s entire career is dependant upon the talents of those he can make or break. Indeed there’s no doubt a meta-irony here that I’m criticising a film when I have no film-making talent/training either, but what’s all us bloggers to do? The film doesn’t really explain why it is Gyllenhaal’s opinion, as opposed to any other art critic, that seems to be so important to everyone, but I suppose that’s true of most leading critics in whatever field they work in. In the end, it’s all ephemeral, except the money. Its all about the money, although everyone would deny it (except Rene Russo’s art dealer, maybe).

Its interesting how this satire commentary depicts the art world and its avarice and corruption- and then gets saddled with this strictly average horror film, in that this highbrow film-making team seems to be looking down on the horror genre as if it’s too easy and formulaic yet that’s what beats them. John Carpenter is no average film-maker; it takes a keen eye and surprisingly adept skill to succeed as he did in the horror genre and it’s foolish to under-appreciate the difficulty making a good horror film. This film is competently made; it’s got a great (largely wasted) cast and great cinematography (the HDR really sings) and in those respects it’s a far better film than Carpenter’s In  the Mouth of Madness, but as a horror film its woefully inferior.

Not a total waste, then, but distinctly a wasted opportunity considering the talent involved, and a salient reminder that Carpenter is some kind of genius and he should be making some Netflix movies of his own, if only someone, or some project, could get him interested again. In some ways, with Netflix giving filmmakers such apparent riches and creative control without the nemesis of cinema box-office, this is the perfect time for Carpenter to be making his brand of low-budget/high-concept horror, but his apparent indifference to directing again confounds all. A Velvet Buzzsaw with him at the helm, hell, that’s a film I would love to see. But maybe the Age of Netflix came just a decade or two too late.

Feeling the Glow of a Netflix Binge

glow1.jpgIts been a rough few weeks, and particularly the last few days. It may not be the healthiest way to escape the realities of the world, but we retreated to Planet Netflix yesterday and this afternoon, watching the entire second season of Glow over the two days (eight episodes yesterday, the final two today).

I’m sure somebody must have a blog somewhere entitled ‘Adventures in Binge-Watching.’  It’s illuminating, how so many shows now are surely designed specifically for binge-watching. I certainly don’t think it’s as simple as just instantly dumping an entire season of a show on a service, whether it be Netflix or Amazon or iplayer (the BBC, who you’d think would be above such shenanigans, did it last year, putting up all the first series of Killing Eve on its iplayer service while concurrently airing the show on a traditional  weekly schedule on its ‘normal’ channel), and just expecting that people will devour it all at once. I think these modern shows are deliberately designed for binge-watching, whether it be the serial-arc writing across a season or the teasers/cliffhangers that are placed at the end of each installment.

There has been a subtle shift evident in structure. In the ‘old days’ of commercial episodic television, the writing required a sting or tease every twelve minutes or so, to signal the ad breaks and ensure that viewers stick around (and through those paying ads) to see what happened next. These days, the writing is more akin to a movie, with similar pacing, negating the need for those artificial twelve-minute stings and enabling a better flow- albeit with those old stings/cliffhangers being placed at the end of each episode. Similarly Netflix reinforce this by having a 5-second countdown to automatically start the next episode automatically: there’s been more than a few times that a new episode automatically begins and I think, ‘oh well, since its on I’ll just give it ten minutes to see what happens’ and then -boom- that next 40 minutes is toast and the whole ep has gone by.

Anyway, Glow was terrific. I’ll try to get a proper review posted sometime, but it’s definitely superior television- well scripted, acted, directed, funny, sad, and set in the 1980s. I’m a sucker for anything set in the 1980s. Here in the UK the 1970s were particularly grim and for my generation at least, the 1980s were our 1960s. Great films, cheesy films, great music, cheesy music, okay, sure, mostly cheesy television, and yep, lousy fashion, sure, but crikey, we even had totally amazing comics (Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, for cryin’ out loud- nothing has come close since). Maybe its because I’m looking back from the particularly dystopian vantage point of 2019, but looking back, the 1980s were mostly great. And yeah, Glow is great.


2018 Review: December

So here we come to the end of the line for 2018, as December finally draws to a close.

Mandy – a decent Nic Cage movie? Its like my whole world-philosophy has come crashing down.

Witness for the Prosecution– Billy Wilder never fails.

Ant-Man and the Wasp– hey, this was quite fun and cunningly ingenious in its effects/execution. All too often these days we tend to dismiss visual marvels as ‘clever CGI’ as if that’s the simplest thing in the world, but sometimes I have to just step back and consider just how tricky some of this stuff must be to pull off. The damnedest thing is how they make it seem so, well, casual, almost.

Creed– this was particularly interesting, partly as a film in its own right but also as some kind of commentary on film franchises and our connections with them over decades, as if there was some kind of meta-reality at work. Possibly the farthest thing from the creators minds, or maybe not, but it did lend this film a particular sense of pathos that was quite effecting.

The First: Season One– a ‘Martian adventure turned into decent tv show’ shocker. I only hope we get to see a second season, because if this thing gets cancelled the irony will be written all over those inferior tv shows about Mars that got sophomore outings.

The China Syndrome– I appreciate he leaves some cold, but Jack Lemmon in a film I haven’t seen before is an experience I find irresistable and rather life-affirming, like an extra-special Christmas present- which was rather apt considering I watched this in December, I guess.

The Equalizer 2 – inferior to the original, but interesting enough to warrant its existence, and Denzel finally going the sequel route. Just goes to show, Hollywood gets them all, in the end.

Star Trek: Discovery – its a sci-fi series, Jim, but its not Star Trek, at least not as we know it. Shame that.

Cam– a surprisingly above-average thriller with a Black Mirror vibe.

Bird Box – while its apparently inferior to A Quiet Place, which I haven’t seen yet, I did enjoy this.

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch – there’s really such a lot of meta-reality/nature of reality/PKD shenanigans going on in this interactive film, in which the interaction itself is some kind of commentary on the themes and subtext of the thing, really, its enough to induce a headache.

So anyway, that’s the end of this 2018 Review. I’ll leave the stats totals for number of posts/visits for another post later on, but the immediate big news, mind, is this- that Bandersnatch review was my 103rd review for something ‘new’ this year. Yes indeedy, strike up the fanfare- I passed the 100 milestone for just the second time ever on this blog.  Considering some of the things going on in the Real World Out There, on a personal level that’s really some achievement. And no, that doesn’t mean I’m going to target some damned fool number like 150 next year.




Two Christmas movies…

I seldom if ever get chance to watch a film over Christmas, visiting family etc takes care of filling days that are just too short and exhausting. Christmas’ of old that I remember so fondly for watching Jack Lemmon films or film noirs or sci-fi b-movies are a distant memory, back when I was a youngster on long school holidays, not married middle-age and a few days off work.

However, I did manage to watch two very special Christmas movies just prior to the holidays- back on the 23rd I watched Its a Wonderful Life on blu-ray, and on Christmas Eve I watched Die Hard on 4K UHD. Both films are fantastic Christmas movies. While Its A Wonderful Life is an established classic and a firm favourite of mine (bought the books, the soundtrack etc), it is something of an acquired taste for some (a query at work revealed some spouses turn it off at the opening scenes where the stars are talking to each other- have some people no soul?). The film is surely a fable for the modern age and as relevant now as it was when first made – indeed maybe more so considering Trump is dissing Santa to kids these days.  

Die Hard is a film I hadn’t seen for several years, somehow, and while Its A Wonderful Life is a Christmas staple pretty much every year, this was the first time I actually sat down with Die Hard at Christmas. Of course it’s a Christmas movie (although some argue that it isn’t) but beyond that, it’s a great action thriller that delivers excitement, laughs, shocks and surprises – particularly the surprising notion that 1980s films can feel so old-fashioned now. Old-fashioned in a good way, you understand- this was back in those pre-CGI days when the script and characterisation took preference over the action and noise, but I think I’m reaching the end of the line when a 1988 film gets to feel old-fashioned, even if it is in a good way. Everything in Die Hard is finely tuned and while it isn’t perfect it’s damn near it, and while during the long dark nights of a moviegoers soul I’d take it to task for all the rip-offs inflicted upon us in the years since, that’s hardly the films fault.

Anyway, Die Hard remains the highlight of Christmas 2018 for me. I really did enjoy it, so much so I’ve already got it booked in for Christmas Eve 2019. Could be the start of a new seasonal tradition…

2018 Review: November

A few 4K UHD reviews  (Prince of Darkness and Superman: The Movie) opened the month, but as I’ve seen the films before on previous formats they didn’t count as ‘new’ reviews. Alas, that run broke with-

Pacific Rim: Uprising – A pale reboot in place of a ‘proper’ sequel, and a missed opportunity. Please don’t let them do something like this to my beloved BR2049.

You Were Never Really Here – Strange one this, I enjoyed it but it felt like it was an arthouse film too consciously trying to be a John Wick film, or maybe a John Wick film trying to be an arthouse film. In the end, it just fell somewhere in between.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs – Rather loved this. Typically wacky Cohen Bros film, only -gosh- a Netflix Original. 2018 will be forever remembered as the year of Netflix here at Ghost Hall.

Night of the Demon – This was simply brilliant, and another example that there are still great old movies out there to be discovered.

The Kominksy Method (Season One) – A very enjoyable (albeit all too Hollywood, but maybe that’s me being a miserable Englishman)  comedy series from, yes, Netflix.

Beyond Skyline – Beyond silly, but sort of fun, I guess.

So six new reviews, and a few posts about The Tree of Life (I saw the extended cut and really should have just given it a new proper review, but anyway, I really enjoyed it and waxed lyrical about it being like 2001), and a new Vangelis album, Nocturne, coming in the New Year like a late Christmas present, and in a strange case of history repeating, hot on the heels of a disappointing Jean Michel Jarre album. What’s new is old, or something like that. Bit like Christmas. Hang on….



Bird Box (2018)

bird1Netflix ends the year on something of a high, as this apocalyptic thriller is pretty solid stuff. Bird Box is based on a 2014 novel I have never heard of, and follows a reluctantly pregnant woman, Malorie (Sandra Bullock) on a journey to salvation over a five-year period during what is essentially the End of the World. Alongside Bullock, the film contains a pretty heavyweight cast (Trevante Rhodes, Tom Hollander, Sarah Paulson, John Malkovich) with a fairly high-profile director, Susanne Bier at the helm. I appreciate Netflix Originals might always have a hard time escaping a stigma of ‘straight-to-video’ and ‘tv movie’, but projects like this really should help break that. Besides, it also suggests that movies like this, which aren’t necessarily box-office gold by any means, can yet get made in a cinema environment dominated by noisy blockbuster franchise stuff- indeed, I think some mixed reviews of this generally stems from people expecting it to be something it isn’t (i.e. a huge ‘event’ horror blockbuster). Its really a character-based thriller rather than the graphic apocalyptic horror some might expect- although, that said, the early scenes of society crashing down are pretty graphic and convincing.

The talent involved both in front and behind the camera certainly suggests that Netflix might be onto something, and that perhaps something genuinely great might be in the offing someday. Bullock is very good in this film, with an interesting character arc and an involving performance, clearly taking the project very seriously.

Very often I was watching this wishing that The Walking Dead series (by now having descended into self-parody) had taken this route- I always like the dramatic tension of taking desperate characters and putting them in an enclosed space with a very real external threat. In The Walking Dead, the outside threat of the zombies has become almost a routine turkey shoot, we don’t feel the threat or smell the decay or the fear of, well, the walking dead overcoming everything. At least in Bird Box the apocalypse is horrible and scary, and wisely doesn’t explain everything. There is an awkward moment when one of the characters expresses what he thinks the unseen monster/s are and explains he did his research on the internet, but on the whole the film manages everything superbly well. I like the threat being unseen and unknown and largely unexplained- its the physical and mental results of that threat that drives things forward and I think leaving it unexplained helps. It could be demons, it could be aliens, in the end, it doesn’t matter.