The Expanse finds its Event Horizon

exp3At the risk of seeming an intolerable geek, I was immediately dumped into a funk this morning when I looked up my news feed at Breakfast and was met by headlines that The Expanse has been cancelled at Amazon. I nearly choked on my Muesli, and that’s a hell of a way to start the day. Sure, there’s plenty more genuinely concerning and life-effecting bad news on the news every morning, we’re living in a very strange world now, but I think getting outraged by one of my favourite tv shows getting cancelled is almost reassuring, a glimpse of what used to be reality, what used to be my ‘normal’. 

It was so out of the blue that it was shocking, really. Amazon, once the exalted saviour of The Expanse, has now cancelled it. Seems that its too expensive, and even in the strange economically bizarre world of streaming, viewing figures do matter after all, and The Expanse hasn’t gotten enough, apparently. Colour me surprised by this one, though: I thought Amazon’s owner Jeff Bezos (personal net worth $181 billion and counting) was a big fan, which would pretty much guarantee us nine seasons (to match the nine original books). If the richest man on Earth can’t afford to bankroll his favourite tv show so he can watch it, then nothing makes sense. Viewing figures? Where does that get in the mix? Oh Ghost you’re such a naïve fool, I know, I hear you. Of course Bezos didn’t get so rich as he is by throwing money away… well actually, he practically did, I remember Amazon being a fiscal black hole for years. So how come he has decided to allow the show to be kicked into that Black Hole now? Did Bezos even see the memo?

The good news is that the imminent fifth season won’t be its last- Amazon have agreed to make a sixth season to allow the showrunners to give the show a decent ending. Which is pretty damned great in my book and something positive I can clutch at, in a world where ST: Discovery somehow gets renewed for another interminable season. How does a show like The Expanse gets cancelled when absolute garbage like Discovery gets made? Well, the answer is 42, my freinds, the answer is 42 (God bless you, Douglas Adams, I always turn to you in moments such as this).    

May the 4K be with you: Rogue One

rogue4kHere in the UK there seems to be an exclusivity deal running at the moment between Disney and Amazon, that ensures that the 4K editions of the Star Wars films are limited to the boxset  of all nine ‘Skywalker Saga’ films which means that those of us who just want the Original Trilogy films, or Rogue One (which hasn’t been released over here in 4K at all), have to shell out for the boxset, wait for the inevitable single-disc releases when the exclusivity deal ends, or go the import route.

Initially, I was fine waiting out, but as I’m stuck on a two-week vacation at home (where I’ve been stuck for eight weeks already on lockdown, working from home) I figured maybe I should treat myself. Avoiding the scalpers on Ebay (I love The Empire Strikes Back but £45 for a copy of it on 4K? Get the frak out of here, that’s LaserDisc-era nonsense) I sourced Scandinavian copies of Rogue One, Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back (that’s my idea of a Star Wars trilogy) that actually even cost a bit less than they will likely do when released over here, and with English packaging they are no doubt pretty identical, too, other than the certificate logos (which are smaller than ours, as a bonus, and off the spine too) and that they are minus slipcovers. So all good. Rogue One and Star Wars arrived yesterday, with The Empire Strikes Back on the way and due early next week.

Its the last time I ever buy these films, I’m sure – which seems a curious way to rationalise it, considering how many times I’ve bought Star Wars films, and I’ve limited my spending to these three – as I say, what I consider to be a pretty perfect trilogy. I think the only way they could ever tempt my wallet again is by releasing the original unaltered theatrical editions but that’s so unlikely at this point I’m safe to say this is the last time. To some it would make more sense to have ordered Return  of the Jedi, too, but I had issues with that film even back in 1983 (revisionists may cite the Prequels or Disney saga films as the points at which the rot set into Star Wars, but for me it will always be Jedi, when Lucas clearly lost interest and wanted done with it all). Part of me wonders what the experience of Jedi is even like now that JJ Abrams pissed all over it with his The Rise of Skywalker nonsense, but I have the Blu-ray boxset to try that out someday, if ever the fancy takes me.

I’m clearly stuck in a rut buying 4K editions of my favourite films, even if I do usually wait for the sales to come around. I’ll work that out eventually.

rogue2So anyway, I watched Rogue One on 4K last night and it was gorgeous, absolutely spectacular.  Shot on 6K cameras, and then given a full 4K Digital Intermediate, the film looks remarkable on this disc. Star Wars and Empire will both no doubt suffer in comparison (although hopefully improving on the earlier HD releases) but this film is just ‘wow’ near enough all the way through. Stunning detail from the costumes and props to the sets and the visual effects work, and the HDR really adds depth and ‘pop’ to make the whole thing look vibrant.

I hadn’t watched the film in quite awhile, so it was interesting to watch the film and reappraise it. Its not perfect and stumbles at times -the first third of the film feels awkwardly put together, as if its edited highlights of a longer film/treatment- but on the whole its a fantastic Star Wars movie, with great characters and a great plot. Unlike the Star Wars saga films, this film really has the feel of authentic Star Wars, in how it looks and sounds. Sure there’s quite a lot of fan service but it all supports the story rather than distracts from it, serving the film in a similar way to how such fan service aided Blade Runner 2049 and more recently Doctor Sleep.

What made me really curious about it, though, is all the things they did so right in this one that they turned away from or got so wrong in the other Disney Star Wars films. How did Solo, for instance, turn into such a mess, and while this film features a female protagonist and a racially diverse cast it does not labour any wokeness to such an extent that it irritates as it did in The Last Jedi. Here it feels inclusive and supportive, not dominating anything to the detriment of the plot. What also helps this film is that through that awkward first third and onwards, the film just gets better and better as it goes, building to a tremendous climax that is spectacular but also emotionally involving in ways that most Star Wars films aren’t. I was also struck by how well staged and choreographed the climactic space battle is compared to those of The Force Awakens or The Rise of Skywalker. Again, one has to wonder what lessons weren’t learned, or why Rogue One did some things so well that others stumbled with. Maybe its the personnel involved. I won’t necessarily suggest that the films director Gareth Edwards was wholly responsible, as the film was rumoured to have a troubled post-production with considerable reshoots required that I think he wasn’t involved with, but that’s a story we may never really know unless someone gets permission to write a candid book about it.

The music score was really great too, I’d forgotten how well that worked in sounding like a Star Wars movie but having its own identity, too, something even maestro John Williams struggled with in the last trilogy.

When Rogue One finished with its grand tease of the opening of Star Wars I had to refrain from having a very late night and spinning up the Star Wars disc. Maybe tonight then. Must say, I haven’t enjoyed anything Star Wars this much in ages.

 

 

Carnival Row Episodes 1 – 4: Magnificent World-Building

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

For the BR2049 Bookshelf

cinefexBack in 1982, I remember standing in the old Andromeda Bookshop in Birmingham, upstairs in the magazine section. looking through Cinefex issue 9, which was devoted to Blade Runner. I very nearly bought it, but on limited pocket money funds decided to buy a few REH paperbacks instead, and maybe pick up the Cinefex at a later date. Damned fool I was. There was never any later date for Cinefex 9, as it quickly sold out and I spent years looking for a copy. Fortunately the issue was reprinted by Titan books in a hardback book many years later, which itself is OOP now and fetching rather large sums, so I did manage to eventually own and read it.

So, when I learned the latest issue of Cinefex would feature BR2049, I quickly ordered it, keen on history not repeating. It arrived a few days ago and it’s a pretty good read. It doesn’t look as if Cinefex devotes issues to single films as it used to (God knows there’s far more effects films these days than there used to be) so the BR2049 article shares the issue with articles on Dunkirk, The Dark Tower and the latest Kingsman film. Consequently the coverage isn’t as in-depth as it was for the original film (the issue also devotes a few pages to a pictorial of the original Blade Runner coverage from 1982, which is nice but does raise the forlorn wish that the issue might have simply been devoted to both films).

Of course in the good old days Cinefex coverage meant brilliant pictures of behind the scenes stuff, like models being built and matte paintings being painted on glass, and on the whole that’s all gone now thanks to CGI taking over. But BR2049 does feature extensive miniatures so there’s some nice pictures of that, amongst the CGI renders and wireframes that no-one on this planet can make exciting. I think the Cinefex article suffers from the cloak-and-dagger secrecy around the film prior to release, so although it discusses the creation of the 1982 Rachel, it doesn’t have any images to back it up, which have been made available elsewhere on the internet since the films release. Ultimately it’s a good article but not as exhaustive or complete as I would have liked, but hey, it’s different times now. We don’t even have the massive articles of Cinefantastique these days either. Progress, eh?

artbrA much more complete package, imagery-wise at least, can be found in The Art and Soul of Blade Runner 2049 book. Its an oversized (and consequently rather expensive, although Amazon have since reduced the price substantially) coffee-table book, that from the title might be inferred to be an art book but is actually more of a making-of book, dominated more by behind the scenes and production photographs than artwork. As a visual record and memento of the film and how it was made, it’s quite brilliant and everything a fan of the film could hope for. The imagery for the visual effects material is superior to the Cinefex article, although the text less substantial (so yeah, you really need both sources, unfortunately). The book also shares some of the limitations of the Cinefex article regards some of the more closely-guarded sequences (no imagery, again, of the CGI Rachel for instance).

It’s a brilliant book though. I might have preferred more substantial text but the imagery is breathtaking in the film so consequently that gets reflected here. There are some lovely behind the scenes shots and commentary about the film. It’s exactly the kind of book that I would have loved to see about the original film. Both are intensely visual experiences, and the Blade Runner ‘bible’ Future Noir is severely lacking in that regard. So maybe someone might write a more in-depth book about making BR2049 someday, who knows, but for now this will more than suffice.

george-hull-br6.jpgI almost wish one of the actors could have written a diary like Bob Balaban did for CE3K, that was a great book. Walter Koenig did a similar fly-on-the-wall book for ST:TMP. You don’t see that kind of book/coverage anymore but both were fascinating glimpses of the frustrations of making technically-demanding films and managing all the boredom behind the scenes. Yeah we get loads of DVD/Blu-ray featurettes on the best disc releases these days but that’s never as impartial/balanced coverage as one would prefer.

Ripper Street OST

ripostThe tv series Ripper Street has had many things going for it; a great cast, sharp writing, great production values. Add to that an excellent soundtrack score by Dominik Scherrer, but any chance of a physical release of the soundtrack died with the misguided cancellation of the show by the BBC following ‘weak’ audience figures for season two (albeit the BBC blamed poor ratings, it always seemed more a political thing between competing drama projects and limited budgets). But these are strange times for television- in a sign of these changing times for tv production Amazon, keen to compete with Netflix in original programming, stepped in to save the show and greenlit series three. This third season turned out to be excellent, and both very successful for Amazon ratings-wise and very popular with both fans and critics. It was one of those rare good-news stories where everything turned out well for everybody. Indeed, although the third series was designed to give a fitting closure to the show for fans, Amazon have since greenlit a fourth and fifth series, so the show continues to go from strength to strength, further indication of which is that Silva Screen records have released a soundtrack album of highlights from seasons one to three. Where will this all end, a Ripper Street movie perhaps? Well, you never know…

As soundtrack albums go, this one likely benefits from having three seasons to cull highlights from. It’s been assembled to provide a very good listening experience away from the visuals, and gives some idea of the scope and variety of the series itself. Indeed, impressed as I was with the music as heard in the series, this proves to be a better album than I expected it to be. Any fan of the show won’t be disappointed.

The Man in the High Castle (2015)

man2
Times Square, 1962… but not as we remember it. Welcome to a New World….


I’ve just watched The Man in the High Castle on Amazon Prime; its one of the contenders in this year’s Amazon Pilots programme where several tv-pilots are streamed and viewers can vote for which pilot to go to series. Well I have to say if this one doesn’t go to pilot I will be appalled. This show is extraordinarily good and deserves a series, if only because of the mother of all cliffhangers that the pilot concludes with (man, that’s one horrible cruel tease if this show doesn’t get picked up).

For those not in the know, The Man in the High Castle is an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s Hugo Award-winning alternative history novel. The Allies lost World War 2 and the Germans and Japanese have divided up control of the United States. Its a remarkably dark vision of a fascinating and horribly plausible world, and its one that is incredibly well executed in this pilot. Written by Frank Spotnitz (The X-Files) and executive produced by Ridley Scott, I hoped it would be good, but didn’t expect it to be so utterly brilliant. Hell, they had me at the title sequence- the use of the gentle song “Edelweiss” being sung over chilling images of an alternate past in which America has been defeated and occupied by the Axis Superpowers.

man1The show is beautifully constructed and shot- one of my only worries is how expensive this show was to produce, and how that may effect the eventual decision to go to a series. I think its clear though that if this does go to series, then Amazon have moved into a whole new ball-game of production.

Set in 1962 and full of bizarre retro charm (imagine setting Blade Runner in 1962); it looks like some kind of twisted dystopian episode of Mad Men, with Nazi’s walking New York streets and Japanese police patrolling San Francisco. The scale and detail is breathtaking, making it one of the most interesting and engaging things I have seen on tv in years. So many questions are raised and the possibilities of a full-series run are mouth-watering.

So if you have Amazon Prime, get watching this as soon as possible and be sure to score it accordingly afterwards. This really needs to go to a series. Me, I’m going to watch this show again and soak up all the details, see what I missed first time around. Great show.

Black Sails on Amazon

Black-Sails-Title-Sequence-by-Imaginary-ForcesI’ve been looking forward to Pirate mini-series Black Sails for awhile now, mostly, I have to admit, due to the involvement of Bear McCreary (Battlestar Galactica, The Walking Dead, DaVinci’s Demons etc)on the show’s scoring duties.  McCreary set up his own label last year and has used it to distribute fairly definitive soundtracks of his tv work even when the shows are still on-air, and his Black Sails album was released in January soon after the series launched in America. The Black Sails score is primal, rough, almost chaotic- in melody it reminds me of the great Battlestar Galactica (across its five seasons and soundtrack albums the most sophisticated, complex and rewarding television score I’ve ever heard) but with its simplistic orchestrations (historically quite accurate) it manages to sound fresh and spontaneous and would appear to fit the show like a glove.

Well, appears to, as I haven’t seen the show yet. I’ve been waiting for a channel to be announced with UK airdates and the silence has been deafening, but now Amazon has announced that it has bought the series and will have it available for subscribers to its Lovefilm/Amazon Prime services on April 4th. That’s all eight episodes too. I won’t have the time, but if I did, I would be able to watch the entire series next weekend.  Its like being gifted a boxset. Whereas DaVinci’s Demons season 2 starts April 4th on Fox with me having to watch it on a traditional weekly schedule.

Things certainly seem to be changing with how people watch television content, and players like Amazon and Netflix are making strong moves. How successful this is, or how it even pays, is something for debate. I already have my doubts on how Sky do things and how it effects its content, never mind the even lower subscriber base that Amazon and Netflix enjoy. The BBC famously cancelled Ripper Street a few months ago (eventually renewed in a deal with Amazon, funnily enough) due to perceived low audience figures of a few million, while Sky’s top-rated show at the time, Arrow, had just 400,000 viewers and was deemed a success.  My concern is that although Sky are happy, what does it do for the mainstream audience perception of shows like Arrow here in the UK when so few people actually get to watch it or perhaps have even heard of it? Or are people just turning to DVD/Blu-ray boxset releases now?

I recall back when the big networks here, BBC and ITV regularly showed American hit shows and they had huge audience figures/media attention (remember Twin Peaks, or JR getting shot in Dallas? Doesn’t happen anymore).  The producers of the content are happy, they get their money (and Sky for instance pays handsomely, easily outbidding the BBC etc), but while Game of Thrones is huge, imagine how even bigger it would be if it was appearing on BBC 1 at 9pm? Television is so fragmented these days. So many programmes lost on so many obscure channels. One of my favourite shows of the last several years was Chuck; it was a funny adventure show with great characters, it was a family show, almost retro in its approach. Would have been a perfect fit on something like BBC 2 primetime, but I guess most people here in the UK never even heard of it. I don’t think the last season has ever even been aired over here; I had to import the Blu-ray to find out how it all ended.

How does such diluted availability of so much content effect the financial viability of that content? How many shows failed that never had a chance, how many great shows do we miss simply because we don’t know if/where/when the show is on? Is this the future of television? Its a bit bewildering.

So anyway, I have to wonder how many people will be watching Black Sails this weekend… but I’ll certainly be giving it a shot.