The game’s all rigged

squid3Squid Game Season One, 2021, nine episodes, Netflix

I’m late to the party as usual (this show originally dropped in September last year), but I’m pleasantly surprised- Netflix’s survival horror/blood sport thriller Squid Game is actually worthy of the hype. Its part thriller, part satire, part crushing examination of the human condition – its both sophisticated and banal;  a quite remarkable combination. Its worldwide popularity – I believe its become Netflix’s most popular show, ever- suggests that its tensions of a growing underclass unable to get a job or pay their bills, lost under ever-growing debt, desperate enough to risk their lives for a windfall, has struck a chord in many. Makes one wonder the state of the world today if so many can so readily accept the premise of the poor killing each other for the entertainment of the minority wealthy ultra-elite.

So is Squid Game the television show of our times for our times?  What does that say of our post-Covid world, and of the evidently growing disparity between the rich and poor? There must be something universal about it, for it to be Netflix’s biggest show ever. Is life as rigged as the game depicted in this series, in which 456 enter, and only one can survive and win?

Its the old 1970s television show It’s A Knockout by way of the Roman Coliseum, or Takeshi’s Castle where failure equals death. Its The Hunger Games arguably without a hero to root for (we do root for someone but he’s hardly a hero, at one point betraying his friend and possibly the viewer too).

I’m not going to suggest that the series is perfect but it is very, very good. The cast is excellent and the art direction very impressive; the scale of the thing suggests that its a very expensive production. There are genuine surprises and shocks, moments that frustrate, moments that disturbingly remind us of those schoolyard politics we wish we’d forgotten. One of those shows full of cliff-hangers (its surely designed for binge-watching, no small part of its success I imagine) that lingers in ones head for days afterwards. Makes a nice change from that stuff that’s immediately forgotten,

I just wish it was a one-off, because I rather despair at what its success will make it- a major Netflix franchise, no doubt. Multiple seasons possibly diluting its impact, merchandising and spin-offs breeding contempt. But maybe that’s the final lesson of the show- if you’re dealt a bad hand, the misery of the game of life never ends.

It’s Dark in here

darks1Dark Season One, 2007, 10 Episodes, Netflix

I think I may be losing it; genre shows before never confused me like this one does- maybe its because it’s a German production, and its a cultural chasm or something, but there is something almost impenetrable about Dark. I don’t really mind shows being mystery boxes if they are done well, and there’s little reason to suggest this is actually one NOT done well, but nonetheless I got rather frustrated by this. I enjoyed it, certainly- but there was an undercurrent of what I believed to be unnecessary confusion throughout this first season that troubled me, and stopped me from thinking this was as good as it could have been, while being plagued by the suspicion that the failure was entirely mine.

At times I just felt like I needed a map, or a diagram, to ensure I knew who was who: I thought watching it in the original German would actually help with this, with me reading the names in the English-subtitled dialogue etc but it was a genuine struggle, and one that I felt should have been unnecessary. I kept wondering was it me, or the show (how it was edited etc), or the translated dialogue steering me wrong. In the old days of the original Twin Peaks show, the weekly instalments helped, being able to re-watch episodes I recorded on VHS and ponder over each one before the next followed- maybe binge-watching a show like this does shows like this a disservice, and of course, me avoiding spoilers meant I had to stay away from the possible hand-holding/explanations of the Internet- but should a series need that hand-holding and road-mapping? Twin Peaks always made sense, at least as far as knowing who was who.

Essentially, Dark is a drama about several families in a small German town which is situated close to a nuclear reactor, spread between three (maybe more) distinct time periods specifically separated by 33 years. Its part soap-opera, part crime mystery, part time-travel drama. 2019 is initially the ‘present day’ and then we see the same people in 1986 when similar events (involving missing children) occurred and later in the season we are in 1953: so children we see in 1953 are parents in 1986 and (usually) grandparents in 2019, and naturally in each period the characters are played by a different cast. Time seems to pass forwards the same, chronologically, for each time zone, so if its Nov 20th in 2019 its the same day in 1986, or at least, that’s how I think it transpired although looking back I think an episode does switch back a few days so…

So while the premise is fascinating it is always confusing, and for most of the season we don’t even get any text telling us which year we are in, we have to pick it up from visual clues, essentially fashions or the cast onscreen (other clues are music on the soundtrack, 80s pop songs etc) and then guessing how these characters relate not just to each other but their older variants, say in 2019 or their younger variants in 1986. Throw into the mix characters who seem to appear in the seperate time zones without any visible change re: ageing etc and one just gets… lost, frankly. I thought one character was somebody’s daughter and then learned she wasn’t, she was somebody else’s entirely and then couldn’t work out whose parents I was seeing, or who was married to who…

Its always rather fun to some extent, getting lost, and its often a pleasure to be left to flounder a little and not have everything explained in dialogue (as is the wont of most Hollywood product these days) but my patience started to wear a little thin at times. The overall mystery starts to make some sense as the series goes along but I have to admit that the undercurrent of confusion never really left me, and I’m sure I missed some things simply because I was wrong about who was who. Inevitably it had to have some impact on my enjoyment of the series. I’m going to take a little break before plunging into the second series (Dark is spread over three seasons), so I’m just hoping it gets easier as it goes.

A Lovecraftian Videodrome

archive81Archive 81 Season One, 2022, 8 Episodes, Netflix

Archivist Dan Turner (Mamoudou Athie) is offered a job restoring a collection of damaged videotapes recovered from a New York building fire of 1994. As he painstakingly restores each tape, playing each one to convert them to digital files for his mysterious boss/benefactor Virgil Davenport (Martin Donovan), Dan finds himself gradually opening up a mystery. The tapes were made by a documentary filmmaker, Melody Pendras (Dina Shihabi) and are a record of her investigation into a demonic cult before she died in the fire. As the horrifying mystery unravels across the tapes, Dan realises he is caught in a new conspiracy linked to those events of 25 years ago: and begins to doubt his sanity, or even reality, as the past and present begin to blur and the images on the monitor screens seem to take on a strange life of their own.

Archive 81 is one of those shows that seem to come out of nowhere- there is so much content dropped weekly on Netflix, I often wonder what I miss, never mind those shows that I KNOW I’ve missed that I haven’t gotten around to yet, like both seasons of The Witcher, all three seasons of Dark, its a list that is getting silly: there is only so much time. Is that the true legacy of the streaming wars- not so much watching everything we want to, but just somehow managing what time we have the best we can afford?

So to Archive 81 then; this is one of the best things I’ve seen in ages. How curious that having been blown away by Midnight Mass toward the end of last year that this year opens with another great horror series? Archive 81 is genuinely creepy and disturbing with some very effective twists and surprises and a brilliant premise that is part Videodrome, part Lovecraft – throw in some reality-shifting Philip K Dick and its a killer combination. This thing caught me right from the beginning, with its wonderful, moody soundtrack by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow (Ex Machina, Annihilation, Devs) and it just didn’t let up. Maybe part of it was the sense of nostalgia, with its use of videotapes and other arcane forms of media bringing pangs of longing (the scene where someone rips the shrink-wrap off a Scotch blank VHS tape!) that nobody born post-millennium can ever hope to understand. I’ve seen people look at old audio cassettes wondering what they are for or what they do: I wonder what they think about these plastic bricks housing brown tape.

So the premise is great, the scripts for each episode were all very good, the characters interesting, the casting excellent, the mood relentlessly tense. Its a brilliant eight-episodes-over-three-nights binge watch but then… but then… Well, you know what’s coming, don’t you. The only thing that spoiled Archive 81 was, they didn’t stick the landing- the ending was nowhere near as satisfying as that of Midnight Mass, and proved something of a let-down. Not that it wasn’t good, its just that… well, it wasn’t an ending.

The showrunners felt the need to leave things open for a second season, teasing us instead of… Well, its hardly anything new in the world of television. I suppose so many shows get pitched and never see the light of day, its got to be tempting that, once you’ve got the greenlight you try keep it going as long as you can. But I did feel it compromised Archive 81, robbing it of the finale it deserved- you know, like a finale that had a definitive ending, damn it. You can have that and still leave a cheeky tease, but how episode eight ends…

They could have been a little smarter, and maybe braver. I rather suspect we’re just going to get a  Archive 81 Season Two, but you know, we could have gotten Archive 82 or Archive 88 instead.

Don’t get me wrong, its not a deal-breaker and Archive 81 is absolutely worth your time but while its very, very good, its just frustrating that it could have been bloody great. What is it with storytelling these days? Is ‘The End’ becoming something like a dirty word now?

The 2021 sort-of Statfest and my Top Ten

greenknightWell, 2021 is drawing to a close (or has already passed, depending upon when you’re reading this) and I had a few genuine questions myself regards the year’s viewing. Primarily I was curious regards the years of the films I was watching- it seemed like I was watching quite a lot of ‘old’ films this year, mostly because of lots of catalogue disc releases and my increasing fascination with all things noir (yeah, that kind-of blew up my attempts to curb disc purchases this year), and I was wondering how it all measured up.

So anyway, I went through my list of films I watched for the first time in 2021 and how they split up across the decades and here’s how it pans out-

1920s films- nil

1930s films- nil

1940s films- 13

1950s films- 23

1960s films- 10

1970s films- 3

1980s films- 2

1990s films- 1

2000s films- 2

2010s films- 27

2020s films- 42

Its inevitable that the 2020’s dominate- that’s mostly films from this year premiering on Netflix and Amazon Prime, or films caught on disc which I missed at the cinema such as the latest Bond, so films in this group were always going to be the biggest number. What did surprise me, frankly, was the paucity of 1970s/1980s/1990s films but upon thinking about it, it made sense. As I grew up in those decades my viewing experiences have primarily been of films from those years so there’s few left that I want to see that I haven’t seen. Which is nonsense, I’m certain that are great films from those decades I have yet to see but its really a case of stumbling upon them now, and most of the films I missed during those years was from choice as they didn’t appeal to me then and few of them do now. 

The second-largest group of films is from the decade prior, the 2010s, and again, that’s mostly Netflix and Amazon Prime. I think its fair to say the majority of content on the streaming platforms is post-Millennium stuff as that is what is perhaps most relevant to viewers, rightly or wrongly. Its certainly pressing upon me just how old today’s generation seems to think the films I grew up with are; to me they actually still feel recent, but its an inescapable fact that a film from 1982 is as old to viewers today as the Errol Flynn-starring The Adventures of Robin Hood was to me when I watched Star Wars back in 1978. Or another way of looking at it- Star Wars is as old today as the 1933 King Kong was back in 1977. 

the killers3The biggest other decades of films that I watched for the first time in 2021 date from the 1940s and 1950s, and this is where all those noir box-sets and other boutique Blu-ray purchases kick in. There’s some absolutely brilliant, classic films amongst this bunch that I had never seen before and feel all the better for having finally caught up with. Films of the 1940s like The Killers, Criss Cross, Gun Crazy, and films from the 1950s like The Garment Jungle, The Lineup, and Pushover to highlight just a few. Its clear to me that the films from these decades are generally of a much higher quality than the films from the 2020s., a group littered with soulless Netflix Originals and typical by-the-numbers blockbusters. I can certainly imagine re-watching many of these 1940s/1950s films next year whereas most of the 2020s films are better soon forgotten.

Which brings me to my favourite films of the year; I don’t usually do a Top Ten but I thought I’d give it a shot. I’m not going to list them in preference as getting a list of ten films is bad enough, actually narrowing it down to an actual order of favourite is just a nightmare. So in no order, here’s ten films I consider my favourite, most enjoyable discoveries from my 2021 viewing-

Nobody (2021)– my favourite action film of the year featuring the unlikeliest actor in an action role, Bob Odenkirk, absolutely nailing it and proving the sorcery that is casting. If films were cookery recipes, this one one would obviously be ounces of John Wick mixed with ounces of Taken and a dash of Die Hard etc thrown in- its not too far removed from any film starring Liam Neeson these days so while its nothing astonishingly original it distinguishes itself apart from what is fast becoming a derivative genre by just being… well, quite brilliant. It just works in the same way as Die Hard does; its a little bit of cinematic perfection. 

Dune (2021)– a film spoiled badly by its sudden (albeit inevitable) ending, which only gets healed in a few years when Part Two arrives. The irony that what makes it so great (being shot as two films rather than try squeeze too much into one film, as Lynch had to do in 1984) is also what handicaps it so badly, isn’t lost on me. Even as it is, the film felt too short, still having to cut out so much material (which hopefully may feature in Part Two). I loved the cast, I loved the huge sense of scale, the cinematography and the brutalist art direction… Villeneuve’s Dune does so much so right, but totally fluffs the ending. I still can’t work out what they were thinking. Villeneuve hates streaming and seems to dislike the Marvel method, but releases a film that screams modern-blockbuster tease as loud as any comicbook caper and seems designed for the streaming boxset experience. Maybe he was in a no-win situation, but I think I’d have preferred more screen time pre-Harkonnen attack and actually end the film with Paul and Jessica fleeing into the desert, with Paul maybe vowing revenge and closing with a triumphant Baron over the Duke’s dead body. Imagine that.

Red Notice (2021) – nah, only kidding.

The Green Knight (2021)– I really enjoyed this, it felt like a modern-day revisit of John Boorman’s Excalibur, historical myth as dreamlike fable that isn’t intended to wholly make sense or purport to be anything like reality. It looked absolutely gorgeous and would love to own it on 4K disc someday. There’s every chance subsequent viewings won’t be as rewarding, but when I watched this it just blew me away, it was so strange and unusual, with some arresting moments that took my breath away- so it qualifies for my top ten.

Hidden Figures (2016)– there must be a sub-genre now of films about the Apollo missions and everything that led up to the landing on the moon, and this film is one of the finest on the subject that I’ve yet seen. It works as an (unintended) companion piece to Damien Chazelle’s First Man and Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 in such a wonderful way; blessed with a sharp script, and heartfelt performances from a simply marvellous cast. So good I had to go buy the 4K disc almost immediately, a disc I really should watch soon. A fantastic film.

strangers1Strangers When We Meet (1960) – One of the discoveries of this year for me was Kim Novak, an actress I knew from Hitchcock’s classic Vertigo but little else, other than the 1980s Falcon Crest television series (which in particular would hardly suggest anything positive). Well I was doing the actress a genuine disservice, and this film in particular may have been one of her best roles. I found this to be a profoundly sad film; a drama about a married couple having an affair, it probably wasn’t scandalous in 1960 never mind today, but it certainly hasn’t dated as much as one might think, and what made it work for me was the real-life reputation of womaniser Kirk Douglas and the wholly sympathetic performance of Novak. The vividly-captured world of late-1950s America, on the cusp of the 1960s is one of the films charms (see also as a counterpoint the late-1960s drama The Swimmer, starring Burt Lancaster, another film whose appeal is partly the whole milieu of a surprisingly distant world). Douglas is fine, and possibly admirably stretching himself, but Novak is just brilliant in this though, a beautiful woman trapped in a distinctly man’s world. 

The Killers (1946) – Watching the first ten minutes of this Robert Siodmak film is almost the very definition of falling in love with a film; it starts in such a dark and moody fashion and masterfully sets up a mystery to grab hold of. This mystery, gradually solved by flashback accounts in a Citizen Kane fashion, doesn’t really live up to that opening section, but The Killers remains a tight-packed, very noir drama that blew me away. They really don’t make ’em like they used to. 

crisscrossCriss Cross (1949)– Which brings us to Criss Cross, reuniting Burt Lancaster with director Robert Siodmak in a clear attempt to recapture the success of their earlier film. I actually preferred this over The Killers – it features another Burt Lancaster character who is doomed but I found this actually more successful, possibly because its narrative was generally more traditionally told in linear fashion but mostly because the characters were more convincing. Its a tragedy writ large in noir black and white, with a brutal ending that is… well I’m still recovering from it. They don’t end ’em like they used to.

The Lineup (1958) -a film that starts out as one thing, but then becomes another- that kind of spin always appeals to me. Its rather like having the rug pulled from under your feet, something all too rare. Here Don Siegel transforms what is essentially an unremarkable police procedural in its early stages into a haunting nightmare of crazy hitmen loose in a San Francisco mostly lost now (the film almost as much an historical document as it is a dramatic piece, featuring landmarks now gone). Eli Wallach and Robert Keith as the psychopathic killers are something of a revelation, and its true, you can fall in love with a film just from one shocking moment – here one featuring a wheelchair and an instant of violence shocking and unexpected and, well, perfect. 

On Dangerous Ground (1951) – Alongside ‘discovering’ Kim Novak, this year seems to be the year I wised up to the genius of Robert Ryan, who just seemed to turn up in so many of the films I’ve seen this year (Crossfire, House of Bamboo, The Racket, Born to be Bad). Here he’s a bitter detective who has been brutalised by his job, having seen too much of the worst of humanity, who finds salvation in the love of a blind woman whose brother he is hunting down. Like The Lineup, its a film that seems to be one thing which then spins into something else- in this case, a thriller turning into a romance. It seems unlikely but it works, and much of this is thanks to Ryan’s performance. Ryan was wildly successful in film, in a career that lasted over three decades until his too-early passing at the age of just 63, and I gather he was disappointed in the roles given him, but I think he’s been quite brilliant in every film I’ve seen him in. There’s a dark intensity to his face and performances which left him largely cast as a villain and not the leads he felt he deserved, and he might have been right, but it seems he left a formidable body of work that I’ll hopefully discover more of in 2022.

gia2The Garment Jungle (1957)- I’m not sure why, but this film left such a mark on me. Perhaps its the performances, as it features Lee J Cobb, Robert Loggia and Kerwin Mathews in brilliant form in a tense noir with genuine twists- its certainly a solid film. But perhaps its more the haunting beauty of Gia Scala, an actress whose life is one of those Hollywood tragedies that lingers on because they are frozen in time in celluloid. Just on the strength of her role here, one would think Gia would have become a superstar, but due to real-life problems with depression (and, I gather, alcohol addiction, oh so Tinsletown) it was not to be, and she was found dead from an apparently accidental overdose at just 38 years in 1972 (although her sister would contest her death as suspicious, in similar manner to how some consider Marilyn Monroe’s death). Watching her frozen in time in The Garment Jungle, so talented and beautiful with the world surely at her feet, is a rather disturbing experience knowing what befell her later. She deserved better, but in life and Hollywood there is no ‘deserved’, there is just ‘is’; a fittingly noir thing to contemplate as I round off this top ten with another noir. One last thought- were women simply more beautiful back then in that era?

So that’s ten favourite films. Whether its even THE top ten of 2021 is another matter, but looking through my list of what I’ve watched this year, it looks about right regards which films I enjoyed the most. A pretty good year of films, really. I think its inevitable that I find more recent viewing (The Last Duel, No Time to Die for instance) hard to qualify as I haven’t absorbed them enough or had the time to properly judge them, whereas many of the films in that top ten have been bouncing around in my head for months in that way only the best films and performances do.  

 

Don’t Look Up (2021)

don'tlookup1Hollywood has taught us that, come the threat of a planetary extinction event, we’ve simply nothing to worry about- humanity will clearly do the right thing, either the best of NASA saving us (Deep Impact) or NASA instead enlisting brave deep-core drillers to do what needs to be done (Armageddon). Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up, a not-so festive treat from Netflix, suggests the opposite- that humanity won’t be interested, unable to turn its attention from its social media, mobile phones and televisions long enough to even notice Doomsday is near.

Its an interesting conceit, and one born of the apparent grudging public and political interest over the last few decades in climate change and environmental disaster. Scientists and eco-warriors have been shouting for years about melting glaciers and extreme weather events, but few seemed to notice and politicians were more concerned with, well, more pressing concerns like being popular and getting re-elected. Even now, with the Doomsday Writing apparently up on the wall and all over our television news and documentaries, the world seems slow to change tack. The added dominance of social media’s distractions, and contrary ‘experts’ keen to bestow their personal wisdoms on Twitter and YouTube (never mind lobbyists with their own agendas/interests) has clouded the issue no end. McKay seems to suggest that humanity is doomed; we are simply incapable of waking up and smelling the coffee, whether it be environmental disaster or a 9-kilometre rock hurtling at us through space.

The idea is fine, and its a pretty decent premise for a particularly dark comedy, one with a decent and timely message regards the dangers of social media, celebrity culture, the extremely rich and powerful elite, and who we choose to listen to. Unfortunately though it goes rather astray in this bloated, overlong film that is so filled with star turns that it seems rather the Its a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World of disaster movies.  Indeed, it could just as easily have been titled It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad End of the World– Stanley Kramer’s road-chase comedy filled with comedy star celebs of its day transposed to a disaster flick filled with so many stars of our own that it threatens to sink under the weight of slumming egos. I only thank God that it inexplicably doesn’t include Will Ferrell. How was he too busy?

Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Cate Blanchett, Meryl Streep, Mark Rylance, Tyler Perry, Ariana Grande, Jonah Hill, Timothée Chalamet, the puppets of Sesame Street and several other notable thespians feature in a film stuffed with A-list talent like a veritable Netflix Christmas Turkey. Its well-intentioned and not all of the cast make fools of themselves, but like the 1963 madcap comedy that it reminded me of, its just too much, too bloated….it lacks the focus to really land its message, its ‘jokes’. DiCaprio is excellent as astronomer Dr Mindy whose assistant Kate Dibliasky brings to his attention her discovery of a giant comet hurtling towards Earth, and the film would probably have been all the better for dropping the majority of the supporting cast to instead focus on the scientists misadventures trying to warn the world. Their story is indeed the central plotline but it gets blurred by all the attention given to Meryl Streep’s career-politician President, more concerned with her own re-election and a brewing political scandal, and Mark Rylance’s tech guru who dooms the world with his own agenda (power/wealth/empty promises). 

This film lacks the deft touch of someone like Douglas Adams, whose Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in its various forms, pretty much delivered the same message with much more skill and humour, and without spending $75 million to do it. I did quite enjoy Don’t Look Up, indeed far more than I had expected to from what I gather has been a pretty poor critical reception. It just wasn’t as funny or as dramatic as it should have been- its sunk by the attention-grabbing casting, the feeling of elite celebs doing their bit for a good cause before jumping back into their private jets to fly to their huge mansions of endless bathrooms, gigantic television screens and garages full of luxury, gas-guzzling sports cars, ignorant that their elite lifestyles and own social media accounts might actually be part of the problem the film is essentially rallying against. Maybe that’s the meta-joke that slips past every-ones heads. Maybe I’m taking it all too seriously, but honestly, with this film the jokes on everyone.

See you never again, Space Cowboy, etc

Anyone else get excited to see that Denis Villeneuve has apparently signed-on to direct a film adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama? I think I’m actually more intrigued by this than I am Dune Part Two. Curious timing though; any such Rama film would have to be some four to five years away, and Villeneuve has been talking about a Dune Messiah movie. You need the patience of a Jedi these days, and I have to say, none of us are getting any younger.

arrival bookWhilst mentioning Villeneuve, I spotted a book coming out next February, a very belated tie-in for his film Arrival. The Art and Science of Arrival seems to be in the same vein as Tanya Lapointe’s previous Blade Runner 2049 and Dune books, and since its currently due out in my birthday month…  

Lapointe seems to be chasing after the film tie-in crown of the late J.W.Rinzler (damn you, 2021) and she’s gradually taking over the real estate of my bookshelf.  I’ll always think that the passing of Rinzler robbed us of the definitive’ making of’ Blade Runner book; it probably would never have happened, but one could dream of a Rinzler Making of Blade Runner as easily as dreaming of Electric Sheep, and it would surely have been something truly special.

The news that Netflix has already -already! after just THREE weeks!- cancelled its live-action Cowboy Bebop, which I actually quite enjoyed… well I suppose that’s either definitive proof that I’m way off the cultural zeitgeist -someone will be telling me that Disney’s Star Wars films are film classics next- or I’m smarter than everyone else (okay, okay, yes I’m utterly irrelevant, stop reading this now). While the show was clearly not perfect, I suspect its production in the midst of a full-blown pandemic could mark it as a Covid Casualty. I still think for all its flaws it had some promise, was pleasantly different to most other genre stuff we see lately (usually dark, serious and overblown, as if everything has to be Game of Thrones written from a JJ Abrams typewriter), and might have found its proper footing in a second season. I don’t get it with Netflix- they don’t seem so occupied with viewing figures/ratings like ordinary networks are, so if its worth investing in a ‘new’ property (I’m using the term ‘new’ loosely in these reboot/remake days) surely its worth backing that up with a second season? Bad enough I’m going to be waiting forever for a Mindhunter season three. Maybe I should cool down my expectations for the Netflix Conan.

Coming full circle to all things Villeneuve, Amazon Italy put my 4K copies of Dune and The Last Duel (hey, Ridley gets a mention, and hopefully a film review here, before the end of 2021!) through the letterbox so I know what I’ll be watching this weekend, and with the 4K disc of No Time to Die hopefully arriving Monday, crikey, Christmas has indeed come early. Hopefully the next lockdown won’t follow suit…

Lost in Space Season Three (2021)

loasts3Attentive readers will likely recall my glowing reviews of the surprisingly good Season One and Season Two of the Lost in Space reboot.  Season Three is the end of the series (kudos to Netflix for letting the show run its course and not cut it short like they have done the recent Cowboy Bebop) so I guess the question is, did they stick the landing?

Well, that’s a tricky one really. There is some weird expectation -maybe its just a general narrative thing, maybe its a Game of Thrones thing- that a series finale has to be some big epic event, a grand conclusion to leave fans buzzing. Its the way they mostly went with Lost in Space, and I’ll be honest, I could have been forgiven during the last two episodes for  thinking I was watching a Marvel movie: infact, it DID occur to me a few times. There are some big climactic moments, particularly during what amounts to a huge battle between good and bad robots across a desolate battlefield of fire and smoke and destruction, where it looked like something from the climax Avengers: Endgame, complete with ‘hero shots’ of human characters posing in essentially slow-motion moments, that felt very ‘Marvel movie’. And sure, for a television show to even approximate that is achievement in itself, even if it is a show made with what I imagine is an inflated Netflix budget. But was that good for the show?

It just made me question why the showrunners felt the need to go large like that, to go so epic. Personally I see so much CGI spectacle now, it quickly gets boring no matter how well its executed, its just a distraction from what should be more genuine drama. There’s a sense that its just a ticking of boxes- bigger explosions, crazier stunts, noisier music- that ruins so many blockbuster movies now. Blockbuster movies used to be a term referring to movies that had crowds queuing around city blocks, like in the glory days of Jaws or Star Wars in the 1970s, but these days its seems to be describing films as loud and noisy as a city block collapsing in an explosion, and its something increasingly infecting television shows all the time too. One of the most depressing things about Star Trek: Discovery (thank goodness I won’t be seeing that show’s latest season since Netflix dropped it) is how much it felt it needed bigger and bigger spectacle, at the expense of actual ideas (or rather it excused its lack of ideas and good writing by blindsiding viewers with flashy vacuous visuals).

To be sure, season three of Lost in Space is visually amazing, as the show always has been. Its production design -sets, costumes, hardware- has always been top-notch, and I’d argue its visual effects have been some of the very best I’ve ever seen on a television show. Its always been a very cinematic series, very strong indeed. But I also think that, some irritating character arcs aside, the series was at its best with regards its characters, especially the dynamic between the young Will Robinson (Maxwell Jenkins) and the Robot, which is something one would certainly expect from a Lost in Space show and one of the reasons this reboot has been so enjoyable. While that isn’t entirely lost in this series conclusion I think it did lose its way, fell out of focus as the show became distracted by trying to become a big Marvel movie. 

Which is why I had mixed feelings as regards season three. It certainly had its moments and the finale largely worked, minus some major plot-holes that irritated me no end which I guess I was supposed to ignore amongst all the CGI and noise. Maybe I should be prepared for more of the same, maybe its just how things are done now. I hear a live-action Blade Runner series is in the works… must say that makes me more than a little nervous, but perhaps much of this is just symptomatic of increasingly poor writing/box-ticking and maybe studio expectations. 

Just because you can do something, visually with all the tools film-makers have now, doesn’t mean one necessarily should- I think that’s a lesson taught us by George Lucas and his Star Wars special editions back in the late 1990s, but here we are and it still hasn’t been heeded. Character-based drama always wins out, but that relies upon a sophistication of writing seemingly lost to the current generation. An army of Replicants, a series of Spinner-Car chases… is that what Blade Runner in future incarnations is destined to become? Likewise an army of Aliens rampaging the Earth in a mooted Alien series, no doubt. Perhaps Lost in Space got away lightly after all.

The 2021 List: November

I think it’s time we blow this scene, Get everybody and the stuff together
OK, 3, 2, 1, let’s jam!

ahem. Sorry about that, I think my head has been rewired from watching all of that tv show over just four days. Here’s what was the good, the bad and the ugly of November-

Television

155) Cowboy Bebop (2021)

Film

135) The Village in the Woods (2019)

136) The Brothers Rico (1957)

137) The Contract (2006)

Sneakers (1992)

138) Major Dundee (1965)

139) Crossfire (1947)

140) Red Notice (2021)

141) Scandal Sheet (1952)

152) Carmilla (2019)

In The Mouth of Madness (1994)

153) Reminiscence (2021)

154) Born to Be Bad (1950)

Spider-Man (2002)

156) House of Bamboo (1955)

157) Leave Her to Heaven (1945)

One television show. Its funny, there’s quite a few television shows out right now that I haven’t gotten around to yet, and worse still, plenty I’ve missed over the past several months, but my focus of late still seems to be predominantly movies, and hey, films on disc even! Six of the above, in fact were on Blu-ray or 4K disc.  

Sadly, the worst of the bunch was the more recent ones- The Village in the Woods, Carmilla, Reminiscence and Red Notice… no, nothing much to see amongst that bunch (I think Reminiscence the best of a bad selection), and instead I was better rewarded by old films on catalogue releases (some more from that last Columbia Noir box, and Arrow’s Major Dundee, Masters of Cinema’s House of Bamboo) and a few noir dug up from obscure corners of cable channel scheduling and Amazon Prime. Amazon seems a surprisingly good source of old films, albeit they can be a little hard to dig up: I imagine most of them have monthly streaming figures lower than the fingers on my right hand, or the hits on my posts. 

Curiously, I did also manage to re-watch a few films I haven’t seen in awhile: I finally bought John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness on a German Blu-ray (so that’s the UK 4K release announcement due any day now), and I also bought Film Stories’ Blu-ray edition of Sneakers, a film I hadn’t seen since back in the cinema, and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, which I noticed last weekend had just three days left on a 4K presentation on Amazon Prime, intended to just watch the start and then two hours later wondered where the time had gone. One of the rare unplanned viewings that just happen: right film, right time… I was surprised how well it still held up. And of course horrified that the film is nigh on twenty years old already. That kind of thing is happening all the time now, I notice films I watched at the cinema or had on DVD and they feel quite recent initially, but when you dare look at release dates… well its true; ignorance is bliss, I’d be better off not looking. 

 

Cowboy Bebop (2021)

cowboy1Considering what seems to be prevailing opinion, I appreciate I’m in the minority when I state I really quite enjoyed Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop show. I’m a big fan of the original anime (had it on R1 DVD, then Blu-ray, have all the soundtracks etc) and couldn’t believe anyone would ever think a live-action remake or spin-off could ever be a Good Idea– in just the same way as a live-action Akira or Neon Genesis Evangelion, two other projects which are mooted now and again. The anime are what they are. They don’t need remakes or live-action versions.

So I approached this new Netflix edition with severe caution. But I liked it. Maybe it was a case of low expectations, but as I gave the show time it started to grow on me. Of course, most of my initial enjoyment stemmed from it using the original Yoko Kanno music -such an intrinsic part of the Bebop experience- but as the show progressed, I realised there was so much to enjoy. The cast is surprisingly spot-on (even the departures from the anime make sense, but at any rate, John Cho is brilliant), the sets and art direction feel authentically Bebop, the stories had that irreverent, off-kilter style that runs through the anime… I just came to the opinion that the good outweighed the bad.

I’ll qualify this point by adding that one of the things I loved about the original anime is how much it reminded me, back when it was a blind-buy of volumes on R1 DVD import long ago, of my beloved 2000AD comics of the late 1970s/early-1980s, in particular some of my favourite strips (Robo-Hunter and Ace Trucking Co.): it’s clearly something unintended but, in just the same way as Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets feels like a Heavy Metal strip thrown onto a cinema screen (no matter its actual faults as a film), the Cowboy Bebop anime always felt like an early 2000AD strip, back in that comics black and white, pulp paper, wild, new-wave, punk heyday. Its just a particular vibe I loved and I think this is carried through to the Netflix show- its like watching a 2000AD strip on Netflix.

I also loved -absolutely LOVED- how deftly it seemed to capture the cheesy, slightly daft feel of a 1960s or 1970s genre show: it was a little like The Champions or Blakes 7, not in content exactly, but there was just this vibe of a vintage genre show, like whenever I watch The Prisoner. It doesn’t feel contemporary, somehow, it seems like television from another decade. Which might be horrifying to most, but I rather like it. Right from the title sequence, the slightly skewed camera angles, the unsophisticated almost bizarrely cheesy sets. Its a whole lot of fun. Some of it felt like a Gerry Anderson puppet show turned to live-action.

Now clearly many fans of the anime are appalled by the live-action version and they may have many valid reasons: mostly I suspect that its because it just isn’t the Cowboy Bebop they adore.  Faye isn’t sexy enough, Spike isn’t tall or dark enough or… well I’m certain there are myriad reasons. But I wasn’t expecting it to be Cowboy Bebop; I’m enjoying the departures and the changes. Why, after all, should one expect the anime to be transferred whole to live-action? I suppose the flipside is the Blade Runner: Black Lotus show (which I haven’t seen and may not ever), where the reverse is the case; the live-action Blade Runner universe transferred into an anime series. If I ever do watch it, I’ll have to be open to liberties being taken, simply because of the change of format etc. Its missing the point to criticise something for what it isn’t. Or maybe I’m indeed missing the point, maybe it should be wholly faithful and authentic.

cowboy2I suspect a lot of the current Internet rage regards this show is just video-bloggers hating an easy target or blowing expectations to the high winds: YouTube bloggers don’t get hits from scoring something a ‘5’ they get the hits from the extremes of ‘1’ or ’10’, its just how things are now, and why so many obsess over Star Wars or Marvel shows on Disney+. Films or television shows are either terrible shit or excellent, there’s no in-between for the influencers or those with huge followings, and yes geeks can be vehemently passionate regards their favourite franchises. For the curious, I’d score Netflix’s Bebop incarnation a cheeky ‘7’, which is probably one or two points too many but I was just so fond of how each joint felt out of time (forgive me a pointless spin on PKD’s Time Out of Joint). Why can’t a sci-fi show be pleasantly silly, why do they have to be dark and serious? I love my BSG reboot or Babylon 5, but not everything has to be epic and self-consumed with meaning: sometimes an episode of the Adam West Batman tv show can hit the spot, even for those of us who enjoy Affleck’s Batman or Nolan’s Dark Knight films.

I figure the Netflix show did something right, though because my wife Claire sat through it all with me and enjoyed it too- and she absolutely hates anything anime. She was reluctant to watch it but came around after the first few episodes, gradually falling for the fun weirdness of it. Maybe Claire enjoying it is exactly reflective of so many Bebop anime fans disliking/hating it passionately, and how Netflix is obviously trying to attach this Bebop to a new audience (how successfully they have done it without alienating the anime fans too much is debatable, mind). I suppose those fans can go back to their DVD and Blu-Ray sets, which will always be there, and pretend the Netflix show never happened, in just the same way as I can sometimes watch Alien pretending that Prometheus never happened. But maybe they should also just have an open mind and enjoy this show for what it is.

I very much hope we get a season two, because where this first season ends, the show is evidently departing ever further from the anime, hopefully becoming something wholly different, leaving the anime well behind and clearly being its own thing. Colour me excited, and relatively hopeful, considering some of the travesties which Netflix do greenlight (the second season of Another Life in particular).

The Contract (2006)

contractpicOne of the rare pleasures of something like Netflix, because of its ceaseless attempts to grab public attention with something ‘new’ is managing to find the older films on the platform worth watching. Well, I say ‘old’, but in the case of The Contract, which I stumbled upon by chance/vagaries of the Netflix algorithms, I have to wonder what qualifies as old: is 2006 as ancient as current-centric platforms like Netflix might suggest, and where does that leave all the films of the 1970s and (especially) the 1980s that I grew up with? Bad enough working with colleagues who weren’t even born when I was a lad in the Odeon Cinema watching Star Wars or Close Encounters of the Third Kind. As for films of the 1940s or 1950s… 

Anyway, maybe I’m just too forgiving but The Contract proved something of a surprise. Not just that it was actually better than I’d expected (you know, set your sights low enough and anything can surprise), but also that it was a film I’d never heard of, despite featuring both Morgan Freeman and John Cusack (particularly the latter, as he’s one of my wife Claire’s favourite actors). It was directed by Bruce Beresford, and seeing his name got my attention as I remembered his Driving Miss Daisy (another Morgan Freeman vehicle (sic)) which was a big success at the time, albeit possibly quite forgotten today, as films tend to be, attention-spans such as they are. Mind, I’d actually mistakenly thought Beresford had directed Harry and the Hendersons but it turns out I was wrong on that score, proving that my memory is getting fuzzy. 

The Contract was hardly going to set the cinematic world afire back when it came out in 2006, and indeed it was actually a straight to video release in most markets, but its a reasonably solid effort, predictable in places but none the worse for that- there is something rather comforting watching something like this, a fairly low-key drama/thriller depicting ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Well, maybe not all that ordinary, but this is Hollywood. I guess this is the kind of mundane film that oddly ages quite well considering the over-the-top, noisy extravaganzas we tend to get these days. 

Cusack plays Ray, a widower who has a fractious relationship with his teenage son, Chris (Jamie Anderson) and takes him on a hiking trip out in the woods to try fix their issues. Meanwhile, following a chance car accident assassin Frank Carden (Freeman) has been caught by the FBI whilst recovering in hospital and is being transported to headquarters when Frank’s hitmen associates try to free him. The attempt goes astray, the car Frank is being driven in plunges off the road into a river sweeping him downstream to where Ray and Chris are hiking. The FBI agent handcuffed to Frank dies, but fortunately not before telling Ray who he and Frank are and the need to get Frank to the authorities. Frank’s team, of course, are soon on the chase. 

The narrative is spoiled by a few of the usual tropes- Ray is a small-town teacher now but he used to be a cop, so is better qualified than might be expected to protect his son, mind Frank’s attempts to abscond and thwart the mercenaries on their trail, and the film can’t avoid providing a young romantic interest for Ray when they stumble upon a young couple and the annoying boyfriend catches a bullet to remind us that Frank’s team aren’t completely useless. A welcome treat is Alice Krige, who plays a duplicitous Intelligence chief with an agenda that requires Frank to be killed rather than possibly reveal agency plots about a contract on a reclusive billionaire- its all very daft but kind of fun. Its one of those films in which nobody’s wardrobe ever seems to get dirty or creased despite days spent in the wilds (Frank’s tailored outfit is practically the stuff of sorcery). Freeman, of course is quite brilliant, effortlessly playing this cold assassin with a moral compass; his natural charisma assures us he’ll do the right thing eventually (especially when he realises his boss has turned on him and he’s now a target).  Its almost bewildering how Frank’s team of mercenaries are oddly inept rather than the coldly ruthless killers they purport to be, but that’s part of the fun of the film. Its very much a Sunday afternoon film, really, and possibly none the worst for that- but yeah, maybe I’m too forgiving. I’ve seen much worse.