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.

No One Gets Out Alive (2021)

noonegetsoutGood lord. Well the title rather gives the game away, but its dubious (does she? doesn’t she?) finale only exacerbates a thoroughly reprehensible and pointless film. Maybe its a trendsetter of some new horror genre called the Horror Panto, because about the only fun watching this film is giggling “its behind you!” every time a ghostly apparition appears behind the witless and unknowing heroine. 

This is one of those horrors that proves the genre is well past its sell-by date but like every undead corpse its a genre that just doesn’t know that its done. A title sequence throws visual clues in the background- several decades ago some excavations in Southern America unearth remains of an ancient city and artefacts are unearthed, in particular an odd-looking box. That’s about the only explanation/excuse that we’re going to get for everything that then occurs.

A young Mexican immigrant, a pretty young woman named Ambar (Cristina Rodlo, much better than the film really deserves), who has smuggled herself across the border and is trying in vain to buy papers with which she can get a ‘proper’ job and place to live, is forced to work in a sweatshop and take lodging in a terribly run-down boarding house, where the shady owners turn a blind eye to legality and take anyone in in order to get some cash. Well, its not just cash they’re after, because it transpires that their clientele don’t usually get to leave while still breathing. Its a thirty-minute plot stretched to just shy of ninety so as you might imagine, there’s plenty of padding by way of moody atmospheres and sly jumps and pointless b-plots. 

And most of those moody atmospheres are of those “its behind you!” moments where we can see spooky apparitions which our heroine is quite oblivious to. My wife Claire laps this stuff up, hiding behind her  fingers thoroughly creeped out, so who knows, maybe there is an audience indeed for such low-rent horror trash as this. But really, its pretty dire and further evidence that the Netflix quality-bar is set pretty low. Like some damn fool who should know better (but never learns) I was expecting some explanation or narrative twist to explain exactly what was going on and why, but the film seemed more concerned with busting the majority of its budget and effort in realising some patently CGI monster in the basement which, again, is not explained or anything. The film was based on a book (by Adam Nevil, who’s no Stephen King on this evidence), so I expect there is some internal logic that explains things in the book that the screenplay couldn’t quite wrangle- probably the producers assumed the title sequence would be enough. Well, lets be honest, they probably didn’t really care. Its really not very good and deserves to be absolutely forgotten, which I’m sure it will be.

 

Into the Night Season Two

in2oNetflix’s Into the Night, a Belgian apocalyptic thriller, was something of a surprise when I saw its first season last May, although I didn’t get around to posting a review of it so, er, take my word for it- it was pretty good. The premise is one of those which… well its either interesting or ridiculous, depending on one’s own ability to stomach it- for some unfathomable reason, radiation from the sun causes a global disaster, killing anyone caught in sunlight, and the series focuses on a bunch of survivors on a flight from Brussels racing ahead of the sunrise, knowing they have to stay in the night to survive. Its one of those dramas with people caught in a crazy, pressure-cooker situation, and it worked very well in season one, albeit its success depended upon the viewer ‘buying’ into its bizarre set-up and forgiving some strange acting.

Unfortunately the series completely jumps the shark with season two. I don’t know if the writing team was entirely different or if perhaps it was only greenlit subject to a reduced budget, but it now feels like some other show entirely. This sometimes happens to television shows between seasons (The Walking Dead?), and of course happens to films with successive inferior sequels (the Christopher Reeve Superman films), so its hardly anything new, but it remains frustratingly disappointing when it happens. Maybe there’s logic to delaying successive seasons to two-year gaps (like Westworld seems to do) rather than rushing into it in a race to capitalize on surprise success. Admittedly even after just over a year it can be hard to pick things up, I always seem to struggle returning to shows, possibly because there is just so many of them and they tend to be quite complex with multi-season arcs. But right from the start of this season its clear something is off. Its like some other show, with characters behaving very oddly, very stupidly, and twists and turns coming out of nowhere just for shock value, as if the sudden nonsensical twists of fate and unexpected deaths are the only thing that will keep people watching. Consequently the show is always on edge, and there’s little faith in investing with characters who can be gone by the end of the next episode, or plotlines that can seem undermined by another writer in another episode. 

My theory is that the producers/writers completed season one not really knowing where they were going afterwards, having set up something of a cliff-hanger and not having a clue how to get out of it. Maybe I’m being unfair to that writing team- as I have noted, budgetary or time constraints may have affected it.  Naturally this second season would have been made during the Covid pandemic too, so production difficulties may just be being reflected in the sudden drop in quality of the show.  Maybe we’ll see this over the next year or so with other shows, maybe we’re seeing it already, and maybe it excuses some of the films and series we’re seeing of late which thoroughly underwhelm. I guess Covid’s just the gift that keeps on giving. At any rate, not only am I not sure Into the Night deserves a third season, I also doubt that many viewers will even care.

Bloodbath at the House of Death (1984)

bloodbth2This really isn’t the film the title suggests that it might be, and the oddest thing about it is that I had absolutely no idea that this film even existed until I stumbled upon it watching Netflix a few nights back. Some films slip into an obscurity so total its like they were never even made, and to be brutally honest, some of them deserve that too. Which is the case with this one.

Released way back in 1984 this British comedy-horror film stars a bunch of British television actors/comedians of the time and is thus something of a time capsule for those of us who lived through the 1970s/1980s. Kenny Everett, Pamela Stephenson, Gareth Hunt, Don Warrington, Cleo Rocos, Sheila Steafel… you might not know their names but if you were watching television here in the UK back then you’d remember their faces, possibly with nostalgic affection. The film even features a minor role (albeit important to whatever constitutes a plot role for horror favourite Vincent Price who, like Peter Cushing, had a peculiar penchant for appearing in any old rubbish as long as there was a pay check. 

But strike from your mind any thought that this might be some long-lost classic, because this film is terrible. It isn’t funny, it isn’t scary, its just appallingly bad. Most of the cast listed above are playing a bunch of scientists investigating alleged paranormal goings-on at Headstone Manor, a creepy old building with a history of death and violence, and none of them convince as actors never mind scientists: the acting wooden to the point of being inferior to a Gerry Anderson puppet show, and the direction woefully perfunctory and lame. Its a chore to get through and I winced most of the way through -partly out of embarrassment for those onscreen, partly through the jokes landing with repeated thuds. Its a cringe-worthy ordeal to sit through during which one frequently wonders, “what were they thinking?” 

The film was written by Barry Cryer, something of a legend in British television comedy, who worked on several comedy shows of that era like The Two Ronnies, Morecombe and Wise and many others, but most notably The Kenny Everett Video Cassette, which was Everett’s hugely popular comedy series airing between 1978-1981 that I loved growing up, and likely landed him this gig which proved to be Everett’s one ill-fated foray into movies. Lampooning horror tropes of the time, this could have been quite fun, but it fails to hit the mark of aping the style of the 1960s Hammer horrors that its supposedly making fun of. It feels more like a television comedy sketch stretched too far, too much a thing of the early 1980s when it should have been more of the gothic horror of two decades before with an affectionate comedy bent. This film doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be- at least the infamous Carry On films knew what they were, and Carry On Screaming is some kind of golden classic compared to this and far more successfully nails its horror-comedy balance.

bloodbthIt probably doesn’t help that the budget must have been pretty dire;  there’s indications that much of it was shot under considerable time-pressure, resulting in blatant continuity errors and a disjointed story that really makes no sense whatsoever. Vincent Price for instance, nominally playing the major villain evidently filmed his scenes quite apart from everyone else. It has the effect that his scenes seem from some other movie just edited in-between scenes featuring Everett and company exploring the manor (which Price never enters, and with whom Price never shares any screen-time). Worse, Price is written out suddenly as if they literally ran out of time (was he available for just three days or something?) so he just seems to disappear midway through. I accept that in a horror-comedy lampooning horror tropes the last thing one should expect is a sensical storyline or anything approaching genuine horror, but all the same, when you have a guy as canonical as Vincent Price in a film, you should use him as such. Price was always so larger-than-life that part of the pleasure of any of his horror films was his tendency to play things big, almost parodying the very horrors he was starring in (whereas Peter Cushing would underplay roles, not drawing attention to himself). Mind, there is some pleasure in seeing that Price was clearly enjoying himself as usual, so at lest some good came from the film.

Maybe they just couldn’t afford him to be around sufficiently enough to use him to the films advantage. In defence of the film, one cannot appreciate the pressures when making a film, the money and time constraints at the time. Which sounds like I’m making excuses for a film being woeful, but its obvious that a British film such as this is an entirely different enterprise to a $200 million Hollywood blockbuster that turns out appalling. Some scenes such as a flashback of Everett’s character messing up a surgery is a blatant one-camera piece of schtick that looks like something direct from his television sketch show. I can imagine in some film projects a director shooting retakes until he can say “that’s perfect!” whereas I imagine director Ray Cameron here would just say “that’ll do!” and then move on to the next (likely unprepared) scene. Its just the reality of low-budget film-making, particularly back in the early 1980s here in Britain, when we hardly had any film industry at all.

So really one to avoid then, unless the sheer curiosity of this strange oddity overwhelms you, as it did me. Its really something of a time capsule for those of us who grew up back then, albeit perhaps one that shouldn’t have been dug up yet. I wonder how on Earth Netflix got a hold of it? I suppose its just further proof that Netflix will stream anything and everything.