PREVIEW: March 2021

Another month has come and gone, and here in the UK we finally have some light at the end of the tunnel due to the roadmap out of Lockdown! It will be gradual, but bring on June 21st! In the coming month I shall continue to post on this blog. I intend to catch up on some Prime and Netflix content (it has been a busy month, so I can only apologise for being behind on that front).

I am sure that some of you are probably wondering why I have not published reviews for Judas and the Black Messiah or Tom & Jerry, and the answer is very simple – cinemas remain closed in the UK and HBO Max will not launch here until May (which is the same month that cinemas are reopening from – go figure!). When it does eventually become possible for me to see those films then I will watch and review, but until then I guess all that I can say is that patience is a virtue. And yes, that does mean that I shall not be reviewing The Snyder Cut anytime soon.

As I say though, there will be regular posting on this blog in the month ahead, and so as I ever I wish you Happy Reading for the coming month, and thank you for visiting this blog!

FILM: Meanwhile on Earth (2020, Carl Olsson)

Meanwhile on Earth Poster

Following its premiere at the 2020 International Film Festival Rotterdam, documentary Meanwhile on Earth is distributed by MUBI. The film explores the industry of death, as those involved in it take care of the practicalities which need to be done when somebody dies. From the doctors performing autopsies, to the funeral directors, to the gravediggers, this film is an overview of the slice-of-life context in which all of this happens.

PROS

  • There are no close-ups, rather long takes filmed from a distance, which not only means that the film never feels intrusive, but most importantly means that such a sensitive and serious injury is being treated with the respect and dignity that it should be.
  • Using the slow cinema technique of long takes gives the film a naturalistic pacing and shows the practices involved in the industry of death with total honesty.
  • Director Carl Olsson leaves no stone unturned, as he depicts every aspect of the work involved in preparing a funeral (from the autopsy through to the cremation or burial) and some of the things done afterwards. He even shows the work which nobody realises happens, such as the cleaning of the funeral parlour.
  • By filming from a distance in long takes, the film has a unique, surreal feeling which has an odd charm, while capturing the conversations between staff gives it a sense of everyday mundanity which feels relatable.

CONS

  • The documentary does feel somewhat constrained by the 72 minute runtime.
  • There is no real detailed exploration of how the people involved in the industry feel about it all as there are no interviews or narrations like in your typical documentary, which could have added an extra layer, the lack of it being even more noticeable by the fact that there are moments where people look directly at the camera.

VERDICT: 8/10

SHORT FILM: Citadel (2021, John Smith)

Experimental-documentary short film Citadel premiered on MUBI. This film is comprised of footage which John Smith shot from the windows of his London flat, with audio clips of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s messages as the worries about coronavirus first start to spread around the UK, as the nation goes into lockdown, and as the Prime Minister first starts to consider easing the regulations.

In some ways this is an interesting and ultimately highly relatable piece of filmmaking. In the early clips, we can feel Smith pondering what COVID-19 means for the UK as he looks upon London from his window. In the clips shot after the UK lockdown, where Smith looks upon the surrounding homes (we never see the neighbours faces, but it does feel somewhat intrusive) and the skyscrapers in the distance, one can feel the sense that for him normality is so near, yet so far, and that that is making his sense of isolation especially apparent. We have all felt like that during this pandemic – we look out of our windows and walk through our local communities where everything was normal a year ago, and we remember simpler times with a pang of sadness. In these moments, as well as in the audio and video editing experiments which he does, you can feel Smith’s sense of cabin fever coming through, and in the experiments one feels the sense that he wants to distract himself from the reality which he is currently living. If there was some accompanying narration then this would be especially personal and all the more powerful for it, but alas not.

However, where this short film is frustrating and loses it is in the way in which the ending is essentially an attack on the British government for putting us into a lockdown in the first place, and an immature one at that, which is essentially thrown in as an afterthought. Smith criticises Boris Johnson for putting us into a lockdown which did not prevent thousands from dying of coronavirus and Britain from going into a major recession, and he does so with all the detail, nuance and weighing up of the facts that one would find in your average uninformed, anti-lockdown Tweet. There is no consideration for the fact that millions of Brits refusing to follow guidelines after the first few weeks of lockdown has contributed to the death toll, nor for the fact that the only way in which a recession could have been avoided would have been to carry on like it was business as usual…which would have led to a much higher death toll.

I am not here to discuss or debate politics, but rather I will point out that if you are going to make a film with the aim of criticising a political leader’s actions then this is not the way to do so. I would have far more respect for Smith’s decision to do this if he had taken a Michael Moore approach, because that would at least offer detail, nuance and the sense that a lot of time, research and effort had been put into it. And the fact that Smith went down this route is a real shame, because otherwise this would have been a consistently interesting reflection of one man’s lockdown experience and the feelings of cabin fever and isolation which it caused.

VERDICT: 5/10

ALTERNATE ENDING: Prison Break (2005-2009, 2017)

In 2009, Prison Break ended after four years and a huge drop in ratings. By Season 4 the critics had had enough, as had the viewers – Season 1 averaged 9.2 million viewers per episode, the series finale in Season 4 had 3.3 million viewers. The series finale was desperately wanted, as Season 3 had just been a rehash of Season 1, only it set up some new concepts for Season 4, in which The Company was finally brought down. And then the series was revived for a fifth season in 2017, which totally retconned Season 4 in the most implausible, contrived manner, rehashed Seasons 1 and 3. Despite having a closed ending, a sixth season was in and out of development with Fox, before they gave up on it, and stars Wentworth Miller and Dominic Purcell have both conveyed their refusal to return should a sixth season be green-lit. Season 4 may have been the first official end of the series (and Season 5 the second), but I personally believe that the series could have ended on a much stronger note if the final couple of episodes in Season 2 had been done differently, so I want to propose an alternate ending, which is how I think the series could have and should have ended. Do note, that these are just my thoughts and although I think that it should have ended this way, I am by no means saying that my idea for how it should have ended is perfect. So here goes…

If you have watched Prison Break then you will no doubt remember that Lincoln was exonerated, after The Company’s framing of him was exposed, along with The Company’s existence, by Kellerman. However, The Company was not brought down, leaving Lincoln, Michael, Sara and L.J.’s lives in danger, while Michael was imprisoned in Sona. I personally believe that, once Kellerman had exposed The Company’s existence, there should have been a two-part finale in which The Company were brought down. I must confess that I am unsure what such an operation could or would have looked like, but it would have been far less painful to sit through than the messy and contrived Season 4. One thing I can say for sure in my mind is that it would have involved Mahone. One of the few things I genuinely liked about Seasons 3 and 4 was Mahone’s redemption arc and in my alternate ending, given the danger which The Company posed to his ex-wife and son, once his corruption was exposed to the FBI, I would have him agree to play a key role in bringing down The Company in exchange for his family’s protection and a reduced prison sentence.

Similarly, I would have Michael and Sucre agree to be part of the operation to bring them down in exchange for their freedom upon returning to the United States, meaning that they could have fresh starts with Sara and Maricruz respectively. Yes, Lincoln was exonerated, but Michael still had most of his 5-year-sentence for armed robbery to serve, plus should realistically have been looking at an extended sentence for executing the eight-man-breakout from Fox River. The other change I would make is Bellick’s innocence being proven as, while the character was still an antagonist in Season 2 (which came before his redemption arc), he still did not deserve to be imprisoned in Sona for a murder which he did not commit. The only thing I would keep the same from the original end of Season 2 is T-Bag being arrested by the Panamanian authorities and imprisoned in Sona, as the streets would be a much safer place without a serial-killing, serial-raping, white supremacist paedophile.

This would by no means have been a perfect way to end the series, but it would have been a good and fitting note to end on. All of the plot threads would have been tied up, The Company would still have been brought down, Lincoln would still have been exonerated, and Michael and Sara could have had the happily-ever-after which they were denied until the retcon in Season 5. This alternate ending would not change the fact that Season 2 was inferior to Season 1 as, no matter what the die-hard fans argue to the contrary, it is impossible to deny that Prison Break was a one-hit wonder which peaked quality-wise with that initial batch of 22 episodes. However, this alternate ending would have prevented the catastrophic damage from Seasons 3-5 from ever happening and therefore the series would have ultimately ended on a good note which would cause people to remember it with fondness, rather than a sour taste in their mouths. Anyway, that is how I think Prison Break should have ended back in 2007.

FILM: See Spot Run (2001, John Whitesell)

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Comedy film See Spot Run is distributed by Warner Bros. While looking after his 6-year-old neighbour James (Angus T. Jones), mailman Gordon (David Arquette) ends up taking in a bullmastiff, whom he and James name “Spot”. However, Spot is really Agent 11, an FBI dog who was forced to escape witness protection and is now being targeted by crime boss Sonny Talia (Paul Sorvino).

PROS

  • Despite its flaws, there is a lot of warmth and heart to this film in James and Gordon’s bond with Spot, and the one which the pair develop with each other as James finds the father-figure he has always wanted.
  • Angus T. Jones (then aged 6) gives a very naturalistic performance, has good chemistry with the dog and David Arquette alike, and all three bring great energy to the film. They are ably supported by Michael Clarke Duncan.

CONS

  • The film is not funny, with only the odd chuckle raised by the slapstick, while there is also too much cheap toilet humour and even castration jokes, which are neither funny nor age-appropriate for the target audience of children.
  • The narrative is quite contrived, which is made all the more frustratingly noticeable by the lazy set-ups, clunky dialogue and several side concepts and subplots are poorly handled and (in some cases) just forgotten about.
  • Several of the action scenes are shot and edited with a rather frantic energy, and the final result of these scenes is unfortunately some quite sloppy and messy action moments.
  • The supporting characters for the most part are very one-note with the bare minimum characterisation, with several just serving for either plot device or filler, and some of the supporting cast give quite forced, wooden performances.

VERDICT: 4/10

TELEVISION: Recess (1997-2001)

Disney's Recess logo.png

American cartoon series Recess ran for 65 episodes (divided into 127 segments) as part of Disney’s weekend line-up on ABC. Set at Third Street Elementary School in Arkansas, the series follows fourth grade prankster T.J. (Ross Malinger in Season 1/Andrew Lawrence in Seasons 2-6) and his gang – Vince (Rickey D’Shon Collins), Spinelli (Pamela Adlon), Gretchen (Ashley Johnson), Mikey (Jason Davis) and Gus (Courtland Mead) – in their school lives and interactions with classmates and staff alike. Within the place that they spend five days a week, they have established statuses on the playground which they must maintain, while also contending with the efforts of Principal Prickly (Dabney Coleman) and Miss Finster (April Winchell) to foil their plans.

PROS

  • The school setting is a very clever and effective allegory for society by presenting a microcosm of traditional human society (like a school version of Animal Farm in many ways), complete with rigid values, social norms, and its own government, monarchy, class system and unwritten laws. T.J. and his gang are allegorical non-conformity to society’s rigid rules, with the teaching staff being allegorical of different types of political leaders.
  • The titular Recess time is symbolic of freedom as it is the only time where the children truly feel able to express themselves and develop meaningful relationships. Within this, the series also grapples brilliantly with the theme of identity as T.J., his gang and the other kids try to gain an understanding of who they truly are and confidence in their identity.
  • Despite the mature themes in the above points, this is still a very accessible series for children as they are all done within situations which children can and do realistically experience in the school environment and would find wholly understandable.
  • All of the characters are wholly believable, the child characters because they are the types of people we all went to school with in a believable school dynamic (and every member of T.J.’s gang has a different personality which beautifully compliments the others), and the adult characters because we see both how both children and adults perceive them. They are also brought to screen by an outstanding voice cast.
  • The episodes’ narratives are very well-paced and have a natural energy which never feels exaggerated, but instead like the natural energy of school-aged children, and also do an excellent job of fleshing out the characters within a narrative that has a fine-tuned balance between comedy and drama.
  • Colourful and detailed animation with a unique visual style gives real character to the school setting, whilst also making the instantly recognisable characters very expressive.

CONS

  • Some of the earlier episodes (mainly in Season 1) did end quite abruptly, especially when compared to those of Seasons 2-6.
  • While there are a number of excellent supporting characters, there are a few who receive less screen time and characterisation, which reflects the fact that there are so many for a single-location series.

VERDICT: 9/10

FILM: Like Mike 2: Streetball (2006, David Nelson)

Like Mike 2.jpg

Sports comedy Like Mike 2: Streetball is a direct-to-DVD sequel to the Fox film. Jerome (Jascha Washington) and his friends are adept at streetball, but are no match for the older boys in their neighbourhood. When Jerome finds and starts wearing an old pair of Michael Jordan’s trainers, he becomes the best player imaginable and starts playing professionally. But will the new-found fame and fortune go to his head?

PROS

  • Good performances from the three central child actors, who play their roles with enthusiasm and have a good chemistry with each other.
  • The streetball scenes are fun viewing due to David Nelson’s energetic direction and Dennis M. Hill’s nicely executed editing.

CONS

  • A highly predictable and uninspired narrative, not least because it follows the same formula as Like Mike, with very minor differences.
  • The most implausible thing is not the premise, but the depiction of grown men not only remorselessly trying to intimidate children, but even trying to cause them potentially serious injuries.
  • The adult/supporting characters receive little characterisation, thereby giving the cast little to work with, and several of said characters simply serve to perpetuate negative racial stereotypes.
  • The scenes in professional streetball courts (a.k.a. in stadiums) feel a lot less naturalistic than the ones on neighbourhood courts and boast far more in the way of poor quality CGI.

VERDICT: 3/10

FILM: Like Mike (2002, John Schultz)

Like Mike poster.jpg

Sports comedy Like Mike is distributed by Fox. When 13-year-old orphan Calvin Cambridge (Lil Bow Wow) finds a pair of Michael Jordan’s old trainers, he begins wearing them all the time as they give him incredible basketball skills which he did not have before. He is signed by the NBA to play for the Los Angeles Knights, where he eventually develops a father-son bond with teammate Tracy Reynolds (Morris Chestnut). However, Calvin does not realise that there is a bigger problem at the orphanage, as not only is its troublesome director Stan (Crispin Glover) intent on using Calvin’s new fame and fortune to his advantage, but he is also exploiting bully Ox’s (Jesse Plemons) jealousy of Calvin.

PROS

  • A fun narrative which overcomes the daft premise with genuine heart, warmth and energy. Calvin’s NBA success is something which countless American kids would give anything for, but it remains consistently clear that family and friendship are infinitely more important than fame and fortune.
  • Lil Bow Wow gives a naturalistic and energetic performance, and is especially well supported by Morris Chestnut and Jonathan Lipnicki (as best friend Murph), with whom he has excellent chemistry.
  • John Schultz directs the basketball scenes with energy and enthusiasm, and these scenes are very well shot and edited to make for very fun and engaging viewing.

CONS

  • Stan is too farfetched to work as a primary antagonist, not least because his decisions in the Third Act totally contradict his behaviour in the first two (in which he was a lot more plausible).
  • The Third Act is the goofiest of the lot, with some ridiculous and actually rather dull chase scenes and fights that let the rest of the film down.
  • A number of supporting cast members are noticeably underused, including Robert Forster, Eugene Levy, Anne Meara and Reginald VelJohnson.

VERDICT: 6/10

VIDEO GAMES: Pokémon Diamond Version (2006, Game Freak), Pokémon Pearl Version (2006, Game Freak)

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Pokémon Diamond Version and Pokémon Pearl Version were published by Nintendo for the DS, and kicked off Generation IV of the role-playing franchise. In the game you are the playable character, who is just starting his Pokémon journey. For your journey you are given a starter Pokémon by Professor Rowan, who tasks you with gathering data for the Pokédex. Upon capturing Pokémon, you train them in order for them to be used in battle against other trainers, the eight Gym Leaders of the Sinnoh region, and eventually the Elite Four. This will not be easy, not least as all of this has to be done on top of also defeating the villainous Team Galactic.

PROS

  • A detailed overworld view of the Sinnoh region is created by colourful graphics and intricate designs, with many places having obstacles which require Pokémon moves to navigate. Unlike previous games, the cut-scenes feature a lot of 3D and boast some very colourful and creative designs.
  • The Generation IV Pokémon, as a whole, boast a variety of creative and interesting designs, and several have gone on to be fan-favourites for fans old and new alike. The game also appeases long-term fans by making many Pokémon from Generations I-III available to catch in the wild.
  • The Gyms have interesting puzzles which the player must complete to reach to reach the leaders, who (like the Elite Four members later on) provide solid challenges for the player and are fun to complete.
  • Like with the rest of the franchise, the movesets and types of the various Pokémon encourage tactical gameplay, while the need to trade to complete the Pokédex encourages you to play with your friends.

CONS

  • The game suffers from some severe pacing issues as you regularly go for ages between Gyms with no side quests or Team Galactic battles, but other times you are inundated with those things in between your Gym battles.
  • Given that four years had passed since Ruby Version and Sapphire Version, it is a little surprising that the changes and developments to the in-game world which the player navigates are so minimal.
  • Team Galactic are not a well-realised villainous organisation, and several of their schemes (particularly one connected to a side quest) are lacking in depth, complexity and the necessary suspense factor.

VERDICT: 7/10

FILM: Shark Tale (2004, Vicky Jenson/Bibo Bergeron/Rob Letterman)

Movie poster Shark Tale.jpg

Computer-animation Shark Tale is the ninth theatrically released animated feature from DreamWorks. When great white shark Frankie (Michael Imperioli) is killed in a tragic accident, lifelong loser fish Oscar (Will Smith) claims to have killed him, thereby advancing his status within the community beyond anything seen before. However, Frankie was the son of shark mob boss Don Lino (Robert DeNiro), who wants to avenge his son. Fortunately for Oscar, Lino’s younger son Lenny (Jack Black) wants to make a fresh start, so he teams up with Oscar to not only keep Lino off his tail but keep up the façade that Oscar is the “Shark Slayer”. But for how long can Oscar live a lie before his conscience gets the better of him?

PROS

  • The animation is of a good quality, with a bright colour palette and a lot of small details and textures incorporated, which reflects the fact that a lot of time and effort was put into creating this underwater version of the human world.
  • The voice cast are good and absolutely throw themselves into their roles, with Will Smith and Jack Black especially bringing energy to their performances, and Renée Zellweger bringing a lot of warmth to the role of Oscar’s best friend Angie. Other memorable voice performances include Robert DeNiro, Angelina Jolie and Martin Scorsese.

CONS

  • Shark Tale taps into the popularity for animated fish films which Finding Nemo had driven nearly 18 months earlier, but the filmmakers fail to realise that their target audience of under-10s are not going to be that fussed about a film which deals with adult problems such as loan sharks and love triangles.
  • The fact that the screenwriters ham-fistedly throw in every pop culture reference and fish pun imaginable wherever possible (meaning tonnes of not-quite product placement) is bad enough, but the real issue is that Oscar is such a dislikeable protagonist – it is established early on that he is streetwise and charismatic, but also selfish, inconsiderate, arrogant and irresponsible.
  • Oscar’s dislikeable status as protagonist is indicative of the fact that the characters are unoriginal and uninteresting, the majority of them just being a reflection of the character types which adults most associate their voice actors with playing over the years. This just exacerbates the sense of unoriginality caused the fact that the narrative is basically an amalgamation of The Godfather, Jaws and Car Wash.
  • It is impossible to see the characters as characters, not only because they play to the voice actors’ role-types, but also because their faces are animated to bear the characteristics, features and expressions of those actors, which is disconcerting to watch and means we only see the actor, not the character.

VERDICT: 3/10