Top 10 of 2021: MOVIES

Happy New Year!

I’m starting 2022 by looking back at my top 10 choices for the best movies of 2021, the year in which we rebounded from the ever present Covid threat by returning to cinemas, allowing us to experience the kinds of pictures we were spared of in 2020.

It’s been a fascinating year and, as always, film choices subjectively differ among many a reviewer. Here were the pictures that both affected me the most, and seemed to contain the greatest artistic measure, from 10 through to number 1.

Would love to know your thoughts as to your top 10 choices…

Top 10 of 2021: TV SHOWS

Happy New Year’s Eve!

I’m finishing 2021 by looking back at my top 10 choices for the best TV of 2021, which has been a surprisingly difficult mission given the sheer volume of television that has raced at us following the ebb and flow of Covid restrictions.

It’s been a fascinating year and, as always, TV choices subjectively differ among many a reviewer. Here were the TV shows that both affected me the most, and seemed to contain the greatest artistic measure, from 10 through to number 1.

Would love to know your thoughts as to your top 10 choices…

Book Review + Author Interview: THE LONG GAME (Paul Hayes)

We all remember the improbability of Doctor Who’s return in 2005 after sixteen years off screen, barring one semi-canonical TV movie in 1996. It seemed, for fans, an impossibility after years not only in the wilderness but in the perceived rear window of television history. Doctor Who was cheap, cheesy and passe in the post-modern world.

Russell T. Davies entirely reinvented the series and changed that perception from the ground up once he unveiled Christopher Eccleston as a stripped-back, modern Doctor with a jolly northern brogue, dress sense like your semi-trendy uncle, and the brooding angst beneath of a man who was transformed from the eccentric old man with flamboyant costumes into the last of the Time Lords. Taking the stylistic precepts British viewers had grown used to with a decade of American pop cultural imports, ‘RTD’ made Doctor Who relatable, likeable, down to earth and even a bit trendy in a way it probably had never quite been before.

We know this story. Some of us might even know the backstory of how the revival was produced, of how Davies and Bad Wolf productions turned BBC Wales in Cardiff into a 21st century TV producing powerhouse. It is all well documented. Less so is the premise of The Long Game: 1996-2003 – The Inside Story of How the BBC Brought Back Doctor Who, in which Paul Hayes does what the book says on the tin and sketches out a lost chapter in Doctor Who history. One of numerous reasons his book is a resounding success is for just how much he brings to light a story most of us won’t even necessarily know we wanted, yet it turns out to be a compelling, widespread tale not just about Doctor Who, but a much wider television landscape.

After reading The Long Game, you really will never quite look at Doctor Who again in the same way.

Film Review: SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME (2021)

There is a debate coming about Spider-Man: No Way Home, set to go down in cinematic lore as both the end and a new beginning for Tom Holland’s Peter Parker. A debate around just how much fan service has now arrested control of popular cinema.

While No Way Home will almost certainly do gigantic box office business, even by the metrics of the hugely successful Marvel Cinematic Universe, not everyone is going to embrace the ambitious steps Jon Watts’ film takes. This isn’t, after all, simply the concluding beat of a three-film trilogy, such as we saw in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 (and let’s not forget there was talk of a fourth for a time afterward). No Way Home is the conclusion of seven previous Spider-Man adventures, not to mention Holland’s web as a character within the wider MCU itself.

In that sense, Marvel have crafted a sequel quite unlike any other here, by tapping into the burgeoning concept of the ‘multiverse’ in the way audiences have previously understood to be the point of parallel universe stories: to depict alternate versions of the same characters. The MCU has thus far established the concept on more of a conceptual level in outings such as Loki, or even irreverently in the last Spider-Man film Far From Home or in elements of WandaVision. Here, the franchise goes for broke in providing audiences with long-standing closure that, had the MCU not been as rampantly successful, would never have happened.

For some, like this writer, the result is joyful. Others will find it infuriating and strangely reductive. And either way, No Way Home could be a sign of times to come, should it be the huge success people are predicting.

First Impressions – STAR TREK: PRODIGY – ‘Lost and Found’

If you had said to a Star Trek fan three years ago that the best show of the franchise’s new era would be animated, they would probably have laughed you straight out of the airlock.

Lower Decks completely upended that perception, banishing the ghost at the feast that long was The Animated Series from the early 1970s, a kitsch and dated reworking of The Original Series. Mike McMahan’s series combined occasionally raunchy, modern adult comedy with a loving and kind reverence for 1990s era Trek that has grown in confidence, humour and stature over two seasons. It has established animation as a key string to modern Trek’s bow in a way few expected.

Star Trek: Prodigy is expressly designed to carry the torch forward and, in many respects, the pressure and expectations are different. Many fans knew what to expect from McMahan, given his comic pedigree on the TNG S8 Twitter feed and later writing experience with Rick & Morty; he was a known entity who did largely what people expected of him with Lower Decks, but brother team of writer/showrunners Kevin & Dan Hagerman are, to an extent, an unknown quantity.

On the basis of the two-part pilot, Lost and Found, they have gone straight for the comic adventure jugular, crafting an effective and beautifully animated origin story for the nascent crew of the U.S.S. Protostar.

Escaping Reality: The Feel Good TV Effect

Reality has been tough lately. The world feels like a powder keg of polarisation, violence and economic spiral, certainly if you poke your head over the parapet and engage with the day to day.

Can we therefore be surprised that we have seen, in the last couple of years, a resurgence of what we might describe as ‘feel good’ TV? Ted Lasso, Sex Education, Grace & Frankie, Trying, the list goes on – modern series which present to audiences worlds that exist on the fringes of the reality we all experience. Worlds in which we might see favoured characters undergo emotional and spiritual changes, many of them painful and difficult, but through which we are reasonably confident these people we have come to admire and show genuine affection for will be okay in the end.

Whether these series have been devised specifically for this purpose is an open question. My instinct is that the answer is both yes and no. It is hard to imagine any creative, from Jason Sudeikis to Marta Kaufman to Laurie Nunn, truly writing and developing their show specifically for the ‘feel good’ designation. These things tend to happen organically and by osmosis, even if—as in the case of Ted Lasso—your entire series is deep rooted in ideas of kindness, teamwork and hope. The question that interests me is this: do we need these shows right now because we need to escape reality? Are they the television equivalent of taking the blue pill offered by Morpheus?

Maybe the rabbit hole, right now, is just too existentially grim to face. Maybe we need to feel good in these fictions because they are, for many, our only escape.

Film Review: DUNE – Part One (2021)

Fear that Dune might not meet expectations was, for a long time, the mind killer. Thankfully, that slow death has not come to pass.

Much has been written, on an anxious level, suggesting that the much-awaited adaptation of Frank Herbert’s seminal 1965 novel should not have been divided into two-parts, a la the recent take on Stephen King’s It, for fear that Dune’s first half might underperform and thereby leave this magisterial tale unfinished. Regardless of box office, one wonders as to the logic of this thought process. Dune has quite clearly been devised, soup to nuts, as a two-part project, and Denis Villeneuve here takes the time he needs to both construct the world around the desert planet Arrakis and the central story of young Paul Atredies with two films in mind. This is not the complete Dune. This is, to quote Zendaya’s Chani, “only the beginning”.

In that sense, we have to approach Dune as such, and judge Part One on the merits of being an incomplete story. Perhaps the greatest strength of this first half is that it contains a beginning, middle and end that satisfies, even while concluding with everything but a ‘to be continued’ legend. Villeneuve successfully manages to introduce Herbert’s vast, complicated futuristic universe, and establish the broader narrative concepts and themes, while providing a rounded cinematic experience. For the first of a two-part story, this is no mean feat, and his achievement lies as deeply in a visual and auditory as it does a structural sense. Dune is a frequently breathtaking, often arresting feast for the eyes which warrants the format it was designed to embrace – IMAX.

It is rare to find filmmaking so assured, so cohesive and so faithful to deeply beloved and classical source material while at the same time providing such a cinematic experience. Dune is a stunning piece of work in that context, one that could well be for the ages.

TV Review: STAR TREK: LOWER DECKS (Season 2)

Out of every modern Star Trek series currently on air, Lower Decks bounced into its second season with the brightest springing step.

While not every Star Trek fan of old finds Lower Decks their cup of Earl Grey, amongst fans who do enjoy it, and indeed critics, Mike McMahan’s animated comedy clicked almost right away. Taking the precepts of Star Trek animation and vibrantly updating them with a beautifully drawn, Seth McFarlane-esque sheen, Lower Decks avoided the trap initial commentators feared: that it would be funny at the expense of Star Trek. This was not the case even from Second Contact, the opening episode, which established the core concept of a series revolving around the lowly crew members on the second rate Starfleet vessel, the U.S.S. Cerritos. Immediately, Lower Decks was an affectionate lampoon.

One of the key reasons Lower Decks worked, by and large, straight away, was the feeling that it was written and animated by people who truly loved and crucially understood Star Trek as an idea. McMahan, parlaying the TNG S8 comedy Twitter account stylistically into the series, saw an opening for spoof in the cheesy 1980s utopian formalism of The Next Generation and leaned into mockery that played, almost entirely, with the audience’s knowledge and awareness of the tropes it was spoofing, be it Captain’s Logs, holodecks programs or the crew dynamics on the ship. Lower Decks was never truly a series for franchise newcomers, it was always an affectionate love letter to Star Trek fans of the 1990s, and was unashamed of being so.

Season 2, therefore, works simply to build on what the first season established. It maintains the greatest level of consistency in a modern Star Trek series between seasons while managing to successfully take what worked in the first year and often amplify it. There is no doubt – Season 2 is, overall, a stronger year of Lower Decks than Season 1.

The Spectre of Death in NO TIME TO DIE

Death is everywhere in the James Bond franchise.

This has always been true, from the existential nihilism and accidie of Ian Fleming’s original novelised character through to the carefree deadliness of how Cubby Broccoli & Harry Saltzman translated him to the big screen. “That’s a Smith & Wesson, and you’ve had your six” voiced Sean Connery’s 007 as far back as Dr. No in 1962. Bond’s license to kill remains one of the core tenets of the character, a chilling aspect that can be forgotten in our hero worship of the man. He is, ultimately, a killer.

In No Time to Die, we find a paradox. Bond has given up his life in the British Secret Service, his life as an assassin, and yet the spectre of death pervades his world in a deeper manner than ever before. Even the title references death, for the first time since 2002’s Die Another Day, and here suggests the fateful understanding that there is no good time to die. It comes for us all, and in this film it even comes for Bond himself, but we almost never anticipate or even sometimes expect it. Death is a constant now in a way it never was for 007 before.

Previously he would die ‘another day’, tomorrow ‘never dies’, or he could ‘live and let’ die. Bond made his peace with death as something that happened to others, not to him. No Time to Die changes that forever.

All the Time in the World: JAMES BOND in the 2020s

As we bask in the long-awaited glory of No Time to Die, if not the pinnacle of the Daniel Craig era as James Bond then a fitting conclusion, the inevitable question on everyone’s lips is simple: what’s next?

You can totally understand the thinking of Eon Productions head honchos Barbara Broccoli & Michael G. Wilson behind giving themselves space to enjoy Craig’s swan song. No Time to Die has spent a torturous 18 months thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic ready to go and suffered delay after delay as Eon & MGM (now Amazon) waited for the right moment to give audiences the best chance to see it in cinemas. Their patience will pay off given No Time to Die is tracking to be a huge hit, even if it is unlikely to match the box office haul of either Skyfall or Spectre.

Although in decades past the wait between the announcement of Bond actors was shorter, with Roger Moore or Timothy Dalton replacing their predecessors within two years, we will almost certainly not know who the next Bond will be until 2023. We had to wait three years between Die Another Day and Craig’s unveiling and that was 15 years ago. We are unlikely to see Bond 26 until, at the very earliest, 2024 and personally I would wager it will more likely be 2025. Which means, in all likelihood, Bond in the 2020s will reflect the 2000s as a transitory decade giving way to the next Bond’s debut, and his second movie before the decade is out. Anything more is likely to be very optimistic, and this is even without pandemics or other unnatural global events getting in the way.

The future, however, is not just about who plays James Bond as it perhaps was in many previous decades. The future of the Bond franchise now has many broader questions attached. After No Time to Die, is the franchise ever quite the same? What kind of Bond should the character be? How does he figure into a rapidly changing geopolitical and cultural fabric? A fabric in even greater flux than when Craig assumed a harder edged, stripped back version of the role in the wake of 9/11 and the global ructions of the terrorism threat that shaped much of his Bond era. And how exactly does this uniquely produced franchise continue to exist, and more importantly work to evolve, in an entertainment landscape that increasingly threatens to leave the style of how Bond is made behind?

These, for me, are the questions that will define the discourse around James Bond’s future over the next few years.