Rings of Power Episodes 1 & 2

rings1Its clear from watching the first two episodes of Rings of Power that this Amazon series will be unfortunately divisive – on one level it works fairly well, surprisingly so, while on another it disappoints (albeit for predictable reasons).

So first things first- as a prequel to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, it appears to work very well. It looks absolutely gorgeous, richly evocative of the aesthetic of Jackson’s films – the art direction is superb,  the sets, the costumes, the make-up… it definitely looks the part, convincingly belonging to the world Jackson created, which is no mean feat itself, never mind the finances Amazon threw at it. It also sounds wonderful, too- Bear McCreary’s music already some of the best scoring I’ve heard in a film or television project this year, definitely facing up to the considerable challenge of Howard Shore’s remarkable work on the films. I’m not suggesting that McCreary is attaining the richness and complexity of Shore’s opus but he’s certainly reaching for it: there were several moments watching these two episodes where I was captivated by the music in ways that seldom happens now. Imagine that- music that actually draws attention to itself. There will be, I’m certain, endless comparisons between this series and the HBO Game of Thrones prequel that is airing at the same time (most of which will be unfair which is something I’ll come to later), but certainly while I haven’t seen anything of House of the Dragon I’m pretty confident that show’s music, if its anything like that of its predecessor, functions far differently. But I love big music that draws attention to itself, like McCreary’s Battlestar Galactica music several years ago, so I’m all for it here- its possibly the series saving grace for me which will ensure I’ll keep on coming back.

The acting, is, well, adequate I guess- to be fair, its not like the script is doing the actors many favours.  I guess it would be a thankless task for experienced veterans with the dialogue they are given, but this cast of largely unknowns are certainly struggling. I think the large ensemble, the vast canvas that leaves little room for any proper focus, is a creative decision (likely an attempt to make the narrative feel as epic as the imagery) that handicaps the series from giving characters time to properly breathe and provide depth. Why not, for instance, allow Episode One to focus entirely on Galadriel and her quest and properly demonstrate the amount of time (centuries, millenniums) that we are told is passing?  The one thing that Tolkien’s mythology has in spades is scale, its huge breadth of time, which could have been better used to its advantage. I don’t really know the details regards Amazon’s rights re: Tolkien’s work but imagine a one-hour mini movie telling us the story of the First Age, only then leading to an Episode Two set in the Second Age and the series narrative proper.

The Tolkien purists might have been enthralled by it, but what about the casual viewer, or the Game of Thrones/Stranger Things audience which Amazon seems to be aiming for?

I think that’s the real issue here for Rings of Power; it can’t be everything to everyone.

Is it Tolkien though? Well, there’s the rub. What I’m getting at, is that Amazon, like New World Cinema and MGM before it, is always in a surely uncomfortable tension with Tolkien’s work, transforming what is widely considered classic literature into mainstream entertainments, while George R R Martin’s Game of Thrones, HBOs adaptations of which are so readily held up in comparison, is mainstream entertainment before any adaptation starts, the books are pop culture already, something which Tolkien was never aiming at with his work. I’m sure Tolkien purists are as dismissive of Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films as they will be of Amazon’s Rings of Power. I suppose Amazon’s problem is more how much of the Jackson fanbase, those fans who love the Lord of the Rings films, is dismissive of the series, because to be sure, it isn’t making Rings of Power for the Tolkien fanbase, its making it for a general, mainstream audience that largely took Jackson’s epic trilogy to their hearts.

Bumper Round-up

Quick reviews for recent stuff (Dead Reckoning! Get Carter! The Sandman!) and to misquote a Spielberg movie, I’m gonna need a bigger shelf unless I stop buying 4K discs…

In lieu of writing ‘proper’ posts, here’s a summary of where things are at lately. Hopefully genuine review posts will follow, but time being what it is lately (Einstein reckoned time is relative, and here its pretty short of late), I thought I’d get something out there.

P1110377 (2)First of all, I’ve had a bit of a mad splurge over the last few weeks on some Kino 4K titles on import (joining The Good, The Bad and the Ugly and For A Few Dollars More which I bought months ago). This bunch are mostly noir titles; the three-disc Touch of Evil, Kubrick’s dabbles in noir The Killing and Killer’s Kiss, with the Billy Wilder classic Some Like It Hot. These are all upgrades, double-dips (dear God, the Wilder is a triple dip, I had it on DVD too) of various Blu-rays bought over the past several years, something I’m increasingly wary of these days. But aren’t those slips gorgeous? Currently box-art seems something of a lost art so its especially lovely to see original artwork being used (The Killing actually has a reversible cover in the disc case, as I showed on my recent review). As well as The Killing, I’ve watched Some Like It Hot, and yes it too looks damn fine in 4K- its surprising how good these b&w titles look in the 4K format (as if we needed further proof how gorgeous Marilyn Monroe was). The contrast, grain management, improved gray scale, all impress, and Kino seem to have gone nuts on the bitrates, way over the top (compare that to Disney releasing the near-three hour Heat on 4K using a BD66).

I only saw Killer’s Kiss on Blu-ray a few months back. The film was made prior to The Killing and being less than seventy minutes long, it was included as a special feature on Arrow’s The Killing Blu-ray which I bought back in 2016, but I never actually watched it. I think I was misinformed by Internet opinion that it was lesser-tier Kubrick not worth bothering with, that The Killing was widely considered Kubrick’s first ‘proper’ film and first worthy of note: I suppose Killer’s Kiss being relegated to the special features menu only reinforced this view. Anyway, I finally got around to it; I knew there was a boxing element and was pointed back in the film’s direction after enjoying Robert Wise’s The Set-Up a few months back.  Well, diminished expectations and all that, but I absolutely loved it, probably for all the reasons so many disparaged it. Raw, low-budget, with a brisk (for Kubrick, positively frantic) pace, a bare-bones story shot like a docudrama with amazing footage of a lost New York, foreshadowing stuff like Taxi Driver. The only thing holding me back from a gushing review post here back when I watched that Blu-ray was suddenly learning only days later that Kino was releasing the film on 4K, so I decided to wait and will continue to wait until I’ve seen it again on this 4K disc. I’m really looking forward to it, but just waiting for the perfect time.

Which is a bit of a sour point: the best time to watch these noir (especially in 4K) is late at night when its dark and these long hot summer days are not conducive to that. What’s that line in a film about mood – ah yes, Gurney Halleck in Dune; “Mood? What’s mood to do with it?”, but its true about movie watching (if not fighting); one has to be in the correct mood for a particular kind of film and bright summer days/evenings- well, unless you’re watching something like Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat,  which was made for hot summer nights. Besides, by the time its late/dark enough, I’m usually too tired to watch a demanding film, and noir ARE demanding, usually quite complex and nuanced and narratively pretty dense for their usually short running-time. Case in point, I recently tried watching John Reinhardt’s The Guilty a few weeks back and damn near fell asleep near the end – my wife actually did fall asleep, missing its last fifteen minutes and I’ve ribbed her endlessly ever since regards her missing its major twist. “You’ll never guess!” I’ve teased her. There’s a film that deserves a proper rewatch soon as possible.

P1110379 (2)Hmm, yeah, some more purchases. Here’s me claiming to reign it all in regards buying discs, and sure, I’ve (mostly) stopped the blind-buys but of late that’s only transferred my wallet’s woes to the upgrades/double dips: here another Billy Wilder classic upgraded to 4K (this time courtesy of Criterion) and Flicker Alley’s The Guilty/High Tide double-bill (in the latter’s case, I’ve elected to use the original art on the reversible cover). Criterion’s Double Indemnity rather annoyed me- not the disc or the film, but because over here in the UK, presumably due to licensing issues (or the duplication costs?) Criterion only released it on Blu-ray (I have the old Eureka edition).  So in order to get the 4K edition released in the States  that everyone was raving about I had to grudgingly import it, complete with two Blu-ray discs locked to Region One that I can’t watch (so I’m keeping that Eureka set for some of the extras, but that true of Arrow’s The Killing disc and my Blu-ray of Some Like It Hot). Goodness, no wonder my shelves are filling up, I’m buying new upgrades and keeping the old discs too- madness.

Anyway, enough of my foolish financial woes, I’m just partying before the recession and Autumn of Discontent (see what I did there?) puts paid to my collecting. On with some quick reviews.

Dead Reckoning (John Cromwell, 1947) – first film from Indicator’s Columbia Noir #5 set, and allegedly one of the few genuine noir films in the set. Bit alarming, that. I never warmed to Humphrey Bogart, so haven’t seen many of his films. In fact, I can only name a few films of his I actually liked; In A Lonely Place for one, and another that I first saw on television decades ago, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which is a Blu-ray gathering dust on the shelf that I keep meaning to watch, but… Anyway, something about Bogie just rattles me. Maybe this box set’s contents will feature a film that will warm me to his charms more, but Dead Reckoning isn’t it – unless of course this is another example regards mood. Maybe it was just the wrong film on a warm summer night. Shame, its a great title for a noir. I was especially disappointed in Lizabeth Scott, who I’ve seen and been impressed by before. Here she was ill-served by an underwritten character (likely deliberately underwritten to enable/underscore the surprise twist) leaving her with little to work with- I suppose someone like Rita Hayworth (originally conceived of for the role) would have gotten by better from sheer screen charisma and presence, but Scott just doesn’t have that. Also, I just couldn’t see any chemistry between Bogie and Scott, and a film whose success largely depends upon the romantic tryst between two characters is in trouble from the start when the chemistry seems lacking. Is it wrong of me to note that I thought I would have enjoyed it more had it featured Glenn Ford (no stranger to this kind of noir) in the lead role?

Get Carter (Mike Hodges, 1971) – No casting issues with this film. Don’t ask me how/why I never saw this film before, but we all have these oversights/black holes in our moviegoing street-cred. Release by BFI in a simply gorgeous 4K edition that is so tactile you feel you can reach into the screen and touch it, and smell the beer and aftershave, sweat and cigarette smoke- it’s excellent; its another case of a film likely looking better than it did even when it first came out. This is such a film of its time, its like some kind of time machine physically taking us back, and who’d really want to go back to Newcastle circa 1971? What a cast (Ian Hendry brilliant yet again, and what a shocker seeing Michael Caine chucking that bloke from Coronation Street off the carpark roof), and what a  gorgeous jazzy score (that main title sequence is sublime). Here’s a film that I was ready to rewatch as soon as it finished.

The Sandman: Season One (Ten Episodes, 2022) – I don’t know what’s more shocking- that someone actually managed to make a decent live-action adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s comicbook classic or that somehow its on Netflix, but then again, it is the home of Stranger Things…  Its been well over a decade since I last read Gaiman’s opus (I bought the graphic novel paperbacks so long ago it was from a genuine bookstore) and a lot of my memory of it is burry, which was rather curious seeing it onscreen thinking “oh yeah, they actually did that…” or “I don’t remember that at all” so I can’t comment regards how authentic it was.  It wasn’t perfect though, I have to confess I was bit bothered by some of the casting choices- it was a great cast and I’ve no complaints, but John Constantine is now Johanna Constantine, played by Jenna Coleman? And I had a bit of a hard time keeping a straight face watching Gwendoline Christie as Lucifer, of all things. Maybe they’ll prove me wrong in subsequent seasons or the inevitable Johanna Constantine spin-off (call me a cynic, but the writing/casting for that episode had “pilot for a spin-off” written all over it). Those caveats aside,  I did enjoy the series; even the music was good (shades of BR2049 in places and ‘nowt wrong with that). Inevitably the highlight of the show (and if you only watch one episode of it, make it this one, its pretty standalone) was The Sound of Her Wings, the sixth episode and an adaption of likely most readers favourite issue of the comic. Should have been retitled The Sound of An Emmy, because it surely deserves a nomination at least.

Nineteen Eighty-Four (Rudolph Carter, 1954) – this BBC adaptation has always been on my radar if only because it starred Peter Cushing, one of my very favourite actors (my unofficial quest to watch everything he ever did continues slowly apace). I bought this new Blu-ray edition (from the BFI folks) a few months back but watched it just a week or so ago… I intended to write a proper post about it, even tried, but… goodness this was so depressing. Its through no fault of the adaptation (by Nigel Kneale, of Quatermass fame) its limited production values (mostly a live performance thankfully recorded for posterity), or its cast, but more the horrible inescapable fact that George Orwell’s cautionary tale is as timely now than ever- perhaps more so. Real-life events of the past several years, just how the world has slowly changed largely for the worse, makes something like this all the more prescient and important. Its horrible, like a warning from a future that just feels just more plausible than ever.

And while on the subject of warnings of the future, it looks like Roland Emmerich’s Moonfall is coming to Amazon Prime on Friday. I can hardly wait. Its got such a crazy, ridiculous premise, I’ve so wanted to subject myself to its cheesy silly horrors while avoiding spoilerific trailers. There’s a thought: am I the only person alive actually avoiding spoilers for Moonfall? Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow is one of my favourite bad movies, it was all I could do to refrain from buying it on Blu-ray disc when it was released a few months back (maybe if had been on 4K over here in the UK, I would have given in to its despicable allure, but it was limited to DVD/Blu-ray). Anyway, that’s my Friday (or Saturday) night sorted then, and possibly will be my next posting here; yes, be afraid, its Moonfall next, unless I get some time to sit at this laptop again beforehand.

Trom Season One

tromTrom, 2022, Six episodes, BBC iPlayer

Trom is another example of Nordic Noir, a crime thriller this time set on the isolated, windswept Faroe Islands. A journalist, Hannis Martinsson (Ulrich Thomsen), is contacted by a young woman who claims to be his daughter and is seeking his help. When he arrives on the islands to meet her he discovers she has been murdered and sets about uncovering the web of political and judicial corruption behind her death.

Unfortunately Trom fails to equal the sum of its parts- its setting (filmed pretty much entirely, it seems, on the actual islands) gives it a suitably dark, wet, gloomy mood so common to these Nordic dramas, but really has some distinct atmosphere, other than reminding me of holidays in Scotland. Its central mystery is your typical whodunnit with plenty of suspects, red herrings and of course misdirection’s that you can see a mile off (maybe I’ve seen too much Nordic Noir) but with enough genuine surprises chucked in to maintain your interest. Its not bad, its just not great. Thomsen is very good in the starring role, giving the series some considerable weight (he often reminded me of a middle-aged Laurence Olivier) but some of the cast just aren’t up to it, or have been cruelly miscast (the police characters particularly so, being possibly the most unconvincing police types I’ve ever seen; I kept on referring to two of the lead police characters as Laurel and Hardy every time they were onscreen).

I found the final revelations regards the guilty parties and what actually happened to Martinsson’s daughter enough to possibly save the day, but it was ultimately undone by just too many coincidences and a desperate cliff-hanger that comes out of nowhere and is pretty ridiculous. Wide-open space, dozens of people attending a funeral service, and the child central to everyone’s attention suddenly disappears, kidnapped, without anyone noticing? I demand a season two in order for the series makers to explain themselves regards the contrivances involved making her vanish into the damp air, cruelly teasing another season/mystery at the very last minute. Is it just too much to expect a proper ending?

Paywalls are a Good Thing

As we slide further into a streaming future and an increasing number of providers, more and more shows and movies are becoming locked away behind numerous paywalls and I’m… well, the natural thing to write here is that I’m obviously missing out massively. But I don’t necessarily think I am. I’m beginning to think its a question of liberation, an indication of the increasing irrelevance of franchises I once thought hugely important.

I watched The Walking Dead for several years, but thankfully gave up on it before its final seasons slipped behind the Disney paywall. I quite enjoyed Outlander for a few years, but fell behind before it too slipped behind a different paywall. Star Trek seems to be slipping behind a Paramount paywall, but other than curiosity regards how disappointing  Strange New Worlds probably turns out, I can’t say I really care. They should have probably done me a favour and put Picard behind that paywall so I couldn’t have suffered through its Season Two (unofficial subtitle ‘The Death of Trek’).

I’ve never subscribed to Disney+ so I haven’t seen any of the Marvel tv shows, or Star Wars tv shows, or some of the movies being put on there and nowhere else (except for those few movies that arrive on disc that I decide to take a punt on). It was a bit annoying at first, hearing great things about The Mandalorian, and a Boba Fett series certainly seemed intriguing, but as time has moved on, I’ve realised I haven’t missed them at all, and according to some reviews, I haven’t missed out on too much of any value/worth, either.  There definitely seems an indication that Disney making so much Marvel and Star Wars content risks diluting the value of those properties, and quality control seems to have definitely fallen to the wayside in the drive to ensure fresh new content pops up on the streaming service. And there’s the odd twist that there’s so many Marvel tv shows presumably linking to the films, that me not watching Disney+ makes the film themselves less appealing to me than ever. I understand back in the 1990s many comic fans gave up on the massive comic crossover arcs that required me them to buy comic series they wouldn’t ordinarily touch with a barge pole, if only because they couldn’t afford to buy them all. Is that happening with streaming platforms and franchises? Might it happen to the MCU too? You can watch the films but they will reference to series and events and characters one hasn’t seen and therefore make less sense? As if the MCU wasn’t hard enough to keep track of anyway.

Maybe I’m getting old. I have been increasingly diverted by older movies, such as the film noir that I have been watching and collecting (becoming a substantially large percentage of the titles on my shelving these days). They don’t show too many of those older films on the streaming services. Actually I find it curious, that so much regards these streaming services seems to be about genre shows, which seems oddly niche, considering streamers are after subscription numbers, and I would have thought that meant chasing Mr Average, not the geek sitting in the basement or up in the back room. Or did the geeks inherit the Earth after all, and nobody’s watching soaps or sitcoms anymore? Its just a bit weird. Maybe in an alternative universe everyone’s watching Westerns or cop dramas or something.

I’m not suggesting that streamers are the Great Evil – there are some great shows and movies being made, that I cannot imagine ever seeing the light of day through any other vendor- like Amazon’s The Boys or Netflix’s Stranger Things. But its true that the elephant in the room regards streaming services (and its not just Disney+ at fault here, as Netflix is as guilty as any) – is that to keep subscribers the services have to ensure a steady flow of new content for them to consume before they get bored and turn elsewhere, but it requires so much content that quality inevitably suffers. How many Netflix Originals turn out to be any good, never mind actually great? If Disney just made one Star Wars mini-series a year, would it enable them to make it at least consistently logical and honest to the franchises mythology?  I’ve heard things about that Obi-Wan series, how bad it is, from reliable people I know that have seen it, that are mind-boggling, frankly. Disney would have to pay me to see it, not the other way around.

There are many tv shows I would like to see, like Apple’s For All Mankind series from Ronald D Moore. But what kind of viewing figures does that show actually get, or indeed most any of the shows on these streaming platforms? How many people actually watch Star Trek: Discovery? A generation past made who shot JR or who killed Laura Palmer hugely popular discussions and as everything fragments that seems to be increasingly rare- maybe its impossible now. I’ve watched tv shows and been unable to even find anyone else who watched them at all, never mind anyone to share them with in conversation. Maybe that’s the result of paywalls, but isn’t that making much of its content irrelevant that would usually be what we used to call water-cooler television? Is that really a Good Thing?

Not his Superman

superman78While reading through an old issue of Cinefantastique the other day (the Forbidden Planet double-issue, from Spring 1979, I assume) I came across a capsule review of Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie which I hadn’t noticed before, and which, while I’m accustomed to the somewhat po-faced attitude of that mag’s editorials, quite took me aback. With due deference to its writer Robert Stewart, I quote the following:

“The film fails to explore the possibilities of having a new and modernized Superman tackle the real problems of the world in the late 1970s- assassinations, mass suicides, mindf–kers, famine, the CIA, sexism, racism, provocateurs, ageism, unemployment and economic collapse, corporate takeovers, bureaucratic  psychopaths, etc. Instead, he confronts villains not much different from those of the Batman television show…” 

My initial thoughts were that this guy probably loved Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman: his review seems more a manifesto for Snyder’s films than anything to do with Richard Donner’s film (clearly Donner’s respectful approach to the original comicbooks went right over Mr Stewarts head). It’s one of those reviews which criticises a film more for what it is not, than what it is.

But it did set me thinking, which was probably the point of the review (so bravo, Mr Stewart, wherever you are now). I’ve noted elsewhere that I’ve really not been a fan of the recent Spiderman films and much of this -and it applies to all three ‘versions’ of the character, the Tobey Maguire films, the Andrew Garfield films and Tom Holland’s films- is simply that none of them have really captured what I loved as a kid growing up reading the 1960s/1970s Spiderman comics by Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, John Romita, Gerry Conway and Ross Andru. They are perfectly fine films as they are (well, to varying degree anyway) but none of them capture the characters and mood/spirit of those comics, so its inevitable that, for me, they are lacking something. They are probably more faithful to the comics of the past twenty years (that I have never read, although I did read part of the J. Michael Straczynski run of Spiderman comics drawn by John Romita jr. which are likely indicative) which is fine, and I should maybe give them the benefit of the doubt there. But my question is, am I being fair? Is it a case though of me disliking films more for what they are not than what they are?

Well, not exactly. I do think there are very real issues with the various films; retconning bad guys to be more sympathetic victims of misfortune than genuine villains is one of my pet peeves, likewise I utterly detest all the various Spidey suits of the Tom Holland films, all that nano-tech/Iron Man rubbish, all that metal arms out the back etc that defy reason, physics and gravity. That’s not any kind of Spiderman I want,  just further evidence of the Marvel films increasingly playing fast and loose with comics canon etc (as far as I know, as it could be something featured in the comics, but I doubt it). Likewise some of the writing feels pretty dire, with some fairly shocking leaps of logic, but that’s something evident in much film and television now; the talent pool is pretty weak now because there is just so much content being produced across film/television streaming etc. And yeah, in defence of writers, maybe its all those producers and executive producers interfering with the material- some films and shows I see now have as many as twenty and more producer credits, and I often wonder if the time will come when the number of producer credits will outnumber that of the cast.

I won’t even watch The Eternals; Jack Kirby’s 1970s comicbooks are amongst my very favourites. They possibly haven’t aged very well in some ways, but they were so bold and imaginative, full of the Chariots of the Gods stuff that excited me so much as a kid and was quite popular in that decade. The film, from what I have seen of it in trailers, has nothing in common with those comicbooks other than name (to be more faithful to Kirby’s work, it surely should have looked and felt more akin to 2017s Thor: Ragnarok film, which really captured the feel of a Kirby strip). I do know Neil Gaiman wrote a reboot/continuation and suspect the film has more in common with that than original creator Jack Kirby’s opus but I may be giving the film too much credit even there. Maybe I’ll get to watch it eventually but certainly I have little if any interest in it; the film was made to be something else, not something faithful to the original comics, and that’s surely true of much current Marvel Studios output.

Which is true, indeed, of what Disney is doing with Star Wars. They are making Star Wars tv shows and movies that are increasingly removed from the original film trilogy I grew up with, and they are as much not ‘my Star Wars’ as anything Marvel Studios films and tv shows are- and the same is true of the current crop of Star Trek tv shows. That being said though, some of these shows, certainly the Star Trek stuff that I have watched, are really woeful, regardless of how ‘faithful’ they aren’t in spirit and subject. The second season of Star Trek: Picard is especially diabolically poor, an absolute nadir for the Star Trek franchise.

Mind, even Star Trek: Discovery and Star Trek: Picard have their fans, I suppose, although those viewers must be especially forgiving of terrible writing, huge plotholes, leaps of logic (and illogic). Indeed I think the shows are fundamentally unforgivable in how crass and stupid they are, and seem to have been written by soap opera and tv sitcom writers rather than anyone actually skilled or knowledgeable of both science fiction or indeed the particular franchise canon (I can’t help but feel this is largely true of the Star Wars and Marvel stuff too, and I don’t know if this is from laziness, ignorance or simply an intent to strike off to pastures new on the back of established IP).

Thank goodness Blade Runner 2049 was sincere and respectful of the original film and extended upon the 1982 original film’s themes and mood thoughtfully, rather than just go the other, easier way, instead making a film about with a Roy Batty Mk.II or an action-based film about a new Blade Runner battling Nexus 7 or Nexus 8 improved, nastier Replicants. After all, it could have been, easily- look how generic the Terminator films became. I may not live to see any more Blade Runner movies, but at least I don’t have to witness what happened with Alien, its Lovecraftian alien creatures turned into spacesuit wearing bald guys in Ridley Scott’s ill-judged Prometheus. The more I think back on Prometheus, the more it actually seems a story about Space Gods akin to Jack Kirby’s 1976 Eternals comics repurposed to fit within the Alien franchise in order to get made (I can well imagine Ridley wanting to make a high-concept Space Gods movie and having to sell it as an Alien movie in order to get it greenlit).

Which I suppose means I should remain absolutely fearful regards that Blade Runner tv series which Ridley is producing. Maybe my luck is going to run out; and certainly, I will feel much more aggrieved regards something spoiling my appreciation and adoration of the 1982 film than I am by some Spiderman film not really being the web-slinger that thrilled me when I was seven years old.

Another Replicant alert

Blade2Imagine, in Richard Burton’s voice:  “No-one would have believed, in the last years of the twentieth century, that Replicant affairs would be increasingly watched from the darkened living-rooms of VHS and Blu-ray owners. No-one could have dreamed that Blade Runner’s video sales were being scrutinized, as someone with a microscope studies creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. Few fans even considered the possibility of sequels. And yet, across the gulf of Hollywood, minds immeasurably greedier than ours regarded this film’s long-lasting  popularity with envious eyes, and slowly and surely, they drew their plans against us…”

Reading the announcement last night that Ridley Scott is executive-producing a television series, Blade Runner 2099, for Amazon Studios…  filled me with a mixture of excitement (hey, more Blade Runner!), dismay (television series?) and a creeping sense of terror (Ridley?).

At least its Amazon that brought the rights and is financing it, so it won’t be stuck behind a paywall like that Blade Runner anime (I’m possibly fortunate regards that, as its reportedly pretty poor) so hey, I’ll be able to watch it. If I dare.

So anyway, more Blade Runner. You know, if you could go back in time to me in the early/mid-‘eighties and tell me about all the Blade Runner stuff that would be going on post-millennium, the Final Cut, Harrison Ford appearing in a Blade Runner documentary and also in a sequel movie, and yeah, a sequel movie actually being bloody good too…. Well, I remember the days when few people, if any, had even heard of Blade Runner, and the few that had seen it had mostly seen it on horrible pan n’ scan versions on VHS or Betamax. As I have stated before, Blade Runner was the very definition of ‘Cult’.

I texted my mate Andy about Blade Runner: 2099; we saw the original film together back in September 1982 and dozens of times on video over the years since. His response was one of tired resignation. I’m done with all these sequels and reboots, he told me. He’d got no interest left. He may have a point: BR2049 was a fortuitous event, when the various creative talents aligned, just as they had with the 1982 film, to create something possibly greater than the sum of its parts. Its something which can’t be said for the Alien franchise, albeit I appreciate some prefer Aliens over the original 1979 film. Given time enough, Blade Runner‘s luck is sure to run out, and I’d hate for the original to be tarnished by it.

I suppose that its not fair, really, describing a project as ‘television’ when its likely an eight-or ten-part series made for a huge amount of money for something like Amazon or Netflix or Disney+ or AppleTV, its not really television the way that people of my generation instinctively think about it, Its a different beast now.

But I’d prefer to have had Villeneuve in creative control over it rather than Ridley. Ridley failed to energise the Alien franchise (one could argue his Prometheus and Alien: Covenant did as much harm as good, although others would argue that in the latter’s case, he had to contend with lots of studio mandates that fatally damaged the film) and even as one of his biggest fans I always rile at his assertion that Deckard was a Replicant. Obviously he is attracted to the intellectual idea, rather than how it supports the narrative in any way: I think the narrative of the Blade Runner films is better served by Deckard being human, but I appreciate the fact that in the two films it can be viewed either way. Maybe the series being set in 2099 will give sufficient distance that the subject isn’t even raised.

Wrath of the creditors

wrathStar Trek II : The Wrath of Khan, 1982, 113 mins, 4K UHD

In hindsight, it’s rather difficult to criticise Nicholas Meyer’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan after seeing what that clown JJ Abrams did with Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), a film that managed to turn Wrath of Khan‘s villain into a mystery box and inverted the Kirk/Spock’s death dynamic just for the sake of it (Kirk’s sacrifice clearly had no narrative sense, and hey, magic blood!). After Abram’s horror-show, I find I can forgive Meyer’s film mostly everything.

As I have stated before, Wrath of Khan is most people’s favourite Trek movie, and I can understand why. Its certainly better paced with a proper antagonist/threat, and some welcome character beats more reminiscent of the television show. But I still prefer The Motion Picture, and I honestly think the usual overtures regards the first film (what might have been etc) are as deserved towards Wrath of Khan as they are towards the first film. I think Wrath of Khan is good, but it could have been extraordinary. If only it were made with the same production values of the first film, that sense of scale and seriousness.

Here’s a curious aside: I used an inflation adjuster regards The Motion Picture’s budget- reported as $45 million in 1979. Some contend the film cost more than that, while others reckoned that Paramount was cannily including money spent in pre-production of earlier Star Trek projects (such as Phil Kaufman’s abandoned Star trek: Planet of the Titans film or the Phase II television series), suggesting the film was not quite as expensive as it was claimed. Anyway, treating it as just a rough figure, $45 million is about $172 million in 2022 dollars: which feels creepily contemporary: Red Notice cost a mouth-wateringly self-indulgent $200 million,  and when something like Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker actually seems restrained  costing $275 million, its rather illuminating.

Indeed I looked online and saw that there at least one hundred films now (generally mostly post-millennium movies) that have cost north of $172 million dollars to make. Whether they be animated films, superhero films, action films or sci-fi blockbusters, it seems that Star Trek: The Motion Picture wasn’t the over-indulgent exception it was painted out to be at the time- rather it seems a prescient indication of what was to come. So was The Motion Picture the first modern Hollywood movie of our current age?

Anyway, I digress a little. What I was getting at, is that the cost of The Motion Picture, considering its scale and the imposed race against time in production (placed upon it by management failures in order to ensure a mandated December 7th, 1979 releases date), wasn’t really the disaster it was cracked up to be. Sure, it wasn’t ideal, but all things considered, its a wonder the film got finished at all, and it even made some money, allegedly. But while Paramount saw some sense in taking another go at making a Star Trek film, Wrath of Khan would suffer for those apparent sins of the original, resulting in a greatly reduced budget of $12 million.

Its why, clearly, Harve Bennett was hired to replace series creator Gene Roddenberry as writer and producer. Bennett was a television producer whose claim to fame was his ‘hit’ shows The Six Million Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman and, er, Salvage 1 (well okay, maybe not the latter), as well as several high-profile 1970s TV movies. Hardly indication of his suitability for a major motion picture, but there’s a story that when Paramount asked him if he could make a Star Trek movie for less than the first one’s $45 million, he claimed he could make five Star Trek movies for that same amount of money. Sure, he could make five Star Treks, but he couldn’t have made five Star Trek: The Motion Pictures.

He was a man suited to the limitations and realities of television, not the scale and ambition of films, and Wrath of Khan suffers for all of that. Sure it was made much more efficiently than The Motion Picture and the accountants loved him for it, but the film suffers terribly all the same. The sets always look claustrophobic, hardly designed for the wide frame and poorly constructed, in that way one can forgive a television show for but wince at in a movie. Take out the sense of scale of ILM’s visual effects and what would one have left? Would it really look like a theatrical movie or just a TV-movie? That’s Harve Bennett.

What Wrath of Khan does get right (mostly, anyway) is its script, which cleverly returned to the original series for something to draw from and expand, rather than just simply remake or reboot. It takes a few odd turns but on the whole it works, but its television origins are mostly betrayed by the casting, which is distinctly in the low-rent television casting agent territory- again, a reveal of Bennett’s origins and a constant reminder throughout Wrath Of Khan of where Star Trek came from. I suppose a lot of fans see that as an advantage, but it irritates me constantly, the core feeling of a television production when the first film was absolutely the motion picture it aspired to be.

Ricardo Montalban reprises his titular role from the television series and is generally credited as one of the best things of the film, but I’d actually suggest that his larger-than-life performance is one more suited to that small television screen of the original ‘sixties show than 1982’s giant silver screen. I think Robert Wise wisely (sic) kept William Shatner restrained in The Motion Picture, knowing that Shatner himself was an actor more ideally suited to performances for the small screen. Blown up larger than life on a cinema screen, acting generally needs to be more subtle, and I think Montalban is leaning a little bit too close to that of a caricature, almost, and Meyer likewise finds it a little tricky keeping Shatner under control (but I think on the whole Shatner is very good in this).

Mind, I have to chuckle about Khan’s army of Supermen- they don’t look like they would know when to tie their own shoelaces without being instructed by Khan: I hardly see any indication of their superiority over us mere humans, the way they silently pose around Khan on the Reliant’s bridge. But hey. Star Trek.

The game’s all rigged

squid3Squid Game Season One, 2021, nine episodes, Netflix

I’m late to the party as usual (this show originally dropped in September last year), but I’m pleasantly surprised- Netflix’s survival horror/blood sport thriller Squid Game is actually worthy of the hype. Its part thriller, part satire, part crushing examination of the human condition – its both sophisticated and banal;  a quite remarkable combination. Its worldwide popularity – I believe its become Netflix’s most popular show, ever- suggests that its tensions of a growing underclass unable to get a job or pay their bills, lost under ever-growing debt, desperate enough to risk their lives for a windfall, has struck a chord in many. Makes one wonder the state of the world today if so many can so readily accept the premise of the poor killing each other for the entertainment of the minority wealthy ultra-elite.

So is Squid Game the television show of our times for our times?  What does that say of our post-Covid world, and of the evidently growing disparity between the rich and poor? There must be something universal about it, for it to be Netflix’s biggest show ever. Is life as rigged as the game depicted in this series, in which 456 enter, and only one can survive and win?

Its the old 1970s television show It’s A Knockout by way of the Roman Coliseum, or Takeshi’s Castle where failure equals death. Its The Hunger Games arguably without a hero to root for (we do root for someone but he’s hardly a hero, at one point betraying his friend and possibly the viewer too).

I’m not going to suggest that the series is perfect but it is very, very good. The cast is excellent and the art direction very impressive; the scale of the thing suggests that its a very expensive production. There are genuine surprises and shocks, moments that frustrate, moments that disturbingly remind us of those schoolyard politics we wish we’d forgotten. One of those shows full of cliff-hangers (its surely designed for binge-watching, no small part of its success I imagine) that lingers in ones head for days afterwards. Makes a nice change from that stuff that’s immediately forgotten,

I just wish it was a one-off, because I rather despair at what its success will make it- a major Netflix franchise, no doubt. Multiple seasons possibly diluting its impact, merchandising and spin-offs breeding contempt. But maybe that’s the final lesson of the show- if you’re dealt a bad hand, the misery of the game of life never ends.

It’s Dark in here

darks1Dark Season One, 2007, 10 Episodes, Netflix

I think I may be losing it; genre shows before never confused me like this one does- maybe its because it’s a German production, and its a cultural chasm or something, but there is something almost impenetrable about Dark. I don’t really mind shows being mystery boxes if they are done well, and there’s little reason to suggest this is actually one NOT done well, but nonetheless I got rather frustrated by this. I enjoyed it, certainly- but there was an undercurrent of what I believed to be unnecessary confusion throughout this first season that troubled me, and stopped me from thinking this was as good as it could have been, while being plagued by the suspicion that the failure was entirely mine.

At times I just felt like I needed a map, or a diagram, to ensure I knew who was who: I thought watching it in the original German would actually help with this, with me reading the names in the English-subtitled dialogue etc but it was a genuine struggle, and one that I felt should have been unnecessary. I kept wondering was it me, or the show (how it was edited etc), or the translated dialogue steering me wrong. In the old days of the original Twin Peaks show, the weekly instalments helped, being able to re-watch episodes I recorded on VHS and ponder over each one before the next followed- maybe binge-watching a show like this does shows like this a disservice, and of course, me avoiding spoilers meant I had to stay away from the possible hand-holding/explanations of the Internet- but should a series need that hand-holding and road-mapping? Twin Peaks always made sense, at least as far as knowing who was who.

Essentially, Dark is a drama about several families in a small German town which is situated close to a nuclear reactor, spread between three (maybe more) distinct time periods specifically separated by 33 years. Its part soap-opera, part crime mystery, part time-travel drama. 2019 is initially the ‘present day’ and then we see the same people in 1986 when similar events (involving missing children) occurred and later in the season we are in 1953: so children we see in 1953 are parents in 1986 and (usually) grandparents in 2019, and naturally in each period the characters are played by a different cast. Time seems to pass forwards the same, chronologically, for each time zone, so if its Nov 20th in 2019 its the same day in 1986, or at least, that’s how I think it transpired although looking back I think an episode does switch back a few days so…

So while the premise is fascinating it is always confusing, and for most of the season we don’t even get any text telling us which year we are in, we have to pick it up from visual clues, essentially fashions or the cast onscreen (other clues are music on the soundtrack, 80s pop songs etc) and then guessing how these characters relate not just to each other but their older variants, say in 2019 or their younger variants in 1986. Throw into the mix characters who seem to appear in the seperate time zones without any visible change re: ageing etc and one just gets… lost, frankly. I thought one character was somebody’s daughter and then learned she wasn’t, she was somebody else’s entirely and then couldn’t work out whose parents I was seeing, or who was married to who…

Its always rather fun to some extent, getting lost, and its often a pleasure to be left to flounder a little and not have everything explained in dialogue (as is the wont of most Hollywood product these days) but my patience started to wear a little thin at times. The overall mystery starts to make some sense as the series goes along but I have to admit that the undercurrent of confusion never really left me, and I’m sure I missed some things simply because I was wrong about who was who. Inevitably it had to have some impact on my enjoyment of the series. I’m going to take a little break before plunging into the second series (Dark is spread over three seasons), so I’m just hoping it gets easier as it goes.

A Lovecraftian Videodrome

archive81Archive 81 Season One, 2022, 8 Episodes, Netflix

Archivist Dan Turner (Mamoudou Athie) is offered a job restoring a collection of damaged videotapes recovered from a New York building fire of 1994. As he painstakingly restores each tape, playing each one to convert them to digital files for his mysterious boss/benefactor Virgil Davenport (Martin Donovan), Dan finds himself gradually opening up a mystery. The tapes were made by a documentary filmmaker, Melody Pendras (Dina Shihabi) and are a record of her investigation into a demonic cult before she died in the fire. As the horrifying mystery unravels across the tapes, Dan realises he is caught in a new conspiracy linked to those events of 25 years ago: and begins to doubt his sanity, or even reality, as the past and present begin to blur and the images on the monitor screens seem to take on a strange life of their own.

Archive 81 is one of those shows that seem to come out of nowhere- there is so much content dropped weekly on Netflix, I often wonder what I miss, never mind those shows that I KNOW I’ve missed that I haven’t gotten around to yet, like both seasons of The Witcher, all three seasons of Dark, its a list that is getting silly: there is only so much time. Is that the true legacy of the streaming wars- not so much watching everything we want to, but just somehow managing what time we have the best we can afford?

So to Archive 81 then; this is one of the best things I’ve seen in ages. How curious that having been blown away by Midnight Mass toward the end of last year that this year opens with another great horror series? Archive 81 is genuinely creepy and disturbing with some very effective twists and surprises and a brilliant premise that is part Videodrome, part Lovecraft – throw in some reality-shifting Philip K Dick and its a killer combination. This thing caught me right from the beginning, with its wonderful, moody soundtrack by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow (Ex Machina, Annihilation, Devs) and it just didn’t let up. Maybe part of it was the sense of nostalgia, with its use of videotapes and other arcane forms of media bringing pangs of longing (the scene where someone rips the shrink-wrap off a Scotch blank VHS tape!) that nobody born post-millennium can ever hope to understand. I’ve seen people look at old audio cassettes wondering what they are for or what they do: I wonder what they think about these plastic bricks housing brown tape.

So the premise is great, the scripts for each episode were all very good, the characters interesting, the casting excellent, the mood relentlessly tense. Its a brilliant eight-episodes-over-three-nights binge watch but then… but then… Well, you know what’s coming, don’t you. The only thing that spoiled Archive 81 was, they didn’t stick the landing- the ending was nowhere near as satisfying as that of Midnight Mass, and proved something of a let-down. Not that it wasn’t good, its just that… well, it wasn’t an ending.

The showrunners felt the need to leave things open for a second season, teasing us instead of… Well, its hardly anything new in the world of television. I suppose so many shows get pitched and never see the light of day, its got to be tempting that, once you’ve got the greenlight you try keep it going as long as you can. But I did feel it compromised Archive 81, robbing it of the finale it deserved- you know, like a finale that had a definitive ending, damn it. You can have that and still leave a cheeky tease, but how episode eight ends…

They could have been a little smarter, and maybe braver. I rather suspect we’re just going to get a  Archive 81 Season Two, but you know, we could have gotten Archive 82 or Archive 88 instead.

Don’t get me wrong, its not a deal-breaker and Archive 81 is absolutely worth your time but while its very, very good, its just frustrating that it could have been bloody great. What is it with storytelling these days? Is ‘The End’ becoming something like a dirty word now?