The Great Escape Pt 2: Papillon (1973)

pap1Ladies and gentlemen: the Randomness of the Universe. Its a terrifying thing; Lovecraft wrote about a universe of chaos, of a mindless cosmos utterly ignorant of us, and our place so insignificant within it that the stark reality of it was enough to drive men mad. Patterns within it, a sense of meaning, well, that’s all just constructs of our minds, it’s just the way our brains work. Its why we ‘see’ recognisable shapes and objects in clouds. We discern patterns that aren’t really there- we see ‘God’, we see ‘meaning’ in our lives, some rational explanation for existence. We are good storytellers too.

How does any of this relate to Franklin J. Schaffner’s 1973 prison epic Papillon?

Well, here goes: several weeks ago I stumbled upon the film Papillon airing on BBC that evening. This in itself was something of unusual good fortune, as I watch very little (network) tv and seldom look at the tv listings or digital guide. Papillon has always been a minor-favourite film of mine. I remember first seeing it one Christmas, decades ago now, back when films were an important part of the Christmas holidays and staying up late to watch a movie something of a treat. Thinking about it, maybe that’s how I fell in love with movies. I must have been maybe twelve at the time, something like that, and the film made quite an impression. I’ve seen it several times since, but not for some years now- possibly it was back in the VHS era when I last saw it. Yeah, thats going back some, when you think about it.

So anyway, I set the tivo to record it, thinking it would be good to see it again, in HD now and widescreen too. Maybe I would eventually get around to it, maybe I wouldn’t- quite often I record films on a whim and wind up deleting them to make room for other, more pressing, stuff. I have seasons of tv shows on that tivo hard-drive (latest casualty of the delete button, the Legion tv series).

papostMidway through last week I received an email from Quartet Records, a French label who released a 2-disc set of Jerry Goldsmith’s Total Recall soundtrack awhile back. In itself this wasn’t unusual, once you are on someone’s mailing list in this email age you are guaranteed occasional news of releases, and I have had a few from them time to time. This time though the email referred to an imminent release of theirs which caught my attention- they were releasing a new edition of Jerry Goldsmith’s Papillon soundtrack, expanded from newly-discovered master tapes featuring music not used in the film. I’d always been as fond of the score as I was the movie, but had never bought any of its previous incarnations on vinyl or CD… not sure why- but in anycase, here was an opportunity to finally rectify that with a definitive edition. And hey, no double or treble-dipping involved, for once- and so soon after the release of Goldsmith’s Thriller scores on disc (as I wrote on the FSM forums, how weird that life can still surprise with new Goldsmith releases after so many years).

So anyway, although I was coming off (another) twelve-hour stint at work in another long week of them, I took ten minutes to log-in to the Quartet website and preorder the disc. Just as well I did, as it turned out- this edition was limited to 1000 copies and sold out within a few days of being announced, indeed the very next day after I put my order in (apologies if I’ve just spoiled your day).

So here we are with the randomness of the universe deceiving us with some apparent reason. I stumble upon the film airing on BBC 2, I record the film on my tivo, the score suddenly turns up out of the blue in some definitive edition… its like I’m being told to rewatch the film again. It’d be rude not to, right?

Papillon was directed by  Franklin J. Schaffner during a spell of great movies that included the original Planet of the Apes, Patton and Papillon, and would go on to include Islands in the Stream and The Boys From Brazil– all of these films also being scored by Jerry Goldsmith. Its quite a run of films. And the scores are greats too, with Goldsmith in his prime. Actually, this was likely why I first paid attention to the film so many years back- I would always watch films that I knew Goldsmith had scored for. Yeah, I was a pretty weird kid back then- most people watch films because of who stars in them, and here was I watching films because of who had scored the music (I should have gotten out more, clearly, but the ‘seventies could be pretty dismal).

PapillonPapillon dates from 1973. Films were different then, even prison epics like Papillon. It has a slow, steady pace that is quite deceptive in how it establishes character and place. It seems very low-key, surprisingly lacking any Jerry Goldsmith score for almost half of its two and a half-hour running time. The film pulls you in with its brutal sense of reality, of time and place. Have I mentioned that this is one of the greatest prison-break movies ever made? Well, it is possibly second only to The Shawshank Redemption… and watching Papillon again I have to note that it must have been an inspiration for Stephen King when he wrote the original story that The Shawshank Redemption was based on. The sense of male-bonding, the passage of many years of trials and adversity, the inhumanity of jailers and inmates, the life-affirming message of friendship and freedom. Its like a cinematic guide to how to write/shoot a prison movie: shady characters, noble inmates, betrayal, loyalty, cruelty, harrowing ordeals such as periods of solitary confinement.

The difference between the two is clearly that Papillon is based on an (allegedly) true story from the best-selling memoirs of Henri Charrière, a burglar arrested for the murder of a pimp (which he always denied) and sent to the brutal penal colony in French Guiana; Devils Island and the St. Laurent du Maroni prison camp from which escape was deemed impossible. Back when prisons were, well, prisons, with no pretence of rehabilitation or mercy. While some doubt has since been placed upon Charrière’s story, its nonetheless a great story and makes for a great movie. The actors are pretty epic too, to be honest. Steve McQueen is hugely charismatic with a great presence onscreen ( a ‘natural’ actor I guess, who, like actors such as Charlton Heston or even John Wayne brought a huge sense of personna to every role, regardless of their actual acting talent). Dustin Hoffman is particularly impressive too, and the kinship and bond these two actors demonstrate clearly prefigures that of Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman years later.

pap4One observation- there’s a sequence in the film during Papillon’s escape attempt that he wears a loose-fitting shirt and slacks and a crumpled hat, and he looks like the clearest prototype for Indiana Jones. Its so like he’s wearing the same outfit, I had to do a doubletake. Don’t know if this was simply accidental or something indicative of Spielberg or Lucas loving movies- I seem to remember James Steranko doing pre-production art for Raiders, maybe he was a fan of Papillon. Or maybe its just more of that random universe slipping cosmic tiles into place. In anycase, Steve McQueen looks like he could have been a pretty cool Indy. He would have liked doing his own stunts, for one thing…

Very often as I’ve gotten older, revisiting ‘old’ movies can be rather disappointing, but not so here- this film is more impressive than I remembered. There is something fascinating in the widescreen framing, the steady, long-held establishing shots that don’t try to amaze you in the way so many current films do with fancy camera moves and effects work. The cinematography of course is all in-camera, with none of modern film-makings tinkering in post; it looks very authentic and real. There’s just something ‘classy’ and confident about it. Yeah, films were rather different back then. Less ‘wow’, and all the better for it.

Familiar faces of actors from that 1960s/1970s period grace the film leaving a warm, fuzzy feeling of reacquaintance, memories of other films, other tv shows. A nostalgia for the period. The Goldsmith score when it finally takes hold is wonderfully indicative of his scores of the time and movie music in general back then. Its clearly a film of its time. Its a genuine great, and oddly not available here in the UK on Blu-ray yet. What gives? This film so deserves a good HD presentation on disc with a commentary track or two- odd how some films have still somehow slipped through the net.

Its a great prison-break movie and a great reminder of just how good a star Steve McQueen was. Hmm. Maybe its time I rewatched The Great Escape again…

 

Jerry Goldsmith’s Thriller (and Prince’s Purple Rain)

tadthrillrWhilst on the subject of Jerry Goldsmith in my previous post, I thought it timely to raise the release by Tadlow Music just recently of a re-recording of some of the Jerry Goldsmith scores from the 1960 tv series Thriller. While I grew up thrilled and scared by classic anthology shows like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, I never saw Thriller, so I was unfamiliar with the particular episodes Goldsmith scored or the music itself. But really, it’s Goldsmith. Classic, vintage Goldsmith. No-brainer.

Turns out the music is great. Innovative orchestrations with some creepy music, some of it akin to the original tv Star Trek music from the sixties (which is perhaps odd, as Goldsmith had no involvement in that- likely it’s just me, or something related to the limited orchestras involved in tv scoring back then, the ensuing creativity in tv scores of the time). In anycase, it is a great disc and sales have been good enough to encourage a second volume, so it’s all good news. How odd that stuff like this surfaces even now with cd sales falling through the floor and so long after the work was originally created- it’s the very definition of ‘niche’ market and likely means nothing at all to most who read this.

purpleRecently I’ve been following the rather tortured path to release of the remastered Purple Rain remaster/expanded edition due this month. Following Prince’s death last year there has been great interest in the artist’s fabled vault that houses hundreds, perhaps thousands of unreleased songs and abandoned album projects etc. From what I gather, this Purple Rain release may have unreleased tracks but they are not likely to be sourced from original masters within the vault itself- Warners seem to have their own copies of material from around that period which are second-generation. At any rate, there has been endless legal wrangling over rights to the music within the vault and whether it will be properly archived/restored and released one day. Some Prince fans feel that proper archive releases are likely years away, possibly decades- and indeed, some speculate they will never live to see/hear them (some of us Prince fans, as he ‘peaked’ in the ‘eighties, are getting a little long in the tooth now). After all, the recent deluxe Sgt Pepper remaster/expansion is 50 years after its original release.

The complication is simply that the cd, and physical music formats in general, are becoming increasingly marginalised in an ever-more digital market. So even if, say, work began on a series of properly mastered, deluxe vault releases tomorrow, would there even be a physical format and market for them over the coming decade/s? Or if there was, would it be so niche that prices/limited numbers would make them unviable? Of course we fans would like to think that Prince was a huge megastar, and he was a great performer/musician, but how popular/relevant is his music to the general public (and younger generations) today? Hardcore fans would likely pay any price but the general public? Perhaps this reality is why this Purple Rain release seems to be so low-budget and unambitious packaging-wise compared to some deluxe packages doing the rounds, with some Prince fans looking at the Sgt Pepper deluxe with envious eyes and wondering of what might have been. Warners seem to be dumping out a cardboard cheapie in order to keep the price down (and keep impulse purchases up?).

Naturally in this there are parallels to movies being released on disc. With streaming and downloads increasing in popularity, we have to wonder how long we will be so spoilt by films -particularly older, catalogue films- being released on disc. It can already be seen that some of those expansive, intensive bells and whistles releases of new films are becoming all the more rare. We’re lucky to get a commentary track days- usually its just EPK fluff thats no interest at all. So whats the future for film lovers who just want to treasure their fave films and have them pride of place on a shelf as part of a collection?

Kick the Can (and kick that horrible Twilight Zone movie)

kickcanLast night I rewatched some of Twilight Zone: The Movie– in particular the dreadful prologue featuring Dan Aykroyd and the Kick the Can segment directed by Steven Spielberg. Its a pretty miserable, leaden movie, with the awful on-set accident that killed actor Vic Morrow and two children hanging over the whole enterprise like some terrible spectre. Indeed, considering that accident it is a wonder the film ever got released at all- it would have been little loss to film, as it turned out.

The film made money though, enough to ensure a 1980s revival of the show got made. But in truth it’s a poor imitation of the classic original show.  I know there is much appreciation for the segment that remakes the Nightmare at 20,000 feet episode, but I didn’t get that far into the movie.  In truth, the only reason I watched the Kick the Can segment was Jerry Goldsmith’s music. I remember watching the Twilight Zone: The Movie for the first time decades ago when it was aired on television, and that Goldsmith score was really the only thing that really caught my attention in any favourable way. Eventually I bought the FSM CD, pretty much solely due to Goldsmiths score for that segment. Its a tender, romantic sequence of music, perhaps a little over the saccharin limit for most tastes, perhaps as excessive as Spielberg’s particularly unsubtle direction. Indeed, watching it again last night, it seemed obvious to me that this segment highlights all the worst shortcomings of Spielberg back then. But anyway, I watched it again just to see a reminder of how Goldsmith’s score functioned within it.

Its such a genuinely 1980s movie. The ‘look’, how it sounds, the actors featured, the directors involved. It really should have been a better movie considering the talent. It really should have had more bite. Probably would have been better served by having original stories rather than remaking episodes from the classic series. You can’t capture ‘lightning in a bottle’ twice, and it is clear that the black and white photography really allowed the original a life and mood utterly lost by bringing it into colour and a modern setting. The stories should be universal, yes, but it clearly doesn’t work, remaking them- the truth is, its the episodes that are universal.

I have the complete classic series on Blu-ray on the shelf. I really should return to them, if ever time allows. But this movie? Wouldn’t be surprised if I never watch any of it ever again. Its done.

Chaos and Causality: Breaking Bad Season 2

brb22017.29: Breaking Bad – Season 2

Watching a tv show years after it ended has many advantages, particularly with their current fashion for multi-season story arcs. There is, however, one drawback- even if you don’t know how a story ends, you know when it ends, from knowing how many seasons the show ran. Its an issue I found during the last episodes of season two of Breaking Bad. I would imagine, back when the show first aired, audiences were unaware of how many seasons the show would last and must have been open to any season finale, including Walter’s money-making scheme finally succeeding and a ‘happy’ conclusion for all- or maybe it all collapsing into a sudden, final disaster.

But of course, watching it now, fully aware that another four seasons follow this one, I knew it would hardly end well for Walter- where’s the future drama of a cancer ‘cure’ and a million dollars in the bank? But back when this season first aired in 2009… maybe viewers were suckered into the possibility, incase a third season wasn’t forthcoming, or, if that third season would be the end of the show, maybe a turn towards a ‘proper end-straight?

There’s a moment during this second season, when a cancer treatment promises some reprieve for Walter from what he thought was imminent death from his lung cancer, that suggests that the critical and popular success of the first season had struck the showrunners with the problem of stretching the series out into more seasons than originally planned. I may be wrong, maybe there was always a plan to extend to five or more seasons, but it just felt a little forced to me following the relentless pressure of time that dominated Walter’s efforts in season one. I was always aware that Walter’s desperate actions stemmed from a lack of time, his health always an issue. Season two eases that tension somewhat.

That said, thankfully Breaking Bad is as much about the character beats and the incidental moments as it is the story of Walter’s plunge into the world of drug-manufacturing and distribution.  In a way, the drugs etc are almost incidental- the biggest joy, if thats the word, in this show is Walter’s moral code being tested, his ‘crossing the line’ so to speak. His journey is a little like the ride up the river in Apocalypse Now, and at this point in the series, I don’t know exactly what Walters destination will be. The pleasure of this show is finding out.

One of the lines that Walter crosses is in allowing Jess’ girlfriend (Krysten Ritter) to die of a drug overdose through his own inaction. Her death solves an immediate problem re: a risk to his and Jesse’s enterprise but it has terrible repercussions later. Jane was a recovering addict who was pulled back into drugs by her association with Jesse, against the wishes of her caring father Donald (John de Lancie), who Walter himself has a conversation with in a bar- a chance meeting which has the feeling of other peoples lives, like the orbits of planets, being pulled into Walter’s gravitational pull, as if he were a black hole. Jane’s death hits Donald hard, and when he returns to work weeks after her funeral, it transpires he is an air traffic controller, and on returning to work we later see him unravel and cause a tragedy. But its all Walters fault, through him allowing Jane to die- Walter has caused the death of perhaps hundreds of people, ruined the lives of countless others. And he’s the good guy of this story, our principal protagonist.  Its a study of chaos and causality, of Walter trying to make sense and order as events fall apart around him, and his actions causing effects beyond his control.  I guess this sense of cause and effect is reflected by this season’s regular flashes-forward to the season’s final, disastrous event, a mystery that filters through all of it, fragments of imagery which are tantalising clues to what’s coming. Its a testament to the showrunners that I didn’t suss it out until Donald’s workplace was revealed and the horrific repercussions of Walters desperate act fully dawned on me.

That quandary I mentioned earlier, knowing ‘when’ a series will end simply by knowing the number of seasons it ran. Its something of a two-edged sword. There are still four more seasons of Breaking Bad to follow. What the hell happens next?

Breaking into Breaking Bad

break12017.26: Breaking Bad Series One (2008)

Over the past few years I’ve received many recommendations to watch this show. I’m not sure why exactly it has taken this long, except for the obvious pressures on time. It sounds almost ridiculous, writing that, but its true- indeed, watching this series, like any other tv boxset, by its very nature impacts time for other watching other stuff. Or reading stuff. Or chores. Or work. Maybe I should leave all this for when I retire. God knows I have plenty of discs etc that seem like they will have to wait that long.

How do we manage our time when you like watching movies/good tv shows or reading books or… its like saturation bombing, which is to say, this seems to be a very modern contemporary problem that our parents/grandparents didn’t need to deal with and I’m at a loss in how to deal with it. Time, my freinds, is at a premium these days and there is just too much content. There are many shows I have not watched simply for lack of time.

So I’ve finally gotten around to Breaking Bad. And it is as wonderful as everybody has told me. Its dark, its funny, its sad, its thrilling and yes, its amazing how well the show juggles all that- thats an element of this show that is pretty marvelous. Its perfectly acted with a fine cast and sharply witty scripts. Its wonderful to think there are several seasons yet ahead of me. It just feels odd, being so ‘behind the curve’ so to speak, marvelling at actors new to me who have presumably since moved on to other stuff (or in the case of Bryan Cranston, shaking off the first experience of him in the Godzilla movie from a few years back).

And yes, I’m in the position of binge-watching the first few series. Certainly, being able to watch this first season over the course of one week is something that original viewers years ago might have been quite envious of. Its something that occurs to me very often with these box sets; as an episode ends, usually with a bit of a cliffhanger, original viewers had to wait a week for the next episode. This frustration, I do not know- consequently the show possibly performs actually better than on its original broadcast (a friend at work waits for each season of The Walking Dead to finish before watching it and finds it a far superior experience to the long slow lingering death of suffering weekly episodes in which little happens or characters disappear from the narrative for weeks on end).

Like the very best television, Breaking Bad is a character-driven show that clearly demonstrates the superiority that television can have over movies. I have heard it said that we are living in a Golden Age of television, which seems strange when you consider all the game-shows and reality-TV shows that dominate the schedules.  The simple fact is that most of my tv watching is via box-sets, whether physical sets or streaming seasons via Amazon, and sometimes it feels like I do not watch any ‘ordinary’ television programming at all. I am watching fewer movies though. There simply is not the time for everything, especially with how many hours these tv shows tend to entail- on that front, season one of Breaking Bad is not an offender as it encompasses only seven episodes. But it isn’t really just seven episodes is it- not with season two following after…

(But please, do me a favour- if you have seen all this show, don’t spill the beans about what happens later on…. just have a bit of a chuckle about this damn fool being ridiculously late to the party.)

Person Of Interest Reaches End-Program

poi52017.20: Person Of Interest Season 5 (Blu-ray)

So Person Of Interest ends as strong as it’s ever been; indeed, there is a confidence in evidence here in its final run of thirteen episodes that is almost joyous. Confidence enough to ensure plenty of fan-service to give the show, its characters and fans some wonderful moments of comedy and catharsis after five long seasons of adventures (my personal favourite the sequence in the image above, allowing the actors to mimic each other to comedic effect which must have been a scream onset). Such things are important, because the one major advantage that tv shows have over films – more character time, more involved character arcs and audience bonds with those characters – means that they simply mean more to viewers, particularly over several years of viewing. Season five affords the return of some faces from earlier seasons and some surprises as various arcs reach their resolutions.

I have mixed feelings regards whether thirteen episodes was enough to bring the story to a satisfactory conclusion; no doubt a full twenty-two episode run would have allowed more time for Harold to run amok with his Machine- there’s a feeling that the series has been building up to the inevitable moment when Harold lets his Machine loose but it then only has a few episodes to go with it. A subtle thread running through several episodes, in which Shaw thinks she is actually stuck in an elaborate simulation, could have reached some major Philip K Dick-levels of doubts about reality, but it isn’t fully as explored as it might have been. There is also an interesting subtext that casts doubts on who the good guys really are, with some telling arguments for the ‘good’ that the Samaritan AI can do, and the benefits of losing Freewill for the ‘greater good’.  Its interesting stuff that, as flawed an argument it might be, might have benefitted from more time to weave its subtle charge. Likewise some of the bad-guys that have hounded our heroes for so long seem to suffer ends that feel too abrupt.

poi5bBut at least they get their ends and fans get the conclusion to the series they deserve. It may not be perfect but it is pretty strong- possibly even superior to that which Fringe got. The cautionary tale of Artificial Intelligence in a  technological society with hidden surveillance seems to have gotten only more timely and in some ways I suspect had the show started in 2017 it might have gotten more attention and success. Ahead of its time? Maybe so. In anycase, the comparative brevity of thirteen episodes ensures that the pace rarely lets up as the many character arcs reach their conclusions. Not only the bad guys reach their ends – there are some genuine surprises and twists and turns, with some sadness adding poignancy to some of the happier outcomes.

On the whole, I’m really happy with how Person Of Interest ended. Its possibly one of the last great genre shows on Network TV and I’m grateful it managed to survive long enough to tell its story. Not all shows get that, and when they do –Fringe, Chuck, Battlestar Galactica etc- it is something to savour. It feels like a Christmas present. Which brings me to-

poi5c

Ahhh, bless ’em.

The 2017 Selection Pt.3

2017s3Here’s the latest state of the 2017 selection. There’s been a few additions since my last update. And hey, I’m still trying to curtail the spending this year.

Heat: God, another copy. Its just one of those movies. I think I have a VHS copy up in the loft somewhere, a widescreen version that came in a big box, don’t know if anybody out there remembers that edition. Studios must love idiots like me. So I buy this thinking it might be definitive and before it’s even arrived people are moaning about colour-timing and sound issues. I don’t know. At least it was strangely (suspiciously, maybe?) cheap. So I’ve got it in HD for something like a third of what I paid for it back on VHS. I won’t mention the DVD  thats lying around someplace. And no, I haven’t watched this copy yet.

The Leftovers- Season Two: I mentioned this awhile ago, as its what finally got me around to watching season one, and (hurrah!) I’ve also watched this too- review coming soon. Yeah, I’ve watched something in the 2017 selection- will this catch on? (he wonders, noting he still hasn’t watched Assault on Precinct 13 or Vampires or Garcia yet) .

Dr Strange: Actually, yes, I’ve watched this too, as my review a few weeks ago will attest. Well, I hadn’t seen it at the cinema and I’d been curious about it for months.

Logans Run/The Omega Man/Soylent Green: A triple-feature blu ray set, with each film coming in at under £4 each. Well, I’m always a sucker for deals like that. These are three 1970s dystopian science fiction films, each flawed in their own way but each having redeeming features making them worth re-watching, at least for someone like me who grew up with them on tv- I guess  viewers born post-1990 needn’t bother, they’ll likely hate them. Their loss; hell, they are worth watching if only for the soundtracks (which I have on CD for all three- yes I am that nerd in the corner).

Arrival: The best film of last year. A compulsory  blu ray purchase. I watched the disc the other night and yes, it just confirmed Oscar had it all wrong- Amy Adams deserved a nomination at the very least, and quite possibly the statuette itself too. This is a science fiction film for the ages and deserves to be ranked up there with CE3K. I should probably do another review based on the home experience. Indeed, I could watch this all over again already. There’s something strangely rewatchable about this film, the way it flows, the direction, the acting… wonderful sound design. This film has me so excited for Blade Runner 2049 (if only they could do something about that title; it still feels awkward to me). Its made me wonder though, how rare it is to watch a science fiction film these days and think it’s one for the ages.

So anyway, as we tumble towards April, this is the latest photo of my disc purchases this year. And yes, by year’s end, I vow to have watched everything in this photo.

Person Of Interest Nears End-Program

poi42017.16: Person Of Interest Season Four – Blu-ray

Person of Interest almost seems something of a curio in this changed landscape that is television today. It isn’t a cable blockbuster, and it isn’t a season of ten or twelve episodes. No, this is a throwback to how tv shows always used to be, a 22-episode season on Network TV, complete with scripted teases/pauses for commercial breaks. These days, that’s almost an oddity. One could be forgiven that television has moved on, what with Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead and MadMen and  other shows on cable, and so many other shows airing on providers such as Netflix and Amazon. In many ways, television has indeed moved on- Person of Interest seems from some other era.

Which is, to be frank, part of its appeal. While it does have a story-arc that stretches across each season, and indeed over all the seasons as a whole, many of the episodes generally work as seperate stories focusing on guest-stars and characters/storylines unique to each episode, often ending with an old-fashioned ‘reset’ that sees the regular characters ready and waiting for next week’s adventure. Its almost quaint, and yet it feels almost comforting in a tv landscape that can make so many demands on viewers. I recently tried watching episode 1 of series two of The Expanse and it had be scurrying away to my season one boxset, as I couldn’t really make any sense of this new episode. I hadn’t seen any of the show since last June/July and I could only recall a vaguest sense of the plot and the new episode utterly lost me, frankly. Its exhilerating to have such sophisticated storytelling that makes such demands on the viewer but it can frustrate too. Person of Interest is decidedly Old-School- not necessarily drop in/drop out whenever you like, but its all fairly familiar and tends to bring you up to speed easily enough.

At times that’s one of the shows problems- it isn’t really sophisticated at all. Very often the dialogue awkwardly explains what is going on or someones backstory or motivations, stuff viewers are familiar enough with if they are paying attention, but handy to keep casual viewers up to speed.Although sometimes it feels like it is filling the blanks for those who are late getting back from the commercial break. Which is ironic, as I’m binge-watching it on a box-set, so there are no breaks to commercials for cat food and recaps from a few episodes back are pretty redundant watching an episode or two every night..

poiWhile the show is inferior to Fringe, possibly the last genuinely great Network-based genre tv show, its nonetheless impressive that it maintains a pretty high quality level whilst somehow making 22 hours of television each season. Thats not easy, especially when it tries to maintain film-quality production levels each week, with plenty of location footage on the streets of New York.  Like Fringe, Person Of Interest struggled with ratings, something Network TV is notoriously rabid and ruthless about, but thankfully a truncated season five offers some kind of conclusion to the show. I’ll see soon enough, having now finished season four.

Maybe the show doesn’t really attain the heights I’d hoped for it a few years ago, but it is good fun, and it certainly has that old-school appeal that many of the new blockbuster shows, for all their complexity, often lack.  Part of the charm of the show is naturally its great cast of fairly entertaining and interesting characters, the saving grace of many such shows and why we keep on returning to them, but it also feels like the kind of television I used to watch back in the 1970s and 1980s. Sure the production values and overall quality is way higher than all that Glen Larson stuff etc but it has that old comforting feel. The tv equivalent of a comfort blanket and a handy undemanding escape from reality. That seems like faint praise, but I don’t intend it to be.

Now, where did I put that Season Five box..?

The Leftovers: Season One

left12017: 14: The Leftovers- Season One (2014) Blu-ray

The Leftovers is the critical darling/HBO show that didn’t quite ‘hit’ with Joe Public.  It returns next month for a third and final season (and kudos to HBO there for sticking with it and giving fans some sense of ‘closure’- the latter rather ironic considering the subject for the show). For myself, this was always a show that I was immensely curious about, and I bought the first season on Blu-ray not long after it was released, early last year, but never got around to watching it. The fact that the (apparently) superior second season was never released on Blu-ray over here due to lack of interest/declining format sales rather put the pressure off ever watching that first season, but a few weeks ago an Australian copy showed up cheap and I finally pulled the trigger on it. So with two seasons at hand and the third season imminent, it seemed the time for The Leftovers had finally come.

The Leftovers has an intriguing premise, as if straight from a Stephen King novel that somehow he never wrote, or is out there somewhere never read. One day, completely without warning or any apparent cause, 2% of the world’s population -140 million people- simply disappeared, instantly. Apparently in the blink of an eye, they were gone. They might have been babies, children, fathers, mothers-  sleeping, playing, driving, running, watching television, making love… whatever, they simply disappeared, all of them in a single instant, worldwide, leaving horrified freinds and family behind. It was called ‘The Departure’, and The Leftovers is set some three years later, in what the world has become.

Scientists and theologians have attempted to grasp and explain what happened, without success. Conspiracy theorists blame everything from the government to aliens. Religious people see it as either reward or punishment from God. Scientists see it as some natural freak occurrence that might one day be explained if only they get enough data and finance for research. Are the departed dead? Are they alive? Are they in Heaven or Hell or just waiting, somewhere, in some other place? How does one come to terms with a loved one simply ‘gone’? Might they return? How does one move on and grieve if they might one day actually come back? And might it happen again?

left2And here’s the wonderful thing about The Leftovers, at least as far as season one is concerned- it never attempts to explain anything. The Departure happened. There is no explanation. It might have been the wrath of God. It might have been Aliens. It might have been some terrible government weapon program gone wrong. It might be something else entirely. The Leftovers isn’t really interested in any of that, and while it offers us in flashbacks glimpses of the event and what happened, and this informs how the characters function and behave, the actual mechanism of the event is almost incidental. Its more interested in those left behind, and that question I raised in my previous paragraph- how does one move on from an event such as The Departure?

The first season of The Leftovers is a wonderful piece of work. Its beautifully acted, carefully scripted and skillfully directed, with production values typically high for an HBO project. The music is heartbreakingly sublime. Somehow, it feels more like ‘art’ than ‘product’. It probably says more about the times that we live in and how many modern people ‘feel’ about our current world than 90% of the film and television produced today. And yet it’s also infuriating and frustrating and falters just so short of greatness.

For one thing, its frustrating that for a show  that is ostensibly so leftfield and brave and challenging, that the majority of its cast are white, and beautiful, and the characters generally intelligent and financially capable. They may appear to be ‘ordinary’ to some people but it’s somewhat ‘above-ordinary’ from my point of view. I suppose the show is saying that if even decent, fairly balanced and well-off career people can go off the rails following an event like The Departure then anyone can. But it is rather sad that such a wide-reaching and ambitious work is hamstrung by such insular thinking in its cast and setting. I would have preferred to have seen a more varied cast, racially, and perhaps the point of view from the disenfranchised of society- the criminals and the misfits, the poor and dirty. More of the bad side of the tracks, I guess, showing the ability of some to profit from the Departure. We see some of that, but not really enough in my view. There always seems to be a ‘bigger picture’ that is withheld from us, a worldview perhaps… maybe later?

left6Season one of the show is set predominantly in a leafy, beautiful suburban town called Mapleton, near New York.  The central protagonist is the town’s chief of police Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) who is separated from his wife Laurie (Amy Brenneman) who has joined a post-Departure cult titled the Guilty Remnant.  His daughter Jill is a beautiful high-school girl who is mixing with the ‘wrong crowd’ in her attempt to deal with her troubled home life. His step-son Tommy is out of town somewhere and out of touch. Garvey isn’t sleeping well, and is losing his grip on reality as much as he is his family. With his father in an Asylum hearing ‘voices’, Garvey fears he is suffering from the beginnings of his father’s malady. Whatever anyone else says of The Leftovers, one thing is certain- Garvey is a fascinating character and Theroux simply brilliant. Garvey trying to hold everything together while everything falls apart around him and his sanity falters is fantastic television.

Elsewhere in the town, Nora (Carrie Coon) struggles with the pain of losing all of her family in the Departure- her husband and two young children. Was she in some way to blame for being so ‘unlucky’? Her brother Matt Jamison (Christopher Eccleston, who almost steals the whole show from Theroux) is the town pastor but his congregations have dwindled in this apparently now Godless world, and his doubts that the Departure was a Biblical Rapture results in him posting ‘proof’ of some of the Departed being sinners- uncomfortable truths and revelations for families left behind, including his sister when he reveals to Nora that her beloved husband was actually cheating on her.

left7And what indeed of the Guilty Remnant, that strange, ever-silent, chain-smoking group of people dressed in white whose central purpose is to ensure people do not forget those gone, that those who are left do not move on with their lives, and that any attempt to rationalise or explain The Departure is useless. And what on earth sent Garvey’s wife Laurie spinning off into madland to join them?

The first season of The Leftovers is pretty brilliant, although I do wish it had been a bit more diverse with its cast and setting. Maybe the second season addresses these concerns. As I have already stated, the show isn’t perfect; its close, but it doesn’t always hit the highs it is clearly aiming for -hell, at least its ambitious enough to try. I do think that in twenty, thirty years it will be revaluated by historians as perhaps being some indication of where our society is right now, in a world that no longer makes sense. A world where politicians lie and we can doubt the existence of God or see every night on the news God being used to justify all sorts of modern-day terrors. In some ways, with things like Trump and Brexit going on, watching The Leftovers now almost feels like its time has come, that perhaps it was made and released a few years too early, and that the world has horribly caught up with it.

More than that though, it simply feels very raw and personal. Its a very dark, even depressing show, at times unrelentingly so- it’s about grief and loss, subjects not all too familiar in modern dramatic works, certainly not on the big screen at any rate and rare enough on mainstream television. It can no doubt leave viewers feeling uncomfortable with mysteries left unexplained. There are no big effects, no wizards or monsters or superheroes, just (fairly) ordinary people in a suddenly strange world, a world without explanations or clear right and wrong, a world that no longer makes any sense. Thats likely the biggest positive- there are lots of questions but not any answers, or at least, no answers that we feel earned or that we can believe. Its captivating and thrilling television. There are some genuinely heartbreaking moments of such brilliant acting… its a phenomenal show and the fact that the second season is purported to be even better is quite a prospect.

And the music… goodness me, the music…

 

The Fall of Apollo

hatch1God, I’m really getting a bit peeved at having to write these memoriam posts. The news yesterday that Richard Hatch, the actor likely most famous for his role as Apollo in the 1970’s Battlestar Galactica tv series, died on Tuesday was another of those sobering moments that is becoming all too frequent these days. Must definitely be a sign of growing old and the cultural icons of my generation inevitably getting older- it was almost a shock to learn that Hatch was 71. I thought he was younger than that, but now that I think about it, it just makes sense, considering that BSG dates back to 1978.

So thats Carrie Fisher, Miguel Ferrer, John Hurt… and now Richard Hatch, in the space of just two months. I know other celebrities and authors etc have passed away in that timespan too, but on this blog I’m just noting the passing of those cultural icons that made some impact on me growing up. And I’m doing so all too frequently.

While he will be best remembered for playing Apollo in the original BSG, I much preferred him in Ron Moore’s BSG reboot, in which he played the terrorist/politician Tom Zarek, a  very complicated role which he gave a very nuanced and impressive performance in a recurring part through the series. Compared to the frankly one-dimensional part of Apollo, Zarek was a dark and conflicted character that you couldn’t really trust but you really wanted to be able to like. Maybe a part of that latter was his Apollo personna bleeding through. In anycase, I always enjoyed seeing him turn up in the BSG reboot and it always signalled an interesting episode.

I recently started a re-run of the BSG reboot, and not long ago watched the first season episode that featured the introduction of his Tom Zarek character. Yeah, he was just fascinating to watch in that, and of course he just got better in the role as he returned during the series. I must say he surprised me; I thought his casting was a bit of an obvious publicity gimmick at the time, and a clever one at that as the reboot struggled to gain a reputation and justification in the eyes of fans of the original show. But beyond that publicity thing I didn’t see much point, but I was proved wrong. I really didn’t expect to see him so good in such a different role, but he pulled it off and yes, I was always glad to see him turn up again later in the series. He certainly went up in my estimation as an actor.