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Martin's Close (2019)
The best Ghost Story For Christmas since Lawrence Gordon Clark's "The Signal Man"
After the abominably misconceived miniseries reboots of "War of the Worlds" and "A Christmas Carol" we got this holiday season, here's a genuine Christmas treat. Keeping it short and sweet, Mark Gatiss sticks close to the original M. R. James story, letting its courtroom drama structure and the very fine perfomances of its small cast carry the tale. A fine piece of "home counties horror." Can we have him do "Casting the Runes" next, please?
The War of the Worlds (2019)
I was shocked to the extent to which this sucks. H. G. Wells' original novella is a beautifully crafted piece of speculative fiction and exciting adventure story that's served as a solid foundation for adaptations that are legendary in their own right. But Howard Koch and Orson Welles, George Pal and Jeff Wayne had the good sense to incorporate into their reboots the essential elements of Wells' story that made it worth retelling.
This being the era of CGI, you might expect spectacular and original special effects from this new adaptation, but what little we see are uninspired and surprisingly skimpy. The Martian spacecraft that lands on Horsell Common looks like a big plum pudding--and guess what, it's not really a spacecraft, more of a sort of smart napalm bomb. The tripods have sort of spidery legs, but otherwise they're pretty much like previous tripods. Most of the focus of the story isn't on scaring or thrilling us but trying to make us care about two adulterous lovers whose attempts to shack up are continually being interfered with, first by Victorian prudery, then by the Martians. So extraterrestrial invasion becomes just the background for another Downton Abbey corset steamer upper.
A Christmas Carol (2019)
I was really looking forward to this Goth reboot of Dickens' classic Christian morality tale, and at first was really enjoying all its imaginative embellishments--bringing in the backstory of Jacob Marley's ghost's involvement in the spiritual redemption of Ebenezer Scrooge, giving Bob Crachit a more spirited and complicated relatonship with his difficult boss, even revealing the origins of Scrooge's disturbed personality in the Patrick Melrose-like abuse he suffered in childhood. Unfortunately, the screenwriter chose to ignore John Scalzi's advice not to use sexual abuse as a cheap and dirty way to make a story "edgy," and by the time Scrooge is shown blackmailing Mrs. Cratchit into degrading herself for him in exchange for a lifesaving operation on Tiny Tim, it was time for me to bail on this sadly wasted opportunity to bring new dimensions to a beloved old story. Ick.
Father Ted (1995)
No power, no glory
I started watching this series after finding out it was cowritten by Graham Linehan, creator of a brilliant 2011 stage adaptation of "The Ladykillers." My rating is a little lower than fans of the show have given it, but this is not a reflection on its quality. I generally can't stand farcical sitcoms like this and I'm totally uninterested in the lives of Christian clergy, so the fact that I've watched and enjoyed it should be taken as an indicator of what an extraordinarly well made and entertaining show this is.
Made at a time when the Irish Catholic Church was starting to lose its ability to shut up the many victims of its abusive institutions and individual religious, Father Ted can be seen as a fable about the Church's culture of covering up its own corruption and subsequent loss of legitimacy in Irish society. Ted is an unrepentant embezzler with no religious vocation whatsoever whom the Church has stuck in a rural purgatory along with two other incompetent priests that need to be hidden from sight: a wet-brained old and a man-boy with the emotional age of an eight-year-old. Naturally, Ted thinks he deserves much more out of life than this, and the comedy comes as we learn again and again how much he really doesn't. I doubt that the show's creators meant this in any way as a serious commentary on the Church. They were simply making a funny show out of the reality they saw before them.
The hollow coronet
As other reviewers have noted, this series is absolutely true to the high camp, grand operatic nature of Mervyn Peake's novels, with the same assets and flaws: a bold and imaginative concept, wittily and attractively embellished, but somewhat underproofed and underbaked. That's all right, especially as it's carried along by bravura performances by Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Ian Richardson, Celia Imrie, Christopher Lee, and Stephen Fry. The only really false note is Fiona Shaw, who really should have been told to tone down her performance.
I recently read Richard Fletcher's "Blood Feud," about the rise and fall of the Anglo-Saxon nobility, and thought to myself at the end, "What a bunch of dirtbags." The earldom of Gormenghast is where we're at roughly a millennium after the Norman invasion: a decadent pack of vacant numbskulls lording it over everybody else for reasons completely lost in time, whose loveless, meaningless existences revolve around the callous exercise of power for its own sake. The Shakespearean villain Steerpike (extremely well played by Rhys Meyers--these epicene villains are harder to pull off than you'd think), like all villains, lets us down after proving he's superior to all the nobles he's running rings around by turning out to be just another giggling psychopath. The story could have been stronger if it had made Titus into more of a hero, but then I don't really remember him being that way in the novels either. So maybe it's best they didn't.
Jojo Rabbit (2019)
The Waititi version
While the American movie world raved over the mediocre "Joker," Taika Waititi's latest slipped quietly into limited distribution to a chorus of critical yawns. We've seen SO many stories like this before, Schindler's List, The Book Thief, The Nightingale, yadayadayada. Who is this Taika again? The one who directed Thor: Ragnarok? Whateva!
Except that in case you've actually been paying attention to Waititi's career--I mean, to the superb series of pictures he's made in addition toThor Ragnarok and What We Do In The Shadows--Jojo Rabbit is a superlative addition to the growing oeuvre of arguably the finest living film director working in the English language. If you haven't seen Boy, Eagle vs. Shark, or Hunt for the Wilderpeople (not to mention the Oscar-nominated short Two Cars, One Night that Boy is based on) you may well watch Jojo Rabbit with the blase attitude of someone who can't enjoy the pleasure that only comes from recognizing and grooving on the unique point of view of a first-class auteur. I'll add that every great Jewish artist must at some point grapple with the Holocaust, and I'm happy that Taika got to do it sooner rather than later, especially when he was still young enough to play the role of Jojo's imaginary friend Hitler and thus give the two fingers up to that contemptible mass murderer who is still so shamefully revered in so many places around the world, particularly here in the U.S. Go Taika!
Another side of the Yonderlanders
After the slam-bang farcical brilliance of "Yonderland," this is an unexpected return to the gentler, less cartoonish style of the Yonderlanders' first solo project coming out of "Horrible Histories," the feature film "Bill." And just as those earlier projects followed the HH house style of drawing on British cultural traditions to make modern entertainment--legends of William Shakespeare's life in "Bill," British fantasy tales in "Yonderland"--"Ghosts" is a pastiche of the great British ghost story. Criticisms that it's a ripoff of "Rentaghost" display an appalling lack of cultural literacy--even I, an American, can trace the concept of restless ghosts creating havoc for the living back at least to "The Canterville Ghost" and "Blithe Spirit."
While their work in "Horrible Histories" and "Yonderland" is a tough act (are tough acts?) to follow, I don't always need to see Mathew Baynton, Simon Farnaby, Martha Howe-Douglas, Jim Howick, Laurence Rickard and Ben Willbond sing and dance and interact with puppets in order to enjoy these very engaging and talented performers. Sometimes it's enough just to see them as humans, albeit dead ones.
The Current War (2017)
Team Edison for the win!
The main reason I wanted to see this film was Benedict Cumberbatch, and aside from the annoyance of having to wait two extra years to see it because of a certain disgusting man whose name had to be taken off the credits, I'm wholly satisfied. This is a first class showcase for the art of Cumberbatch--he gets three grand entrances wearing three different versions of the iconic full-length Sherlock-style Cumbercoats in the first five minutes--but Michael Shannon as George Westinghouse, Tom Holland as Edison's assistant Samuel Insull, and Nicholas Hoult as Nikola Tesla get almost an equal chance to shine. Aside from that, it's a well-made film that tells a complicated story with clarity and finesse. Visually, it excels as an example of late steampunk style, as in the use of Edison's lightbulb studded map of the United States to chart the course of his ongoing battles with Westinghouse.
I don't know enough about Edison, Westinghouse and Tesla to tell how accurate this version of their stories is--my guess is that a lot had to be distorted in order to fit it all into a standard Hollywood screenplay--but I like the way the stories of the three men are interwoven and how well the actors delineate these very different individuals. I got the impression from prepublicity that Edison would be portrayed as somehow more rotten than he comes across in the finished film, but coming from Greenfield Village country, where Henry Ford arranged for Edison's lab and the test tube containing his dying breath are kept, I'm a little relieved that no actual judgment is passed on his goodness or badness. I like to be allowed to love my Benedict just a little.
Mediocre fanfic that's benefited from a sad bit of luck
If the familiies of survivors of the Aurora shooting hadn't dared to pipe up to suggest that maybe an ultraviolent movie called "Joker" portraying a murderous sociopath as a hero wasn't the greatest idea, triggering a backlash in which the alt-right felt it their duty to praise and promote the film as the greatest movie ever made (note the number of botlike 10/10 reviews surrounding this one), I'm guessing this picture would have come and gone by now. As it is, its spectacular first weekend box office has fallen off by an order of magnitude each following week, as word of mouth quietly overtook the fake hype crusade.
I think this film would definitely go over better with a young or less movie literate audience that wasn't already familiar with all the movies it borrows from--most obviously "Taxi Driver" and "King of Comedy," though I haven't yet seen anybody mention "American Psycho," from which it copped its have-its-cake-and-eat-it-too gimmick of suggesting that Arthur's antics are a figment of his imagination--OR ARE THEY?--after showing them to us as real. But beyond this, the really tiresome retread here is the whole concept of the antisocial, destructive man who is really a hero because...oh, never mind, it's not his fault, it's everybody else's somehow, and anyway isn't it cool the way he goes around wrecking everything? This isn't a revolutionary message, it's a socially irresponsible one. The use of music by convicted serial pedophile Gary Glitter on the soundtrack to me seals my belief that this was made on autopilot by not very bright people who never bothered to think through what they were putting on the screen.
The Dead Don't Die (2019)
I once read a feature about the photographer Cindy Sherman, who was making a horror film and was quoted saying something to the effect that it's easy to make a horror picture because nobody expects it to be good. Evidently Jarmusch went into this project with the same attitude. Come to think of it, so did Ken Russell with Lair of the White Worm, and how did that work out?
This is a pathetic excuse for a horror spoof, a pathetic excuse for social commentary, and an embarrassing waste of some decent performers' time. I'm going to go cleanse my palate with some What We Do In The Shadows now. Stay away from genres you don't understand, Jim.
Good Omens (2019)
Not a fan
If you love Gaiman, Pratchett, and the fantasy/SF genres you'll appreciate this series much more than me. I was watching it for actors like Tennant, Cumberbatch, Ben Willbond, and Mark Gatiss. From that perspective, Tennant was predictably entertaining, Gatiss' subtle Peter Lorre impression hit the spot, Willbond was frustratingly underused, and though I enjoyed the Smaug reference Cumberbatch's cameo itself was a big nothing.
I'm unfamiliar with Terry Pratchett's work but I recognized the heavy handed whimsy of Neil Gaiman and thought too bad this guy isn't as witty and ingenious as he thinks he is.
The Strip (2002)
Waititiwatching the Strip
In his 2010 TED talk Taika Waititi describes working on the script for his Oscar-nominated film "Two Cars, One Night," dressed in only a G-string in between takes for this show. Watching one of New Zealand's most celebrated filmmakers-to-be treated as a sexual commodity and knowing how un-into it he actually was does dampen the aphrodisiac effects of his performance. I have to think that the character roles he later created for himself, like the feral El-Alamein in "Boy" and adorkable Viago in "What We Do In The Shadows," were part of a strategy to camouflage his boyish handsomeness and make audiences and the industry take him seriously.
The seven star rating is a split between Waititi's performance, which is a ten, and the show itself, which I'd give a four, as I just don't enjoy this kind of witless softcore fantasy. Waititi-watching almost exclusively (you can fast-forward through the bits without him and not miss a beat) it seems to me that whatever he got up to with his writing (isn't that him with his notebook in at least one scene?) he gave his employers on "The Strip" full value for what they paid him. Mostin is written as an arrogant stud, but Waititi the actor-auteur modifies him into a more pleasing form, a happy natural man who's just really comfortable with his sexuality and wants to share. Which is the fantasy that the sex industry wants us to believe about its laborers. This series should serve as a reminder that we need to be more thoughtful about our young people, no matter how much they tingle our libidos, because behind every sex worker is a potential New Zealander of the Year.
A lotus rising from muddy water
In his 2010 TED talk Taika Waititi described how he worked on the script for his Oscar-nominated short "Two Cars, One Night" while playing an exotic dancer in a sitcom, and this must be the sitcom. I'm not enough of a fan of either Waititi or this kind of lascivious entertainment to Waititi-watch the whole series, but I did fast-forward to his scenes in this episode and felt well rewarded by his performance. He's playing a character that can basically be described as "hot guy who gets whatever he wants by being hot," which in the hands of most actors would become "arrogant manipulative creep," but Waititi's emotional intelligence takes it in a direction that's subtle and sincere and unselfconscious, playing sexual interest rather than deliberately acting sexy, and it really, really works in the tango scene, in which the beat isn't supposed to be "wow, what a sexy dance," but "wow, I'm really getting turned on for some reason." And yes, our handsome young blockbuster movie auteur-to-be delivers a dramatically convincing reason. With his mind.
In between the cars and the Wllderpeople
If you've seen Waititi's Oscar nominated short "Two Cars, One Night," you were probably thinking, what kind of person would go into a roadhouse at night to do God knows what, leaving their children outside unattended to wait for them? In this film we learn that this is a world where it's considered normal to go out of town for a week or two and leave an eleven-year-old in charge of a houseful of younger children. And when a psychopathic relative shows up, the boy has no choice but to let him in and make the best of it.
The message of the shorter film is that even in the midst of the worst neglect and bad influences children have the potential to become better people than the adults around them. "Boy" demonstrates this principle in action as the child realizes his father is as grotesquely wrong as a role model as his overhyped idol Michael Jackson. We're left with a sense of relief that growing up to be a better man than either of them will be easy for this boy.
This humanist concept of children's potential as ethical beings is further elaborated on, in the form of a young adult story, in "Hunt for the Wilderpeople," in which Waititi transitioned from indie auteur to mainstream director without breaking his stride. Looking over the rest of his IMDB resume it's remarkable that even aside from this impressive trilogy he's done so much, and has so many other stories to tell.
OMG more Yonderland!
I only found out this existed when I went to preorder "Ghosts." It's everything I love about "Yonderland," for a whole hour, plus a brilliant turn by Alison Steadman. Best Thanktival ever!
Flight of the Conchords (2007)
I've tried to get into this series but there's something about it that's repulsive to me. I'm not saying that it's badly done or objectionable or even that it doesn't deliver some good jokes and songs, which is ultimately all it's there to do. It just rubs me the wrong way.
Partly it's because of its very callow bro humor, which conflicts with my preferred romantic illusions about men. Partly it's the ugly memories it brings back of being young and aspirational and living in horrible urban apartments. Partly it's because I can't stand Kristen Schaal, a key factor in why I've never been able to make it through this series. But then I also sampled the BBC radio series that came before this HBO series and didn't even make it through the opening number.
I'm glad this show was such a success because it undoubtedly helped my men Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement to get the backing to make their splendid feature film version of "What We Do In The Shadows," and gave Lin-Manuel Miranda or whoever it was the genius idea as casting Clement as the voice of Tamatoa in "Moana."
Bubblegum horror comedy
Like Dario Argento's "Suspiria," this film gets points for looking great, but it's really a silly comedy for teenagers rather than a proper horror film. Its rank sexism undercuts its appeal to me, especially its grounding in the familiar 1960s-1970s trope that women who disobey men, or worse, go off on their own without male protection, will be punished mercilessly.
The serpent's egg
To be absolutely clear, this half-hour film from 2005 is just an embryonic version of the 2014 feature film. You can see some of the outlines of the developing beast through the membrane. But, honestly, it's really not that hot and I wouldn't recommend it unless you're gaga about Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi, as many of us are.
The characters of Viago, Vladislav (here rather juvenilely called Vulvus) and Deacon haven't emerged yet. The whole gag is that the vampires are just bros trying to pick up women, and the fact that they need to drink their blood to survive is just a little more poignant than needing them for sex. Waititi, Clement and Jonny Brugh are nearly ten years younger here than they are in the 2014 feature and look like adorable baby versions of their characters in their Frankenfurter pompadours, frilly shirts and ill-fitting prosthetic fangs. But as another reviewer mentioned the gags aren't there and unless you are hep to the New Zealand accents the dialogue is frustratingly hard to make out. So do not judge the one version by the other.
THIS is what feminists mean when we gripe about the male gaze!
Horror is a genre that relies on catching your attention with sensational hooks, often starkly spelled out in the titles. "The Pit and the Pendulum." "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre." And sometimes a crude come-on can lead to a very rewarding experience, like the time I saw a paperback titled "The Doll Who Ate His Mother" on a drugstore rack and said, "OK, I've got to read that," and was rewarded with a tale by supernatural horror master Ramsey Campbell.
Similarly, when I saw this film on DVD at the public library in a major American university town I thought "Undiscovered classic of J-Horror?" How disappointing that the stupid thing turned out to be a softcore extravaganza masquerading as an art house grade horror film. I was reminded of the experience of sitting down to Ed Wood's "Orgy of the Dead" expecting an evening of Ed Wood-style low camp horror, only to see a succession of exotic dancers performing their routines in somebody's back yard in front of Criswell. I'm guessing the librarian who added it to our distinguished local collection either hadn't seen it or was a grotesquely pretentious Henri Langlois type cineaste who was overly impressed by the film's aesthetics, which are pretty all right. If you're the type who goes for "Suspiria," you might go for this.
Look, I understand that males are the traditional audience for horror films and that most men enjoy looking at naked pretty young women, but it's BORING for most women to have what they could see in front of a mirror whenever they want presented to them as some sort of irresistible feast for the senses. I'm not that well versed in the genre but I recall the female lead in "Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell" mentioning that she performed topless shots that weren't in the English release of the film but were intended for the Japanese market, so maybe this burlesque element was an obligatory part of Japanese horror films of the era. Certainly cleavage-revealing costumes were a staple of Hammer horror, but at least those films were anchored in well-told Gothic tales that the non-brreast-focused viewer could enjoy. The lack of both coherent narrative and horrific content in this film is appalling. When I first saw the long-haired man dancing on the beach at the opening I thought, "Oh, is this the precursor to Sadako?" No, it turns out he was just the Joel Grey figure for the ensuing cavalcade o' bosoms. I say the hell with it.
I would retitle this film "Cavalcade O' Breasts" or "Butoh Boobies" and leave it at that.
The Quatermass Dystopia
Nigel Kneale wasn't the most innovative mind in science fiction but he sure had a way with existing tropes. Watching this third piece of the Quatermass trilogy I kept being reminded of other films and TV series, from The Changes and the Charlton Heston post-apocalypse epics to Dennis Potter's Cold Lazarus and Fellini's Satyricon. Yet it's 100% Kneale and of an integral piece with the previous installments of the Quatermass saga, despite its necessarily different production values.
I've come to love the character of Professor Quatermass the way I love his cousins Sherlock Holmes and the Doctor, and just as Ian Richardson and Peter Capaldi are my favorite Holmes and Doctor because I think they're the actors who brought the most to the roles, John Mills is my favorite Quatermass. He makes the Professor's epic journey through a plausibly collapsed English landscape compelling despite the unimaginative cinematography, execrable synthesizer score and too-frequent sequences of armored vehicles bashing through crowds. It's funny and audacious and original in approach in a way that makes dystopian films with flashier action and sexier production values look pretty pale in comparison. And no, I DON'T have a problem with Simon McCorkindale as a Jewish man, and I'm half Jewish. And I loved the parody porno show. I love you, Nigel.
The Martians and Us (2006)
Capaldiwatching The Martians and Us
Capaldi's narration of this 2006 documentary miniseries on the history of British science fiction, like Capaldi's casting in the 2013 film "World War Z" as a doctor working for WHO, sparks conspiratorial thoughts about how long ago the creators of New Who were considering casting him as the Doctor and how open a secret this was. I do think Capaldi's Doctor would have gone over better if he'd been cast in the role when he was younger and more boyfriendy. Tennant might have made a very good Malcolm Tucker, come to think of it.
I'm ignorant enough about British science fiction that I don't have any arguments about how it's presented here (its progressive emphasis on social issues and multiculturalism would probably gripe reactionaries.) I enjoyed its eclectic style, combining high art cinematic flourishes, interviews, video clips, reenactments, and interpretative dance, and of course Capaldi's narration, which, since he did it not only before he was the Doctor but before he was totally solidified in the collective mind as Malcolm Tucker, he brings his full actorly range to, and has a lot of fun with it. He does his main narration in "his" Scottish accent, then adjusts as needed to the different readings he gives from the SF literature, getting in some very funny digs at the Anglos. Again I don't know how SF fans will take this series but it's a treat for Capaldi fans.
I wouldn't call this a bad movie. I just found it profoundly uninteresting.
Continuity was a problem for me in this film; because it skips between time periods and is constantly introducing new characters and settings I found it hard keeping up with who was supposed to be who and where they were--for instance, because of an unclear transition I thought a character was still fleeing a haunted office building when she was actually going to her apartment and couldn't understand why the elevator she was in was going up, not down. It could be that the filmmakers wanted to create a deliberate sense of disorientation and panic to match what the characters were experiencing. But I just felt frustration at not being able to make sense of what was going on and impatience at the banality of the images being thrown at me.
Sweeney Todd (2006)
Getting the Hammer style right
Sweeney Todd is one of those horror stories so rich in possible variations that there's no really definitive version--even the Sondheim musical has been done in many styles and all of them memorable in their own ways. This one succeeds where many other Hammer homages has failed, by not only imitating the look and quotient of violence and low-cut gowns of classic Hammer but by taking the source material and running with it in a completely different direction than the ones you're expecting. Like the best of Hammer it's gripping, ingenious, very adult and leaves you with a queasy awareness of the world's nastiness.
First impressions (all good)
This film is (a) totally ridiculous, (b) the best movie in the series next to the first.
Whereas the earlier films stay more or less in the realm of science fiction, this one is much closer to the fantasy adventure of the Indiana Jones series or Doctor Who.
Toby Jones is TOTALLY doing Trump.
There are so many Easter eggs in this the cinema staff should be wearing bunny ears.
I saw in in IMAX, which was good, but I'm guessing it would be better in 3D. The use of movement within the frame in the dino action scenes is superb.
However you see it, don't wait to see it on video. This is one you need to see on the big screen.
This is a veery watchable film that's well done in every department but I wouldn't call it horror, in the sense that the 1990 miniseries was horror. This felt more like a tween fantasy story. The miniseries is a dark, disturbing fable about how childhood trauma follows us through life. This is a kid-friendly buddy picture whose message is that you can defeat any bully by standing up to It. If the second half is just adult actors playing out the same trope it could get really annoying.