Stranger Things (season 3)

stranger things 3 poster

Since the first season arrived in 2016, Stranger Things has been one of the highlights of TV viewing. The mix of horror and mystery, weird and nostalgia, all hit a sweet spot.

Usual warning: even mentioning names could be a spoiler for who survives series 1-2, so read on at your own peril!

We already knew that the wrap-up of season 2 wasn’t necessarily tied with a pretty bow, so it isn’t really a surprise that the ‘Mind-flayer’ isn’t as dead or trapped as the residents of Hawkins might wish. And when we find out that there’s a Russian operation to open a doorway … yeah, you know this isn’t going to end well!

Despite rave reviews, I think season 3 is the weakest so far – although still very good and very worth a watch. But, perhaps lower your expectations just a little.

There is a lot to like here. In particular, the continuing reinvention of Steve ‘The Hair’ Harrington sees him spend the whole season in a cutesy sailor outfit, which is hysterical. We also meet a new character, Robin (played by Uma Thurman’s daughter, which is who she reminded me of all series!), and the interaction between the two is some of my series highlight.

The younger cast members are growing up fast – a few flashbacks remind us just how young they looked 3 years ago – and we’re subjected to the sight of new young love, awkward and vaguely embarrassing, and played with humour that juxtaposes the darker elements of the show. Still, these are the scenes that didn’t do much for me through the whole – tbh, I just wasn’t fond of most of the child characters, let alone their personal struggles.

The mix of horror and laughs remain a strength. Hopper’s struggles with parenting. Joyce’s pained expressions. Dustin singing. The hope for comeuppance for a new slimey character, played by new cast member Cary Elwes. And on the other side, murderous slime, exploding rats, and so much worse.

Still… the story isn’t complete. Perhaps I was hoping for more answers, and that’s not what this is about. I’m very glad series 4 has been announced – things have changed in Hawkins, but it’s not over yet!

First broadcast: July 2019
Series: 3
Episodes: 8 @ ~50 mins each

My rating: 8/10

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Snowpiercer (2013)

snowpiercer poster

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

Isn’t It Romantic (2019)

isn't it romantic poster

Cynic Natalie (Rebel Wilson) hates romantic comedies, hates the lies they tell about life. And then one day she hits her head and finds the New York she knew has been replaced with a flowery, polite, nice kind of a version where men find her fascinating and every swear word is beeped by a reversing truck or similar. Could it be… she’s in a rom-com?

I had a couple of recommendations for this movie, and thought as a bit of fluff it might tick a few boxes. I suppose it did. It’s inoffensive enough, I think. Rebel Wilson was the right choice of lead, playing a sort of anti-Fat Amy from Pitch Perfect, in terms of having zero confidence. The message is delivered well enough.

Otherwise, though, even poking fun at all the genre cliches doesn’t stop them from being, well, cliched.

Sweet enough and watchable enough, but I’m not going to be raving about it. Although more movies need to end with a dancing Hemsworth, methinks – we’re up to two, let’s keep going! 😉

Released: 28th February 2019
Viewed: 3rd March 2019
Running time: 89 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 5/10

The Umbrella Academy (season 1)

umbrella academy poster

If you’re thinking “I need another superhero show in my life like a hole in my umbrella” then I can tell you, I was too. And then curiosity got the better of me and I have never binged anything so hard! They might be superheroes – super strong, able to talk to the dead, bend minds, or teleport – but they are also a dysfunctional family that’d put the Osbournes to shame!

On the same day in 1989, 43 women across the world give birth at the same time – only, none of them had even been pregnant the day before. Sensing the likelihood that these kids will be special, eccentric billionaire, Reginald Hargreeves (Colm Feore) manages to adopt seven of them. Thirty years later, his death brings them back together for the first time in years, and through flashbacks we discover how their young lives turned out, and what ultimately drove them so far apart.

And, of course, there’s the small matter of literally saving the world from total destruction.

Okay, so upshot is: I loved it 🙂 It’s quirky as heck, even though everyone is playing it straight. It’s pretty dark – lots of blood and deaths and violence – but there are moments of such humour. Top billing goes to Vanya (Ellen Page), the only sibling without a super-power, but my favourite was easily Klaus (Robert Sheehan), whose ability to see the dead drives him to a life of drug addiction and pure hedonism – and he’s a hoot. His character definitely brightens all the angst from a group who shared a harsh upbringing, and who have seen their potential dwindle into most variations of failed lives.

There was something here that reminded me as much of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (which is weirder, a bit more niche, but worth a viewing) as the Avengers. The time travelling probably added to that, and the mysterious suited assassins. And what is the significance of the glass eye?

This is definitely a binge-worthy show. There are no recaps, just ten episodes of single story. And what a story!! It does have an ending, of sorts, but at the same time – please please please let there be a season 2! 🙂

First broadcast: February 2019
Series: 1
Episodes: 10 @ ~45-57 mins each

My rating: 9/10

The Legend of Tarzan (2016)

legend of tarzan poster

Almost a decade has passed since Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle, returned to his inheritance in England as Lord Greystoke, John Clayton III. But as Europe tries to carve up Africa for their own economic gain, all is not well in the Belgian Congo. Struggling to pay his debts, the Belgian King Leopold invites Clayton to tour the ‘improvements’ he’s made to the lands where Tarzan once roamed.

Clayton (Alexander Skarsgård) is unwilling to return, but wife, Jane (Margot Robbie), is keen to get back to the lands where she, too, grew up. Finally he concedes when an American (Samuel L Jackson) asks him to go to look for evidence that the real ‘economy’ is slavery, that they might put a stop to it.

I’ll confess up front that my main reason for watching this movie was to perv at Alexander Skarsgård’s eight-pack a bit, and so it probably serves me right that that’s actually the highlight of the movie. He’s worked out hard, has the boy, and kudos to him. Alas, solid abs do not an entertaining movie make, and somehow – given the pedigree of the source material and the dozen or so film adaptations before it to learn from – they’ve managed to make the whole thing, well, kinda dull.

Lord Greystoke is a taciturn, brooding character, all the better to highlight how much more relaxed he was/is as Tarzan. Jane is supposed to be a bit less of a damsel in distress here, but it only half works. The rest of the impressive cast aren’t given enough to work with and just don’t pack the punches they should, including Christoph Waltz, who we know fine and well can pull off evil much better than this.

The story isn’t dreadful, and yet somehow it never gels. Flashbacks interrupt the otherwise kidnap-and-rescue tale, telling us of Tarzan’s upbringing in the jungle, with an ape (not a gorilla, bigger and meaner) as a surrogate mother, his first meeting with Jane, and other things that make the plot make some sense. The CGI isn’t bad, but it’s quite forced: Tarzan rubbing heads with lions, for instance, to make up for all the bits of story that were skipped over in favour of a darker, more serious kind of story.

And overall, I think that’s the problem. When you’re making movies with a premise as vaguely absurd as this, you either go the po-faced serious route, or you have a bit of fun with it. I think I’d rather watch George of the Jungle, tbh.

Released: 6th July 2016
Viewed: 23rd February 2019
Running time: 110 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 5/10 – it’s not awful, just dull

The Great Wall (2016)

great wall poster

The first trailer I saw for this made it look a bit like historical fiction, which was maybe vaguely interesting. It took much longer for the penny to drop: here be dragons! Why on earth would you not have that front and centre in the trailer?! And suddenly very much my cup of tea…

Turns out they’re not really dragons, but a swarm of nasty critters that feed on humans. This movie postulates that the real reason the Great Wall of China was built was to keep these things away from a – pardon the pun – all you can eat Chinese buffet. Ahem.

However, the story is handed to Matt Damon’s ‘European’ (hmm) mercenary, on the hunt for the semi-mythical ‘black powder’ to take back home. When he stumbles into the secret of the Wall, they neither believe his story or plan to allow him to take tales back to the rest of the world.

There are things to like about this movie. I’ve long been a fan of movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and Hero (2002), which brought an Eastern flavour to Western audiences, complete with aerial acrobatics and saturated colour palettes. Great Wall picks up on many of these facets, and as faintly ridiculous as they can be here, I did like the richly coloured armour, in shades of red, yellow, blue, and purple. The fight scenes are as impressive as you would expect, too.

However, that’s probably about it. The story is so-so, nothing particularly novel once you get past the intriguing fantasy-myth element. There was a bit of a ‘hmm’ on release about putting a white man front and centre, and while I went in unsure if this was a bit of an over-reaction, it is more than a little insulting that Matt Damon is such the hero, set up to save the day, the entire battalion that spent its life training for this, and the ‘delicate’ female, too.

I haven’t quite put my finger on what the creatures reminded me off – some sci-fi or other – but I’ve definitely seen them in a slightly different format before, so yawn.

Overall, quite the disappointment, alas, especially as I’ve been looking forward to it cropping up on a streaming platform since I missed it at the cinema. It’s not terrible, so by all means fill a boring couple of hours, but go in with much lower expectations than I managed.

Released: 17th February 2017
Viewed: 26th January 2019
Running time: 103 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 5/10

Mute (2018)

mute poster

Sci fi from the man (Duncan Jones) behind Moon (2009) was all I needed to make me want to watch this. Then the damning reviews starting coming in, and I paused my plans. Fortunately, bad reviews can sometimes make me want to know ‘how bad can it be?’ because in this case, I think they were off the mark!

Leo (Alexander Skarsgård) is the titular mute, unable to speak after a horrific childhood accident, and unwilling to undergo corrective surgery due to his Amish beliefs. Still, he’s happy enough working as a bartender and spending time with the lovely Naadirah – until she goes missing. Leo’s search for his missing girlfriend takes him to darker and darker corners, encountering an increasingly bizarre set of characters.

To say the movie is far from perfect is an understatement, and I can sort of see why some people didn’t take to it at all. The narrative is twisting and the pace snail-slow. But that sort of worked for me. I loved the Blade Runner-esque visuals and world-building. The downright weird characters fascinated me, not least as the cast was fantastic – Paul Rudd, Justin Theroux, an unrecognisable Robert Sheehan – often playing very against type. Their stories start to intertwine, then go off on tangents, then draw together again, in ways that obviously some people hated, but which held me utterly intrigued. Not knowing where on earth this movie could be going was very part of the appeal.

The ending is not as strong as it could have been. But the journey wasn’t half bad at all, despite those negative reviews!

Released: 23rd February 2018
Viewed: 12th January 2019
Running time: 126 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 7.5/10