The Best of 2021

Finally, for the last time (not really the last time): what I consider to be the best (or, more accurately, my favourite) films I saw for the first time in 2021 (that bit’s correct).

This year, I tried to make a start on my list early (I began pondering it and pruning my long-list back in November, whereas normally I don’t even start that until January 1st), all so I could post it fairly promptly once we reached the new year. Well, it’s now the 9th, which is one of the latest dates I’ve ever posted my ‘best of’ list, so that didn’t really work, did it?

Anyway…



The 21 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2021

No, it’s not 21 for ’21 — it’s 10% of whatever my final total is (as it has been since 2016). This year that total was 207, of which the appropriate percentage is 20.7, but I can’t very well include seven-tenths of a film, can I, so it rounds up to 21. (If you think that’s too many for a list like this, feel free to scroll down and start wherever you like.)

As always, all the movies I watched for the first time in 2021 are eligible, not just brand-new releases. However, I did watch 31 films that had their general UK release in 2021, and five of them made it into this list, so I’ve noted their ‘2021 rank’ too.

21=
Holiday Affair
Happiest Season
Anna and the Apocalypse

Reader, I have cheated! After 15 years of sticking to (my own self-imposed set of) The Rules, I have caved and broken the proscribed number of films allowed on this list, and also allowed a tie (I don’t think I’ve allowed a tie before, although one year I did comment that the top 4 were all effectively in first place — but I still sorted them). Why has this happened? As I’ll talk more about in the Honourable Mentions, I got stuck at 32 films for the longest time. I managed to whittle it down to 23, but after days of being stuck there I just gave in. If I could have decided which of these were #22 and #23, they could’ve been taken off the list; but as I can’t, here are all three, tied. At least they’re connected, by being overtly Christmassy films, which is kinda why they’ve all got stuck together — “which of the many Christmassy films I watched this year did I like the most?” Turns out, that’s a three-way tie (unless you also include the one that’s at #9…)

20 Carol

Okay, this one’s quite Christmassy too. Indeed, it’s practically “Holiday Affair but with lesbians”, a comparison I’m sure would’ve come up more if Holiday Affair was better known.

19 Spontaneous
High schoolers begin mysteriously exploding in this sort-of-horror cum comedy cum teen romance, which I found both hilarious and surprisingly emotional.

18 Daughters of Darkness

An erotic horror movie — sounds like schlocky trash, but mixed through a European arthouse sensibility it comes out the other side as a dreamy, surreal experience.

17 Who?
This is a pretty obscure sci-fi spy flick: it has under 700 ratings on IMDb; I hadn’t heard of it before Indicator’s Blu-ray release — but it deserves more. It’s almost like a Le Carré thriller in its slow-burn intellectual depiction of Cold War plotting, but with a dose of just-beyond-the-possible SF mixed in.

16 Futureworld

Another ’70s sci-fi thriller that I think deserves better. This widely disparaged sequel to Westworld is very in keeping with other films of its era: it’s a paranoid thriller about a pair of journalists investigating a corporate conspiracy — in this case, Delos’ attempt to rehabilitate their robot theme park after the disaster in the last film.

15 Love Affair
A prototypically romantic melodrama (it’s been explicitly remade twice, not to mention the other films that have borrowed from it), I was expecting a bit of fluff but ended up finding it surprisingly affecting. It dodges the clichés I thought it was bound for, in addition to being beautifully shot.

14 Strictly Ballroom

Another one that confounded my expectations. As Baz Luhrmann’s debut feature, I expected a dry run for where he’d go stylistically in Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge! But to regard Strictly Ballroom as anything less than a fully-fledged member of the Red Curtain Trilogy is to do it a disservice. Its ludicrous, over-the-top treatment of a ludicrous, over-the-top world is both absurdly hilarious and totally captivating.

13 Godzilla vs. Kong
2021 #5 Big monkey punch giant lizard! No one’s going to call this movie high art, but goddamn if it isn’t entertaining pulp-SF gubbins with giant-size fights thrown in for good measure. Honestly, I don’t know what some people expect from movies like this when they go about criticising them. If giant animals having a brawl isn’t to your taste, fair enough, but if you were expecting a meditative character-driven insight into the human condition or something, more fool you.

12 The Invisible Man

The fourth feature from Universal’s genre- and studio-defining run of horror films in the early 1930s. Dracula and Frankenstein may have become more iconic, but, for my money, this is the best movie from the bunch (and I’d rank The Mummy second). The special effects are more extensive than you might expect for the era, and even hold up pretty well today, while Claude Rains is superb as the cackling villain, James Whale’s direction is highly effective, and there’s a nice vein of humour to balance the darkness.

11 Captain Phillips
That Tom Hanks wasn’t even nominated for most major awards for his performance here is a crime against cinema. He’s extraordinary as the eponymous captain of a cargo ship hijacked by Somali pirates. Paul Greengrass brings his usual edgy tension to proceedings, but its Hanks’s humanity that ultimately elevates the piece. The final scene is one of the greatest single pieces of acting we will ever see.

10
The Hound of the Baskervilles

Hammer does Holmes. Peter Cushing is a note-perfect incarnation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Great Detective in what was, sadly, the famed horror studio’s only attempt at filming Sherlock. Personally, I’ve never thought The Hound of the Baskervilles was a particularly good detective mystery novel — but it is quite a good gothic adventure, which makes Hammer the perfect studio to have brought it to the screen. As that, this version doesn’t disappoint, with Terence Fisher’s direction leaning hard into the appropriate atmosphere, plus a superb cast — alongside Cushing, André Morell is a superb Watson. I wish they’d done a whole series with the pair.

9
The Green Knight

2021 #4 Some people seemed surprised when this film delivered exactly what its trailers had promised: an arty-yet-fantastical interpretation of the Arthurian myth. It’s a moody, earthy take on the material, but one that also has room for magical realism, fairytale-esque fantasy, and flights of inexplicable oddness. The measured pace and off-kilter tone (plus the pitch-dark cinematography) was never going to be to everyone’s taste, but for those on its level, it’s intoxicating. And if you think Die Hard counts as a ‘different’ Christmas movie…

2021 #3 I was worried that I’d find Nomadland a bit boring and “not my kind of thing”. It seemed like the kind of film where you hang out with the characters and their landscapes, rather than a piece of clear narrative storytelling. And it is that — but, for once, it worked for me. It’s almost like a TV travelogue, visiting places worth seeing and unusual people worth meeting. You watch to appreciate the scenery, to understand the people, to experience a different way of life. It’s a film to escape with — to get away from ordinary life and spend time in these captivating places. Within and alongside that, it creates a beautiful, deeply humane, quite powerful experience. [Full review.]

7
Star Trek: The Motion Picture

Having grown up reading sci-fi magazines, I’m very aware that, when it comes to Star Trek movies, “even ones good, odd ones bad”. And this first one has a particularly poor rep — “slow” and “boring” seem to be commonly-attached adjectives (which I can’t help but feel stems back to expectations on its original release, which came in the wake of the success of Star Wars, so presumably people expected a fast-paced action-adventure). But as I settled down to begin watching all the Trek movies from the beginning, I found myself in for a very pleasant surprise. It’s not even trying to be a Star Wars-style adventure, but something different entirely; almost more akin to 2001 in its sense of wonder and exploration, digging into an imagining of a genuinely alien lifeform rather than running about blasting rubber suits with laser guns. Engaged with on the right terms, I enjoyed every minute of it.

6
WolfWalkers

The third film in Irish animation outfit Cartoon Saloon’s Folklore Trilogy — and Wolfwalkers really does feel like an authentically-told folktale, not a Disneyfied modern reimagining. A big part of that is the animation style. Even if you think you’re becoming inured to it from the studio’s previous work, it has surprises in store; moments of additional innovation or beauty. It’s constantly impressive and regularly breathtaking. Combined with the magical story, the result is a simply gorgeous film.

5
Dune: Part One

2021 #2 Frank Herbert’s Dune is probably one of my favourite novels, and previous attempts to film it have either been interesting but fundamentally flawed (the 1984 film) or faithful but limited by format (the 2000 miniseries), so when it was announced a new version would be masterminded by Denis Villeneuve — one of only two directors to top my year-end best-of list twice, once with another tricky-to-pull-off re-envisioning of a sci-fi masterpiece — well, my hopes were high. Suffice to say, he delivered, albeit in a film that is ‘very Villeneuve’. That is to say, it’s a rather brutalist take on the material, lacking the fanciful, weird interpretations of Lynch, Jodorowsky, or even (to a lesser extent) the TV version. In some ways that’s a shame, but it’s also true to the filmmaker. That the film has to abandon the story halfway through, forced into a rather low-key cliffhanger, is merely a factor of the length of the material rather than a fault of the filmmaker — some have taken serious issue with it, but, personally, the film ended where I always expected it to. And, as a fan, I’d rather this two-part adaptation, giving the story the necessary screentime, even if that means a limp end to Part One, rather than have the whole book in a rushed three-hour single shot. That said, this might be why it’s at #5 on my list rather than becoming Villeneuve’s third #1. I’m optimistic that, once we get Part Two (and, possibly, a Part Three adapting Herbert’s first sequel), the whole will be even greater.

4
The Kid Detective

This is one of those high concepts you wonder why someone hasn’t though of sooner: what would a ‘kid detective’ (you know, like the Hardy Boys or the Famous Five or whatever) be like grown up? One answer to that would likely fuel a CW-esque YA series, but here we get a more real-world treatment: the detective who was exalted as a kid, a quirky story for the local paper and whatnot, is now a washed-up has-been as he tries to follow the same career as an adult. Like several other films on this year’s list, here was a film that looked like it would tickle a particular itch of mine, and delivered — it was everything I expected it to be and more. It’s both an amusing extrapolation of its central premise and a solid mystery in its own right, with a surprisingly moving conclusion. One part in particular gave me goosebumps, and you’ve got to love anything that can elicit such a physical reaction.

3
Joint Security Area

Before Oldboy or The Handmaiden, director Park Chan-wook gained international attention for this 2000 military thriller about a shooting in the DMZ between North and South Korea. After a South Korean border guard apparently kills two North Korean soldiers and wounds a third on their side of the border before fleeing back to the South, heightened tensions between the nations rest on an investigation by a neutral investigator. As the Swiss Army major tries to find the truth of what happened amidst conflicting accounts, the obvious point of comparison is A Few Good Men, but JSA also made me think of Paths of Glory in its ultimately-tragic message about the wasteful futility of war. But although these point towards its tone and effect on the viewer, it outshines simple comparisons to be its own magnificent thing.

2
David Byrne’s American Utopia

I’m not a music critic — heck, I don’t even listen to all that much music on a regular basis, if I’m honest — and yet what is essentially a concert film has made it almost to the top of my favourite movies this year. What gives? I wish I could explain it properly, but, I confess, I don’t quite understand why I loved American Utopia, all I can say is that I did. It had an almost profound impact on me that I can’t quite account for. Of course that’s mostly down to the music and staging by Byrne and his fellow performers, but Spike Lee’s direction and editing transform the theatrical show into a near-perfect cinema version. My only unfulfilled wish is that this had been made during the world’s 3D phase, because movement in a three-dimensional space is a key part of the show’s staging, and I’d love to be able to watch that in 3D.

1
The Matrix Resurrections

2021 #1 This belated return to and continuation of the Matrix trilogy has divided critics and audiences alike. You’ll find plenty of people online prepared to slag it off at the slightest prompt. But for others of us, it’s a borderline masterpiece. Personally, it’s not just a film I enjoyed, but something I’ve almost been waiting for — and by “almost” I mean that I never expected to actually get it. This isn’t a by-the-numbers attempt to recreate the adrenaline highs of an enduringly popular action movie. Instead, it’s the kind of wild-swing hyper-meta self-deconstructing take on a popular franchise that I’ve always longed for a legacy sequel to attempt, but no one has been bold enough to try (or, possibly, no one’s ever been able to convince the suits to allow it). Sure, if all you want from a Matrix movie is people looking cool in sunglasses while they engage in precisely-designed epic action sequences, then Resurrections will leave you disappointed. If you appreciate a film that has something pertinent and meaningful to say about our current entertainment culture, there’s a lot to like.


As usual, I’d just like to highlight a few other films.

Normally I’m loathe to mention any films that just missed out on the top list — it is what it is, and if I wanted it to be longer I should just find an excuse to make it longer. That said, this year my “top 21” was stuck at 32 films for the longest time — as I mentioned back at #21, you may remember. So, it feels like those 11 almost-rans deserve a mention; except it’s nine almost-rans, because I couldn’t even get it all the way down to 21. I’m not sure these are truly #24–32 (for that distinction, I’d have to properly reconsider some others from my 89-film long list that I’d eliminated earlier), but, nonetheless, there were (in alphabetical order) The Father, Festen, The Mummy (1932), My Fair Lady, My Man Godfrey, Official Secrets, The Pinchcliffe Grand Prix, Psycho Goreman, and The Quatermass Xperiment. In other years, maybe they would’ve been luckier.

That said, they’re not the only films that might feel aggrieved to have missed out (if films had feelings), because, while there are 4-star films in my top 21 (even in my top ten), there are 5-star films that didn’t make the cut. I awarded 25 films full marks in 2021, and 13 of them made it into my top list — namely Captain Phillips, Carol, David Byrne’s American Utopia, Dune: Part One, The Green Knight, Joint Security Area, The Kid Detective, Love Affair, The Matrix Resurrections, Nomadland, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Strictly Ballroom, and WolfWalkers. The less fortunate (but still great) ones were The Adventures of Prince Achmed, Cinema Paradiso, The Father, Festen, Kind Hearts and Coronets, My Fair Lady, My Man Godfrey, Official Secrets, Sansho Dayu, A Single Man, When the Wind Blows, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? There were also full marks for the original King Kong when I gave it the Guide To treatment.

Additionally, let’s recap the 12 films that won Favourite Film of the Month at the Arbies, some of which have already been mentioned in this post and some of which haven’t. In chronological order (with links to the relevant awards): WolfWalkers, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, David Byrne’s American Utopia, Captain Phillips, Official Secrets, The Invisible Man (1933), Strictly Ballroom, The Kid Detective, The Green Knight, Dune: Part One, Nobody, and The Matrix Resurrections.


This year I watched 31 movies that had their general UK release in 2021, but that means there were a considerable number I missed. So, here’s my annual alphabetical list of 50 films from last year that I’ve not yet seen. In the past I’ve used IMDb’s dating to settle what was eligible for inclusion as “a 2021 film”, but nowadays I’ll allow in something that’s listed as 2020 if it’s only due to festival screenings or (as was the case with one film this year) its own premiere.

The main downside to watching so few big new movies is that there’s not much room here for the stuff that’s smaller but still significant, which is a shame. And where I did make space for those films, some of the year’s big-but-not-huge movies lost out. That said, in some ways it made selection easier: normally I begin with a long-list of something like 120 titles, in which I typically find 20 to 30 ‘must includes’, then I weed through the rest to choose the remainder. This year, the ‘must includes’ numbered 46. I could easily have doubled this list and still been featuring films everyone’s heard about, not least because I did leave out some multiplex fillers in favour of artier-but-acclaimed films. Maybe next year I’ll finally go all-out and make this a list of 100. That would fit the site’s name, after all.

For now, it’s 50 once again. As ever, the included films were chosen for a variety of reasons, from box office success to critical acclaim via simple notoriety, and designed to include a spread of styles and genres, successes and failures.

Army of the Dead
Free Guy
The Last Duel
Luca
Shiva Baby
The Tragedy of Macbeth
Candyman
Ghostbusters: Afterlife
Last Night in Soho
Old
Spencer
Venom: Let There Be Carnage
Army of the Dead
Belfast
Candyman
Censor
CODA
Cruella
Dear Evan Hansen
Don’t Look Up
Drive My Car
Encanto
Eternals
Fast & Furious 9
Finch
Free Guy
The French Dispatch
Ghostbusters: Afterlife
House of Gucci
In the Heights
Judas and the Black Messiah
King Richard
The King’s Man
The Last Duel
Last Night in Soho
Licorice Pizza
The Lost Daughter
Luca
Malignant
The Many Saints of Newark
The Mitchells vs the Machines
Mortal Kombat
Nightmare Alley
Old
Petite Maman
Pig
The Power of the Dog
A Quiet Place Part II
Raya and the Last Dragon
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Shiva Baby
The Sparks Brothers
Spencer
Spider-Man: No Way Home
The Suicide Squad
tick, tick…BOOM!
Titane
The Tragedy of Macbeth
Venom: Let There Be Carnage
West Side Story
The Worst Person in the World
Wrath of Man


And that, ladies and gents, is officially the end of 100 Films in a Year — not just for 2021, but for ever.

Well, you already know that’s not exactly true. But it’s the end of the challenge as I’ve been attempting it for 15 years, replaced by a new take. In 12 months’ time, when a new “best of year” list is due, it won’t be drawing from ‘the challenge’ in the same way… though, that technicality aside, I rather suspect it won’t be too different from this post. And if, once again, I’m so spoilt for choice that I struggle to get it down to whatever number I decide the list should include, well, is that actually such a bad thing?

But what is February, if not 2021 persevering?

WandaVision’s penultimate episode, and one particular quote from it, has been the talk of the town lately (or: the argument of the weekend on Twitter), but here we can set aside such concerns (I mean, I’ve got a whole post with a WandaVision review in it if you did want to get into it) and just look back at all the films I watched in February 2021…


#27 Weird Woman (1944)
#28 Coming to America (1988)
#29 The Burning Buddha Man (2013), aka Moeru butsuzô ningen
#30 High Life (2018)
#31 When the Wind Blows (1986)
#32 Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
#33 The Dig (2021)
#34 Isn’t It Romantic (2019)
#35 The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926), aka Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed
#36 Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)
#37 Tangerines (2013), aka Mandariinid
#38 The White Tiger (2021)
#39 Shakespeare in Love (1998)
#40 The Last Warning (1928)
#41 Mortal Kombat (1995)
#42 The Guilty (2018), aka Den skyldige
#43 The Quatermass Xperiment (1955)
#44 The House of Fear (1939)
#45 Muse: Simulation Theory (2020)
#46 News of the World (2020)
#47 The ’Burbs (1989)
#48 Xchange (2001)
#49 Vampyr (1932)
#50 Resident Evil: Extinction (2007)
#51 Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983), aka Shu Shan – Xin Shu shan jian ke
#52 Radioactive (2019)
#53 Frankenstein (1931)
Star Trek: The Motion Picture

The Last Warning

The Quatermass Xperiment

Frankenstein

.


  • I watched 27 new feature films in February.
  • That puts it in the top 10 months of all time, in 10th place — the exact same feat January only just managed (so January is now pushed out to 11th, obv).
  • It’s the best February ever, topping 2014’s 24, and is far past the February average (previously 13.2, now 14.2), as well as the rolling average for the last 12 months (previously 23.2, now 23.9), and sets the average for 2021 so far at 26.5.
  • In terms of yearly milestones, I passed both #30 (the quarter-way point of my current 120-film goal) at the earliest time ever (4th February, beating 13th February in 2016), and #50 (the halfway point of my eponymous goal), also at the earliest ever (beating 2016’s 6th March). And #53 is the furthest I’ve ever reached by the end of February, surpassing #44 from (when else) 2016. (2016 wasn’t my best year ever, just a fast starter, so if I keep this up then at some point it’s going to be different year(s) that I’m passing.)
  • Last March I commented on how many letters of the alphabet I’d ticked off — seven in January, eight in February, nine in March. Of the two remaining, I never did get to X. Well, this year I’ve finished all 26 before the end of February. In fairness, that’s because I noticed how well I’d done in January — 15! — and made a point of finishing it off. But it’s also a side effect of watching so many films so much earlier. If I looked at other years up to around the 50-film mark, whenever that was reached, perhaps I’d find those too had hit most/all letters.
  • It’s not something I mention often, but as February began I was in the middle of watching or rewatching 23 film series. That’s quite a few — I certainly wasn’t looking to add any more to the list. But sometimes you just fancy watching a ’70s big-screen spin-off of a ’60s sci-fi TV series, or a big-screen remake of a ’50s British serial, or a classic Universal horror movie. And now I’m up to 26 series underway. (I track which I’m watching via the one I need to watch next on Letterboxd here, if you’re interested.)
  • This month’s Blindspot film: the classic Universal adaptation of Frankenstein. It’s only 70 minutes long, and I always try to save such shorter films on my list for later in the year, just in case for some reason I really need ones I can easily squeeze in; but sometimes you just have to accept that, although you don’t need a 70-minuter you can easily squeeze in, that’s all you want. Also, it paired quite nicely with The Last Warning, which (as I learnt from the audio commentary on the Masters of Cinema Blu-ray) was one of the films that was essentially the forebear to Universal’s famed horror cycle.
  • Talking of The Last Warning, at #44 is The House of Fear — not the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes film (I reviewed that here), but a remake of The Last Warning that used the title of the original novel (that was then reused for the Holmes film — Universal were terrible for that in the ’30s and ’40s, apparently).
  • From last month’s “failures” I watched The Dig, The Guilty, High Life, Weird Woman, and The White Tiger.



The 69th Monthly Arbitrary Awards

Favourite Film of the Month
This month, I boldly went where I’ve never gone before and started the Star Trek movie series from the beginning. Star Trek: The Motion Picture has never had a particularly good rep, but you’ve gotta start at the start, right? So it was a pleasant surprise when I really enjoyed it — to the point where I gave it five stars and a heart-thing on Letterboxd. I nearly didn’t go so high, because Wrath of Khan is “the best one” and now I’ve got nowhere to go if I do like it even more; but I don’t think you can go around rating films on that basis (you’d never give anything full marks just in case there was ever anything better), so…

Least Favourite Film of the Month
This month ended on a bit of a downer, with a run of films that didn’t live up to my hopes and expectations. Nonetheless, they weren’t as outright bad as some I watched earlier in the month — like Mortal Kombat, which was supposedly a mid-’90s blockbuster but actually looked like a mid-’90s syndicated TV series, with writing, acting, and fight choreography of a similar or lesser quality.

Most Recent Best Picture Winner I Hadn’t Seen of the Month
Shakespeare in Love is the only Oscar Best Picture winner from the last 30 years that I hadn’t seen. Hurrah! Now that I’ve ticked that one off, my oldest unseen is 1988’s Rain Man, which is helpfully on this year’s Blindspot list. After that, I’ll slip back just one year further, to 1987’s The Last Emperor. Indeed, my track record with ’80s winners isn’t great: I’ve seen more from the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s (plus, obviously, the ’90s, ’00s, and ’10s). Well, I’ll tick ’em all off someday.

Film Just Barely on the IMDb Top 250 of the Month
When I watched it, Tangerines was the 249th film on the IMDb Top 250. It’s not there now, but it might be again tomorrow — those ones near the end are very volatile; a handful of films that switch places back and forth, jumping on and off the list, on a regular basis. So why focus any viewing efforts there? After all, eventually they’re certain to drop off when something darts in higher up (even in a movie-poor year like 2020, two films made it onto the Top 250; there are eight from 2019). Well, I feel like once these movies do definitively drop off the list, they’re liable to become a bit forgotten. Not all of them, obviously — films in the “danger zone” like Three Colours Red or It Happened One Night have enough cache to keep them talked about for other reasons — but smaller, often foreign films like Tangerines are liable to just slip away. And, in theory, they’re still great films. I mean, they may disappear from the top 250, but they’re still theoretically among the top 260, or 275, or 300 (etc), greatest films ever made. But then they won’t be on a list, so I won’t think to watch them — so better to do it now, right?

The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
Although it only went live early yesterday evening, my 67th TV column still managed to storm past all last month’s film reviews to by February’s most-viewed post. (A distant second, with almost exactly half as many hits, was my review of Muse: Simulation Theory — which had also been on TV. Really, TV’s the game to be in if you want those page views.)



My Rewatchathon was right on pace this month, although that means I still have to catch up for last month’s shortfall.

#3 Frozen 3D (2013)
#4 The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926), aka Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed
#5 Crocodile Dundee II (1988)
#6 Apollo 13 (1995)

In a rare (I think probably unique) feat, The Adventuress of Prince Achmed is both 2021’s #35 and Rewatchathon 2021’s #4. This isn’t just because I enjoyed it so much (although it is very good), but because the BFI Blu-ray has a choice of soundtracks: the original 1926 musical score, or an English voiceover narration, recorded in 2013 but based on director Lotte Reiniger’s own English translation of her original German text. I watched them in that order, and felt the narration added nothing of value to the experience, especially as it sounds like it comes from a preschool storybook. Just stick to the original music.

As for the others, I rewatched Frozen in readiness to finally watch Frozen II sometime soon (though I didn’t get round to it this month, did I). I hadn’t seen it in 3D before; the effect was solid but surprisingly low-key, although it took off anytime it snowed, etc. If you want some idea of when that “sometime soon” for the sequel might be, look to Crocodile Dundee II, which I’ve been meaning to watch since I enjoyed a rewatch of the first one… in March 2019. I’m sure I watched it as a kid (hence why it’s a rewatch), but I didn’t remember a second of it — probably because it’s a rather perfunctory sequel; kinda slow and lacking most of the charm of the original.

Finally, Apollo 13 completed a mini Tom Hanks kick, as I watched it immediately after News of the World and The ’Burbs. It’s a great movie — indeed, I had a little word with Letterboxd about how it’s not getting the kind of ratings it deserves.


At one point this month Twitter was all over new comedy Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar, but as a premium VOD release it’s £14 and I’m not paying that to rent anything, thanks. Also going straight to rental was the latest Nic Cage craziness, Willy’s Wonderland, although at a normal rental price. Mixed reviews put me off so far, though. I did rent David Byrne’s American Utopia (on offer from Amazon), so that’ll be in next month’s viewing, and I was going to fork out for the interesting-looking documentary A Glitch in the Matrix until I saw a raft of negative reactions.

The streamers continued to throw out brand-new exclusives, with Netflix’s Malcolm & Marie probably the most talked-about this month. It sounds irritating, to be honest, whereas Korean sci-fi Space Sweepers is probably more in my lane. Over on Amazon, Gerard Butler disaster flick Greenland, Rosamund Pike’s Golden Globe-winning I Care a Lot, and Bliss, starring Owen Wilson/Salma Hayek in a sci-fi romance from the writer/director of Another Earth, all made my watchlist but didn’t actually grab my viewing time. The same is true of teen time loop romcom The Map of Tiny Perfect Things, which feels a bit like a placeholder before Palm Springs‘ belated UK release in April.

Talking of stuff finally making it to the UK, Netflix added Josh Trank’s Capone this week, so that can go on my watchlist out of curiosity but never actually get got to because it’s meant to be rubbish. More in my lane, perhaps, is Cold War thriller The Catcher Was a Spy, which apparently came out in 2018, but not here in the UK, where it’s just popped up as an Amazon Original. Going even older, Netflix added a mass load of Swedish films this month, including three silents — Terje Vigen, Ingeborg Holm, and Herr Arnes Pengar — that are all in IMDb’s Top 50 for the 1910s, so that’s interesting. Meanwhile, Amazon added 2013 Jason Statham actioner Homefront, which came onto Netflix US last month and shot to #1, despite being a flop on its theatrical release. I do like a bit of Statham action now and then, and this one comes recommended, so it’s probably worth a shout at some point. Another discovery was The Grand Heist — the kind of film I only hear of when it randomly pops up on a streamer or whatever, this Korean flick appears to be a period Ocean’s 11 about stealing ice… literally, blocks of ice. Sounds like it might be fun.

My cheap MUBI subscription is still going, but even with a new title everyday they managed to add little this month that caught my interest — just Cathy Yan’s feature debut, Dead Pigs, and Ridley Scott’s Legend, which is usually on Amazon Prime anyway; plus a few titles I own on disc anyway (The African Queen, Heat, and The King of Comedy, the latter two of which I’ve seen but are long overdue a rewatch). This month’s BBC TV premiere of Stan & Ollie means that’s now on iPlayer, although it’s also still on Prime, where it’ll be in higher quality; and on All 4 I managed to miss my chance to watch Love, Simon (its spin-off series is now on Disney+ but not, apparently, the original film) and Song Kang-ho in A Taxi Driver.

Finally, my disc purchases continued unabated. There was the release of Indicator’s second Columbia Noir set — I haven’t started the first yet, so that’s 12 minor-league noirs for me to catch up on now. Other new releases included a lavish edition of Jackie Chan classic The Young Master, restored with a choice of three different cuts, and Roger Corman’s The Masque of the Red Death, with a choice of two cuts, only one restored. But it was sales and random discounts where people really got me: from Arrow’s 30th anniversary sale, I picked up The Apartment, Horror Express, and Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway; from a BFI offer at HMV, I scooped up the original British Gaslight, Penda’s Fen, Ian McKellen’s Richard III, That Sinking Feeling, The Wages of Fear, and their four-film Hirokazu Koreeda box set; and I also got Ken Russell’s The Devils on offer on DVD from elsewhere.

Physical media fans will surely have noticed that Zoom changed hands this week. The new owners haven’t got their version fully up and running yet, so it remains to be seen if they’ll ruin one of the best Blu-ray retailers there was. Just before they shut down, I managed to get in one final Criterion gift card order — if you missed it’s existence, sorry to tell you now, but they sold a Criterion gift card for £50 that allowed you four titles (from a selected list). That works out at £12.50 each, which was a bargain, and because it’s been a while since I looked they had plenty in their selection that I wanted. So I snaffled up The Age of Innocence, Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman, The Cranes Are Flying, and Three Outlaw Samurai, but I could’ve chosen another four easily, maybe even eight — if I’d known for sure Zoom-as-we-knew-it was going away, I might’ve put up the extra £50, but hey-ho.


It’s gonna be a monstrous March with Godzilla vs. Kong. Whoever wins, we win, I reckon.

The Past Month on TV #55

It’s SF/F-agogo in this month’s TV update, with new Star Trek, new Doctor Who, old Twilight Zone, and I’ve finally finished His Dark Materials too.

Doctor Who  Series 12 Episodes 3-5
Doctor Who series 12Well, it certainly has been an eventful first half to this series of Doctor Who! Never mind bringing back the Master and destroying Gallifrey (again) in the opening two-parter — showrunner Chris Chibnall has much bigger continuity-bothering ideas on his mind. But before that, two standalone episodes.

The first, Orphan 55, is currently the worst-rated episode of modern Who according to IMDb voters, with a score almost as low as the much-maligned Game of Thrones finale. But whereas I defended that episode, unfortunately I have no love for Orphan 55. I know a lot of people’s issue with it is that it’s a bit of a climate change polemic — some people just hate Who engaging with contemporary ‘political’ issues. Sorry, but it’s been doing that since at least the Pertwee era. It’s normally a mite more subtle than this, though. I mean, The Happiness Patrol is a blatant analogy for Thatcher, but at least it’s an analogy. So Orphan 55’s problem isn’t the content, it’s the delivery: an on-the-nose lecture, practically delivered straight to camera, stapled on the end like an afterthought. But it doesn’t exactly ruin the episode, because the rest of it isn’t much cop either: a logically-dubious runaround with a shopworn twist (one that Doctor Who itself has done before, in fact). But is it actually worse than previous “most despised” editions, like Fear Her and Sleep No More? Um, actually, I think it might be.

Thankfully, the week after things swung back in the right direction. In previous years Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror would probably have been regarded as a solid midseason bit of fun, but in the current era it virtually amounts to a classic. There were undeniable overtones of the Racnoss in the creature design, and Vincent and the Doctor in its depiction of an unappreciated-in-his-time historical genius (I half expected them to take Tesla into the future to show him there was a car named after him), but plenty of Who is like other parts of Who (it is 57 years and 879 episodes old, after all, not to mention the uncountable spinoff novels, audio dramas, comic strips, etc). All in all, it was fun enough.

But the real belter was the most recent episode, Fugitive of the Judoon. It’s most impressive as a bit of show-running stagecraft: foregrounding a popular returning monster in the title and publicity (the Judoon, obv) in order to hide the long-awaited return of a popular character (Captain Jack), which was a big surprise that in itself is designed to distract you from the real twist: another incarnation of the Doctor, played by Jo Martin.The two Doctors Social media and fan forums and whatnot have debated and analysed that revelation to death, so I won’t bother digging too much into all the possibilities of what it means — only time can tell. I will stake out this opinion, though: I am not a fan of the theory that she’s a pre-Hartnell version of the Doctor. The idea there were incarnations before the one we know as the first has always seemed disrespectful to me, somehow. Yeah, the Daleks ‘made’ Doctor Who, but Hartnell gave it his all too — without him week to week, and the effort he put into public appearances and the like, would the series have survived those early years? He’s not the only thing responsible for its success, and certainly not for its longevity, but he was The First — leave that be, thanks.

But, as I say, we’ll find out in time. More interesting to me, for now, is how showrunner Chris Chibnall is going about his job nowadays. Comparing his two seasons so far, Chibnall’s attitude to reusing stuff from Who’s past seems to be — very literally — all or nothing. Last season, he made a point of not using any continuity — no returning characters or villains, no significant references to the Doctor’s past or previous adventures. This season, he seems to be using all the continuity. I can’t remember a Doctor Who story so loaded with references to not-recent previous adventures as this one. Even the Chameleon Arch gets an outing, a thing that mattered in two stories that aired 13 years ago. It feels like Chibnall is an RTD-era fanboy revelling in bringing back stuff from a time when the show was at its peak of popularity. Maybe that’s what it needs right now. Though, in a broader sense, I feel like last season was Chibnall trying to copy RTD-in-2005 (fresh! new! start watching here!), while this time he’s doing his best to be Moffat-in-2011 (complicated mysteries! revisionist continuity! wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey explanations!)

Whether these additions to the mythology are interesting and productive, or whether it’ll be like “half-human” and fans ignore it ASAP, will depend on what’s to come. Either way, it’s the most exciting the show’s been in a good few years, and that’s something in itself.

Star Trek: Picard  Season 1 Episode 1
Star Trek: Picard season 1The Star Trek series boldly goes where it’s never gone before: into the Prestige TV market. (Despite initial appearances, based on things like the reviews I’ve read and variably-sized season orders, I’m not sure Discovery was really “prestige TV” in the end.) Is it up to competing with the big boys of this peak TV era?

Well, after just the first episode, I’m going to hang fire on answering that — on the evidence of this one instalment, it could go either way. It can certainly walk the walk: it looks very nice, with plenty of lush cinematography and expensive visuals (both globe-hopping locations and swish CGI), and it certainly wants to appear weighty, with themes of ageing and decay (not only of people but also institutions). But can it talk the talk? Does it actually have things to say beyond “Picard is old now, and Starfleet’s a bit shit”? Once upon a time I’d’ve said the fact it’s heavily (heavily) embedded in existing Trek continuity was a barrier, both to entry (“only fans will know enough to follow the plot”) and quality (“it’s so busy looking to the past it doesn’t do anything new”) and acclaim (“I’m not a Trekkie so I didn’t care”) — but that’s not necessarily the case anymore, as HBO’s Watchmen only just proved: you can reuse and remix and lean hard on previous texts, and still produce a high-quality work. That said, while Picard does invest energy in making sure newbies have all the continuity stuff explained, I feel like the show already shows signs of wavering towards Trek’s usual habits, for good or ill. But there’s an interesting enough set of mysteries just getting underway, and it’s always great to see Patrick Stewart, so I remain optimistic it’s going to go somewhere good.

His Dark Materials  Series 1
His Dark Materials series 1I reviewed the first three episodes of His Dark Materials in my previous regular update, just over a month ago, but I’d actually watched them much earlier, so when I returned to the series in the new year I decided to restart from the beginning. That improved my opinion of them considerably, I must say, but then a second viewing always has the ability to help clarify things you were unclear of before. Still, I got much more invested this time, and was swept along for the ride and the mysteries the show unfurled. Like the two series I’ve reviewed above, there’s plenty of mystery and intrigue here — some of it answered, much of it left hanging for future seasons (there’s two whole books to come, intended to be adapted across four more seasons). But even in this first salvo, events and characters move in interesting directions. It’s a very dark show at times, especially for something adapted from what are ostensibly children’s books, but that at least creates a genuine sense of jeopardy and unpredictability. So too the way it handles its characters — there’s not just simplistic twists of “hero turns out to be villain” or vice versa, but definite shades of grey. With the promise of whole new worlds to come, I’m definitely excited to see what’s next.

Also, I bloody love the theme music now.

The Twilight Zone  ‘Best Of’
The Midnight SunIt’s been six months since I did one of my “best of The Twilight Zone” roundups, but I always intended to continue them, so here we are again.

Having already reviewed the top ten episodes as ranked by several different sources (IMDb voters, ScreenCrush, and Paste), I decided to resume my journey through the original Twilight Zone by producing an average of various different lists to identify which instalments are acclaimed by consensus (because that’s the kind of thing I do). To help broaden the range of opinions, I added a bunch of new lists to my calculations — namely, Ranker’s The Best Twilight Zone Episodes of All Time as sorted by voters; Buzzfeed’s Ranking Every Episode by Arianna Rebolini; TV Guide’s 50 Essential Episodes Ranked by Joal Ryan: and Thrillist’s The 50 Best Episodes by Scott Beggs.

This new average ranking gave me a fresh top ten with a couple of episodes I’d not seen. The first of those was in 9th place (also, for what it’s worth, it’s now in IMDb’s top ten too, having moved up from 11th to 8th since I last looked). That’s The Masks, which I think is one of the series’ best-paced episodes. I’ve found that even some of the greatest episodes can feel a little thin, with a singular concept that only just fills 25 minutes, but this one doesn’t overstay its welcome by a second — and yet it’s as simple and clear a concept as any. That’s perhaps when TZ is at its best: simple but effective concepts, cleanly executed. And there’s a moral lesson too, of course.

I was slightly less impressed by The After Hours, which finishes off the consensus top ten. It’s an effectively creepy edition for the most part, with some genuine scares, but for me it was slightly undermined by the final explanation, which I don’t think quite hangs together with what’s gone before. A definite case of “it’s about the journey not the destination”, then, because up ’til that point it’s superb.

Number 12 Looks Just Like YouMoving beyond the top ten to complete the top 10% (i.e. the 16 best episodes), next is Number 12 Looks Just Like You (which, by-the-by, comes 10th on Thrillist). This is what some people might call “proper sci-fi” — an idea of the future spun out of what’s possible in the present, using it to present an analogy for the times we live in. And what is the analogy? In this case, there’s a few things you can read into it: mental health; conformism; the transition from childhood to adulthood; maybe all of the above; maybe something else. The only real downside is the episode hints at a wider world that isn’t explored. It’s mentioned in passing that the writing of Shakespeare, Keats, and others has been banned. Why? By whom? And while a bunch of middle-class white people are choosing which generic model they want to look like, what about other races? Class is less of an immediate issue because it seems this is a government-backed thing that everyone must undergo — but then, why do the lower classes get to look just the same as their ‘betters’? Surely there’d be different models depending on your social station? Never mind a 25-minute episode, someone could spin an entire series out of this… Still, having so much to ponder is one mark of a very good episode.

The Midnight Sun is the penultimate episode in the top 16, and also is another one that’s 10th on one list, this time Ranker’s. I’d probably put it even higher — this is definitely one of my favourite episodes so far. It takes a massive world-altering event and shows it to us from the point of view of two ordinary women; and not even from when the event happens or is discovered, but from a month into the new status quo, when it’s become a fact of life rather than some revelation. It’s a different way to approach such a story even today, and it works all the more for it. And, of course, there’s a twist (spoiler to come!) — one of the very, very few times “it was just a dream” works.

Robert Redford invites you to The Twilight ZoneFinally for now, the last episode in the top 16 (and the only one of today’s episodes not in anyone’s top ten), Nothing in the Dark. Probably best known for staring a young Robert Redford, it’s about an old woman who’s paranoid and agoraphobic due to her fear of meeting Death; but when Redford’s cop is shot right outside her door, she has to let him in to save his life. It’s a nice idea for a story, but (to loop back to what I was saying about The Masks) it feels a little slight in the execution. Half of the second act is taken up in a diversion with a demolition guy which is just that, a diversion. Still, there are very good performances from the two leads, and it comes with a well-meant little message by the end.

Also watched…
  • The Goes Wrong Show Series 1 Episodes 3-5 — I love this show with all my heart. Episode 3 was perhaps the best yet (even the title, A Trial to Watch, is a gag). So this is a friendly reminder that the series so far is available on iPlayer and the sixth (and final, *sob*) episode is on tonight.
  • The Great British Bake Off Series 1 Episodes 1-3 — I joined Bake Off before it was an all-encompassing phenomenon, with series two. So I’ve always meant to go back and see the one season I’d missed, especially since the whole lot became available on Netflix. It’s funny watching it now, though, because so much of it is familiar as Bake Off, but it’s early days and it’s unrefined. It’s a bit like watching a version of the show made by someone who pretty much remembers how it works but not exactly.
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation — I’ve never seen all of TNG (far from it), so as Picard is expected to be heavily indebted to existing continuity, I sought out a few likely-to-be-relevant episodes. The first was season 5 episode 23, I Borg, which is regarded as one of the series’ very best, and deservedly so. The other was the season 6 finale / season 7 premiere, a two-parter called Descent, which I guess was decent. There’s some good stuff in the first half about Data dealing with the possibility of experiencing emotion, but the second half is a bit too pulpy in a way I’m not sure fits Trek (or at least my idea of it). If any Trekkies reading this have other episodes they’d recommend (for relevance to Picard, not just because they’re good), I’m open to suggestions.
  • Twin Peaks in UHD — The recently-released Twin Peaks: From Z to A box set includes a bonus disc with two episodes in 4K Ultra HD. Yeah, just two. Why they didn’t do the full series, who knows. Expense, I guess. Some people reckon this is testing the waters for a full-series UHD release, but I dunno — considering they’ve already released the whole series on individual season DVDs, then a complete box set DVD, then Blu-ray, now a collector’s edition Blu-ray, do they think they’ll manage to sell it to people again? Sure, there’ll be some customers, but enough? Anyway, the two episodes here are the original pilot and season 3 / A Limited Event Series / The Return (whatever you want to call it) Part 8. The latter looked pretty great, even without HDR enhancement; the former… I’m counting as a movie, so will write about in January’s Rewatchathon segment.

    Things to Catch Up On
    Good OmensThis month, I have mostly been missing Good Omens… again! I didn’t get round to it on Prime Video when it premiered last May, and now it’s airing weekly on BBC Two but I still haven’t started it. I read the book as a kid and absolutely loved it (for a very long time I would’ve said it was my favourite novel), so when they announced a miniseries adaptation I was excited — especially as it was being managed by Neil Gaiman himself and starred a bunch of my favourite actors, not least Michael Sheen and David Tennant in the lead roles. That’s almost the problem: I want to watch it properly; I can’t just bung it on. Maybe I’ll get to it before next month’s column.

    Also missed: The Trial of Christine Keeler (I hear it got pretty good, but only after a couple of episodes); White House Farm (I’m interested in the case, but apparently the series is overly slow and long-winded); Deadwater Fell (David Tennant again); and probably a tonne of other stuff that’s slipped my mind for the moment…

    Next month… more Doctor Who, more Picard, more Twilight Zone. As for new stuff, Locke & Key finally makes it to the screen via Netflix… but that’s about all I can foresee for now. Maybe I will finally do Good Omens

    P.S. If you’re an attentive regular reader who’s thinking, “hold on, did I miss #53 and #54?”, the answer is no, you didn’t — the mistake is mine. A whole year ago, I forgot to count the 2018 Christmas post towards the numbering, which is the way I’d previously done things, so I am belatedly correcting for it by ‘hiding’ the jump alongside the one for 2019’s Christmas post. If you think that’s terribly confusing, just remember: it doesn’t really matter anyway.

  • Trekkies & Trekkies 2

    In today’s roundup:

  • Trekkies (1997)
  • Trekkies 2 (2004)


    Trekkies
    (1997)

    2018 #97
    Roger Nygard | 83 mins | streaming | 4:3 | USA / English & Klingon | PG / PG

    Trekkies

    There are quite a few fan documentaries out there nowadays (a few years ago… wait, ten years ago? Bloody hell. Anyway, back then I reviewed the likes of Starwoids, Ringers: Lord of the Fans, and Done the Impossible: The Fans’ Tale of Firefly and Serenity). But before all of those, and I think the first of its subgenre, was Trekkies, which examined the phenomenon of Star Trek fandom — or, rather, the wild, weird extremities of it.

    Trekkies begins with the proclamation that “Trekkies are the only fans listed by name in the Oxford English Dictionary.” That’s not true anymore (“Whovian”, at least, is in there), and that speaks to an interesting truth about this entire documentary. When it was released 21 years ago, Trekkies was exposing a niche thing to wider awareness, and these fans were seen as weirdos, fundamentally. Watching it today, though, you see that it’s mostly just cons and cosplay — stuff that’s been virtually mainstream for a few years at this point. It may’ve once seemed odd for these people to define their lives as “Star Trek fan”, but now, for many people (especially younger people), it’s perfectly routine to be defined by which fandom you’re in.

    Gabriel Koerner in 1997

    That said, Trekkies still managed to find some people who are pretty weird by any standard. At the time the filmmakers received some criticism for this — for creating a film that got laughs out of “look at the weirdos!” while ignoring the more normal side of fandom. That’s not a wholly baseless critique, but I didn’t think the film was cruel. As well as going “aren’t these people nuts!”, I think it does try to dig into why they do it, what they get out of it. I’m not sure how well it reveals the former (I mean, how did any of them go from liking a TV show to… this? It must be some personality thing), but it does a decent job of showing what benefits it brings them. And there are some incredible stories (mainly from interviewed cast members) about how Trek has changed, or even saved, people’s lives.

    Trekkies may’ve lost the uniqueness it once had, with elements of the lifestyle it depicts coming to increasing prominence, but it still remains an interesting look at that kind of world, with some very memorable characters. And if you think it might’ve aged into irrelevance after all this time, there’s a bit about the importance of Captain Janeway as a role model for female leadership and what women can do — we’re still having debates and arguments about that sort of thing over twenty years later, which is, frankly, depressing.

    4 out of 5

    Trekkies 2
    (2004)

    2018 #98
    Roger Nygard | 93 mins | download | 4:3 | USA / English, German, Italian, Portuguese, French & Serbian | PG / PG

    Trekkies 2

    Such is the strangeness of Time that, just 24 hours after I watched Trekkies, I jumped forward seven years to catch up with some of that film’s featured fans in this lesser-seen follow-up. It’s not just repeat visits to old friends, though — if you thought America had a monopoly on crazies, well, Trekkies 2’s got news for you!

    This time out director Roger Nygard and host Denise Crosby take us to Germany (visiting the set of a fan film); the UK (with a guy who turned his flat into a starship, which he’s listed on eBay for $2 million (a couple of years later it sold for c.$840,000, which was still 16 times what he paid for it)); Italy (where fandom is apparently centred around food); Brazil (where a collector has a rare playset from the ’60s… which Crosby accidentally knocks over); Australia (where the fans mainly seem to be female and obsessed with the sexy male cast members); France (which is really just “more international fans”, to be honest); and Serbia (where the series and its values has brought a lot of hope to people in a tumultuous region).

    We also meet more US fans, as the sequel tries to rectify some of the first film’s shortcomings. For example, there’s a much greater section on filk music (which is, basically, music tied to sci-fi/fantasy fandom), as well as some crazy-funny Star Trek punk tribute bands — there’s a whole scene of that kind of thing in Sacramento, randomly. Plus we’re shown the lighter side of fandom, like the theatre company staging a satirical Trek-ified version of Romeo & Juliet.

    German fan film

    And, as I mentioned, we catch up with some old friends, including Barbara Adams, the lady who wore her Trek uniform while on jury duty (and who has a hilarious Trek vs Wars debate with a coworker that’s like something out of The Office), and the film’s break-out star, Gabriel Koerner. A super-geeky teen in the first movie, seven years later he has a wife and has turned his hobby into a career in visual effects. It just goes to show, there’s someone and something for everyone.

    Indeed, overall it’s not quite as “look at the freaks!” as the first film. It takes time to explicitly discuss what’s going too far and what’s normal, and it also highlights how Trek fandom has been a force for good, like raising money for charity, or giving hope in war-torn regions. Consequently it’s not as funny as last time, but probably in a good way — this one’s a bit more thoughtful, a bit fairer to its subjects as people. Ultimately, I think the two films work quite well as a pair. There’s also been talk of a Trekkies 3, which I hope happens — as I mentioned about the first film, attitudes to this kind of fandom have changed massively in the past decade or so (for example, the rise of Comic-Con and its influence), so it would be very interesting to explore that.

    For my money, the most insightful moment in either film comes from Pierluigi Piazzi, a Brazilian publisher of Star Trek books, when he says that “this is a wonderful way to be crazy. Everybody’s crazy, but it’s wonderful this way.”

    4 out of 5

  • Star Trek Beyond (2016)

    2016 #183
    Justin Lin | 122 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | USA, Hong Kong & China / English | 12 / PG-13

    Star Trek Beyond

    The cover of Star Trek Beyond’s Blu-ray proudly proclaims that it’s “the best reviewed action movie of the year”. I don’t think that’s true (Civil War, anyone?), but it does indicate the mindset producing these films nowadays: they’re not the serious-minded sci-fi the Trek franchise was once known for, but action-orientated summer blockbusters.

    As that, Beyond is pretty entertaining. An overall lighter tone than the heavy-handed Into Darkness, plus competently executed action sequences and fewer incredulity-inducing contrivances, make for a fun adventure.

    Surprisingly, it doesn’t succumb to the modern franchise proclivity for forcing third movies to be trilogy-formers. Maybe that shouldn’t be surprising though: it was confirmed before Beyond’s release that a fourth (aka fourteenth) movie is in development, so obviously this shouldn’t feel like the end of the road for this crew. The upside of this is that Beyond can get on with its story, unworried about being Epic.

    Explosive

    The downside is it creates a “just another adventure” feel to the plot — a bread-and-butter situation for Star Trek’s original TV format, but underwhelming in an expensive blockbuster movie franchise. Consequently Beyond feels inessential. That’s an odd sensation in a franchise nowadays, where the usual MO sees every movie feed into a bigger multi-film narrative. But with Into Darkness being deliberately ignored here (thanks to its unpopularity with hardcore Trekkies) and Beyond functioning as “just another adventure”, Trek is almost a franchise-out-of-time, where individual instalments can be entirely enjoyed in isolation.

    Not that I think that’s a bad thing. Beyond may lack a certain epicness, but it’s entertaining enough for what it is.

    4 out of 5

    Star Trek Beyond is available on Sky Cinema from today.

    The Past Month on TV #9

    There’s so much TV right now! And that’s before you consider all the old stuff to catch up on (and by “old” I mean “anything aired before the past month”).

    Still, here’s a selection of what’s been gracing my eyeballs in the last 35 days…

    Luke Cage (Season 1)
    Luke CageThe third series in the Marvel/Netflix stable wins points for boldness, much as Jessica Jones did this time last year. Where Daredevil is a well-done but ‘standard’ superhero show, leading to it being somewhat demeaned by the Cool Kids of the critical world (but much higher-rated by us plebs on the likes of IMDb), Jessica pushed into dark psychological territory, and now Luke Cage brings black culture and life into the fold.

    In truth, I still think Daredevil is the best produced of the three. Maybe that’s because it’s operating in more familiar territory, but it seems to know how to construct its storylines to fit the time given, and pace them to really kick off that “just one more episode” feeling that Netflix binge-watching is so famed for. Conversely, Jessica didn’t have enough story for 13 episodes, spinning its wheels and going in circles in the second half. Luke Cage doesn’t suffer from that exact problem, but it spends a lot of time finding excuses to keep its near-invulnerable hero out of the action.

    But, for its plot-related flaws, it’s not a bad show. It has three strong villains — it’s just a shame it’s the fourth who becomes the focus for the back half of the season. Its use of music is unusual and brilliantly executed, though as it’s employing genres and styles, indeed a whole culture, that I’m not exactly au fait with, it’s like watching as a fascinated outside observer rather than someone fully embedded or engaged. That’s not necessarily a negative, just a different way of relating to it. And even with those storytelling faults I mentioned, there’s at least one huge and unexpected twist, which really livens up the show… for a bit. It also gives Rosario Dawson the biggest role she’s yet had in one of these Marvel series, and that’s no bad thing either.

    Indeed, the best thing about Luke Cage is its characters. Mike Colter is an appealing leading man — when the character is allowed to do something, anyway — and the supporting characters on both sides are fantastic (with that one unfortunate exception I already mentioned). This bodes well for when they join up with everyone else in The Defenders next year, and also leaves season two with plenty of potential…

    …if Netflix commission it, of course. Surely they can’t be intending to have 6+ Marvel shows on the go?!

    Ripper Street (Season 5)
    Ripper StreetIt feels like only yesterday I was writing here about season four (it was, in fact, February and March). I think it was assumed this final season would be coming next year, but then Amazon announced it almost out of the blue just before the BBC’s run of season four ended, and made the unusual-for-them decision to dump the whole season at once, Netflix-style. It benefits this particular group of episodes because it really is one long story — when the show moved to Amazon for its third season it got more heavily serialised, but often with “case of the week” plots alongside that; the end of season four and all of season five throw that almost entirely aside for one long, developing storyline.

    Nonetheless, they’ve done a good job of making a TV show rather than a really long movie in six parts. The third episode, in particular, sets our heroes aside almost entirely to spend an hour with a villain who’s barely done more than grunt so far, digging into his psyche and his hopes (if any) of redemption. It almost felt more like an arty drama film than an episode of a period police procedural and proves that, even after five years, a quality programme can still push at and explore its form.

    The final episode, however, is a certified oddity. After wrapping up the season’s primary plots with relative haste, it moves on to an odd, somewhat lethargic non-story. It is, in its way, bold for what started as a police procedural to end with an episode that focuses on the drama of its characters’ lives, but it does so with an almost perverse fixation on setting up certain expectations only to dash them. It is tough to call the episode either satisfying or unsatisfying as a conclusion, though I imagine some will come to the latter opinion purely because it is so uncommon. It’s titled Occurrence Reports, and that seems apt, for it seems to merely report a series of occurrences; but they do at least, in their way, bring all of the series’ parts to their respective ends.

    Leaving aside the finale’s forays into structural experimentation, this is a good final season, that has moments to count among the programme’s very best. I still reckon season three is the best individual run, however.

    Black Mirror (Series 2)
    Black MirrorWell, it’s only taken me 3½ years to get round to this (seriously, where does time go?!) This bunch really represents the series’ highs and lows. On the one hand, Be Right Back — in which Hayley Atwell signs up for a company who create a virtual version of her deceased partner using his contributions to social media — is an exploration of broadly-plausible near-future-tech with a focus on its potential emotional effect. That’s what Black Mirror does best, I’d argue: look at stuff that may, perhaps, be in the pipeline, and how that would actually play out for us. On the other, there’s The Waldo Moment, which is also sickeningly plausible — as Charlie Brooker himself has said, it’s more or less come true, though with the likes of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump instead of a blue cartoon bear — but as an episode it doesn’t quite seem to know where to go with its concept or what it might ultimately signify. The episode just stops rather than ends, until a flash-forward coda that’s a bit silly in its extremity. Even Brooker, while doing press for the third season (released tomorrow), has said he’d go back and re-do that episode if he could. Still, full marks for effort.

    Red Dwarf XI (Episodes 1-5)
    Red Dwarf XIThis latest series of Red Dwarf (which airs its fifth episode tonight, with the sixth available on demand from tomorrow) seems to have gone down rather well, with some reviews even hailing it as a “return to form” — that form being “the good old days” of Red Dwarf VI (or thereabouts), over 20 years ago. Personally, I didn’t dislike Red Dwarf VII or Back to Earth, and I even have a soft spot for Red Dwarf VIII, so what do I know? Nonetheless, I would concur that this Dwarf represents a fine vintage, hitting the series’ unique mix of accessible mainstream-ish comedy and proper science-fiction concepts. Red Dwarf XII is already in the can for 2017, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Dave commission more episodes beyond that.

    Star Trek The City on the Edge of Forever
    Star Trek: The Animated Series Yesteryear
    Star Trek - The City on the Edge of ForeverThe entirety of TV Star Trek is available on Netflix, so I took the chance to watch the most acclaimed episodes of both The Original Series and The Animated Series — which happen to be connected, something I didn’t realise until afterwards. Er, I mean, which I totally planned. Both are pretty fine uses of science-fiction to explore relatable issues. Well, not many of us have to deal with disruptions to reality caused by time travel, or knowledge of the future creating dilemmas about what we do next, but they work the relatable stuff in around the surface plots. And they both still seem pretty bold for network TV episodes even today, almost half a century later, as (spoilers!) Kirk lets a good woman die to retain the correct timeline, and a kids’ cartoon deals with the subject of euthanasia.

    Also watched…
  • Castle Season 6 Episode 8-Season 7 Episode 1 — almost always a nice, light, entertaining show, but the season 6 finale is a mess. Well, the bulk of it’s fine, but the premise is illogical and the cliffhanger is weightless and unneeded.
  • The Great British Bake Off Series 7 Episodes 5-9 — this series has seen Bake Off’s charms firing on all cylinders, I think, which just reminds you what we’re about to lose.
  • Line of Duty Series 1 — as this is on Netflix I thought I’d finally see what all the fuss is about. I think it’s the second run where it really took off, but this has its moments.
  • The Musketeers Series 2 Episodes 6-7 — quite a few grim crime shows in this month’s viewing, so a bit of quality swashbuckling is a welcome change of pace.
  • Scott & Bailey Series 5 — not the strongest run (the “darknet serial killers” case was a little too outlandish for a show that has often thrived on its more-plausible-than-your-average depiction of murder investigation), but still a quality police drama. Shame there won’t be more.

    Things to Catch Up On
    WestworldThis month, I have mostly been missing loads of stuff. Probably the most talked about is HBO’s adaptation of Westworld, which has apparently pulled in even bigger ratings than Game of Thrones. Over here there’s the second series of The Missing, which if it’s half as good as the first will be a real must-see. Then there’s Woody Allen’s first (and last) TV series for Amazon, Crisis in Six Scenes. Reviews have been mixed to poor but I still intend to get round to it. And finally Hooten & the Lady, which may be the worst title for anything in the history of ever, but a globetrotting adventure series inspired by the likes of Indiana Jones and Romancing the Stone sounds right up my alley.

    Next month… the latest Doctor Who spin-off comes to iPlayer; brand-new Black Mirror comes to Netflix; and I’ll finally watch Stranger Things, I promise.

  • Galaxy Quest (1999)

    100 Films’ 100 Favourites #33

    The show was cancelled…
    but the adventure has only begun.

    Country: USA
    Language: English
    Runtime: 102 minutes
    BBFC: PG
    MPAA: PG

    Original Release: 25th December 1999 (USA)
    UK Release: 28th April 2000
    First Seen: DVD, c.2001

    Stars
    Tim Allen (The Santa Clause, Christmas with the Kranks)
    Sigourney Weaver (Alien, Avatar)
    Alan Rickman (Dogma, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone)
    Tony Shaloub (Men in Black, Pain & Gain)
    Sam Rockwell (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Moon)

    Director
    Dean Parisot (Fun with Dick and Jane, RED 2)

    Screenwriters
    David Howard
    Robert Gordon (Addicted to Love, Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events)

    Story by
    David Howard

    The Story
    The cast of ’70s sci-fi series Galaxy Quest have been reduced to convention appearances and mall openings since their show was cancelled; but when a group of aliens, who believe the series was an historical document and have built the show’s spaceship for real, ask for the crew’s help to defeat a genocidal general, the actors must endeavour to become their characters for real.

    Our Heroes
    A ragtag gang of washed-up actors who used to star on a space opera TV series, now co-opted into being real heroes. They’re all based on the cast and characters of Star Trek, of course: Tim Allen’s Jason Nesmith, the ship’s captain, is obviously William Shatner/James T. Kirk; Sigourney Weaver’s Gwen Demarco, the token female, is Nichelle Nichols/Uhuru; Alan Rickman’s Alexander Dane, the classically-trained actor playing an alien science officer, is a combination of Leonard Nimoy/Spock and Patrick Stewart; Tony Shaloub’s Fred Kwan, a fake-foreign engineer, is a mixture of James Doohan/Scotty and Walter Koenig/Chekov; and Daryl Mitchell’s Tommy Webber, a young helmsman from an ethnic minority, is a mixture of George Takei/Sulu and Wil Wheaton/Wesley Crusher.

    Our Villain
    General Sarris, a reptilian warlord waging war against the kindly Thermians. No discredit to Robin “Ethan Rayne off Buffy” Sachs, but he’s kind of beside the point, really.

    Best Supporting Character
    Enrico Colantoni (Veronica Mars, Person of Interest) plays the leader of the friendly aliens, Mathesar, a naïve soul who speaks in a sing-song monotone.

    Memorable Quote
    “By Grabthar’s hammer, by the suns of Worvan, you shall be avenged.” — Sir Alexander Dane

    Memorable Scene
    Our heroes arrive in the bowels of their screen-faithful ship to find “a bunch of chompy, crushy things” impeding their path — for absolutely no reason. “We shouldn’t have to do this, it makes no logical sense, why is it here?… This episode was badly written!”

    Making of
    In cinemas, the film began with a 4:3 aspect ratio for clips from the old TV series, then widened to 1.85:1 for the Earth-based scenes, before widening again to a highly cinematic 2.35:1 once Tim Allen’s character realises he’s on a real spaceship. It was decided to ditch the middle stage for the home video releases, which I suppose makes sense, but is a lot less fun.

    Previously on…
    Galaxy Quest is an original creation, but it’s heavily inspired by the Star Trek franchise and its fans.

    Next time…
    A reboot TV series was supposedly in the works at Amazon, though comments made by co-star Sam Rockwell just last month suggest the project had developed into a direct sequel, which was then sadly scuppered by the untimely death of Alan Rickman.

    Awards
    1 Saturn Award (Actor (Tim Allen))
    9 Saturn nominations (Science Fiction Film, Actress (Sigourney Weaver), Supporting Actor (Alan Rickman), Performance by a Younger Actor/Actress (Justin Long), Director, Music, Costumes, Make-Up, Special Effects)
    Won the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation

    What the Critics Said
    “Whether you love Star Trek or laugh at it, your starship is about to come in, docking in the form of Galaxy Quest, an amiable comedy that simultaneously manages to spoof these popular futuristic space adventures and replicate the very elements that have made them so durable. […] If Galaxy Quest never attains consistently giddy heights as it plays out its combination of knowing satire and heroic adventure, it nevertheless keeps its tongue firmly in its cheek, offers a few genuine laughs, moves swiftly, if not at warp speed, and is led by a talented cast.” — Lawrence Van Gelder, The New York Times

    Score: 90%

    What the Public Say
    “As a fan of the various science fiction classic series, like Star Trek and Star Wars, I’ve met most of the people parodied in Galaxy Quest – from the overzealous fans to the has-been and bitter celebrities making a living off a series’ memories. A movie like Galaxy Quest manages to poke fun at a wide range of people but still be loveable and sympathetic at the same time.” — Kevin Carr, 7M Pictures

    What the Trekkies Say
    In 2013, just after Star Trek Into Darkness came out, a massive convention of Trekkies decided to vote on the best Trek movies. Galaxy Quest muscled its way in to 7th place, besting six real Trek flicks. (Infamously, Into Darkness came dead last.)

    Verdict

    Managing to satirise both classic sci-fi TV shows and their (shall we say) enthusiastic fanbase, while remaining relatively respectful to both, is quite a feat, and is surely one reason Galaxy Quest has proven so popular. Another is its accessibility: you don’t need to be a Trekkie to get all the gags. Combine those two and you have a film for fans and non-fans alike. To really cement the issue, it’s a solid adventure movie as well as a funny comedy.

    #34 will be… what you get for the man who has everything.

    Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)

    2010 #107
    Stuart Baird | 112 mins | TV (HD) | 12 / PG-13

    After the widespread disappointment with Insurrection, the ninth big screen outing for Star Trek, fans hoped the tenth, Nemesis, would mark a return to their old adage “even ones good, odd ones bad.” They had reasons to be hopeful: a new director, an Oscar-nominated screenwriter, and (potentially) the final outing for the beloved Next Generation crew. Surely they’d be given a fitting send-off?

    Sadly, it wasn’t to be: Nemesis was a critical and commercial flop, the only Trek not to open at #1 in the US, the lowest-grossing of the entire franchise. And quite rightly, because it isn’t very good.

    While Insurrection was accused of being dull because it was largely about a dispute over who got to live on a planet, the political side of that kept it engaging. Nemesis’s plot, on the other hand, just doesn’t go anywhere fast. Attempts to liven it up with some action sequences often come off as tacked-on asides, while discussions about just who Picard’s clone is and what he wants feel hollow — of course he’s a nasty piece of work, otherwise your film is completely villain-free!

    Picard’s clone is played not by Patrick Stewart, but by a shaved Tom Hardy. Yes, that Tom Hardy. We should be glad Nemesis didn’t kill off his career, which at the time consisted of small roles in Band of Brothers and Black Hawk Down but has gone on to acclaimed leads (or other significant parts) in TV such as Stuart: A Life Backwards, Oliver Twist and Wuthering Heights, and on the big screen in Bronson, Inception and (soon) The Dark Knight Rises and Mad Max 4. He’s not got much to work with here, Only the clonelythough the knowledge of better things to come means his presence somehow lifts his scenes a notch.

    The film ends with the most pointless heroic sacrifice I’ve seen for a while. OK, the well-loved character’s dead, but that identical clone — you know, the one they downloaded all the character’s memories into — is still hanging around. Give me strength.

    It’s a shame the Next Generation lot had to go out on such a duff note, their series of movies conforming more to the usual sequel pattern of diminishing returns (their first, First Contact, is highly praised, with the next two increasingly slated) than the original series crew’s good/bad alternation. Still, at least it cleared the way for what Trek probably needed more than anything: a good, clean, rebooting.

    2 out of 5

    Star Trek: Insurrection (1998)

    2010 #81
    Jonathan Frakes | 99 mins | TV (HD) | PG / PG

    Star Trek: InsurrectionMany years ago, back when both the shows I’m about to mention were still on the air, someone drew a comparison that I felt summed up the whole of ’90s/’00s Star Trek. The two series in question were Farscape and Star Trek: Voyager, both of which concern humans trapped far away from Earth with no feasible way home, and the comparison went something like this: if the crew were offered a way to jump straight to Earth in exchange for a crewmember’s limb, in Farscape they’d discuss it briefly, then hack the limb off, hand it over, and be betrayed, all before the opening titles; in Star Trek: Voyager, they’d sit around discussing it for the whole episode before deciding “better not” and going on their way. Hopefully the point makes itself.

    Insurrection seemed, apparently, the very personification of this idea. Rather than the broadly action-adventure style of First Contact, or other big contemporary sci-fi movies like Independence Day, The Fifth Element, Lost in Space, Armageddon, or even Star Wars Episode I — itself lamented (in part) for featuring too much discussion of trade blockades and whatnot — Insurrection concerns a minor dispute over a survey mission to a single planet. Yawn, right?

    Picard had accidentally added a 0 to his iPad orderActually, this is when Insurrection is at its best. Action-adventure undoubtedly has a place in science-fiction, but so do wordier stories — when they’re done right, and when they’re where you expect them to be. You shouldn’t expect them from Star Wars; you should from Star Trek. (That doesn’t make Voyager’s attitude better than Farscape’s, incidentally; not if it was boring or implausibly honourable considering their situation. But that isn’t the matter at hand.) And so the first 45 minutes or so are mostly enjoyable. Critics say even this isn’t as deep as The Next Generation on TV got in its prime, but having not seen much of that I can’t compare; as a film by itself, the disputes and political wrangling kept me engaged. But then it begins an attempt to be all Exciting, at which point it begins to get dull, degenerating into a stock runaround and shoot-out, only with some disappointingly cheap CGI here and there.

    Mad eyes; moodyThere’s a greater array of fan-pleasing nods and winks this time out. As with First Contact, they have to find an excuse to get Worf back on board (at the time, in universe continuity, he was on Deep Space 9 in Deep Space 9). Luckily little time is spent on this, but there are myriad references to DS9, the Dominion, the Borg, the Romulans — all of it irrelevant to the story at hand, all of it suggesting stuff was happening in the concurrent TV series that the filmmakers wanted fans to be sure they were aware of. Removed from that context by over a decade, and to a viewer not submersed in the Trek universe, it’s safe to say we don’t care. Elsewhere, Data gets a significant subplot — as per usual, then — and Picard gets a sort-of love interest. Perhaps it’s actually these bits the critics latched on to…

    Die PicardMost negative reviews — so, most reviews — accused the film of being essentially a TV episode (or two, of course), not earning itself a spot on the big screen. They may have a point. The subject matter isn’t at fault — a planet with the ability to make everyone live forever has suitably large potential — but the execution of it is frequently low-key. This isn’t too bad in the first half, which maintains the interest as it unfurls the story, but when it degenerates into action in the second half it falls apart. It’s no longer interesting and, ironically, looks made-for-TV, lacking inspired direction or suitable scope. Perhaps it would’ve been better served as a TV episode; or, as a film, better served by a writer and/or director and/or producer with greater vision.

    3 out of 5

    Film4 and Film4 HD are showing the first ten Star Trek films across Saturday 16th and Sunday 17th October. Insurrection is on at 9pm on Sunday.
    Star Trek: Insurrection is on Channel 4 today, Sunday 21st September 2014, at 3:30pm.