The future of Disc packaging is nerfed

My copy of the third season of Westworld on 4K UHD arrived today- and its never been clearer how physical product of films and television shows on disc is becoming less and less of an interest to studios and distributors. Remember the glory days of any HBO series on disc? The ill-fated series Rome on Blu-ray actually came in ornate wooden boxes (so fancy they still take a pride of place on my shelf all these years later), the first few series of Game of Thrones came in fancy sets embellished with clear plastic slips with printed sections and embossed cases… over the years with each season those GOT sets became less fancy, but nowhere is the decline of disc packaging more obvious than with Westworld

The first season came in a fancy tin. The second season in a less-impressive, but still fairly quality, embossed slipcase with a sturdy digipack. The third season? A standard 4K Amaray case inside a very slightly laminated, suspiciously thin cardboard slipcase. Over in the States, fans are moaning about the packaging but at least their case seems to be lenticular and embossed, indicating some limited effort which is more than our cheapo edition (well, I say ‘cheapo’ but I note the price of the set hasn’t been reduced compared to earlier seasons when they came out). 

There was a time when physical product was something of a premium product, certainly compared to digital downloads, but I’m afraid some kind of parity is coming, although again I note that parity does not extend to the price. Oh well, sign of the times, I suppose, but all the same, poor show HBO/Warner.

Mind, I suppose I should just be thankful I get the series on a physical 4K set at all (we never got a 4K Watchmen series or 4K Chernobyl), so hey, I’m not going to complain too hard, for fear that season four when it eventually comes in a few years turns out to be digital-only, but I’ll just close my eyes a moment and remember the good old days of 2010 – 2015. Some may cast their memories further back than that, there have been some lovely imaginative examples of disc packaging over the years, especially during the DVD glory days, but I guess those days are long gone now. You just have to look at my three seasons of Westworld in my shelf. They actually look like they come from three entirely different tv shows. 

Be careful the endings you wish for?

fugitiveWe were over my mother-in-law’s yesterday delivering the weeks groceries (she’s shielding during the Covid 19 troubles – yes there’s another dishonourable mention for that bugger we’re all so weary of), when during a commercial break there was a spot announcing the commencement of a complete re-run of the old 1960s tv series The Fugitive, which starred David Janssen.  I asked if that series -immensely popular at the time- ever had a proper ending. Turns out, it did- a two-part finale at the end of its fourth season concluded the series with an actual ending, which was quite unusual at the time. Television shows used to come and suddenly just go, when ratings suffered enough to warrant a show’s cancellation. The crew of the Enterprise never completed their five-year mission in Star Trek,  the family Robinson never returned to Earth (or found Alpha Centauri) in Lost in Space, the two doctors trapped in time in The Time Tunnel never found their way back home either.  Fans of these shows and so many others would be just left hanging; their investment in the shows frustrated by open endings.

Its something which we thankfully are usually spared these days. Babylon 5 had an ending, the BSG reboot did, Fringe did, Lost did… Game of Thrones did. Of course, sometimes fans didn’t get the endings they wished for- Game of Thrones being the most obvious example of a show that didn’t stick the landing (and indeed in that particular case the crash proved particularly ugly). Part of the morbid pleasure of sticking with shows these days is the oddly perverse pleasure of seeing how they finally end, whether its a satisfactory conclusion or not. Partly that was why I stuck with The Walking Dead through some nine seasons, until I realised that thing is NEVER going to end, but yeah, surely one of the main reasons to stick with Westworld is to just see how they manage to wrap all that up.

Mind, the movies are catching up- just look how satisfyingly Disney concluded the Skywalker Saga with The Rise of Skywalker… Maybe those 1960s tv shows were onto something.

21 Bridges

21bIt seems a bit daft to praise a film for being an old-fashioned thriller, and perhaps to make allowances for any minor shortcomings because for once here’s a film without lots of CGI or action-packed caped capers- but you know, there was just something so endearingly comforting about this film: sure I could guess some of the ‘twists’ and some of the casting seemed to telegraph some of those twists, but on the whole this was thoroughly entertaining and such a breath of fresh air it was easy to make such allowances.

As night falls on New York City, two obviously military-background criminals Michael (Stephan James) and Ray (Taylor Kitsch) perform a heist on a closed restaurant that escalates quickly in all the wrong ways- the restaurant’s storeoom is full of millions of dollars worth of uncut drugs and the two perps have to shoot their way out when cops apparently stumble on the heist. They leave a bloody trail of destruction that leaves seven officers dead and a citywide manhunt closing the city down until 5 a.m. Summoned to the scene, Andre Davis (Chadwick Boseman), a cop with a perhaps unfair reputation for being a ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ kind of law enforcer, is given the task of hunting down the two cop-killers – but Andre is immediately suspicious that not everything seems to add up.

Directed by Brian Kirk, whose resume of television shows includes episodes of Game of Thrones, Hard Sun, Penny Dreadful and Luther, this is a taut, relentlessly entertaining film with some brilliantly staged action sequences. Its paced quickly enough to mask some of the plot contrivances but not enough to make it as obvious as, say, a JJ Abrams flick does. Quite often I caught myself comparing it to Die Hard or Witness, it was that good- well, maybe that was me getting a little carried away, but I really did enjoy it. It seemed so refreshing to see something so traditional as a police thriller with a great cast and a simple, direct plot in an era in which we are assaulted by OTT superhero flicks or ludicrously explosive blockbusters.

Dare I suggest its the perfect Friday-night-in movie for our trying times?

21 Bridges is available on DVD and Blu-ray and streaming on Amazon Prime.

 

Dracula (2020)

dracIt took David Benioff and D.B. Weiss ten years to do something the BBC managed in just three nights. This show managed to encapsulate the eight-season Game of Thrones experience into just three episodes: it started so well, solidified that achievement in the middle, and then screwed the pooch spectacularly at the end with some absolutely shocking creative choices that still have me wondering what they were thinking. Its no mean feat, but it also pointedly mirrored the experience of the same creative team’s Sherlock series too: but its quite remarkable how quickly this thing went wrong. It also managed an ending so rushed and sudden, so ‘did-I-blink-and-miss-something‘ that I really think its not an ending at all but another Mark Gatiss/Stephen Moffat misdirection trick and we’re going to get another season next year. Not that I think anyone will be coming back to watch it.

Carnival Row Episodes 5 – 8

carnival3Eight episodes seems to have become the de facto length for most tv shows now. I find that a little curious as its something that may have benefitted Game of Thrones years ago, as it stuck to HBOs preference for ten-episode seasons and eight might have been a better sweet spot for the show. Well, that ship has sailed off into the West with Anya Stark so I mention that just in passing.

Carnival Row, then, completes its first season of eight episodes whilst a second season is already being set for production. While its always nice to be enjoying a new series in the knowledge that more is to come, that does carry the caveat that very often these multi-season shows have deliberate story arcs and a regrettable tendency to fall back to cliffhanger endings each season finale. It was something new and fun back in the days of Babylon 5, but it has become increasingly irritating as JMS’s serial epic has since been so widely adopted as a model for genre television.

Thankfully Carnival Row, while teasing future plot-points as its first season draws to a close, nonetheless manages to wrap up most of its current storyline. I was a little disappointed in how some parts of this story was wrapped up perhaps a little bit too neatly, but perhaps thats the price to pay to still keep it self-contained enough. I suppose its a natural problem for initial seasons that they have to introduce the world and its characters, particularly one so outlandish as this, as well as having a satisfying beginning, middle and end.

On the whole it was a pretty good series and promised much for future installments. I hope that a second season will benefit from the experience of this first season and perhaps take the opportunity of more risks and left-field storytelling. I did think that the best of this season was its world-building and establishing its mythology, and that the murder mystery that formed the backbone of its actual storyline turned out more predictable than I’d hoped. More surprises next year, please.

 

Game of Thrones Season Eight soundtrack by Ramin Djawadi

The dust hasn’t yet settled on the debate about Game of Thrones‘ final season, but to me there is a certain irony to the fact that the one thing that everyone can agree on is that the score by Ramin Djawadi totally delivered. Finally, after several seasons of trying, it all seemed to click into place. I have all the season soundtracks for GOT, and other than isolated moments I’ve really struggled with them. They seem to represent that Media Ventures/modern Hollywood approach to scoring, in which the music has always been supportive and mood-inducing, part of the sound effects ‘landscape’ as opposed to what I’d describe as ‘proper’ scoring such as, say, Jerry Goldsmith would produce. Beyond what has become a very successful and somewhat iconic main theme, most of the music seems to slew away from leitmotifs and big, bold musical scoring- its fine and is exactly what the show’s producers wanted, I’m sure, but over the years I’ve always wondered what it would have been like had, say, Bear McCreary gotten the gig. McCreary’s Battlestar Galactica scores are huge and  emphatic and complex and as richly deep as Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings scores. Indeed, McCreary’s ongoing scores for Outlander perhaps indicate closest what his take on Game of Thrones might have been like.

Anyway, I’m sure fans of Djawadi and GOT are ready to attack me already for daring to suggest his scores were lacking. Sure, each season had its standout moments and I’ve made a few in-car compilations over the seasons over the years that work just fine but really, although it’s a stylish intention that is in some ways reflected by Djawadi’s scoring for Westworld, Fringe and Person of Interest too, I really think GOT deserved more. It was always more of a musical wash that lacked the thematic complexity it really deserved.

Well, I’m pleased to finally say that with season eight, Djawadi delivered and did his part. Although the series comprised of only six episodes, the album producers deemed it fit to make this release a two-disc set (available digitally only at present with the physical release due shortly) offering about two hours of score, and I have to say, there’s very little redundancy here, it’s all pretty great. Most will be familiar with his The Night King track, a near nine-minute opus that was put on Youtube and social media following the third episodes airing, and which accompanied that episodes climactic moments. Its a piece of music heavily indebted to Light of the Seven from season six, and in that sense is a little disappointing as its maybe lacking a little originality, but it works very well in the episode and represents a kind of scoring the show didn’t really revel in, in which the music really takes the lead and carries the moment. In a way, much of this season’s music is like that, in that it reprises much of the better musical moments of the seven seasons before and brings them to a kind of thematic peak. So it’s familiar but more, somehow. A GOT greatest hits, maybe.

Its telling, mind, that some of the best music on the album (choral tracks in particular, like Not Today, or Stay a Thousand Years), is either material not used in the series or instead only featured during end-credits, maintaining the series crushing tendency to leave the music as supportive background rather than in a leading role that might draw attention to itself.

If someone has never listened to or bought any of the GOT soundtrack albums over the years, I’d say this one makes the rest redundant, with most of the themes reprised or represented in some way, and it manages to form a cohesive whole musically as a listening experience whereas earlier albums might have felt lacking.

Fan Entitlement & Game of Thrones Season Eight

Back when I was fourteen, three years felt like an awful long time, much longer than it seems these days when the weeks, months, years seem to slip by in a hurried rush leaving me wondering what happened. So back then, having seen The Empire Strikes Back in 1980 with its tease for whatever would happen next with the various threads it left in place, it seemed I had a long, long time to daydream and fantasize about what would happen in the next Star Wars film- especially when its original title Revenge of the Jedi leaked out. I would imagine such grand events.  I imagined an opening scene in which Darth Vader stormed into the Emperor’s throne room, killed him and became Emperor himself. Vader was still a terrible Dark Lord to us back then, quite irredeemable- the idea he’d turn back to good and save Luke would have been laughable. Back then Star Wars was Luke’s story, far as we were concerned, and certainly not Anakin Skywalkers. It was also a 9-part saga, and the idea that the next film would see the Empire defeated and no Vader or Emperor alive, and all finally well and done, well, that was preposterous. How little we knew.

At this point no-one had any idea who or what Jabba the Hutt was, except that he was a big bad crime lord and Han Solo was in big, bad trouble. I imagined Boba Fett was as mean and tough as anyone we’d met in Star Wars so far, and that he and those other bounty hunters working for Jabba would be a big handful for Luke and his friends. I imagined a whole movie spent searching for and rescuing Han Solo, while Vader resumed his search for Luke… or maybe the ‘other’ that Ben had remarked upon. Back then it was such a big canvas, and Star Wars seemed to be getting just bigger and bigger, such a wealth of possibilities with Episodes 6 – 9 ahead of us (Episode 7 in 1985, Episode 8 in 1988 etc… I and so many other fans had it all mapped out). We thought Vader and the Empire would be around for many years of movies. How little we knew.

When Revenge eventually arrived in the guise of Return of the Jedi, well, I really did feel let down by it. Vader was suddenly a bit of a stooge, the Emperor a cackling crazy old wizard who talked and boasted too much, Jabba a giant slug easily thwarted in what was reduced to almost a prologue, and as for those bloody teddy bears… This wasn’t the ‘even darker’ sequel to TESB that I had dreamed up over the years in between. I felt let-down. With TESB, Star Wars seemed to have grown up with me, become a more serious and teen-adult Star Wars and I’d expected it to carry on as I became 17. I’d forgotten that Star Wars was a kids film, really, and I wasn’t actually its intended audience afterall. Lucas, although I didn’t know it at the time, was already leaving Star Wars behind as he suffered a divorce and his real life became more pressing than a saga in a galaxy far, far away…

Back then of course, my negative view was left for me to stew over with my friends. I had no Internet or social media  to rage on, to share my indignant wrath and sense of betrayal by George Lucas. We lived in much smaller worlds, little bubbles of geekdom. There were no petitions  to get George Lucas to reshoot Return of the Jedi as a darker film with Wookies instead of Ewoks and leave the door open for the  Episodes 7 – 9 that we fans had dreamed of and felt entitled to.

Naturally the world is so very different now. Those old Star Wars films that only existed in my teenage dreams, though, have returned to mind over the past few weeks as I have watched season eight of Game of Thrones and witnessed the almost hysterical drama being enacted online  and in social media. Dedicated fans have been outraged by a perceived lack of thought, originality and care that is evident within the final eight episodes of this huge saga. Characters acting completely out of character, logistics of geography and time and distance, such a big part of the show in earlier seasons, now being ignored, awkward plot holes just being left there for fans to rage upon.

The brutal truth is that most of the fans complaining would struggle to organise a six-year olds birthday party, nevermind a tv show costing anything up to $100 million to make, being made across continents, a scale of production the details and difficulties of which we cannot imagine. Game of Thrones is a remarkable achievement, an event we rarely see. I appreciate the old term ‘tv show’ hardly means what it used to, years ago, but watching some of the scenes in Episode 5, The Bells, and its huge scale… well, I had to keep telling myself, this isn’t a movie, its a bloody tv show. We forget what has been done here when we become so accustomed  to tv of such scale. This stuff isn’t easy, and I think we ridicule it to our peril. Its too easy to sit in our armchairs and sofas and pretend we are experts and believe our opinions carry any weight with the behemoth that is HBO or anyone making millions from Game of Thrones.We are consumers, on the sidelines.

Yes, there are obvious issues with season Eight. Could it ever match the hopes, fears and expectations of fans, especially with the lengthy delay between seasons seven and eight? So many theories have rampaged across the internet for the past two years, some crazy, some profound. If there was a perfect season eight or ending for the show, we’ll never see it, but I think we got near enough.

I’m well aware that I sound too much of an apologist when I simply offer my own opinion that it could have been worse. But it could have. I honestly am totally thankful that it is as good as it is.  It would have been intolerable for it to have led to a total let-down after so many years and such promise and ambition. But of course, some fans really do feel it was a total let down, and I feel for them- it’s probably awful to feel so angry about something so dear to them. God knows I felt pretty angry about The Last Jedi and very disappointed by Avengers: Endgame. It is so easy when you’re passionate about something to feel so personally affronted by something.

But fans are not entitled to their dreams being given form. Those dreams that take flight in film and tv and books, they are the result of hard work and craft, and unless its us doing that hard work, well, how entitled should we really feel? We do not own these tv series or movies.  I did not deserve as if by some God-given right to have that huge dark Return of the Jedi of my dreams, nor those episodes that should have followed on in the rest of that decade. Its great of course when a film or tv show or book lives up to hopes and expectations (praise be BR2049) but we should always contain those hopes and expectations- hope for the best, fear the worst, something like that. Babylon 5 didn’t manage a saga across five perfect seasons, it rather stumbled after four but I’m glad we got what we did. Its sadly a fact that many shows get cancelled before their time. In the real world, it’s awfully difficult to make a perfect movie, and God knows Lucasfilm has been trying to better TESB since 1980 to no success, Sometimes it’s simply getting lightning in a bottle- get it once, like in Game of Throne‘s Red Wedding episode, and it’s magic, but it’s a deal with the Devil to get it twice or thrice.Eight perfect episodes is treat enough, but eight perfect seasons?

At least the show got made and finished. Its anybody’s guess if ever the books will get written and published. I wonder sometimes if George RR Martin’s (apparent) lack of activity at the typewriter is simply caution, letting the tv show forge ahead and test the waters so to speak, and that he’ll tweak his original intentions per the fan base reactions. That’s rather the long game that Littlefinger might have taken. Evil clever bastard, then.

 

Voice from the Stone (2017)

voice2.jpgVoice from the Stone is a European-set mystery/ghost story… I think. Set in 1950s Italy, a nurse that specialises in helping children, Verena (Emilia Clarke, yeah, her with the dragons) is hired by moody sculptor Klaus (Marton Csokas, so brilliant in Kingdom of Heaven) to help his son Jakob (Edward Dring) who has not spoken since his classical pianist mother Malvina (Caterina Murino) died several months ago. They live on a remote beautiful estate with a grand old house, Malvina’s family being rich for centuries from the profits of working a quarry nearby that held a particularly fine stone. The quarry is now disused and flooded, and the house showing its age, the estate almost frozen in time as if unable to shake off the grand old days. Varena struggles to connect with the boy, who believes he hears his mother speaking to him from the walls. Is it possible that the house, and the boy, are indeed haunted by Malvina?

Its an intriguing premise for an old-fashioned ghost story, but I’m not sure this film really really wants to be a ghost story. Based on a book, I don’t know if this is a factor in the original work, but the film itself seems to be all over the place- not really helped by a lack of chemistry between Clarke and Csokas when a romance suddenly flares up between them, possibly engineered by Malvina who seems to be possessing the nurse. I say ‘seems’ because the film really feels like its in two minds- serious romantic drama or supernatural thriller, it can’t seem to decide which. By the end of the film. I wasn’t sure what was even going on. Was Varena herself going mad or was she really possessed? And was Malvina’s mother really a ghost or just some kind of projection of Varenas?  Maybe the film was trying to be sophisticated enough to have it both ways, leave it up for interpretation.

voice stoneIn anycase, it doesn’t pull it off, turning out to be a somewhat confusing mess. Which is frustrating because it looks ravishing and the cast is pretty good. I must confess to feeling a little ambivalent about Clarke, though- her range seems to consist of raised highbrows for confusion, frowned highbrows for intensity, and relaxed highbrows for mild amusement. LIke in Game of Thrones, I don’t think she’s really up to the material (something true of most of the younger thespians in that show, which is carried thankfully by all the older actors who elevate the material somewhat) – or maybe I’m just being unfair to her, maybe it’s just that I don’t ‘get’ what she’s doing.

Overall the film has a very fine sense of mood and atmosphere but this only carries it so far, and the confusing last half-hour really leaves a bit of a sour feeling of disappointment.  Perhaps it really wasn’t intended to be a horror film, but not for the first time of late, it feels like it was horror film made by film-makers who thought they were above such pulpish horror nonsense, and it just got away from them.

Returning to The Expanse

exp1.jpgWell if things have been a little quiet lately on this blog its largely due to me finally getting to a belated rewatch of season one of The Expanse, now that I have season three to watch as well as season two. Suffice to say that in the grand tradition of all things Netflix, I managed to watch all ten episodes over the past four days- maybe binge-watching is an acquired skill having watched so much on Netflix over the past several months, but it’s likely just the short days/long dark evenings that have helped.

The Expanse is as great as I remembered– maybe even more so, as there have been clear advantages to rewatching this first season again. As before, one of the elements I most enjoyed was its gritty, future-noir detective story feel, inevitably a nod to Blade Runner so inevitably up my street. Thomas Jane is brilliant as life-weary/crooked cop Joe Miller who is put on a missing-persons case that he is expected to fail at. Instead of trying/failing/filing it away, something about the case and the woman, Julie Mao, raises his interest and it becomes something of an obsession. Meanwhile, out in the Belt near Saturn, the ice-freighter Canterbury picks up a distress signal from a ship called the Scopuli, but the derelict vessel they investigate is actually a trap- seemingly engineered by authorities from Mars, and the freighter is destroyed leaving a handful of survivors/witnesses in a fleeing shuttle. Political repercussions of the attack spread quickly throughout the system, bringing the opposing powers of Earth and Mars to the brink of war. Miller’s investigations lead him to links between Julie Mao and the doomed Scopuli and a conspiracy involving bio-engineered weapon tech of possibly alien origin, and the survivors of the Canterbury, led by Earther James Holden, become increasingly trapped in this web of intrigue themselves, eventually leading to them and Miller being caught together in events involving the deaths of thousands on Eros station.

There’s certainly nothing else quite like it out there, I think. The nearest thing I can suggest is that it’s like a sci-fi Game of Thrones but that’s lazy and not really fair- yes its epic with a big cast of characters and contesting factions/intrigue but beyond that the similarities end. GOT tended to lean towards sex and nudity early on to get attention and The Expanse (other than a scene early on in the first episode) avoided this. As its really a giant space opera set in the 23rd Century it really leans towards Babylon 5 (one of my favourite shows) but with a bigger budget and/or the benefits of obvious advances in CGI. It has a huge scale and looks absolutely gorgeous in HD- my player obviously upscaling to 4K on my OLED. It looks really filmic but is full of interesting characters and big ideas. Watching it this time around I noticed it’s a production from Alcon Entertainment, who were also behind BR2049, and yes, it’s certainly that same kind of intelligent, adult science fiction.  While there are things that can no doubt be picked apart by the experts, the show does lean towards a real-science, physically-accurate portrayal of space exploration that is refreshing and quite convincing- it’s certainly more 2001 than Star Trek, more Alien than Star Wars.

As I still haven’t read any of the books upon which the series is based, I can’t say how faithful it is or have any idea where it’s all headed- ironically though, as I had put off rewatching season one for awhile now, I now have two seasons to watch after this so the threads left hanging won’t be frustrating me quite so much this time around-  indeed with any luck I’ll be starting season two later today.

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.