Locke and Key (season 1)

locke and key poster

When their father is murdered, the three Locke siblings and their mother move back to his childhood home. For some mysterious reason, he’d never taken them to see their ancestral seat, but lost and grieving, the family grab at the chance to learn anything about him. And Keyhouse – the family obviously enjoying a pun or two – is a huge and intriguing place.

Oh yes, and it’s also hiding literal keys – magical keys that unlock various amazing powers. But the Lockes can’t just enjoy their new lives: someone – or something – wants those keys.

With everyone looking for more at-home entertainment in these lockdown days, if you’ve not tried this already I recommend giving it a go. I was curious; it sounded just my thing, but I worried about the ‘fantasy horror’ tag being heavy on the latter, and more about the main cast being teenagers and younger. Fears soon dispelled, though: it’s spooky rather than horrific, and the cast are all nice and un-annoying.

I’m very glad, as the story is well worth a look-see. Mysteries abound, about the house, about Mr Locke’s death, about the last time a group of Locke children experimented with the keys’ powers. Then there’s the sinister baddy, after the keys for their own nefarious purposes. It’s all drawn together to provide a massive ‘keep-watching’ reason.

Based on a comic book, there’s something quite computer game-y in the way the keys are hidden within other objects. Their various powers give rise to some pretty amazing visuals, too.

Recommended binge watching, and I’m delighted that there’s another series coming – even though we get a great ending, there’s so much more to explore.

First broadcast: January 2020 (Netflix UK)
Series: 1, with another announced
Episodes: 10 @ ~42 mins each

My rating: 8/10

The Witcher (season 1)

witcher poster

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

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

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

Outlaw King (2018)

Outlaw King poster

Cinema and history do not always go well together, and if Braveheart is your reference for Scottish history – oy! Let’s not start there. Going in to the story of Scotland’s other big historical hero, Robert the Bruce, I was then facing some trepidation.

From and Aussie William Wallace (was I the only one chuckling at the film’s passing reference to him being dead already? Maybe it wasn’t meant as a movie swipe, hmm!) to an American Bruce, let me first say that Chris Pine does surprisingly well on the accent (actually, Glaswegian Tony Curran’s attempt at an island dialect is far more distracting).

As for the rest of the movie… well, it’s no Braveheart (ironically, that title was more Robert’s than William’s) and I mean that in a good way – mostly. It’s still not 100% historically accurate (and as another aside, I’d suggest children in Scotland are shamefully not being taught most of this – our own history – out of, what? Anti-nationalism?), but it doesn’t take half as many liberties in the name of telling a more rousing story.

And that in itself is a bit of a problem. Bruce was not an immediate hero, but the film has to err on the side of likeability. To be honest, he’s not entirely charismatic, either: whether by design or not, there’s an attempt at a lot of ‘acting via long moody looks’ that has mixed success. Also, the story sort of muddies an attempt at an ending – which, historically, is sort of fair, but… hmm.

Best bit of the whole movie – no, not the blink and you’ll miss ‘full frontal’ that got so much press, for goodness sake! – is the absolutely stunning Scottish scenery. The movie set in it is decent if not as awe-inspiring. Take that as you will!

Released: 9th November 2018
Viewed: 11th November 2018
Running time: 120 minutes
Rated: 18

My rating: 7/10