Raised By Wolves (Season One)

raised1Alas, the fascination with ‘mystery boxes’ continues and becomes increasingly tiresome: its a crux used by JJ Abrams all through his career and one endlessly mimicked by other creatives, best described as being a narrative which drops viewers into the middle of a mystery-in-progress that leaves them wanting to know answers in both directions (what happened before/what happens next?). Admittedly I can trace a lot of this to J. Michael Straczynski’s Babylon 5, which is one of my most revered genre shows. Not that B5 was the first, but certainly at the time when it came out, American shows were generally episodic in nature, pressing a metaphorical ‘reset’ button at the end of each episode and one episode seldom if ever referencing another.

Babylon 5 was more like a huge novel, each season being a part of a larger whole, so early seasons of B5 dropped hints and portents of mysterious ancient wars and a dark menace returning to threaten all the galaxy, and Straczynski fulfilled all the promise in later seasons, rewarded all the investment with the arcs and world building. He brought all the threads and revelations together into a grand conclusion that satisfied immensely (at least as regards the Shadow War storyline with season four, season five’s issues being largely out of his hands).

It paid off, and in spades, but that was a trick that showrunners and writers these days don’t seem to heed. 

So instead we get obtuse writing posing as complex storylines, promising grand revelations regards mysteries being scattered through plots (Westworld, Lost, Disney Star Wars etc) which ultimately fall apart, everything being built on sand. Its incredibly frustrating being taken in every time by this mystery box routine. Showrunners and writers are hooking viewers in and then largely failing to reward the viewer investment: even shows that succeed at this on some level only manage this in some compromised way that proves contentious even amongst fans (I’d cite Fringe as an example of this, and Ronald D Moore’s Battlestar Galactica reboot too).

So now we can add Raised By Wolves to this annoying list of Mystery Box Television, and already by the end of its first season its clear that a promising concept is not going to fulfil the early promise of its first few episodes. Those first two episodes in particular, directed by Ridley Scott no less, promise so much that even within the space of its ten-episode first season the crushing disappointment is palpable.

raised2Two androids (‘Mother’ and ‘Father’) arrive at a remote planet, Kepler 22b tasked with raising a group of human children in order to rebuild and save a humanity that has been destroyed by a global war between two factions: atheists and fundamentalist sun worshippers called the Mithraic. The visual design and concept is fascinatingly reminiscent of that of Scott’s troubled Prometheus, so much so that it almost seems an unofficial sequel, or at least set in the same universe. The music, too, seems directly related to that films haunting score.

On that level, I was hooked from the start, and enthralled by glimpses of this global disaster shown in flashbacks (Ridley Scott visualising The End Of The World!), scenes of survivors boarding colony ships bound for a fresh start on a new world. Vague references to the two warring factions and a subtext referencing Eden, humanity bringing its old sins to tarnish this new world – it promised much. Additionally, ‘Mother’ (Amanda Collin, who is quite excellent) is fascinating, an androgynous android that back on Earth was a weapon of mass destruction, a Necromancer that destroys with its voice, the android of Lang’s Metropolis transformed into an Angel of Death. Now mysteriously reprogrammed to nurture and protect its cargo of twelve human embryos and the children they grow into, she is aided by her companion, a lesser, servant-model android named ‘Father’ (Abubakar Salim, who possibly steals the show). ‘Mother’ is initially protective as intended, but falls back into her old destructive ways when her wards are threatened by a Mithraic colony ship arriving at this New World, her powers terrifying both children and enemies alike.

The mysteries are endless: who reprogrammed ‘mother’, what is the history of this new world and the skeletons of giant snakes that litter the landscape, what are the unnatural circular shafts that plunge into the depths, the odd voices characters begin to hear, the mysterious artefacts of alien origin that are found… yeah its all mystery box piled upon mystery box, and unwisely the series begins to unwrap some of these boxes, each one proving a confounding disappointment, increasingly riddled with inconsistencies. Why is no-one alarmed at signs of alien life or remnants of apparent alien intelligence? Are Mother’s virtual meetings with her creator truly the resurfacing of deleted memories or are they a fabricated deception created by some entity of Kepler 22b, manifested later as the giant snake? And how do Mother and Father survive plunging down into what is presumably the molten core of the planet, through and out the other side (as patently ridiculous as it sounds, it makes the Hollow Earth of Godzilla vs Kong seem almost pedantic).

Its actually alarming to see a show that begins with such promise collapse so very quickly- its like seeing all three seasons of Westworld condensed into a single season, and I cannot imagine where it will take us with season two (just finished filming, apparently). That’s if I stick around for season two, of course. I was enjoying the first half of this season but began to rapidly lose interest during the second half, the finale proving totally unsatisfying, typically dropping hints and leaving arcs for season two to attempt to resolve (or just tangle up even more). Even as a fan of Babylon 5, I am getting so tired of the teasing of revelations and answering questions with more questions: just tell the goddam story.

Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal and Greed (2021)

happyaccThis new documentary on Netflix about Bob Ross is an illuminating and largely affectionate documentary – its best moments are those in which his son Steven and some of Bob Ross’ friends and colleagues talk about the artist’s life and career (it may actually be a surprise to many that Ross, whose art show “The Joy of Painting” always seems to be airing somewhere in the darkest corners of the cable-channel universe -its been airing again here on the BBC recently- actually died back in 1995). Ross was a charming, charismatic man who was able to make a real connection with audiences quite independent of his (substantial) artistic ability- its a talent as natural as his artistic prowess. The gentle innocence of his television show inevitably reminds one of the American children’s show “Mr Roger’s Neighbourhood” and its presenter Fred Rogers, recently immortalised in A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood, which featured Tom Hanks in the title role of a guy who like Ross seemed a genuinely ‘good’ person in a world where hero-figures usually falter and let us down. It also reminds me of the likes of Carl Sagan, who was able to connect with layman audiences not usually taken with science documentaries, in just the same way as Ross could enthral viewers usually not in the slightest bit interested in art. Presenters such as these seem natural and the connection with the viewer feels real, without artifice; we are caught up by their passion and share it.

But director Joshua Rofé’s Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed, as the title likely suggests, has something of a dark side. Thankfully this is, like Fred Rogers, one hero/inspirational figure who doesn’t let us down with a shadowy real-life tarnished by grubby real-world human weaknesses: its not a film targeted with tearing down the image of Bob Ross. No, that’s left for other people largely left unknown to us until now. So while it is heart-warming learning that Ross seemed a genuinely nice fellow, and seeing Ross’ life story and road to success, the documentary is also quite depressing when it shows what happened following the artists untimely death at the age of just 52.  The film alleges that his business partners acted quite legally but in morally dubious ways, ensuring they owned and profited from Ross’ likeness, brand and television show following Ross’ death, subsequently earning millions while Ross’ son apparently earned nothing, all clearly contrary to Ross’ own wishes. Its the dark side of the American Dream writ large and really quite distressing. The film also reveals that many people were afraid to speak on the film for fear of litigation, and its unfortunate (albeit possibly quite telling) that Ross’ business partners Annette and Walt Kowalski declined to appear and defend themselves (so inevitably damned in their absence, you might say). 

It all rather leaves a bitter taste in ones mouth. Its a very interesting film, and very pleasant when it describes Ross’ background and family life and his artistic pursuits leading to “The Joy of Painting” and its huge success, but its only likely to leave his fans (of which there are still obviously very many) feeling that a great injustice has occurred, albeit quite legal and above board (oh, justice in America is so very noir). Its unfortunate that something as sweetly innocent and joyous as Ross’ television show, which ran for eleven years and over four hundred episodes, will now always be blighted by the shadow of the story behind it.

I don’t know, maybe its perfectly symptomatic of the American Dream that a nice feel-good story like Bob Ross and his “The Joy of Painting” becomes tarnished by greed and corruption: money the root of all evil, yet again. All I know is that I went to bed feeling angry and frustrated: sometimes the bad guys win.

Netflix Bebop?

cowboylivea (2)

Ha ha those crazy buggers at Netflix, I thought they were joking, you know, the way Hollywood keeps fooling around with the dangerous idea of a live-action Akira movie. They talk about it but they’re never fool enough to actually do it. But no, it looks like Netflix is serious. Its coming in November. My God, I’ll never be ready for this.

About the only thing that really has me excited here is Yoko Kanno returning to handle the soundtrack duties, which certainly gives the project some credit – at least it will SOUND like Cowboy Bebop, and Kanno wouldn’t associate herself with a turd, would she? Oh Ghost you are so gullible.

See you November, Space Cowboy.

Starsky & Hutch vs The Vampire

starskyvampSometimes life is so weird it just has to be a hologram. Don’t ask me why, but last night we watched a second season episode of Starsky and Hutch that had been sitting on the Tivo since March, an episode which featured the city being terrorised by a Vampire (played by no less than John Saxon) and Huggy Bear selling Vampire Survival kits (a bag with handy equipment like a wooden stake and hammer, clove of garlic and a mirror to make sure that guy behind you has a reflection). Sceptic Hutch was convinced the Vampire was some kind of gag but Starsky was quite convinced he needed to go all Van Helsing to save the public from a fiendish blood-sucker.

By the second season any grittiness that Starsky and Hutch sported in the more serious season one was long gone, replaced by a cosy, family-entertainment feel commensurate with its huge success with younger audiences. This episode, The Vampire, was the show’s Halloween 1976 offering- something I hadn’t appreciated when I was watching it, I thought it was a genuine serious second-season episode (whatever that means with this show). Instead its rather like a poor-man’s Kolchak: The NIght Stalker episode only sadly lacking the brilliant Darren McGavin. But how bloody odd (and ludicrous) the sight of John Saxon in a cape chasing after women out of the shadows, it was absolutely hilarious (presumably intentionally so).

I used to love this show when I was a kid. I suppose there remains a soft, cosy warmth watching television from the era when they had to crank out 22 episodes a year and reassure viewers that the good guys always trumped the bad guys, and you could trust authority and cops (and even tricksters/pimps like Huggy had their heart in the right place). The world of course was never like that, but 1970s American television is fascinating, watching it now- its like from some other planet.

So John Saxon’s fake-cripple dancing instructor has a plan to resurrect his dead wife by… well, its a bit vague how he intends to bring her back, perhaps it’s some kind of deal with the devil, offering sacrifices as payment or something, but unfortunately he makes the terrible mistake of killing star pupils from his own dancing school, rather making it all too easy for Starsky and Hutch to track down the dastardly fake blood-sucker. Its all pretty empty-headed nonsense and I think there’s some b-plot about Starsky forgetting the phone numbers of some attractive ladies they struck up a conversation with in a disco party before being called back to work. Its fairly mindless fun, but I don’t know what in the world we were doing watching it (well actually I do, life has been bit shitty this week and in all honesty, once we got back home late in the evening, this silly episode was possibly a perfect tonic).

The 2021 List: July

There goes July- the past few weeks have been rough at work due to sickness and leave, both within the office and nationally as a business ‘out in the field’ so I’ve been neglecting my blog somewhat (what do you mean, you didn’t notice?). Must try and fix that, and I’m wary of a backlog of reviews piling up, even if I’m struggling to find time/energy to actually watch anything.

So what have I been watching? Well, other than what is on the list below, I have been re-watching some old discs/films, some connected to films on the list below. Watching Herbert Lom in Hammer’s version of The Phantom of the Opera got me watching the Indicator disc of Mysterious Island that I’d bought a few months back (in which Lom plays a very impressive Captain Nemo), and seeing the lovely Barbara Shelley in The Shadow of the Cat resulted in me bringing down Indicator’s first Hammer box from a few years ago and watching The Gorgon again. There’s something both familiar, comforting and sometimes revelatory about returning to films having not seen them in awhile, and I’m kicking myself for not at least dropping a paragraph or two here regards those two in  particular. I’ve also been trying to watch Arrows 4K disc of True Romance that came out a few weeks back but the time never feels right or I’m just too damn tired to give it the attention it deserves. I was one of the few that saw it back during its first theatrical run and have always loved it, so watching it in 4K is something I’m really looking forward to.

While there were a few clunkers in July, I did watch some particularly fine films, notably The Killers and Criss Cross, two astonishingly fine film noir. The first led me to the second, and I love that about films, how one can lead to another, some being fresh discoveries of films I’d never heard of before. Amazingly, I’m of a mind that Criss Cross may actually be a better film than The Killers, even though the former clearly had more impressive visual ‘noir’ flourishes, there seemed something more complete and efficient regards Criss Cross, a film that quite took my breath away, it seemed so perfectly formed. I really must work on a review of that film.

Lately I’ve been watching the German epic series Babylon Berlin, which has been on my watchlist for a long time now and will get a review in August when I’ve completed the first sixteen episodes (confusingly, they were ‘sold’ to foreign markets as two seasons of eight episodes each but I understand that in Germany it was one run of sixteen). Its astonishingly good, up there with the very best shows I’ve seen like The Wire etc (yep its THAT good). Its depiction of 1929 Berlin, during the last years of the Weimer Republic is so vivid, there’s a tactile feel to it which is almost quite horrifying. I’ve often said here that good period dramas are almost like science fiction, positing worlds as alien to us as anything envisaged for the future. I think that’s quite true of something like Babylon Berlin, which is not just depicting a world of a century ago, but one quite foreign as regards culture and politics (its really quite mystifying, but fascinatingly so).

Television

79) Superstore Season Four

86) Ratched Season One

Films

77) The Tomorrow War (2021)

78) The Killers (1946)

80) The Shadow of the Cat (1961)

81) The Phantom of the Opera (1962)

82) Nightmare (1964)

83) Synchronic (2019)

84) Saint Maud (2019)

85) Fast & the Furious Presents Hobbs & Shaw (2019)

87) The Sting (1973)

88) Between Midnight and Dawn (1950)

89) Chernobyl 1986 (2021)

90) Blood Red Sky (2021)

91) Criss Cross (1949)

The new Dune trailer

Oh this looks good. This looks so VERY good. Anyone else get a tingle watching those Ornithopters flying over the sand dunes?

But is anyone else concerned that the last ten years of dumbing down blockbusters may have robbed this film of its audience? Nobody turned up to go watch BR2049, and that film wasn’t being dumped on HBO Max at the time either. I don’t know how much of an impact that HBO Max thing will prove to be, or how much Covid will be in the equation come October, but considering the money that Dune needs to make in order to break even/get Part Two greenlit…  My biggest concern is simply that, are audiences going to go in droves to watch a sci-fi epic minus caped superheroes beating the shit out of bad guys while wrecking a city? Are audiences going to sit still for a film with ideas? 

Mind, Dune is an epic story with epic spectacle so maybe that will pull people in. Films are so stupid now though, particularly the ones that make any money. I’m still reeling from the assault on my senses that was Godzilla vs Kong and that Hobbs & Shaw thing. Is that what films are now? While I take some comfort from how Disney’s Black Widow seems to have under-performed recently, that also makes me nervous regards how streaming (and yeah, Covid) seems to have pulled people away from the movie experience, wondering if things have changed forever. Have the weekly drops of content on Netflix and Disney+ so diluted peoples appreciation of tentpole releases (I have to wonder if Disney putting Marvel and Star Wars content for ‘free’ onto subscribers televisions is a kind of self-sabotage) weakened and diluted the appeal of said franchises as regards getting bums on seats in cinemas, like it used to be? We’ve already seen how people don’t seem interested in buying films on disc anymore. Some of the high-end stuff being dropped on Netflix is often poor but production-wise, they are essentially exactly the same thing as is seen in cinemas. I remember when I was kid, I saw The Empire Strikes Back at the cinema on a Saturday afternoon and when I got home Buck Rogers in the 25th Century was on the telly, and funnily enough it was the episode with the asteroid sequence and Buster Crabbe but it was so different in quality, the chasm between home entertainment and cinema entertainment was plain. That’s gone now, and seeing ‘new’ Star Wars and Marvel stuff straight onto the telly…

I’ve noted before that movies don’t seem as important or special as they used to be in my youth, back when Star Wars would be on the big screen only and when you’d wait for years to ever see Jaws again- gradually films have become more disposable. In a world where you can buy Avatar for a fiver, is there any wonder that Avatar itself fails to have any real cultural significance (and I’m really curious how those Avatar sequels will perform in a few years time). Are movies, as we fans remember them as ‘MOVIES,’ essentially dead, and things like Dune simply being made for a world and business model that no longer exists?

One has to wonder if Dune: Part Two will eventually just be a mini-series on HBO Max.

Blade Runner: Black Lotus

While I’m a sucker for anything Blade Runner, and appreciate the efforts that Alcon are making to keep their investment in the property alive (the Titan books, comic spin-offs etc) this trailer for an anime series titled Blade Runner: Black Lotus just feels so woefully generic (it also disturbingly looks too much like that old Westwood Blade Runner game). For me it is just a cautionary reminder of how bad BR2049 could have been- it would have been so easy just to make a Blade Runner sequel with steamy, wet, rain-swept streets and superhumans beating the shit out of each other. Hell, maybe that would have been more successful at the box-office than BR2049 proved to be, and maybe closer to what many would have actually preferred but really, that tired old aesthetic is not what makes Ridley’s film so great for me, and there is surely more to the franchise/IP than that. Its not about countless neon signs and throwing Coca-Cola logos into the background. At least BR2049, while it made nods to that, actually went with a brutalist look of its own.

Perhaps this trailer is not indicative of what the actual series will be like- maybe it will be more intelligent than it looks and have some decent ideas behind it, but it does look so woefully generic that I fear the worst. I’m not confident about the CGI anime style either; to me I don’t see the point in this semi-cartoony/semi-reality ‘look’: you either go stylised art or photo-realistic (there’s plenty examples of both in Netflix’s excellent Love, Death & Robots series). Oh well. Mercifully I may not be able to watch the thing anyway, as its being made for Adult Swim and Crunchyroll in the States so I rather hope it doesn’t get sold over here in the UK at all.  Ignorance is bliss.

Ratched (Season One)

atchedposterThis was brilliant and appalling in equal measure.

Firstly, and here’s why I waited until now to watch it (this originally dropped on Netflix in September last year) – what’s the preoccupation with prequels and origin stories? This series could be about anyone, they could have written about an original character and told the exact same story, it didn’t need to be Mildred Ratched of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. It could have been any nurse, in any asylum, in any place (in fact it probably is, as the film took place in Oregon, not this series’ California), and the character as far as I recall (its been many years since I last saw the film) was not some super-heroine needing an origin story.

So what gives? Is it all just about having a ‘hook’, a gimmick, to hang a series over, to make ‘selling’ it easier?  Is this where we are now with getting anything greenlit by a studio? Are creatives so bereft of ideas that they have to mine all their film collections looking for any possible narrative hook to spin from? Or is the only thing studios/streamers understand now the Marvel MCU/Disney Star Wars school of carpet-bombing an IP for any possible spin-off?

To add a further mix of confusion, this is essentially a remake of Ryan Murphy’s second season of his American Horror Story, which was titled Asylum, and even stars one of that season’s stars, Sarah Paulson, as the titular character Mildred Ratched. Like Asylum, Ratched is full of bizarre characters, crazy situations, gory deaths, violent ends: a delirious cacophony of excess. People are lobotomised, boiled, shot, burnt, impaled, stabbed, smothered…

Not once but several times did I shake my head and comment to my wife “these characters are all monsters.” You could argue there is not one redeemable character or anyone slightly approximating ‘normal’ here at all: a rogues gallery of misfits and oddballs. Indeed it has a pretty formidable cast lining up as these freaks: Judy Davis, Cynthia Nixon, Sharon Stone, Vincent D’Onofrio, Corey Stoll, Amanda Plummer, its a pretty cool bunch of character actors competing in the chew-the-scenery stakes, and I’d argue the show actually gets stolen by Sophie Okonedo who plays a patient with multiple personalities: she is absolutely the best reason to watch this show. She’s a murderous female Two-Face multiplied by ten and I could watch her in a show of her own (hey, maybe this show has already got its own spin-off sorted).

One sequence has a prisoner on Death Row being taken to his execution room, the viewer having been shown in slow graphic detail the process of said execution via lethal injection. Once in the execution room however, the waiting Governor Wilburn (D’Onofrio) gleefully pulls aside a white sheet covering the apparatus to reveal it has been replaced by an electric chair. The prisoner shrieks in horror as he’s strapped in while Wilburn reaches to the power switch and fries his victim- here’s a politician who gets his own hands dirty for the votes.

You either accept the camp, pulpish fun of it all being written in big thick crayon or snort in disgust and reach for the off button: as much Wretched as Ratched. For my part I actually enjoyed it but I admit feeling a little guilty about that- I was watching it aghast at some of the twists and turns feeling I was being had most of the time. A character is shot in the stomach and near death one minute and a few scenes later is up and walking around fine (the scenes in between being about another character on the run from the police and caught the next morning only adding to my confusion re: the passage of time). You just cannot take it seriously as it stumbles over plot holes and characters doing bizarre 180’s just because it suddenly suits the plot (such as there is one). Usually you get an interest in a character just before they get murdered in horrible fashion but the six characters that survive to the end of the finale are thankfully the best and hint at great possibilities for a second season.

I was a fan of Murphy’s American Horror Story show and rate Asylum as its best offering by some margin, so watching a Greatest Hits remake of that show was pretty perfect for me. Murphy would be no doubt horrified at me lazily summarising Ratchet as Asylum MkII but it appears pretty clear to me. I’m just mystified why they likely wasted so much money getting the rights to the Mildred Ratched character at all, any links to the film appear pretty tenuous to me so far and it would be no worse being something wholly seperate, unless the second season ties things up somehow. But tonally, this is definitely more American Horror Story than One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest by a very considerable gory margin.

The 2021 List: June

Hang on, where did June go?

Now then- please excuse my tardiness regards writing a review of item number 75 below. I’ve seen some dodgy films this month (what I was doing watching that Dads Army movie quite escapes me, and as for that Dog Gone Trouble… well I knew it would be trouble) but that number 75 was everything I’d been warned of and more. Extraordinary film-making, certainly, but in all sorts of horrible ways, but just how do I write that review and do its horrible magnificence justice? We’ll see if I can marshal my thoughts in July (I only hope I don’t require a re-watch to do it).

Television

66) Superstore Season Two

72) Superstore Season Three

Film

61) Invasion Day (aka Dragon Day) (2014)

62) The Woman in the Window (2021)

63) 3 Days to Kill (2014)

64) The Boat (2018)

65) Dad’s Army (2016)

67) The Wave (2016)

68) The Quake (2019)

69) Black Holes: The Edge of All We Know (2021)

70) Dog Gone Trouble (2021)

71) Prospect (2018)

73) Convicted (1950)

74) Aniara (2018)

75) Kong vs Godzilla (2021)

76) The Dead Don’t Die (2019)

The 2021 List: April

So there goes April. and I watched all of eight ‘new’ films/TV shows. Yeah, I’m still re-watching ‘old’ stuff, but my general apathy/weariness continues.

Books are good. I’m currently reading J W Rinzler’s excellent ‘The Making of Planet of the Apes’, which I bought from Amazon for £18 a week or so ago- at that price its almost giving it away, considering what magazines cost these days. With its on-set photographs and old-fashioned (pre-2001/Star Wars) pre-production paintings/storyboards, its really evocative of the 1960s and something of an escape to the myth of simpler times. I’ve really enjoyed the fascinating story of its long gestation period. I’d never really appreciated what a hard sell it was in the early 1960s to sell a film project featuring talking apes. In hindsight it seems a perfectly natural premise for a series of films but when one considers it in an time pre-Star Trek, even, its quite remarkable the film ever got made. Great book- its a lovely reminder of those retrospective articles in Cinefantastique, Fantastic Films and Starburst that I enjoyed reading (albeit with its 300 pages, this book is much more detailed, Cinefantastique‘s in-depth articles notwithstanding).

Hey, we had the Oscars this month. More nauseating than ever. Privileged and pampered millionaires preaching some more. I’m not sure they ‘get it’, after the year so many of us have had. I suppose its all true that the rich just get richer and the poor poorer because looking at their expensive gowns and suits and haircuts the pandemic and its economic woes doesn’t seem to have affected them very much. Instead I rather think it has put into sharp focus just how much of another country/planet Hollywood really is, and how increasingly distant it is. Those Planet Hollywood restaurants have a very apt name indeed, indicative of a truth I didn’t really appreciate. 

Or maybe I’m just getting old, and tired of the game.

Television

46) The Flight Attendant

Film

41) Chelsley Bonestell: A Brush With The Future (2018)

42) Secret Behind the Door (1947)

43) The Tunnel (Tunnelen) (2019)

44) Anti-Life (2020)

45) Stowaway (2021)

47) Voyage of Time (2016)

48) The Heist (2013)