Carnival Row Episodes 1 – 4: Magnificent World-Building

"Carnaval Row" Ep101 D22/38 Photo: Jan Thijs 2017While not everything is up to such a high standard, we have been spoiled over the past few years with some really sophisticated television shows that can be superior to anything the cinema gives us. As production values soar and often equal those of cinema (as suggested way back in the days of Babylon 5, CGI has been a great leveller between silver screen and home), television has used its great advantage of running-time to great effect- indeed, the serialisation of so many film franchises is an example of cinema heeding this fact and mimicking television. It could well be argued that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is really episodic storytelling for the silver screen.

As far as production value goes, most of these new television shows are not cheap, and largely owe their existence to non-Network channels, such as HBO or streaming providers like Netflix and Amazon. The biggest of them all, apparently, is The Lord of the Rings series from Amazon, which is set to commence shooting in New Zealand early next year. What I have heard of its scale and ambition, that show may well break the wall (to borrow a line from BR2049) between the worlds of television and cinema, and so prove there is no distinction between the two at all. We may even be past that point already, depending upon how one views such epics as Game of Thrones or Westworld or Altered Carbon.  It may ultimately not even be a Good Thing, either, as I’d suggest that good storytelling can often benefit from limitations. Good drama depends more upon good characters and conflict, rather than hordes of CGI armies and spectacle. Too often have good movies been spoiled by reliance on spectacle simply because they are perceived to need to be a blockbuster, to draw audiences in for some new sense of scale in action and visuals. Without access to all such visual splendour, traditional genre television has had to rely on more old-fashioned stuff like good storytelling, characterisation etc

carival4Latest of Amazon’s offerings is Carnival Row, an eight-episode series starring Orlando Bloom and Cara Delevingne. Its a Victorian steampunk fantasy that is visually arresting: giving it the ‘look’ of a lavish period drama, and then populating it with strange steampunk tech and fantasy creatures such as horned/hoofed satyrs (the Pucks) and dragonfly-winged fairies (the Fae), Centaurs, Trolls, and even a Cthulhu-like monster lurking in the underground maze of the sewers, is something of a masterstroke. But what I found really impressive is its world-building: instead of drawing attention to all the more fantastic visual elements, instead it is offered up as something ordinary, even mundane. The remarkable is simply unremarkable. Moreover, the dialogue is wonderfully dense at times, referencing races, objects, religions, places, and not feeling the need to explain them- they are instead almost offhand details that add a sense of depth and colour to the piece. Rather than explain everything we see and hear, we are left to pick up the pieces ourselves. On the one hand, it is mostly incidental; we can follow the plot regardless, but for anyone wishing to go the extra mile, so to speak, it offers another level of meaning and detail to that plot. Its Tolkien by way of Charles Dickens.

Inevitably, Carnival Row is a drama of its time. At its heart it is a blatant allegory of mass migration, its economic impact and resultant racism and bigotry familiar to most news reports of our day. The various fantastical races of this fantasy -the Pucks, the Fae and the other bizarre creatures, have been displaced by the carnage of war between competing human nations fighting over the mineral wealth of their Old World that dates back long before humans came into the world. The Pact, the victorious human nation, has slaughtered most of the Fae and forced any survivors to either flee or perish as their villages and homes are destroyed. The Burgue, the human nation that lost the war and whose armies have retreated to its own land, has granted some manner of sanctuary for the creatures, with many of them settling into Carnival Row, something of a ghetto of disrepute and a melting-pot for the various races, traditions and religions.

carnival1Here Human, Puck, Fae, Centaur and Troll manage to keep some manner of peace but the tensions are high.  The Burgue’s central government is split between those who wish to maintain sanctuary for the migrant races and those who fear the alien outsiders that are perceived as taking worker’s jobs and spreading crime and disease. An aristocratic family formerly of wealth and good standing but now on the cusp of bankruptcy and poverty, are horrified when a rich Puck businessman moves next door and threatens to bring down the neighbourhood.  A young Fae, Vignette Stonemoss (Delevingne), the sole survivor of a ship that fled her homeland with refugees, is forced into servitude to pay back the money she owes for her passage to ‘freedom’. A streetwise police inspector, Rycroft Philostrate (Bloom) is, unlike most of the police, sympathetic to the plight of Carnival Row’s more colourful denizens and has to circumvent the indifference (and outright hostility) of his superiors when trying to solve a series of bloody and horrible murders in the Row.

The art direction is wondrous, the set designs richly designed and quite elegant. The sense of period lends a reality to everything that makes some of the fantastical elements all the more convincing. Coupled with the beautiful cinematography (which looks really amazing in 4K UHD, with lovely use of HDR) these sets and costumes are a joy to behold. Its really quite cinematic and quite convincing. There is a genuine sense of place, and reality. The casting and acting is really fine, too, with an interesting use of accents bringing another layer of detail to it.

I’m really enjoying it, and so soon after The Boys aired, its clear that Amazon is really moving up a gear with some of its original shows -indeed, perhaps only now are we seeing the results of its increasing investment into the gathering streaming wars. I was rather indifferent to the prospects for Amazons Lord of the Rings show, but on the strength of these two most recent series, my interest has been raised.

 

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Shanghai Fortress

shanghai1Hot on the heels of the utterly bonkers The Wandering Earth comes China’s version of Independence Day, the alien invasion thriller Shanghai Fortress, complete with your obligatory blitzkrieg of CGI aliens, aerial dogfights, explosions and collapsing skyscrapers. Some of the visuals are very good, and there is some fine imagery, but unfortunately they forgot to include a script. The Wandering Earth made little sense; this one makes no sense at all.

Unsurprisingly, all the eye candy in the world cannot save a genuinely bad film, and Shanghai Fortress flopped in spectacular fashion last month in its home territory, so much so that the director Teng Huatao issued a formal apology (they do things differently in China- imagine if Michael Bay had the decency to apologise for his Transformers films). Remarkably the film has already turned up on Netflix for veterans of The Wandering Earth to give Chinese sci-fi another go. Unfortunately as its theatrical box-office would suggest, Shanghai Express is a pretty poor, incoherent film full of plot-holes – at first I thought it might be down to bad subtitles/translation but its soon evident that the film really is just plain bad. The Wandering Earth was daft but kind of fun in its excess, this is just very dull.

The confusing plot involves an alien power source being discovered by Chinese astronauts on a (deep space?) mission that solves the worlds energy problems. Unfortunately, several years later some pissed-off aliens in a gigantic mothership arrive apparently looking to claim its power source back and promptly lays waste to any major city using it. Millions of humans are killed and every major population centre is turned to rubble, and Shanghai is, as the film begins, next on the list.

Now listen, just do yourself a favour and don’t think too hard about any of that. You might be perplexed that humanity has major energy problems but manages to send a ship on a deep space mission and not only manages alien contact but also steals a new power source from said aliens. The film in no way elaborates on who the aliens are or where they are from or how we stole the power source from them, its all just a perfunctory prologue awkwardly shown in a news bulletin before the CGI carnage ensues. It doesn’t mean anything, its all just an elaborate set-up to establish that there is an alien invasion in the offing and that the good people of Shanghai are our only hope. Mind, the people of the city are a fairly resilient lot, living under a protective energy shield they go on about their daily lives shopping and working and go to nightclubs in the evening, generally acting like Earth isn’t being invaded or that millions or even billions of humans haven’t died. Its all very odd. At least in Independence Day the American citizens knew it was time to get worried.

shanghai2.jpegThe cast do what they can with the underwritten and hackneyed characters, but the main lead, ace videogame pilot Jiang Yang (Lu Han, apparently a pop star rather than a ‘proper’ actor) has a cringe-worthy unrequited love affair with his beautiful military trainer Lin Lan (the very beautiful Shu Qi who is twenty years his senior and shares zero chemistry with him). The love affair seems to revolve around texting (stalking?) her and a flower that he hasn’t the nerve to give her. Its basically as complex as a student having a crush on his ‘hot’ teacher.

The odd thing is that towards the end of the film our heroes all start dying in CGI explosions, sacrificing themselves for the public good and its clear from the epic music score that we are meant to care but of course we can’t, they never feel like real people. Even our romantic leads don’t get the emotional pay-off we think they are going to get. One of them suddenly gets buried under a city of rubble (to maintain some sense of tension for any prospective viewers I won’t reveal which one) and that’s that, end of love affair and a subdued celebration when the aliens are thwarted. Except that Shanghai is such a submerged ruin at this point you have to wonder, did the aliens really lose?

Oh well. This Chinese sci-fi stuff is really weird and hopelessly juvenile. I never realised that Independence Day was so sophisticated.

(Another) Apocalypse Reprise

apocalypse4kThe new 4K UHD set of Apocalypse Now arrived today. I have a strange love/hate relationship with this film, and it keeps on dragging me back every time. Back in the day, the first time I ever saw it, I had to walk nearly two miles to a video rental store that had a copy on VHS. Yeah, back in the days of pan and scan and mono televisions etc. I recall the film fascinated and repulsed me and excited me and bored me in equal measure (something it shared, funnily enough, with my initial viewing of The Deer Hunter), but over the years I keep on coming back to it. I like it more every time I see it. Except the Redux version, I hated that. Its not too often a director’s extended version turns me off so much but ugh, that version was so horrible. Its that bloody French Plantation sequence. It stops the film stone dead, and no matter Coppola’s intellectual rationale for it, it does the film no good at all.

Incredibly this release features a third, Final Cut (thanks Ridley) that keeps that Plantation sequence whilst apparently cutting some the Redux material back out, serving as some kind of middle-ground between theatrical and Redux. I don’t think I’ll ever watch that Final Cut version, ever. I know for damned certain that I’ll never watch that Redux version. So I guess I’ve got a few redundant discs in this box then. Oh well. I’m just here for the remastered theatrical version in 4K, hopefully better-looking and better-sounding than ever. I think I have enough on my plate watching that beast of a film and maintaining my love/hate relationship with it, and somehow finding time for all the new extras in this edition. I sometimes moan about physical formats being on the way out etc and then a release like this comes along and reminds me how lucky we are these days.

I wonder why this film keeps dragging me back. Its not exactly my favourite movie, and I doubt it would be in my Top Ten anytime, but there’s something about it that draws me back in. Its a strange and hypnotically powerful, dreamlike film, that is no doubt part of its appeal, but its also quite irritating at times, self-indulgent, excessive. I think the nearest film I can compare it to would be Welles’ Citizen Kane (which I do indeed count amongst my top ten movies).  These are films that seem to stand apart from the rest, for good or ill. Even after all these years, whenever I re-watch either of them, these films reveal something new, each of them like some box of secrets, slowly drip-feeding them to me as the decades roll by.  At least I can rest assured that I’ll never buy a copy of Apocalypse Now again: this is the end of a long road since that old VHS rental.

Green Book

greenbook1I’m certainly beginning to think I might be getting soft in my middle-age. I’m not sophisticated enough to suggest that this film is a deplorable calculated artifice that plays fast and loose in over-simplifying events and social history, nor am I gullible enough to believe that this film is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. This film has ‘Artistic License’ stamped all over it. But I don’t really mind. In just the same way as I felt about Stan & Ollie, I just think this is a great, life-affirming and warm movie that I really enjoyed. Its a movie, not a documentary, and it’s obviously entertainment first and foremost. Yeah, I’m turning into a softie.

But maybe we need stories, and films, like this now. God knows the news is depressing, politics feels broken, and ‘truth’ seems to be a matter of interpretation rather than cold hard facts. Maybe we need movies as an avenue of escape more now than ever, and it’s refreshing to think that that escape might not always involve people in capes with superpowers righting over-simplified wrongs or saving the world from nasty bad-guys who are clearly mad. I think a film like Green Book serves the same function as earlier films like, say, Field of Dreams or Glory, or possibly even Its A Wonderful Life, a film that I was, funnily enough, thinking about as the end credits of Green Book crawled up my screen (I’m always a sucker for nice Christmas moments in film). Maybe we just need ‘nice’ movies about good people doing the right thing simply because it’s the right thing or people learning they are wrong and changing their ways. Maybe we need to believe people can be decent.

Yeah, maybe I’m turning into a softie and need to watch Taxi Driver, pronto.

But I did rather enjoy this film.

The basic premise of this film explains all- in 1962, a streetwise, working-class Italian-American bouncer looking for work is hired as the driver of an African-American classical pianist on a tour of venues through the 1960s American South, during which he witnesses the racial prejudices which blighted America’s Deep South and re-evaluates his own prejudices, becoming a better person for it. It leads with the text  ‘based on a true story’ as if that lends weight to its message, or excuses some of its ‘so strange it has to be true?’ moments. I’m caught in that ‘don’t even care’ position, to be honest- all film is make believe, no matter how intent on portraying a true story, and all that really matters here to me is that it’s a great story and well told. The period detail is really nice, the art design convincing without drawing too much attention to itself, the cinematography likewise isn’t too stylish, and the casting and performances really endearing and impressive. Its weird to think that Viggo Mortensen is actually Danish, as he does such a great turn as Tony “Tony Lip” Vallelonga and Mahershala Ali deceptively underplays the pianist Don Shirley – I struggled to recognise him from his brooding, haunted and mumbling character in season three of True Detective that I watched about a week ago. He’s clearly an actor I need to look out for in future.

What the Duck?

howardostSometimes you wake up and you wonder what universe you’ve woken up to. I read this morning that Intrada are releasing a 3-disc (!) edition of the Howard the Duck soundtrack. The complete score, so thats John Barry’s music that totals a whopping 100 minutes with loads of unreleased/rejected material/alternates, the Thomas Dolby songs and score by Sylvester Levay (whoever he is, but I guess he stepped in when Barry walked/wasn’t available).

The duck was actually a turkey, as it turned out, but I well remember watching the film on a very wet afternoon when I should have been in college. I saw it in the old ABC cinema in town, in the fleapit that was the Screen 3, which had seen far too many porn movies, God what a suspicious fleapit that room was (well, it was possibly more a closet than a proper ‘room’ but…). I remember sharing the dubious damp experience (it took me the entire film to dry out) with a tramp, I swear he was a tramp who came in just to shelter from the rain- always wondered what the hell he made of that movie.

I later saw the film again on VHS and it never really aged well. Some films are just so ill-judged, however well-intentioned they may be, and it had a great cast and production quality, and the Barry score was very nice, as I recall. I own a few Thomas Dolby albums so I didn’t mind the songs either. But I never bought the soundtrack album, and it became very rare and sought-after, oddly enough. So a 3-disc complete set will be great news for some.

Me? I suddenly feel very damp of a sudden, like some kind of acid-flashback of a deeply traumatic experience. We never got a complete Blade Runner soundtrack but we got Howard the Duck? What the Duck? Ducking hell. You got to be ducking kidding me etc. etc.

Stan & Ollie

stan1This was lovely. Strangely life-affirming and warm but also sad and melancholic, it’s a brilliant film about two ageing comedy legends in the twilight of their careers and lives. I could sit here gushing about this film but I’ll try not to. Suffice to say that I found it to be refreshingly entertaining and featured really surprisingly fine performances. Both John C Reilly (Oliver Hardy) and Steve Coogan (Stan Laurel) exhibit a genuine affection for the characters, the performances transcending mere impersonations and becoming something more intimate, more genuine, more truthful. They lift the film up beyond the basic docudrama attention of the script into something a little more, well, mythic. Laurel and Hardy in their heyday were not mere superstars, certainly not as we accept the term for modern performers- it’s impossible to contrast their world, and the popularity of cinema and their films worldwide, to anything of today’s world, in just the same way as British tv comedy duo Morecambe and Wise at their peak have no comparable equivalent in 2019.

After a brief prologue set at the end of their Hollywood prime, the film moves forward some sixteen years and tells the story of the end of their decline into, if not obscurity, then almost even sadder irrelevance. It is 1952, and the pair have embarked upon a British tour while Stan tries unsuccessfully to convince someone, anyone, to finance another Laurel & Hardy picture (we are offered bittersweet glimpses of what might have been with their Robin Hood comedy). The depths of their decline become painfully clear as they lodge in cheap, seedy hotels and appear before sparse audiences in small, low-rent theatres. The sense of tragedy is almost palpable, that they could have come to this, considering the affection and popularity they enjoy today. It feels unfair, that what we may consider today to be Cinema Gods of some Golden Age could be reduced to this. It’d be like watching a seventy-year-old Elvis singing to a largely-deserted matinee crowd on a Cruise liner.

Time has moved on, and left them behind, left to perform snippets of their old film performances before largely empty theatres that of course are themselves largely gone today. The film serves as a reminder to us all that the world can leave us behind, even the most successful, and depicts the two comedians enduring this with some grace and fortitude. How true this was, well, I don’t really care. I prefer to think this film is 100% true but it doesn’t really matter, it’s a great, heartfelt and entertaining story led by two genuinely great performances. A legend that befits the legendary, I think.

Dear Santa

1999 super.jpgWell, this looks very lovely. At long last the Prince Estate seems to have gotten things right with a pretty definitive-looking Super Deluxe edition of one of his classic albums, here comprising 5 CDs plus a concert DVD, or (for vinyl collectors), 10 lps and a concert DVD (there’s also a ‘budget’ 2-disc (4 lp) edition whose only purpose seems to be pushing people into buying the more expensive/complete set as its so frankly redundant).

Being released at the end of November, this thing has Christmas List all over it, which is a canny move by all concerned- other than the Purple Rain Deluxe the other vault releases following Prince’s passing have had their merits but have hardly set the mainstream world alight, satisfied the fans or sold hugely. Maybe this set is the point at which things change and we get ‘proper’ Super Deluxe sets that deserve that moniker and fans attention. 1999 was the first single/album by Prince that caught me, back when I was at college, so for me it’s nicely apt that its the first ‘proper’ set.

Rumour has it Parade is next, but we’re surely all just waiting for the Sign o’ the Times Super Deluxe, if our bank balances can stand it (and maybe a revisit to Purple Rain someday? That would seem inevitable at some point). My only sobering consideration about this release is that it’s perhaps ten years overdue- Prince should have allowed these kind of releases many years ago, and it’s terribly sad that it had to wait until he passed. I understand it’s his music, his legacy, and he was more interested in ‘new’ music than looking back on his old success, even if the rumours of the Vault increasingly shadowed over then-‘new’ albums, but it’s almost tragic that he was never interested in curating this kind of release or having any input in it- imagine if this was accompanied by a book of his reminisces/commentary about the music and his career back then?

Perhaps if he had lived longer he might have reconsidered things- we’ll never know. As a fan, his shyness/enigma was both fascinating and infuriating, and it would have been marvelous if he had decided to pull aside the curtain, so to speak, and reveal to his fans the behind-the-scenes story behind one of the most gifted musicians and remarkable life’s work in that vault. Instead, well, perhaps we’ll eventually get to hear (most?) of the music hidden in the vault and when the scope of all that life’s work is known maybe that enigma and mystery will be all the more tantalising. We may get the music, but he’ll always keep us wanting more, eh?