Westworld Season Two, Episodes Six & Seven

westw7c.jpgIllness precluded me from watching episode six of Westworld last week, so today here’s a double-review following a catch-up session alongside episode seven last night…

There I go. moaning about the show missing God (Anthony Hopkin’s brilliant genius, Robert Ford) and boom, here he is, back from the dead. And there I go moaning about the disparate timelines being annoying and boom,  there they go getting all tied up as season two finally begins to, if not make sense, then at least coalesce into a single story-line and build towards a (hopefully) satisfying conclusion. While it’d be wrong to suggest that season two has been a terrible mess and that these two episodes finally start to save the day, its certainly no stretch to say that they are a step in the right direction after a messy, frustrating season so far.

Not everything works though. I’ve always been a bit concerned that the series seems as hazy about geography as it is about time (just where does it take place – an Island has been hinted at- and just how bloody big are the theme parks?). Maeve has left the central Mesa, wandered across the Western landscape and taken a sojourn in Shogun-World and then after popping back underground comes back up in the West where her old original story-line takes place. She finds her old homestead and, at last, her daughter, but immediately some Ghost Nation warriors turn up and attack, the old scenario from decades ago repeating as if on a whim. We see a host that has taken Maeve’s place in the old story-line but to what end is that story-line being played out, without a human visitor to entertain? It seems too convenient, as is the sudden appearance of MIB William and his sudden ability to apparently soak up bullets and still crawl off like some unkillable bastard. It all feels too simple and sudden and convenient, even unearned.There is, after all, no emotional connect between Maeve and her daughter. And after all her adventures this season, Maeve is ultimately stretchered off back to where she began the season , back at the Mesa, only this time crippled from gunshot her wounds (and didn’t that rescue team just appear out of nowhere?). It rather negates her whole arc this season and feels forced and unsatisfying. Unless, of course, it all leads somewhere next week.

Likewise, one has to wonder what was the point of that whole b-story in Shogun World, fun that it was while it lasted, it seems to have been signed-off without really impacting the whole series. And are really meant to believe MIB WIlliam could just rustle up all his posse and leave without disturbing his sleeping daughter in the camp?

westw7bAlso, the Cradle is a fascinating concept and seemed to offer all sorts of virtual possibilities but no sooner is it revealed than boom that’s suddenly gone, it feels something of a waste. What if it had been suggested that some of the events we’ve seen in the past two seasons were inside the Cradle, i.e. never REALLY happened at all? A lost opportunity I fear.

More successful though is the arc with Bernard meeting his maker, Ford, with Anthony Hopkins proving, again, to be the center of the show. Some of the banter and the asides to the episodes referring to James Delos’ failed bid for immortality are delicious. The hints regards what Delos has really been up to (the whole theme park biz is just a cover for their real experiment) will confirm many viewer’s suspicions/theories, vindicating quite a few of my own that I have written about in previous posts. That said, the ‘reveal’ at the start of episode six, when we realise that Delores has been testing Bernard during all their interview flashbacks rather than the other way around, was wonderful and keyed into those earlier James Delos episodes brilliantly: “a fidelity test” indeed.

You have to love a show that can pull off stunts like that, and I remain hopeful that the final three episodes can bring about a satisfying conclusion. At its best, Westworld is fascinating science fiction and a thought-provoking examination of identity and memory and what is human. Its almost like watching an alternate Blade Runner, so clearly are some of the themes shared.

I also, quite surprisingly, loved seeing what the show did with the new, reprogrammed, thoroughly Terminator-like Teddy. Even Delores seemed surprised by what he got up to.

Its just a pity that it all seems so, well, messy. But art can be like that, and I suppose we should be thankful that this series does, at its best, seem to be performing the same trick as its two big-screen Blade Runner cousins- arthouse masquerading as entertainment.

 

 

 

Westworld Season Two- Episode 2

west2.jpgWelcome to the second part of this rather unintended series of posts about Westworld Season Two. First of all, I’m very surprised by this episode. I didn’t expect the show to be laying its cards on the table so soon into the second season (in fact I still half expect them to pull the rug from under my feet in episode three) but wow: I think I’ve finally gotten a handle of the meta-story surrounding Westworld, as episode two suddenly seems to have revealed a few of the shows secrets.

Typically, for this show, unfolding its drama across a number of timelines, this episode quite surprised me regards how much it revealed- refreshing indeed as it could have easily become just another tease. For one thing, we actually left the park and saw the real world outside- a pleasant and fairly utopian city, not particularly futuristic (no flying cars or rockets climbing to the heavens) so the show is not set, apparently, in a far-future scenario, regardless of some of the tech in the Westworld park itself.

In a sequence chronologically one of the first we have seen (as it predates the majority of season one) we saw Logan being approached by a representative of the Argos Initiative and taken to a party. The reveal that the party guests are not at all human was a great way to introduce Logan to Westworld and a telling reminder of how amazing the technology is. A subsequent sequence, however, is where the real revelations come. In a scene which takes place following the events of season one, we witness a normal day in the park (Delores bringing some supplies back to her horse and dropping a tin can) which is frozen when a helicopter flies overhead. With the hosts frozen/paused, we see William hinting to Delos Sr (Logan’s father) about the real possibilities that Westworld offers, which is nothing at all to do with simply being an amusement park for the wealthy, famous and powerful. There are, William confides, deeper possibilities.

Westworld offers the chance to take over the world, or at the very least shape and control it.

If I’m seeing it right, a moment in the prior episode featured robots in a hidden subterranean lab taking DNA samples from dead visitors. I didn’t understand why but I think Williams suggestions in this next episode offer a few hints. Are visitors being replaced by robots in the ‘real world’ and is this the weapon that Delores is after (and that Man in Black William seems intent on destroying) and is it the means of controlling those doppelgangers in the outside world? Considering that only the wealthy and powerful can likely afford vacations in Westworld, they would seem important people to copy or control.

There is also a mention that Delos Snr is dying, so maybe William is suggesting that the Westworld tech offers the possibility of immortality for those rich enough to afford it. If human DNA can be incorporated in the Robots or memories and intelligence copied or transferred from a human to one of the robots, then is that immortality the greatest commodity of all?

It occurs to me that some kind of cunning switch may be in the offing- with Delores still in the avenging robot angel mode, killing off (apparently) innocent humans just because they’re organic and dare to be breathing, is it possible that the showrunners are maneuvering MIB William into being the good guy? He certainly seems intent on burning Westworld down and destroying his ‘big mistake’ weapon before it can do greater harm.

Will everything be confirmed in episode three or am I barking up the wrong tree?

Westworld Season Two- Episode 1

west1Just a few observations- firstly, having been enjoying Netflix just over a month now, having to digest a big show in weekly chunks just feels so old-fashioned its almost arcane. I mean, I watch one episode, and then… then I have to wait? WTF? (It occurs to me that I’ve never done a weekly review of a series episode by episode, maybe I should start with this show).

Secondly, when does being intellectually ‘clever’ get in the way of actually telling a story? Don’t get me wrong, I love Westworld and it’s one of my favourite shows of the past few years-  away from the nudity and violence, what I really like is the examinations of what it is to be human, the impact of memory, the possibilities of AI. Its really heady stuff and the idea someone can make such a popular show that is so high concept is just profoundly exciting. BUT…. sometimes a show can risk being too clever for its own good. I enjoyed the ‘twist’ in season one of the separate timelines, and this seems to be carrying on into season two. Fair enough, but I don’t really see what we gain from it at present, with how it’s going. What I’m saying is, it should be there to inform and tell the story, not the story there to support the multiple timelines for their own sake. I fear there may be a danger in that here. Don’t try to confuse me just for the hell of it, tell the story and if the story doesn’t benefit from that confusion, why is it there? Well, time will tell if these multiple timelines serves some purpose.

I’m also a little concerned that Delores is becoming the least interesting character now that she’s slipping into ‘avenging robot angel’ mode. She risks losing her sense of humanity and empathy. Whereas the focus is really shifting towards Bernard, easily now the most interesting character in the show, who on the one hand seems to be dealing with the mindf–k that must be knowing his true robot nature whilst hiding it from his colleagues who are (?) all unaware of it. I always had a soft spot for him in season one and it’s fascinating to imagine where he might take us this season.

Anyway, roll on episode two. Oh yeah, I have to wait….

…and wait….

The Race of the Iron Throne

game72017.47: Game of Thrones Season 7 (2017)

Well, it certainly wasn’t Game of Thrones‘ best season. Which is a pity, but in many ways it was inevitable. The trouble with stories is how they end.

In a sense, a story’s end is almost arbitrary. I often think about films or tv series and about their endings. A film might end in a moment of victory or validation, but I often consider what happens afterwards, after the film fades to black and the credits roll up, the story of the film is over but the meta-story, if you will, beyond that, continues. The trick for a screenwriter and a director is in finding a satisfying place to end a story, but it’s always an artificial ending, that meta-story continues.

And of course finding that satisfying ending, it’s a real trick after 30, 40, 50 hours of story in a tv series. Particularly for Game of Thrones and its complex, sophisticated plot and its huge roster of characters. How does one find an ending to match all the dreams and fantasies, all the theories and fan-fiction created worldwide over all those years when the series has become a phenomenon, and from even before that, over the decades of the books being published? Indeed, it strikes me now that Game of Thrones rather cheekily perhaps gets two bites at the cherry, with the HBO series first and, hopefully if time allows, the book series second. It gets two attempts at a satisfying conclusion.

HBOs solution, after a fashion, is that rather than spend three or four years and astronomical sums of money to produce two gigantic ten-episode seasons for the concluding two runs, instead they will condense the spend of a ten-episode season into seven and six-episode runs respectively, thus ensuring huge visuals and scope to hopefully bring things to a grand climax. Unfortunately this rather spoils the other aspects of the show- the sense of scale of the geography, the character beats, the political machinations and various interludes that fans grew to enjoy.  The irony of those of us who complained at the interminable pace of some seasons/episodes while the HBO show waited for author George R R Martin to write and publish another book over the years , now complaining of the ferocious pace of the show now that it has given up on waiting and has gone ahead and leapt beyond the leaden pace of his typewriter, isn’t lost on us. Be careful of what you wish for, eh?

In any case, I return to my original observation- how in the world will Game of Thrones possibly end in a way to satisfy everyone, or even the minority, of its huge worldwide fanbase? It simply can’t, and I think this is the lesson of  season 7. I am not going to write a negative, hateful review picking out all the plotholes or weak scripting or terrible coincidences that insult fans who have watched and enjoyed this show for so many years. There were many spectacular moments in season 7, and it is easy to forget that, HBO or not, this is a television show, not a huge Hollywood movie, and what it manages to create and put on screen is really wondrous and for all its faults this is one of the very greatest entertainments ever, of any format. It is just that season 7 has saddened me a little, and left me a little more reluctant than expectant, for what season 8 brings us next year (or the year after, who knows?). Game of Thrones was extraordinary, indeed still is extraordinary, but it also became a little more ordinary with season 7. Like we just experienced some kind of reality-check.

Because with only six episodes left, and where season 7 has left us, there is little room for many character moments ahead, or for learning who/what the Night King is, what drives him, what he hopes to achieve in slaughtering all the living with his army of the dead or what he intends for those lands yet beyond the oceans (I suspect it would involve turning said oceans to ice and simply walking across). Or what happens when the general story-arc is over and what happens to the (surviving) characters ten, twenty years later.

I had hoped, after all the teasing since the very first moments of the first episode of season one, that the Night King might be fleshed out, as it were. Or that once the Game of Thrones was over, and someone finally sat victorious and uncontested on the Iron Throne we might see the result of that years, decades after. We won’t. Because six episodes is surely a headlong rush of battles and treacheries and victories and deaths that will be thrilling and spectacular but it’s only six episodes. And if the seven episodes of season 7 teaches us anything, it is that six episodes won’t be enough. Maybe ten episodes, or any number of episodes, wouldn’t be enough. That there is the conundrum. Just how do you end Game of Thrones?

game2

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…

 

Paint It Black- Westworld’s return

west32017.3: Westworld – Series One

The Theme Park attraction Westworld is thirty years old. It struggles to keep its rich visitors (you have to be wealthy to afford the experiences the park provides) entertained and returning for more each year, by developing varied narratives for the visitors to experience. The corporation frets over profits and returns on their investments. The scientists toil in their subterranean labs over their creations. Artists and writers work on storylines and narratives for the robots (‘hosts’) to play out for the theme park’s human visitors.

The basic narrative remains the same; each day the robot hosts relive the same day over and over, and visitors can either indulge in basic events such as killing hosts in gunfights or having sex with them in the brothel. Naturally most male new visitors just visit the brothel or go on a shooting spree when they realise there are no repercussions. The more adventurous (and those repeat visitors jaded with the basic narrative) can, however, indulge in narratives that branch off from the main setting, such as joining a posse on the hunt for outlaws or safely escorting a girl back to her homestead. New branching narratives and hundreds of storylines are being written all the time to encourage repeat visitors. The theme park is, after all, some thirty years old now. The robots all look young and brand new, but many of them, like Delores (Evan Rachel Wood) are as old as the park itself.

The clever ‘trick’ of Westworld is that the human visitors are merely incidental to the series. What’s really interesting to the makers of this show are the hosts- the robots that unwittingly  relive the same day over and over. Incredibly sophisticated and believing that they and their world are entirely real,  each day they are mocked, shot, beaten, tortured or raped or abused for the entertainment of the human visitors and then repaired, memories wiped and set-up for the next day. They seem more like slaves than products.

However, a glitch is becoming increasingly apparent, in which not all the memories are being entirely wiped. Memories for robots are not as hazy and distant as human memories, these memories are re-experienced as if as real as waking life, and the robots that experience them begin to doubt their reality and the nature of their suffering. What is real, and is there a reality beyond their own?

west2.jpgWestworld examines questions of artificial intelligence, the nature of memory and experience, of reality and fantasy. Of humanity and decency and cruelty and slavery. How high can a robot reach? How low can human depravity go? All wrapped up in a ten-part science fiction miniseries posing as a western. Indeed, considering how intense and sophisticated some of its questions and ideas are, it is a wonder it manages to come off as entertaining as it does. While the central mysteries of the park’s history and it creators are gradually uncovered, and the robots increasing mimicry of  humanity is developed (is it mimicry or reality is one of the questions that runs through the show), the various arcs dovetail through each other in sophisticated ways. Are we, for instance, seeing everything in chronological order, or are we seeing multiple timelines, as if experiencing memories as the robots do, as if they are really happening in the ‘now’?

Technically impressive with a huge production and rather cunning in its use of visual effects and music, the show is chiefly graced with great scripts and some stunning performances from Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris, Thandie Newton and James Marsden.

west1Jeffrey Wright, in particular, is a standout- I’ve never seen him as good as he is in this. I can’t explain why his acting is so remarkable without revealing some of the twists in the plot, and as this series is essentially a mystery that unfolds over the ten episodes inviting you to participate in its varied turns and concepts, second-guessing the plot, I won’t reveal exactly why Wright is so impressive, but he is. Which is really something when you consider how good all the performances are here- I don’t think I’ve seen Hopkins, for instance, as good as he is here in ages. He’s playing God, and he pulls it off.

My only note of caution, is that by the close of episode ten, I have to wonder where does it go from here? The ten episodes we have are so good, so worthy of repeat viewing (roll on the blu-ray boxset, HBO/Warner), and the ending so fitting that it seems almost a shame to risk spoiling it with a second series. Its almost like asking the question, does Blade Runner need a sequel? Surely the showrunners have ideas of where to go next, but I worry it cannot possibly replicate (sic) everything done so well here. The one comforting thing is that season two is two years off- they are going to take their time and it won’t air until 2018 at the earliest.Rather akin to it being a motion picture getting a sequel in two-three years. Television is changing. Quality-wise, its leaving some movies far behind.

I raise the particular spectre of Blade Runner for another reason. Westworld raises questions of AI and existence so well, that it almost makes Blade Runner 2049 utterly redundant, and worries me regards where that film can possibly go. Because in many ways, Westworld is the perfect unofficial sequel/spin-off from Blade Runner. Its a theme park run by an entity not unlike the Tyrell Corporation (Dystopian corporate nightmares and subterfuge are a major sub-plot to this series) and its robots are Replicants in all but name, questioning their memories and reality just as characters do in the 1982 film. I guess as I love that film so much, it was inevitable I would love this show too.

Its great. But I can’t really tell you why until you’ve seen it, and by then you’ll already know.

 

.

Watchmen: Ultimate Cut (2009)

watch12016.19: Watchmen-Ultimate Cut (Blu-ray)

I bought the Theatrical Cut on blu-ray. I bought the Directors Cut on blu-ray. I’ve now bought the Ultimate Cut on blu-ray. I don’t feel ripped-off at all by all this double/triple-dipping.

I think I must like this movie.

Well, to be fair, although I’ve always wanted to see the Ultimate Cut I’ve never been compelled enough to pay the crazy amounts charged on ebay over the years, only buying it now due to it being in a sale on Amazon. However, it is clear that I like, even love, this movie; it remains one of my most enjoyable and surprising experiences at the cinema, certainly in the past few decades. This was a film with a huge weight on it, based on a book that was widely accepted as being unfilmable, and directed by Zack Snyder (Man of Steel surely later indicating how bad Watchmen might have been). It should have been a disaster, but instead I came out of the cinema buzzing like I hadn’t in years; my mate Andy who had also read the graphic novel years before loved it too. Yet we’d just seen arguably the weakest version of the film- the Directors Cut that came out on blu-ray several months later was far superior and answered many of the problems of the theatrical cut.
watch3

How much the world needed the Ultimate Cut depends on how much you loved the film, as that Directors Cut is pretty much definitive. The problem that the Ultimate Cut has is two-fold: the sheer length of the thing (three and a half hours of it) and how much the animated Tales of the Black Freighter distracts from the live-action and upsets the pacing. I can’t argue against it- the film is long and yes, some of the cuts to/from animated sequences can be jarring. On the other hand, having the Black Freighter stuff in it makes it feel more complete, and also adds some much-needed coverage of the ‘normal’ characters, the ‘real-world’ two Bernies, that adds some depth and another layer of ‘realty’ to the whole.  As for how long it is- well, better that than to have it cut to ribbons, and time-wary viewers are catered for with the theatrical cut anyway. The Ultimate Cut was clearly made for the films fans and as one of them, I appreciate it; just that it exists is amazing. Its unfortunate that we fans in the UK have to import the damn thing though and, in my case, have had to wait so many years to see it.

In the years since Watchmen (and isn’t it a little terrifying how long ago 2009 feels already?), Marvel’s series of Superhero films have dominated the box office with much better critical success than Watchmen ever had, and it could be argued that Watchmen has surely been forgotten in the wake of Marvel getting so much so right.

Studios have found that if your superhero film has impressive production values, likeable actors, plenty of action and humour and maybe some romance, then mainstream audiences will lap it up as much as the geeks, and if you can keep it rated PG-13, all the better. You don’t gross over a billion dollars without it appealing to everyone, and that includes foreign audiences with non-western cultures, so keep the plot fairly simple and the spectacle high. Even fairly obscure comic-book characters can have great success (who but the geeks had ever heard of Guardians of the Galaxy?).

So Watchmen was a clear example of how not to do it. It was long, it was dense, it was dark, it was more about character and its complex, conflicted world than good guys versus bad guys with big effects sequences. It was all about its subversive source and being faithful to that. Its box office compared to the Marvel films success speaks volumes. For a R rated movie it did okay; the geeks enjoyed it ( well, most of em) but the mainstream stayed away or were confused by it. Compare this to the similarly R-rated Deadpool, violent, simple and very funny- geeks loved it but more importantly the mainstream lapped it up too. Deadpool, despite also being R-rated and its audience (in theory) limited, has earned over $680 million worldwide so far. Personally I much prefer Watchmen, but I can understand why it didn’t have the success of Deadpool or the other PG-13 Marvel offerings. In anycase, to consider Watchmen as a failure is a mistake anyway- it may not have been a Deadpool, but neither was it a Fantastic Four.

I doubt it will ever get a Blade Runner-like reappraisal, but I think it deserves to. I think Watchmen remains a phenomenal piece of work. Indeed, watching it now I am often amazed at all the details, how so much has been squeezed in (particularly in this Ultimate Cut), how faithful to the original graphic novel it is, how beautifully it is shot and acted. Detractors of the film often fail to appreciate the craft and artistry at work in this film; the sets, the lighting, the costume design. They nailed it. It’s brilliant. It isn’t perfect, but it comes so close.

watch2

Some people will argue I’m wrong and that Snyder’s film proves that Watchmen is indeed unfilmable. I think Watchmen is, like Blade Runner, an arthouse movie posing as a mainstream blockbuster. Unfortunately it’s not intimate enough for an arthouse movie or mainstream enough to be a blockbuster. It falls somewhere in between and will always fail to be embraced by critics or public, but I think those who like the film absolutely love it. I will admit it doesn’t get everything right, it’s full of little things that bug me, but I’ll forgive every one of them because of how much the damn thing gets so beautifully, gloriously, brass-balls-I-don’t-believe-they-did-that right. I’m the kind of guy who grew up with comics in the 1970s and enjoyed the critical resurgence in the 1980s and cannot believe they are taken so seriously now and transferred with so much care and attention into these amazing films. I mean, seriously, bad-mouth Watchmen and then see-

spidey70s

Oddly enough, Watchmen isn’t completely forgotten, even though with the release of the Ultimate Cut a few years ago you’d think it was all done. The one good thing about its perceived ‘failure’ is that we didn’t get any talk of sequels or prequels. Even fans of the film would argue against any continuation of the story, and the prequel books that came out awhile ago don’t seem to have satisfied many (although I quite like some of them). Rumours persist though of HBO working on some kind of Watchmen series, something I would ordinarily be excited about did the film not exist, but it does, so,  what’s the point? I can’t believe, in so few years after the film came out, that anybody is interested in rebooting it already; but that’s Hollywood, nothing is sacred I guess. I’m sure the Comedian would appreciate the joke maybe, but it worries me. Surely there are other properties to turn to? Warren Ellis’ Planetary maybe? Or maybe Marshall Law? Can’t they leave Watchmen alone? Well, maybe Dr Manhattan knows…

nothing-ends

Boardwalk Empire Season 5 (2015)

board1

2016.8 Boardwalk Empire Season 5 (Blu ray)

Another tv series boxset. Another viewing bingefest. Four episodes on Day One, two more on Day Two, followed by the final two episodes on Day Three. Hell of a way of watching a tv series. The only better way of watching this show would have been being able to watch all five seasons in quick succession, which I’m sure many future viewers will do through boxsets and streaming.

Indeed, I’m rather envious of people doing that- discovering the shows pleasures and secrets in the space of weeks whilst up to now we’ve only been able to do so over the years. Shows like Boardwalk Empire will I’m sure have a second life because of that. Maybe it will get a reappraisal over time, because while it was a critical darling (and rightfully so, in my opinion) from the start, the show never seemed to capture audience attention; certainly it was no Sopranos and would quickly fall under the shadow of the Game of Thrones juggernaut. When the show finally ended with its fifth season last Autumn I wonder how many people were still watching.

Perhaps it was the slow burn? I don’t know. It was always a good show to me but some were off-put by the slow pace (what is it with peoples attention spans these days?). Technically it was accomplished, just like everything else on HBO- the production was film quality standard, and the cast were always excellent, Steve Buscemi simply magnificent throughout in a role he seemed born to play. Perhaps it was misconceptions. Perhaps the public wanted a 1920s-era Goodfellas, which Boardwalk Empire clearly wasn’t – yes the show could be very violent, at its best shockingly so, unleashing that violence without warning. But it was always more than just the violence. Boardwalk Empire was always a character piece, and a study of greed in a desperate, brutalized society of riches, poverty, and racism.

As it turned out, it was also a show about consequences, never more so than in this truncated final season. Using flashbacks both to Nucky’s childhood and young adulthood, it showed us those decisions that the young Nucky made that led to him becoming the Nucky that we saw from season one. These early formative events are juxtaposed by seeing Nucky in the ‘present’ of 1931 as he struggles to stop his empire crumbling around him. As we near the end of the series we witness the fateful moments that set in motion those events and relationships that the series chronicled in seasons one to five. Everything has consequences, and everything is set in motion when Nucky agrees to do the Commodore’s dirty work and send the young Gillian to him to sate the old man’s filthy desires. “Don’t do it,” I muttered helplessly at the screen, knowing full well that it was inevitable. The act sets Nucky on the path towards the wealth and power that he craves, to everything he will become by the start of series one, but it also seals his final fate that we see at the end of season five, and all his troubles in between. And in something of a revelation, Gillian Darmody turns out to be the chief victim of the whole saga, putting her actions of the whole series into a whole new perspective. It doesn’t really condone what she would do, but it does explain everything and lends her some sympathy.

I understand some fans didn’t like the final season, but I really enjoyed it, and I thought the last episode was a great ending to the show. It gave a weight and pathos to everything we had seen before over the five years, so much so that I look forward to one day watching the whole series again from start to the finish, only this time having the perspective granted from those last few moments of the last episode. Boardwalk Empire was always a very good show, but with this finale, it actually became a great one.

board2

 

Fury (2014)

Brad Pitt;Shia LaBeouf;Logan Lerman;Michael Pena;Jon BernthalThe shadow of both Saving Private Ryan and HBO’s Band of Brothers looms large over David Ayer’s Fury. That’s no fault of the film itself, its just the way things are- its as inevitable as watching Guardians of the Galaxy and comparing it to Star Wars, or Interstellar and comparing it to 2001: A Space Odyssey. In what is perhaps a concious effort to step from out of that Private Ryan shadow, Fury pushes the envelope with its graphic onscreen portrayal of war. People burn horribly, heads explode, severed body parts litter the screen… this war isn’t pretty. And yet the one shot that lingers in my mind is one of a vast armada of bombers in the sky, weaving a spider-web of contrails across the clouds as the air trembles with the sound of their engines- its a beautiful, arresting image, quite at odds with the horrors the film portrays down on the ground.

This raised a thought whilst watching Fury; is it acceptable to portray the horrors of war in the guise of entertainment? Is it an artistic or even moral right to show the brutality of it, exploding heads, burning flesh, the blood and body parts, in a movie designed to entertain? Is there something wrong with viewers gaining enjoyment and satisfaction from watching such bloody horrors unfold? Is it even possible for any film to really encapsulate what war is? Fury may not flinch from showing battles in graphic detail but I dare say it pulls its punches- there is a limit to what censors will allow I’m sure, but as the years pass the boundaries keep moving, and I wonder where it may end. Even the heroes (as we used to understand the term in war movies) aren’t what they used to be-  the Allied soldiers seem as bitter and twisted and destroyed as the Germans they are fighting, even though its the last days of the war and the Allies are clearly on the winning side with victory near. They are all broken men. Broken by their experiences of the war.

kelly1This isn’t a consideration for earlier war movies- I found myself thinking of Kelly’s Heroes, another film featuring tanks, and one of those movies I can watch over again and again- its a war movie from back in the days that Hollywood war movies were really Boys Own Adventure films (albeit in Kelly’s Heroes case focused through a prism of late ‘sixties/early ‘seventies cynicism). Back when soldiers would get shot and fall down dead with the minimum of fuss or gore or sign of pain. I’m sure there are exceptions to the rule (All Quiet on the Western Front for one), but prior to Apocalypse Now, war movies were in no way focused on the reality and madness of war. Just thinking of war movies starring John Wayne makes me cringe- only the other day whilst flicking channels I stumbled on a movie, I don’t know what it was, but it had Charles Bronson in army get-up playing soldiers with a bunch of other actors like Henry Fonda and it looked, frankly ridiculous, like grown men playing at being soldiers, almost in bad taste. But war films are what they were, prior to Apocalypse Now, Platoon and of course Saving Private Ryan. The playing field has changed now, and Fury is clearly a product of its time.

Fury is a very interesting and arresting film. Visually it is quite brutal, although it sometimes seems a little too keen to shock the viewer. It does seem brave for having such a largely unsympathetic group of characters; it is very difficult to empathise with the nominal good guys at times and that’s contrary to how films work with protagonists in peril (you really should root for the ‘good guy’ otherwise why care what happens? Perhaps it is simply showing how war and its horrors breaks men and strips them of their humanity. Its evidently a concious decision of the film-makers, because the performances themselves are all of a very high standard- they just in no way try to engender audience sympathy. Interestingly, I don’t recall any of the characters really talking about their old, pre-war lives, as if the war is all there is, all there has ever been (perhaps they don’t really believe its ever going to end).
fury3The battle scenes are well-shot and staged, albeit quite harrowing, and the film does look beautiful, which is odd considering what horrific things are depicted. Steven Price’s score is unusual and effective, and although its a bit disconcerting to hear music that sounds so like his earlier Gravity score in a period movie, on the whole it works well.

So Fury being a war movie with tanks, being compared to Kelly’s Heroes as another war movie with tanks, is hardly any fit comparison at all, but all the same, its interesting to note how much has changed with war movies. Watching the two films back to back (something I really must do someday) would be a sobering thing indeed, to see just how much things have changed in the decades between them. I guess the world has changed, and how we perceive war, as much as Hollywood’s depiction of it. Which influenced which, I wonder? Did our knowledge of war force Hollywood to change, or was it the change in Hollywood war films that influenced our view of what war is?

Swords of the North

Swords-smLast Monday the latest book from the REHF arrived in the post, all the way from Cross Plains, Texas*. Titled Swords of the North, its a collection of Robert E. Howard’s Celtic/Viking adventure stories, including his ‘past lives’ stories wherein the characters recount adventures they lived in long-forgotten distant ages. Great adventure writing, and full of the tragic pessimism that is at the core of much of Howard’s writing. I’ve read many, if not all, of these stories before of course over the years in various collections but this book is surely definitive and a welcome opportunity to re-read them in one handsome hardback volume.

The past several years have been quite special with the REHF producing so many excellent Howard books, including collections of his letters and poetry. For a Howard fan its been a wonderful chance to collect definitive editions of his stories, and of course his letters and poetry have been the proverbial icing on the cake. The Foundation has done a fantastic job. Years ago all of this seemed impossible, and I often look at the REH books on my bookshelf and have a ‘pinch me I must be dreaming’ moment.

This book also arrived at just the right time, because I’ve just FINALLY finished reading Game of Thrones. That damn thing took over six months (looks like I’m two, maybe three seasons ahead of the HBO series now, with two books yet to come if ever the author gets around to completing them). I’ll be a little contentious here; I think I prefer the HBO series to the books. Its strange, some of the ‘big’, emotional moments in the series would, I thought, have been better in the books, but its seems that George R R Martin put his emphasis elsewhere, to other beats and characters and moments. The HBO series certainly seems more focused, which is inevitable really for such a huge sprawling saga, but I must say, having now read the books, I think the makers of the HBO series have done a remarkable job of tackling something I would have considered almost unfilmable. I suspect the series and books will begin to diverge from one another though, and it does look increasingly likely that the series will catch up and pass the books**.

So anyway, yes I can get back to reading Bob Howard (got a backlog of the last few REHF books to get through) and Philip K Dick (books 4 & 5 of the collected short stories have been waiting patiently), and there’s a few Stephen King novels that I have on the shelf too. I do wonder if I can get any movies watched at all if I do get into all this reading. Game of Thrones (I read all the books in one marathon run-through, having never read them before) created something of a backlog, taking much longer to read than I expected (had them on a kindle, which rather disguised what I was getting into), and no doubt had some impact on how many films I got to see last year. There’s only so many hours in the day, after all.

 

 

 

*I don’t think I’ll ever get over seeing that ‘Cross Plains,Texas’ postmark on the boxes that the books arrive in. Ever since I was a teenager reading Robert E Howard books in the mid-seventies, Cross Plains,Texas is a place has had a strange and mystical aura. A place I’d love to visit someday (looking less likely every year, but you never know….).

**Which raises the possibility of the stories having two completely different endings, doesn’t it?