Rim of the World (2019)

Another Netflix Original but, er, not one of the good ones. Its harmless enough I suppose, and is an affectionate low-budget nod to the Amblin films of the 1980s, but very often when I watch these kind of things, well, I have to wonder, shouldn’t modern stuff have a voice of its own? Why the need to keep on looking back on the past, particularly those genre films that fans remain fond of that are perfectly fine left be? Rim of the World only proves that, well, whatever See You Yesterday or the Back to the Future films might say, you really can’t go back.

Rim of the World is The Goonies versus the Space Aliens, or Stand By Me: Alien Invasion Edition. Or Explorers: The Ugly Aliens Found Us. That’s about it. I suppose there’s nothing particularly wrong about that, but when composer Bear McCreary’s end-title of the film begins with an obvious nod to Jerry Goldsmith’s Explorers score, I just thought it was a bit much after nearly two hours wondering down Amblin Memory Lane (its doubly unfortunate, as Bear’s score is otherwise quite fine and enjoyable).

We’ve been here before, and thats really the problem- these Amblin productions that the film-makers here are so indebted to are, what, 34 years old or older? Nostalgie is fun I suppose and while I’m really not the target audience –  its really aimed squarely at kids of 8 -14 – can I just be the grumpy old sod in the corner who points out that, well, instead of watching substandard stuff like this (as sincere or well natured with the best of intentions as it may be) the kids would be best off watching those Amblin originals instead?

Outlander Season Three

out3One of the odd things about watching Outlander is that it’s one of those shows which no-one else in my social circle is watching. Which is weird, considering how ‘big’ a cultural event the series is worldwide and how popular the books are. No doubt much of the cause of this is the fragmented state of television distribution these days, and this being on Amazon Prime over here. I can only imagine what it would be like in the old days when something like this might have aired on a major terrestrial broadcaster like the BBC. Its surely what they call ‘watercooler television’, but I have to wonder how much of a thing that even is these days, with some shows isolated by their distribution in certain territories

So it often feels like I watch Outlander in a total vacuum. Imagine watching Game of Thrones and knowing no-else who was watching it. No rumours to discuss, revelations to marvel at, no spoilers to avoid from those who have already seen episodes or read the source books. Even just the experience of being outside the fanbase. I’m well aware that Outlander is very popular, but all of that seems to be outside of my cultural ‘bubble’. I feel so feel remote from it, a benefit is that avoiding spoilers is the easiest thing in the world, but a negative is that I suspect I’m missing out on some of the fun. And who doesn’t like sharing their favourite shows?

So here we have season three of Outlander, and yes, it is very good and well worth watching, in some ways a contender to Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead and other popular juggernauts of the tv landscape. It is extremely well made, with a great cast and very good scripts. I gather it follows the books rather closely, and each season, while following an overall arc, does seem pleasantly self-contained with satisfying conclusions to the interior minor arcs of each season. Also there is a fairly distinct difference between seasons which makes the show fresh and interesting- Season 2 went to France and Season three goes on the high seas with nautical episodes, eventually winding up in the West Indies. Again, this is no doubt from following the books and the books themselves taking the lead in moving plot and setting forward (twenty years have occured between the start of season one and the end of season three- compare that to the lack of progression that hurts The Walking Dead over, what, eight seasons now?).

It also is blessed with a musical score by Bear McCreary that clearly demonstrates how much Game of Thrones is sorely lacking musically. Its big. lyrical, emotional, and perhaps while not as astounding as his BSG work remains one of the highlights of his career and for television scoring in general. Many movies (particularly the Marvel ones) could benefit from scoring like this. Outlander has a musical identity that is unique to itself and the soundtrack releases are well worth checking out.

The Netflix Conundrum

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The Cloverfield Paradox: clearly pretty bad but it’s got a great Bear McCreary score that I would love to hear in context.

Altered Carbon: if ever a tv show was made for me, this one sounds like it- a great premise, good lead actor and solid production values.

Stranger Things: I still haven’t seen anything of it, which makes me feel like a social outcast in geekdom as everyone tells me its great (and then look at me rather strangely as if I’m one of those ‘Strange Things’ for having not seen it).

The Crown season two: wouldn’t say it was exciting me before, but having seen season one on disc, I’m more than curious to see what happens next. She ditches the corgis and raises some dragons instead, yeah? What, it’s not like GOT afterall?

Mute: Hey, bit of a mess from what I’m told but like the best of misfires, an intriguing one.

Annihilation: Alex Garland’s latest opus won’t be hitting cinemas afterall? What?

I think we’ve just hit Critical Mass folks. It goes against the grain, frankly, paying anything more to watch an increasingly fractured landscape of television programming (I swear, Sky Atlantic will never sully my tv ever…) but I finally may have met my match. I give up, I’m raising the white flag, I’m beat. They’ve even got The Expanse, that great sci-fi show I’ve had to import discs over from America in order to watch. Netflix may finally be coming to Ghost Hall in March…

Europa Report

europa32017.33: Europa Report (2013)

Hollywood doesn’t do low-budget sci-fi too much these days, if at all- it much prefers the big blockbuster bubblegum sci-fi that attracts the multiplex crowds looking for ever more-spectacular effects. Consequently the low-budget stuff is in the indie domain of late (if you can consider anything up to $30 million low budget) and unfortunately distribution complications in this indie domain can make them tricky to see: limited theatrical runs and exclusivity deals with Netflix and Amazon mean you can be shit out of luck if you are with the wrong distribution platform – and its isn’t being helped with disc releases getting rarer (and limited to territories) all the time.

So I’ve only now finally been able to watch Europa Report, even though it has been on my to-watch radar ever since I discovered that Bear McCreary was working on the soundtrack, with the film finally arriving on terrestrial television via Film Four.

Europa Report is another of those ‘found-footage’ pictures, sequences cobbled together from onboard cameras recording the mission and (eventually) transmitted back to Earth for people to figure out what happened after communications dropped out and the mission never returned. This central conceit works rather well -its certainly a neat way of justifying that method of film construction- but unfortunately, as usual it impairs character development and distances the audience from the events. It doesn’t help that some of the footage is constructed out of sequence too, which jarringly took me out of the film a little. Ultimately I have to say I would have preferred a more traditional approach, simply telling the story without being forced to weather the rather stiff POV of onboard ship and on-suit cameras.

europa2All that being said, the film is certainly no disaster and it is technically rather accomplished in its set-dressing and use of cgi. It may not be up the standard of that same year’s Gravity, but its budget is clearly nowhere near that film’s $100 million. I have a fancy that one day someone will make a ‘new’ quality space movie like 2001: A Space Odyssey and it may come from a direction other than the traditional Hollywood route, in just the same way as real-life space exploration seems to be being galvanised by private industry as opposed to NASA.

Frustratingly though, I have to say that I wish that Europa Report had adopted a more traditional film-making approach, and even, for that matter, had been chiefly set on Earth. A story about the backroom personnel and the astronauts families all dealing with the apparent mission failure, and perhaps an investigative storyline regards what happened and the revelation of the final transmission from Jovian space of all the missing onboard footage, unveiling all that happened, might have been more interesting. Imagine if it centered on a reporter who stumbled on a rumour of a sudden transmission a year after the communication failure, and of revelations being hushed-up in favour of expediencies required for a Europa 2 mission? Something of a 1970s political thriller building up to the final stark reveal of alien life and the icy world of Europa becoming something dangerous and cautionary?

It’s a fairly good effort though, given its inherent ‘found footage’ limitations (it’s the sub-genre that refuses to die, isn’t it).

I should also mention that it includes in its cast the recently-passed Michael Nyqvist; it’s the first film I have seen him in since he died, and it is rather sobering indeed to see him in this. He has a good part that probably deserved more screentime than he got, but that is all part of the limitations of the ‘found footage’ format. It isn’t his film- its simply that of anyone who seems to appear in front of one of those onboard cameras at particular moments. It would have been an interesting film indeed had it centered on his rather ‘background’ character throughout, particularly with how he dealt with a fellow crewmember sacrificing himself to save him. I think that’s chiefly what the film lacked, a central protagonist. We never really ‘know’ any of the characters, they are just cyphers, people stuck in a kind of ultra-expensive reality tv show that goes off the air rather abruptly.

 

 

10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)

clov12016.59: 10 Cloverfield Lane (Amazon VOD)

10 Cloverfield Lane is a very effective thriller, with a taut script and an excellent cast. As its title suggests, it is loosely connected to the original monster movie Cloverfield (just how loosely I won’t go into). Thankfully however this film drops the found-footage stuff and is a wholly more traditional film, and much the better for it.

It also boasts an absolutely wonderful score by Bear McCreary. There is a lot of the feeling of The Twilight Zone watching this film, and much of it stems from McCreary’s Herrmann-esque, evocative score. It immediately places us into a particular sense of mood and place, of a 1950s, 1960s tonal quality, quite non-contemporary. It’s so refreshing to watch a modern film that isn’t saddled with a Hans Zimmer-like score, and it is interesting that this is from McCreary, one of the most exciting talents in television scoring over the past ten years (Battlestar Galactica, Da Vinci’s Demons, The Walking Dead, Outlander etc.).

So anyway, this review is old-hat for many since it’s months since the films theatrical release, so I guess spoilers are ok. Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is literally driving away from some unspecified relationship woes when she is run of the road in an accident. She awakens in a strange, spartan room – an IV attached to her arm and a brace on her knee that is, alarmingly, chained to the wall. She’s greeted by her captor, a man named Howard (John Goodman), who claims he’s saved her life. He tells her there has been an apocalyptic event, and that he has brought her to his survival bunker. Immediately there is something ‘off’ about Howard. He describes the event on the surface as an attack; maybe by the Russians, but casually also suggesting it was maybe by the Martians. At any rate, the surface has been rendered uninhabitable, and Howard, MIchelle and his other guest, Emmett (John Gallagher) have no choice but to wait it out – maybe a year or two.

As time passes, Michelle begins to doubt Howard’s version of events, but various things seem to corroborate it- Emmett himself witnessed the beginning of the attack and fought for entry to the shelter, and when Michelle gets a glimpse of the outside world she sees a bloodied, poisoned woman desperately trying to gain entrance herself. Howard is evidently unhinged and his story is crazy, but this is afterall a Cloverfield movie- should Michelle really risk everything to get outside and what will she find if she gets out there?

clov2Winstead is terrific in this. She really deserves better and more substantial roles in future genre films- she’s vulnerable but strong too, with a great physicality to her role that really brings to mind Weaver’s Ripley in Alien. Winstead is that good (but then again, I also thought she was the best thing in that The Thing prequel some years back). Goodman is naturally as dependable as ever, and it’s nice to see some of that old disarming charm of his (remember Always?) with the hints of deranged darkness he brings to his role here.

By the time the film ends and (most) of its secrets revealed in a final twenty-minute flourish, I was left with a desire to see more of these Cloverfield films. They could become a great little franchise of Twilight Zone-like stories. That does however come with one caveat- yet again we see here a JJ Abrams project that really harkens back to older originals than really doing something new and unique. He did it with Super 8, Star Trek, The Force Awakens and here The Twilight Zone- he seems adept at reinventing or reinterpreting old material or classic pieces of mainstream culture for new audiences (the Herrmann-like score by McCreary is surely no accident here, and the claustrophobic setting of the shelter has all the hallmarks of The Twilights Zone‘s adept use of working within its limited television budgets) but where is the really new stuff? Is there really nothing new under the Bad Robot sun?

 

 

Hannibal and Da Vinci’s Demons Renewed

Well, here’s some good news from tv-land; both Hannibal and Da Vinci’s Demons have been renewed for third seasons. These are two of my favourite shows at the moment. Currently I have my Tivo recording both their second seasons for me to watch when the complete seasons are ready (I have the first seasons on Blu-ray which I plan to re-watch prior to each).

Hanniballpic1

Hannibal has suffered from poor ratings since it started (it’s second season renewal was uncertain) but has rightfully enjoyed critical success- thankfully international financing helps covers its costs which makes it easier for NBC to renew it- importantly this also helps avoid network interference with the show. Considering how great Hannibal is, its ratings are odd (if this show was on HBO it would be huge, I’m sure) and I’m frustrated by how it gets lost in the schedules over here in the UK on a fairly minor satellite/cable channel. Nobody I know watches it. It feels like The Wire all over again; I expect word of mouth to ensure healthy DVD/Blu-ray box set sales in years to come. The writing is brilliant and the acting superb; this kind of stuff is better than what we see in movies, frankly. But anyway, a third season is great news and I can relax when eventually watching season two knowing there is more to come (I think the producers intend it to run seven seasons in order to tell the entire Hannibal storyline from the books and movies).

Da Vinci's Demons 2012Da Vinci’s Demons is the real guilty pleasure of these two shows. Its got a thoroughly preposterous premise but nevertheless its a joy to watch- I wasn’t sure for the first few episodes but once I ‘got’ what the show was I settled into it. Its really an adult comicbook, a what-if kind of thing, a flight of fantasy set in a strange sexy  medieval world in which fictional characters like Dracula exist in the same world as dashing hero Da Vinci. It seems to take its cues from conspiracy theories and political/religious intrigues – sort of  Dan Brown but wilder. Thanks to its period setting it looks and feels different to most everything else I see. Yes its daft but great fun. The performances are very good, the scripts imaginative and the production amazing considering its filmed here in the UK.  Its also graced by a terrific, highly ambitious music score by Bear McCreary that is, like his BSG work, a whole additional character in the show. Again, it seems to have a long story-arc in mind across several seasons and in many ways its clearly a harder sell than Hannibal so confirmation of a third season is brilliant news.

So anyway, anyone reading this who hasn’t tried either of these shows- give them a shot, you may be very pleasantly surprised.

 

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.