End of Year Report, 2019.

Didn’t get my Replicant Pleasure-Model in the mail, nor did my new car launch vertically into the air for a commute to work in the sky-lanes… and neither was I able to book my holiday Off-World, so thanks for ‘nowt, Ridley…

But 2019 did come with some great television shows and movies. That said though, there were plenty of clunkers and disappointments.  I think what I shall remember most of 2019 is that it was clearly a year when television content surpassed movies in quality by a pretty wide margin.

In my previous post I mentioned that I watched three seasons of The Expanse this year, which was pretty amazing and certainly one of my favourite shows of the year, but there was plenty of other quality shows. Some clunkers too, mind- February brought the first (and thankfully last) season of Nightflyers, a truly abominable creation that so soon after having enjoyed the brilliant The Expanse brought my sci-fi viewing crashing back down to Earth. At the time I was confident it would be the worst piece of television I would see all year, but I was innocently ignorant of Another Life coming later in April. The fact that Another Life has been granted a second season is just mind-boggling and very, very scary.

Certainly the good outweighed the bad, though, if only because you can afford to be judicious with so much content available across Netflix and Amazon Prime. By March I’d also see season two of The Crown, the first outing for The Umbrella Academy, season one of Stranger Things and Love, Death & Robots, a ridiculously entertaining anthology show that was a Fantasia for sci-fi geeks like me, and totally beautiful.

Regards movies though, I had really struggled to see anything really memorable until April, when I saw both Bad Times at the El Royale and Spider Man: Into the Spider-Verse. El Royale really impressed me on a rental, so much so that a few months later I bought the 4K disc. Then in May John Wick Chapter Three: Parabellum blew my mind on a rare trip to the cinema, an absolutely dizzying action-fest that instantly put itself as prime contender for my Film of the Year. In an era of politically-correct naval-gazing and various worthy agendas being shoved in my face all the time, Wick was refreshingly old-school, unfashionably simple action-movie nirvana. May also brought Avengers Endgame, another rare cinema outing that this time proved hugely disappointing. I’m really curious to see if a rewatch will revise my opinion of the film, but even though I bought the 4K disc of the film when it came out a few months back, I still haven’t actually watched the disc. I keep thinking I should watch Avengers Infinity War first, maybe the two films in a double-bill over a weekend, but the length of the darn things proves rather daunting. All those Marvel geeks who watch all these movies often and know them inside-out are made of sterner stuff than I. Watching Captain Marvel just once, when the 4K disc came out in July , left me pretty burned-out on all things Marvel- the thought of the ultra-fans watching and re-watching that one is just plain scary.

Away from movies, April brought us the big television disappointment of the year, with season eight of Game of Thrones. In hindsight, it could only ever disappoint, it had hyped up the conclusion and all the show’s mysteries and intrigues over several seasons to such a degree, it was inevitable that it would all just implode. Didn’t think the crash would be quite so spectacular though. Having bought all the Blu-rays already, I bought the 4K disc set of season eight anyway, and am hoping that when I get the courage to watch it again after all these months the pain will be less, I can make my peace with some of the wilder crazier twists and maybe manage to see something in all the episode three murk now its in 4K UHD. We’ll see.

Much better television followed in June: and no, I’m not talking about season two of Star Trek Discovery, but rather it was the month when I caught up with Chernobyl, a breath-taking and harrowing series that was pretty much perfect. Discovery was far, far from perfect- it ably demonstrated that while much television can be great, it can also out-dumb and out-stupid anything Hollywood movie studios can do.

In August, I caught up with both Aquaman (a film that proved DC could still make worse movies than Captain Marvel) and Shazam! (a film that proved DC could actually make great, fun superhero movies). Aquaman would be another of those terribly busy movies that tried to fit three films into one, like some kind of Readers Digest edition of an actual film trilogy. It doesn’t work, it just gives me an headache. I watched the 2017 remake of Flatliners, and although I thought that was diabolically appalling, I had no idea I’d also see the Jacobs Ladder remake later in the year, a film which would make the Flatliners remake seem a classic and put me in a total dark funk for a weekend.

Returning to television shows, August also sprung a major surprise with the quite excellent The Boys over on Amazon. The quality television continued into September with the long-awaited (by me, anyway) disc release of the third season of True Detective, which I really enjoyed (I love all three seasons of that show- yes, that includes the maligned second season) and Carnival Row, another Amazon show that was much better than I’d expected, even if it did leave me pining for the superior (and sadly missed) Penny Dreadful.

Sheesh, all these seasons of television shows and all their complicated multi-layered narratives. I suppose I should be glad most movies turned out to be rather less demanding, more simplistic and comfortingly predictable. A prime example would be September’s Ad Astra, which I was expecting to be a high-concept sci-fi take on Apocalypse Now. Well, it was certainly a sci-fi take on Apocalypse Now, almost literally so, but with lunar space pirates and a mad Space Baboon, it was rather more Event Horizon than 2001: A Space Odyssey. A disappointment then, and another example of the lack of confidence of movie studios to challenge and provoke audiences as much as HBO etc do on television. I would imagine that had HBO made Ad Astra as a ten-episode serial, it would have proven far more enticing and thought-provoking.It would probably look just as good too- the gap between television and cinema in regards of visual effects is obviously still there, but its much narrower than it used to be, and television more than makes up for any deficit there by better script writing. November’s The Lion King would prove to be a startling reminder of what visual majesty only cinema budgets can presently afford, but the same months Spider Man: Far From Home ably demonstrated that cinema could just get dumber and dumber even as it got prettier.

November also presented us with The Irishman, a Martin Scorsese gangster ballad that incredibly came to us via Netflix (I prefer ‘ballad’ to ‘epic’ just because its more, well, thoughtful and mature than the joyously questionable glorification of Goodfellas). The idea that a $150 million Scorsese flick could just drop onto Netflix on a Friday night still feels dizzying and possibly game-changing. I really enjoyed the film (its certainly more Once Upon A Time in America than Godfather or Goodfellas).

The Irishman did show, though, just how much has changed during 2019. Streaming services are all the rage now, and really will prove more of a Big Deal in 2020. The prevailing move by studios towards streaming and away from physical media, and indeed away from traditional vendors like cable and satellite television providers, is just a gathering storm that gets windier by the month. For someone like me who likes to own my favourite films and television shows and enjoys special features and commentaries, its pretty worrying. I can see a future not far away where streaming and pay per view is everything. Its clearly inevitable, but its a future where The Irishman can’t be purchased on DVD or Blu-ray, a future where you’ll probably need to subscribe to Disney+ in order to watch future Star Wars and Marvel movies in the comfort of your own home (and I’m pretty certain that premium content on Disney+ will eventually require additional purchases in-app to watch; it may start as a subscription service but it’ll inevitably evolve into a pay-per-view service when alternative avenues like physical media are gone). Hopefully that’s more 2029 or 2039 though, and I’ll be past caring as long as I have a Blu-ray player working.

 

 

The Crown: Season Three

RellikOne of my biggest surprises was how much I enjoyed the Netflix series The Crown– hardly a Royalist, I found the real magic of seasons one and two was the way the series brought to life British history, vividly bringing to life national events/crises whilst peppering it with nods to House Windsor and their occasional (and ironic) family strife. The huge production values afforded by Netflix, and the great cast, was all just icing on the cake, and the series one of the streaming giants undoubted successes: genuinely great television.

So with the cast being replaced to reflect the passing of years, I approached this third season with considerable trepidation. Its certainly a brave move by Netflix- traditionally, once viewers have become emotionally invested with an actor’s portrayal of a character, its difficult to transfer enthusiasm and acceptance to a new face, never mind an ensemble piece like this. I have to admit, throughout this season I’ve had a hard time accepting Olivia Colman’s  Queen Elizabeth, always irritated by the loss of Clare Foy. The jump from Foy’s youthful beauty and irrepressible  warmth to Colman’s middle-aged maturity and cool distance seems too sudden and too far a leap. By the end of the season my wariness had lessened to grudging acceptance, and its hardly Colman’s fault- its largely in the writing, but its possibly the seasons biggest miss-step and likely a wholly subjective thing on my part. I just find myself thinking about past tv shows and how closely we identify with particular actors, and how without them they can seem like wholly different shows.

crowns3bThe rest of the new cast seem to be an easier fit. Tobias Menzies, who’ve I’ve always been a huge admirer of, makes a better Prince Philip than Matt Smith, who always carried a bit too much Dr Who baggage with him for my liking. Menzies’ Duke of Edinburgh is quite formidable and the episodes that focus upon him -chiefly the excellent one about the moon landing and his own mid-life crisis- are amongst the seasons finest. There’s just something genuinely interesting and emphatic about him that replaces that which Foy’s portrayal of Elizabeth enjoyed.  Helena Bonham Carter seems to be playing Princess Margaret so naturally that its no work at all- its perfect casting, and even though the leap in age between herself and previous season’s Vanessa Kirby is as jarring, its a more successful transition than between Foy and Colman.

Least successful this season, for me at any rate, are the episodes that dwell on the Royal family and their internal dynamics, and most successful those episodes offering perspective on national history and events. The best of them is ‘Aberfan’ concerning the terrible disaster of 1966, which is a terribly powerful and effecting hour of television which should be destined for Awards consideration- its so powerful its almost an ordeal getting through it without becoming a trembling wreck. As its the third episode of the season, it oddly feels like it arrives too soon, that its too early a high-point and the season struggles to follow it. It only really recovers at the seventh episode, ‘Moondust’ and if I had a criticism about the season its that structure, although as its tied to portraying events between 1964 and 1977 its likely unavoidable.

Its also true that Colman’s Elizabeth is something of an unknown quantity in the season- its interesting that what one would expect to be a big celebration of the Queens Silver Jubilee year of 1977 ends on a very quiet, restrained, insular shot of her stony-faced gaze at the camera/audience. It fails to be an exultant, triumphant moment- clearly a deliberate commentary but nonetheless an odd one and symptomatic of what the show is obviously trying to do with her character. In the first two seasons Foy’s portrayal was open and warm and there was a sense that the character was knowable- now they have replaced her with Colman, they evidently want to add some mystique and sense of the unknown about her. Intellectually its fine and I can understand why they are doing it but the emotional distance is probably the series biggest problem, to me.

It remains great television though, and I really am enthusiastic for the fourth season next year.

 

The Girl in the Spider’s Web (2018)

I was rather surprised how successful this was, and how much I enjoyed it. Something of a sequel and reboot for the franchise, following the original three films starring Noomi Rapace and the Western remake of the first of that trilogy,  The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by David Fincher that starred Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander. Phew, that’s seems a little complicated looking back on it- and rather symptomatic of the state of the film industry these days. Its enough to make this latest film seem rather cynical.

Which does hang over the whole enterprise. Based on a book by David Lagercrantz, in turn based on characters in the original book series by the late Stieg Larsson, the whole thing is an attempt to extend the original book series and films beyond it- a little like James Bond books and films running far beyond the passing of Bond creator Ian Fleming. Characters can so easily gain an immortality of their own far beyond that of original creators, and while it may have noble intentions there is always a sniff of opportunism and money-making in things like this. Its also rather true that in this film, and possibly the original book, there seems a concious intention to shift away from the dark character-based intensity of the Larsson originals and towards a larger espionage/James Bond thriller vibe- perhaps a little like the Jason Bourne franchise. It does feel a little incongruous for Lisbeth here to be drawn into a thriller about a program that can seize control of the world’s nuclear arsenals and leave the world ransom to armageddon- it really does feel more like the plot of a Bond movie.

Which might be a good thing, I don’t know. I certainly quite enjoyed it, because it did seem to be stretching the character a little  and pushing the boundaries- but does it do that too much? I guess that’s more a question for die-hard fans of the Larsson originals to ponder.

Taking over the role of Lisbeth Salander here is Claire Foy, which really seemed a bit of a stretch to me when I became aware of the casting but I have to say it works quite well. There’s a few peculiar moments where Foy seems to suddenly channel the Queen from Netflix’s The Crown (an occasional inflection of her voice, or flash of her eyes, sometimes) but on the whole she’s really intense and surprisingly successful, She manages the physical moments very well too- certainly a far cry from Little Dorrit.

Less successful, and very surprisingly so really, is Sylvia Hoeks as Camilla Salander, the main villain of the film and sister of our heroine. Hoeks was simply brilliant as Luv in BR2049, a really quite complex and nuanced character/performance but here she does seem to simply be a blonde Luv, reprising that role alarmingly in what feels a one-note performance. In Hoeks defence, I suspect it’s more the limitations of the part as written, leaving her little else to really do with it, but its similarity to her character in BR2049 is really disappointing. When I saw her name in the credits my interest in the film was raised considerably as I’ve not seen her in anything else other than BR2049 and I was really curious to see her possibly surprise me, but alas, no, this really is just more of the same.

I gather the box-office returns from this film were quite poor so we are unlikely to see Foy reprise the role in future installments. Perhaps the intent to reboot the series into another film franchise with yet another cast was perceived as cynical and ill-judged, and  got the rewards it deserved.  For myself, the quality of the film (it’s a pretty successful, albeit routine, old-fashioned thriller, and there’s nothing particularly wrong with that in a cinema swamped by superhero caped crusaders etc) seemed pretty decent and I found myself enjoying it much more than I had expected. It does make me wonder if sometimes films such as this might be budgeted too highly – I suppose the purported budget of $43 million might seem fairly low in the great scheme of $150 million blockbusters but its returns of just $35 million (with marketing costs etc the film must have been a bit of a bomb financially) would suggest the market simply isn’t strong enough to support films budgeted like this.  If this is indeed the case then its an unfortunate state of affairs, and possibly suggests this kind of thriller might in future be relegated to Netflix/Amazon productions- which is a little sad, to consider that traditional cinema is no longer the place for thrillers like this.

The Crown Season Two (2017)

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

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

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

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

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

The Netflix Conundrum

net

The Cloverfield Paradox: clearly pretty bad but it’s got a great Bear McCreary score that I would love to hear in context.

Altered Carbon: if ever a tv show was made for me, this one sounds like it- a great premise, good lead actor and solid production values.

Stranger Things: I still haven’t seen anything of it, which makes me feel like a social outcast in geekdom as everyone tells me its great (and then look at me rather strangely as if I’m one of those ‘Strange Things’ for having not seen it).

The Crown season two: wouldn’t say it was exciting me before, but having seen season one on disc, I’m more than curious to see what happens next. She ditches the corgis and raises some dragons instead, yeah? What, it’s not like GOT afterall?

Mute: Hey, bit of a mess from what I’m told but like the best of misfires, an intriguing one.

Annihilation: Alex Garland’s latest opus won’t be hitting cinemas afterall? What?

I think we’ve just hit Critical Mass folks. It goes against the grain, frankly, paying anything more to watch an increasingly fractured landscape of television programming (I swear, Sky Atlantic will never sully my tv ever…) but I finally may have met my match. I give up, I’m raising the white flag, I’m beat. They’ve even got The Expanse, that great sci-fi show I’ve had to import discs over from America in order to watch. Netflix may finally be coming to Ghost Hall in March…

Saving Mr Banks (2013)

mr banks

This film has been languishing at the bottom of the digital pile in my Tivo since Christmas 2016 when it originally aired on the BBC. Why exactly it has taken so long for me to finally get around to watching it is quite beyond me, and there’s still a few more films sitting in that digital pile. Well, there you go- something else to concern myself about; not just a pile of physical-format films on disc that I have yet to see, I now have films waiting in my Tivo to be seen. As well as those films on my Amazon Prime watchlist. My world, it seems, is full of content waiting to be watched.  It almost makes me yearn for the old days of three tv channels, no video recorders and lots of time free for reading and everything else that ‘normal’ lives were concerned with.

Televisions used to be mono, 4:3 and black and white. Now they are large widescreen stereo monsters that sit there demanding your time. Our eyes endlessly drawn to them, bewitched by them as if by some arcane spell. So many channels. So many films/discs//apps… on my Amazon fire-stick the other night I discovered some kind of ‘fireplace tv’ thing, a seasonal offering that was a single hour-long shot of a log-fire burning. I actually watched it for something like twenty minutes before I realised I was going mad.

None of which has anything to do with Saving Mr Banks, which I finally go around to watching having allowed it to sit in my Tivo over a year. And what do you know, I feel a bit of a fool having waited so long, because this was an utterly charming, warm and witty movie that I really enjoyed.

I do have a confession to make- the only Mary Poppins I have ever seen was General Leia doing her magical spaceflight in The Last Jedi. Other than a few clips many years ago on the old Disneytime holiday specials that the BBC used to air at Easter etc, I have never seen anything of Mary Poppins, certainly not the whole film, and I have no idea what the original story is. So maybe I was at some disadvantage watching Saving Mr Banks, which is ostensibly the story of how Walt Disney convinced author P L Travers to allow him to make the movie Mary Poppins.

Like, I suspect, the Netflix drama The Crown, this film is a work of fiction masquerading as fact, or at the very least, a dramatic work in which the line between fiction and fact is dimly blurred.  Tom Hanks is a very genial, very charming Walt Disney and Emma Thompson a suitably cantankerous P L Travers albeit rather beautiful and charming.There it is again- the word ‘charming’: it’s as if the poster for the film should have read ‘Walt Disney presents Saving Mr Banks: Charming! Charming! Charming!’

But it is. And maybe there is more truth to the film than my old cynical soul would have me believe. Is it possible that all this actually happened and that there is far more to the original Mary Poppins story and movie than anyone would have believed? Maybe the simple truth is that it doesn’t matter. Saving Mr Banks, true story or Disney myth, is a great heartwarming (bypass that bloody word ‘charming’ for once)  movie that is elegantly written and directed and really has a pretty great cast in top form.  I could have looked it all up on the internet and discovered the truth of it, but really, I don’t care. Saving Mr Banks was really quite good. And ultimately, that’s all that really matters.

Besides, adult fairy tales, which is, I suspect, what this film really is, can be fact or fiction, it doesn’t have to mean anything or be validated by truth. It’s a damn fine story, regardless, and films could do with more of those, I think.

Now then, what else is lurking within my Tivo…?

The Crown – Season One (2016)

crownAnother Elizabethan drama about a young Queen in a man’s world whose reign marks a turning point for the British Empire and the dawn of a new era. We’ve seen this before, right? Not exactly- we’re not going back to the 16th Century for one thing; this is far more recent history, for this story is about Elizabeth II, and the (miss)fortunes of a fading British Empire following the Second World War, and the role of the modern monarchy in this new world.

I will say this- I didn’t expect to enjoy this series as much as I did. As an historical drama recreating the 1930s/1940s and 1950s Britain, this is a very accomplished effort, not withstanding historical accuracy regards the Royal Family etc. It is clearly drama more than documentary -although there is some surprising truth in what it portrays- but it is very accomplished technically and the ten episodes are well written. For a modern epic drama it is pleasantly restrained regards graphic indulgence or sensalitionism. More Downtown Abbey then than Game of Thrones, to be sure, and none the worse for that. The contemporary tendency for television dramas to go for excess and strain credibility (as Hard Sun recently did) is in little evidence here. While it may seem more establishment fairytale than council estate reality, Americans lap this stuff up and us Brits often like to lose ourselves in Downton dreamland in the face of the present-day soap opera of Brexit Westminster.

Personally speaking I’m far from a Royalist and have little affection or interest in the modern generation of  privileged Royal elite that ‘graces’ our Isle, but all my life I have lived during the reign of Elizabeth II and its difficult to ignore the fact that she has been this constant figure in my lifetime, for good or ill.  She represents the England of my childhood of the 1960s and 1970s, particularly her Jubilee of 1977 when I was in the Scouts – we had a street party and felt a real sense of community that feels as long gone as, well, my childhood. The inevitable pangs of nostalgia mean something I guess, but in any event, I have, if not affection, then some grudging respect for her if only for what she represents of my childhood: those rose-tinted images of simpler times, less murky politics and social responsibilities. Certainly it is clear from the ten episodes of this first season (of six, apparently) that she has lived through historic times and seen/met many historic figures: perfect recipe for historical drama on television, anyway.

Claire Foy is excellent in the lead role (it seems such a long way from Little Dorrit) , though Dr Who seems rather bereft of his Tardis as the Duke of Edinburgh, but the real surprise is John LIthgow as the raging-against-ageing Winston Churchill, whose story proves just as interesting and involving as that of the Queen. If anyone were to tell me that Lithgow could pull off Churchill I wouldn’t have believed them, but he manages with considerable aplomb, damn near stealing the show. The strangest casting decisions sometimes work.

As a whole the rest of the cast manage well enough in fairly routine character roles that seldom really surprise but it is all very entertaining. In the old days this would be the staple of BBC drama and watching this I always had a nagging feeling that this sort of thing is exactly what the Beeb should be doing, but considering the cost and scale of this enterprise perhaps it’s just another sign of the changing times this being a Netflix production. It’s certainly is much better than I had originally expected and I quite look forward to seeing season two.