The Pale Horse (mini series)

pale horse poster

When the police find a list of names in a dead woman’s shoe, there first seems to be nothing linking them. But, does Mark Easterbrook (Rufus Sewell) – the only name with a question mark – know more than he’s letting on? As he starts his own investigation, he’s haunted by dark tragedies in his past. Surely three ‘witches’ can’t really be responsible for the deaths of all the names on the list – but, if they are, is he next?

I’m partial to a good Agatha Christie retelling, although ‘good’ can be few and far between. This doesn’t quite hit the mark, alas, possibly because it strays a bit too far from its source material in a bid to add a modern update. I haven’t read the book (of the same name), but I’ve read that there are more than few changes and it doesn’t sound like they were for the best.

What’s good: Rufus Sewell is excellent in the main role, haunted by demons real and imagined. I liked the 1960s setting a lot, too, used subtly enough. And the reveal of the mystery is pretty satisfying, in solution if a bit less in portrayal. Mind, the good bits came from Christie!

I’m less sure about the supernatural elements woven through, which might have added a lot if not for the rather bizarre ending. When you’ve sat through 2 hours of drama, I’m not sure the ‘oooh, make up your own mind!’ twist tacked on the end can ever do more than frustrate.

I also took a large dislike to the second Mrs Easterbrook, which is a little problematic in terms of caring about her part in the drama. That felt like a theme: everyone here seemed a bit unlikeable, from the best friend to the police officer (although very well played by Sean Pertwee), to the somewhat cardboard ‘witches’. Hmm.

I made a mistake in dismissing the poor reviews of this, thinking they were Christie purists and I’d fare better not knowing the source material. Actually, they were probably right. Still, it was close: if the ending hadn’t been so odd, then I might have rated this higher.

First broadcast: February 2020
Series: 1
Episodes: 2 @ ~60 mins each

My rating: 6.5/10

Artemis Fowl (2020)

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Artemis Fowl (Ferdia Shaw) is a 12-year-old genius, who’s about to find out that his father (Colin Farrell) might not be all that he seems. Can he use his over-sized brain to rescue Fowl senior when he’s kidnapped? More to the point, can he do so when it turns out dad’s stories of fairy folk and magic aren’t exactly stories…

I’ve read a couple of the Artemis Fowl books by Eoin Colfer, and found them entertaining enough. That I’m not a huge fan of the books might have allowed me to enjoy this lacklustre adaptation a little more than I might otherwise, but it’s still got more flaws than not.

Where to begin? Production values were obviously high from the House of Mouse, so it does look pretty good – Fowl Manor is a house to drool after. The fairy world isn’t quite as impressive, and we spend so little time there that if you haven’t read any of the books it all might feel a bit baffling.

And yet, if you have read the books then I suspect you’re going to be either disappointed or just a bit perplexed at some of the translations on screen. We are pointedly told that Artemis is a genius, but very little of that comes through in his behaviour, and absolutely none of the ‘criminal mastermind’ that the books and movie poster led you to expect. Dom Butler doesn’t get enough backstory, but then again, neither do any of the other characters.

I’m not sure any of it quite hit the mark. Things are just so bland, poorly introduced, and never quite capturing a sense of why I should really care. None of the cast stood out well, but Dame Judi Dench has an awful ‘Oirish brogue’ and the huge misstep of actually, pointlessly, announcing “Tawp o tha murnin'” for absolute cringe value.

It’s not unwatchable, but it is a large amount of “couldn’t you have done any better with the material?” and overall felt largely pointless and oddly dull. Shame – and, advice is to swerve.

Released: 12th June 2020 (streaming)
Viewed: 12th June 2020
Running time: 95 minutes
Rated: PG

My rating: 4/10

The Name of the Rose (season 1)

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Back in the late 1980s, a movie adaptation was made of Umberto Eco’s historical mystery, The Name of the Rose. Starring Sean Connery and a very young Christian Slater in one of his first roles, I rather loved it and enjoyed the book on the back of it. So when I saw there was a new adaptation for the TV, I dutifully set the series link… and struggled to get more than 10 minutes into it. Fast forward several months, and I’m glad I gave it another go, as this time I was hooked back in to a mystery around books, at least for a while. What can I say, it perhaps suited the slower pace of life these days?

William of Baskerville (John Turturro) is a natural sleuth with skills of logic and deductive reasoning that would give Sherlock a run for his money. He’s also a Franciscan monk and was once a member of the feared Inquisition. Arriving at an abbey to attend a theological debate, he’s soon caught up in a murder mystery, as the abbey’s monks start being picked off one by one. But why? Could it have anything to do with the secrets in the library – a labyrinth no one is allowed to enter, bar the librarian?

It doesn’t sound like much, but I do love the story and the mystery, even though by now – several adaptations in – I fully know what’s going on. This version obviously has a lot more time to stretch out events than the movie, and thus we get several subplots about religious unrest and William’s new apprentice, Adso. I can see why these are included, and yes they round out the story a lot (giving a lot of wider historical context, for starters) but to be honest I thought they slowed down the pace of the mystery a little too much. Every flashback or aside to Adso’s wild girl love interest started to make me restless, and to be honest really came close to spoiling the big reveal.

Acting… John Turturro generally takes roles I find rather unlikeable, but this suited him perfectly – even the accent was spot on. It’s his show: other actors are good, but few really stood out for me. Michael Emerson is always good, but the drippy wide-eyed mania gets old. Rupert Everett is a little on the scenery-chewing side as the evil head of the Papal delegation. I really missed Ron Perlman’s take on the animalistic Salvatore, but as Hellboy showed, his are tough boots to fill.

The real winner for me was the sets and scenery. I mean, labyrinth of old books – c’mon! Drooling. The mystery of the library, anything involving books – that’s what I was here for, and it looked amazing. Slight shame they didn’t stick as well to the story that didn’t need as much padding as it got.

Really want to find a copy of the original movie now!

First broadcast: January 2020 (UK)
Series: 1
Episodes: 8 @ ~52 mins each

My rating: 7/10

Sonic the Hedgehog (2020)

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Adaptations of video games rarely go well, and even less so when the game itself didn’t really have a plot to speak of. Still, I have fond memories of my Sonic-playing days, and if nothing else, the disastrous first attempt at a look for the blue speedster piqued my interest.

So, in need of something fun and lighthearted as lockdown (and everything else) started to get to me a bit this weekend, it seemed like just the moment for this kind of fluff. Fluff that begins by telling the story of a young hedgehog who for some reason is under attack (I might have blinked a bit at the beginning) and escapes via magical portal rings to Earth, where he is living a life of painful isolation and solitude. Ah, nuts!

It gets more fun, as a Sonic-induced power outage attracts the attention of the government and psychotic scientist Doctor Robotnik. This is the main reason to watch this movie: Jim Carrey having an absolute, scenery-chewing blast. It’s been a while since we got to see the man on screen and it almost – almost – makes the movie worth watching.

Elsewhere, I didn’t mind the new CGI for the blue hedgehog, and James Marsden tries his best, poor sod. The other characters are totally flat and purely there to fill in scenery, really.

Plot-wise, it’s just a standard chase movie, with Robotnik willing to destroy anything to get his hands on Sonic. There are some ‘nice’ nods to the games, I think especially the ‘boss fight’ being unexpectedly close to what I remember and didn’t think they’d be able to actually make work. Not sure the big to-do on ‘how Sonic gets his red sneakers’ added much, right enough.

So… yeah, not so much. It wasn’t awful, I don’t regret choosing to see it, but it offers next to nothing on any level.

Released: 14th February 2020
Viewed: 16th May 2020
Running time: 99 minutes
Rated: PG

My rating: 5/10 – it’s not awful, but…

The Witcher (season 1)

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Welcome to a dark fantasy world of monsters and magic. Witchers, genetically modified  hunters of said monsters, are a dying breed. Here we follow some of the adventures of the legendary Geralt of Rivia (Henry Cavill), also known as the White Wolf and the Butcher of Blaviken – we’ll find out why in an early episode.

I knew very little about this going in, never having played the hugely successful games or read the books. I did buy the written series on offer last year, but struggled to get into it – I thought it might help to read before viewing, but actually the visuals helped me get into the first novel (The Last Wish) more easily.

The visuals really are great. Production quality is high, the action is very well done, and the actors are good. Cavill in particular (a big fan of the games, apparently) gives a gruff menace that is still oddly accessible – there’s something relatable in his general responses of either “Hmm” or “F-” and very little in between! His almost unwilling friendship with Jaskier (Joey Batey) – which is translated to ‘Dandelion’ in the books, but left as is in the TV show – is fun, if underplayed compared to the first book.

A parallel thread tells us about Yennefer (Anya Chalotra), a hunchback sold into service with a group of sorceresses. I think her story could have done with a bit more time and background, but then probably so could the rest of the series.

If there’s any complain from me it’s that the story telling is a bit muddled. I don’t just mean the two or more timelines – not made particularly clear, especially as several characters don’t age – but which actually get enough little hints as to be quite ‘cool’. Having now read the first book I can see that they’re trying to half-mimic the short story, incidents in a life retold kind of approach, but it doesn’t quite work as well as I think they’d’ve liked. Motivations seem muddy at times, and several changes from the books (why Geralt was fishing, for an obscure non-spoilery example) don’t really seem to add much. I’m not sure things come together enough in the end to make the format wholly work, instead leaving me with a sense of “Well, what story were you actually trying to tell?”

Still. It was very watchable and enjoyable, and I’m looking forward to the second season – although given production has had to be halted due to the Covid-19 woes, it might be a while before we can next ‘Toss a coin to (our) Witcher…’ 🙂

First broadcast: December 2019
Series: 1 (with a second in production)
Episodes: 8 @ ~60 mins each

My rating: 8/10

The Call of the Wild (2020)

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Based on the classic novel (which I’ve not read – yet!) by Jack London, The Call of the Wild tells the story of Buck, a pampered pooch who is kidnapped and sold into a sled team in the frozen wilds of the Yukon in the late 1800s. The book gives us Buck’s voice and viewpoint, but the film merely follows this intrepid pup through several adventures, instead giving us a voiceover from human co-star, Harrison Ford.

This is another movie that wasn’t really on my radar to go and see, but this time I ended up pleasantly surprised. I was quite worried about the CGI dog – how was that going to not be awful?! But animating the dogs allows for a great deal more facial expression, as well as danger and nuance. Yes, the former is ever so slightly cartoonish, but kudos to the animators, it never strays into the ‘uncanny valley’. Buck is never ‘humanised’, he remains very dog-like, and thus it all seems to work.

I wasn’t familiar with the story, but I can see why it’s a classic boys-own kind of adventure. The wilderness of gold rush Canada is exquisite, wild and empty and free, and the perfect setting for the twin stories of Buck and John, the human he forms a bond with, seeking his own very different kind of freedom.

I was impressed with the human cast, acting against presumably nothing or at least nothing completely dog-like. Harrison Ford is Harrison Ford, but I might be alone in quite enjoying Dan Stevens’ pantomime baddy, and got a bit of an ‘oh’ when I finally recognised Karen Gillan (she was neither blue nor Scottish, so I think I can be forgiven ;)). Omar Sy’s character was a nice ray of positivity in Buck’s otherwise tough life.

Overall, it’s an adventure tale that has stood the test of time, and made for a lovely evening’s viewing.

Released: 19th February 2020
Viewed: 21st February 2020
Running time: 100 minutes
Rated: PG

My rating: 7.5/10

Good Omens

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Throughout the history of the Earth (not as long as some scientists might have you believe), an angel – Aziraphale (Michael Sheen) – and a demon – Crowley (David Tennant) – come to a bit of an arrangement. Realising that their efforts largely cancel each other out, wouldn’t life just be easier if they didn’t… well, try so hard? I mean, as long as their respective Head Offices are getting all the right paperwork, will anyone really even notice?

The ‘bromance’ between these two characters is what lifts this story from fun to something a bit more special. Their friendship has formed over hundreds of years, each happily doing what they like on earth. Aziraphale loves human food. Crowley looks and acts like a rock star.

Everything’s great… until the birth of the Antichrist heralds the start of Armageddon…

I absolutely loved the book, co-written by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, and I think the reason this adaptation works is that Gaiman was brought on board to write the screenplay – something he has experience with, and also means that no one is straying too far from the beloved original version. The differences felt largely positive: the addition of a bullying Angel Gabriel (Jon Hamm), for instance.

Otherwise sticking quite closely to the book, I have to admit that the main plots – the switch-up at the maternity ward, an otherwise normal 11-year-old with the powers of the devil, and the ‘Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter (Witch)’ – were merely nice and totally overshadowed by how much I loved watching Tennant and Sheen having such fun with their respective characters.

As Crowley says, “I didn’t so much fall as saunter vaguely downwards.” Love it 🙂

First broadcast: January 2020
Series: 1 (and no, not likely to be more, it’s covered the whole book perfectly!)
Episodes: 8 @ ~60 mins each

My rating: 9/10

Dracula (mini series)

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There are sooo many adaptations of the Dracula story, different takes on vampires in general. Can the duo behind BBC’s excellent Sherlock reimagining do similar with this old myth? Auntie Beeb was more than willing to let them try, giving them a 3-part mini series over New Year’s.

So, can they do something different? Yes, and then again, not so much.

To be honest, the opening episode – and by that I mean 90 mins of viewing – didn’t wholly grab me. The aging makeup was almost as bad as the accent. It felt very like a poor rip-off of Gary Oldman in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). Sarcastic nun, Agatha, was a welcome addition, but still…

I persevered, and glad I did: episode 2 was excellent. In the claustrophobic setting of the Demeter, sailing for England, a newly youthful Dracula plays games worthy of a Poirot novel, and I thought it worked brilliantly. Claes Bang as Dracula – now free of the wrinkles and awful accent – was a joy. He’s smouldering without being pretty-sexy, and devious and obviously enjoying it. Put me a little in mind of the swagger of Lucifer. And then – omg, the ‘twist’ right at the end of ep 2! We are three hours, and two thirds, into this, and NOW you do that to us?!

Alas, I can’t really discuss the third ep for spoilery reasons. Suffice to say, there are a few familiar names and the story disappointingly goes back to some well-worn plotlines. It’s a real shame, as there are glimmers of doing something ‘different’ and interesting, especially in this ep, but overall it felt a bit wasted. The ending is rather abrupt, too, which is always a shame when then story has been more carefully paced previously.

Do I recommend? Hmm. Overall and in general not hugely. However, if like me you’re rather fond of the vampire myths, and seeing what novelties people keep trying to come up with (nothing has ever matched the whole Judas thing in the awful Dracula 2000, right enough!), then there is a lot to enjoy here. Just, lower expectations for the last ep. And warning for gore, too – I’m not sure I really should have watched small child corpses trying to play peekaboo just before bed o.O

First broadcast: January 2020
Series: 1
Episodes: 3 @ ~90 mins each

My rating: 6/10 – for each ep I’d say 7/8/6, but marks lost overall for the ending

Doctor Sleep (2019)

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In 1980, Stanley Kubrick adapted Stephen King’s novel, The Shining, into one of horror’s most famous movies. In the story, Jack Torrance (famously played by Jack Nicholson) goes slowly, murderously mad in the empty Overlook Hotel, endangering his wife and young son, Danny. When asked at a book signing, “What happened to Danny?”, Stephen King was inspired to write this sequel – so, are you ready to find out what did happen to little Danny?

Even if I hadn’t read the book, I think that this is an adaptation would seem clear from the way the story unfolds. We spend far longer than I expected with little Danny and his mum (recast to resemble the previous actors), watching Danny’s childhood and young life unfold into something of a mess – unsurprisingly. As with so many King stories, the horror is never just the monsters, it’s the reality of things like turning into a violent alcoholic like your father.

However, Danny (Ewan McGregor) eventually faces his demons – in more ways that one – and carves out a quietly satisfying kind of life for himself. Until, that is, gifted Abra Stone comes looking for him, hoping for help in tracking down the group of nasties killing young kids with ‘the Shining’.

I’ve said quite often that I’m not a fan of the horror genre, so why this one? Well, in my teens I loved Stephen King, including The Shining. The sequel manages to pick up on a classic story and add to it, expanding the concepts without spoiling the original.

This adaptation does a great job at bringing that to screen. The cast is excellent, including McGregor and Cliff Curtis on the good side, and the always excellent Rebecca Ferguson and Zahn McClarnon leading up the baddies of the sinister ‘True Knot’ group. There are layers of horror: snatched and murdered kids, monsters that eat your life, the childhood demons, and facing death. This makes for more subtlety than the silly ‘jump scares’ kind of horror that I dislike so much.

Indeed, I wasn’t too perturbed until the story takes us back to the Overlook Hotel, at which point all those memories of The Shining and the haunted hotel upped the unsettling levels dramatically. Appropriate, that: it mirrors Danny’s own childhood horrors back to haunt him once again. But it’s also deeply satisfying seeing old ghosts resurrected for the new story, including a few familiar-ish faces…!

Overall, I’m surprised at how much I enjoyed this. It’s a good story done well, rather than out and out terror, but with enough creepiness to warrant the horror tag. Worth having seen The Shining first, though, as the nods back really add to the creepiness.

Released: 31st October 2019 (UK)
Viewed: 1st November 2019
Running time: 151 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 8/10

Snowpiercer (2013)

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A disastrous attempt to fix global warming sees the planet plunged into an ice age. Humanity’s only survivors are the passengers of a world-circling train, a ‘luxury liner’ affair built by a train-obsessed rich industrialist.

Seventeen years later and the wonder of engineering might still be in full working order, but society on board is anything but. There’s nothing subtle about the class warfare, with the elite living it up towards the nose while the tail section is a malnourished underclass of slave-like workers. Revolts have failed before, but perhaps this time…

Usually I try to leave the personal stories out of my reviewing, mostly, but this movie looms large in my radar. It was shown at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 2014, practically on my doorstep, and I very nearly managed my first festival film 🙂 However, I reasoned that I’d save a ton of cash if I waited ’til the general release – only for a big argument with the distributor see this never again shown, legally, on UK soil. Argh!! So, imagine my delight when it turned up on Netflix…

Of course, with such a build up (see The Great Wall, far less anticipated, massively not worth the wait) I was half-expecting this to be a huge disappointment. But hurrah, I rather enjoyed it! It’s a bit bonkers, a lot unbelievable, but well told, looks great, and acted very well.

The whole thing does come across as very allegorical, with zero subtlety on the class system commentary. And yet, it’s still got a bit of punch.

Story-wise, it’s deceptively simple, with the rear-train workers making an attempt to take over the engine at the front, led by Chris Evans and John Hurt, assisted by the likes of Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, and Ewen Bremner. Life is so awful for them, there’s no surprise in this. As in High-Rise (2016), the excesses of the ‘upper’ classes is mercilessly ridiculed and ridiculous, so it’s not hard to forgive the awful violence.

But, without spoiling anything, not everything may be exactly as it seems, and the last act has a few reveals that give a whole other view…

I’m glad I saw this. It’s not perfect by any means, but it was a bit different, a lot interesting, and overall worth a couple of hours for fans of dystopian futures and low-key sci-fi without the splashy space stuff.

Released: 22nd June 2014 (EIFF)
Viewed: 27th May 2019
Running time: 126 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 8/10