The Marvellous Mrs Maisel Season One

mrs1The Emmy-award winning The Marvellous Mrs Maisel seems to have been a media darling over the last few years and was, from what I remember,  one of the first real successes for Amazon’s Originals, a show that proved that Amazon could compete with the likes of Netflix. As is my usual wont I’ve come to it rather late, with three seasons already up for streaming by the time I finally got around to it. 

Turns out its really quite good- as someone who loved Mad Men, which rather shared Mrs Maisel‘s period setting,  this show was right up my street. Regards that period setting -in this case late 1950s New York, which actually predates Mad Men by a few years- it looks utterly divine, absolutely gorgeous. Of course as I wasn’t around back then to experience it first hand, but it certainly looks damned authentic, and rather more ambitious in scope than Mad Men, featuring more exteriors. There is something irresistible about 1950s New York; the decor, the clothes, the cars, the smoky atmosphere, the wonderful songs of the period that feature in the soundtrack; its all rather romantic and fantastic and larger than life. For someone like me in the UK, there’s something quite sexy and beguiling about it, something of a lost, magical world.

Central to the shows appeal – far and above that wonderful period detail of its setting- is the fantastic performance of Rachel Brosnahan as Miriam Maisel, a housewife who turns to stand-up comedy in the wake of her unfaithful  husband leaving her. Brosnahan has a long list of credits in television behind her, but nothing that I have seen – my worst offence being House of Cards, which I really should get around to- so as far as I was concerned, watching her was like seeing an unknown in an incandescent performance that surprised and amazed in equal measure. With a very fine supporting cast that includes Tony Shalhoub (Monk) and Michael Zegan (Boardwalk Empire) the show absolutely fires on all cylinders. The writing is slick, the one-liners sharp and the art direction, as I have noted, quite sublime. The show does falter slightly with a few nods to predictability – there’s certainly few shocks and surprises here- but that really is just a nod to it being what it is; warm, funny, life-affirming comfort food.

Just the ticket for a Covid 19 Autumn then, which makes leaving the three seasons ’till now a really fortuitous accident.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

verse1Some have described this as the best Spider-Man film yet. I’m not so sure about that- I suppose that really depends upon your own history with the character, which has been in print now for over fifty years. For myself, well I read the run from 1963 through to the late ‘seventies, from the Ditko years through to the Romita and Andru years and all had their own pros and cons. For myself, the definitive Spider-Man would be one set during the 1960s, like an episode of Mad Men sprinkled with Ditko’s noir-ish sensibilities, full of period songs and stylish fashion and design. Something like the Batman tv show but done all adult and serious. Clearly, thats never likely to happen, and Spider-Man films are made for today’s readers carrying all the baggage of the 1980s run to the present, which I’m utterly ignorant of (hence my rather clueless bemusement of the Venom film and a strange distance from much of what goes on in recent Spider-Man films- a young ‘hot’ Aunt May? Wtf?).

But you never know- if there’s one thing that Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse demonstrates, anything can happen.  Quite a few times while watching the film I had to ask myself if this thing was real, where it had possibly come from. Its an exciting, exhilarating, breathlessly entertaining and imaginative slice of comic-book joy. Its an absolute blast. Back when the film was announced, I wondered what the hell they were thinking of (maybe my thoughts were shadowed by memories of that awful cheesy Spider-Man animated show of the 1960s) but this thing… well, it’s quite gorgeous, and it has a witty script… its great, a real treat. Its a slice of genius really, how it manages to press some kind of ‘reset’ button on everything that’s come before it, and make everything seem so new again- it does make me wonder, infact, where the live-action Spidey movies go without seeming old-fashioned and almost redundant. I’m quite ignorant of the character of Miles Morales having his own comic-book series but I gather he does, no doubt part of all the mythology in the comic I’ve missed since I stopped reading it decades ago. I have the feeling that I had the Spider-Man of my generation, that we deserved back then, and it’s somebody else’s now. I’m fine with that, and while I’d not really be interested in reading the current comics, it’s fun to watch something like this and get a glimpse.

I’d also love to read a Spider-Man Noir book (at last Nicolas Cage is brilliant again, who’d have guessed his true destiny was self-deprecating voice casting? His career could be revitalised for years). This guy deserves a spin-off movie… but then so does Spider-Gwen; it’s part of the genius of this film, how it can appeal to so many different groups of people not naturally ‘into’ the usual Spider-Man.

Did I say it was gorgeous? Its like one of those old Motion Comics (remember them? I tried watching the Watchmen one and retired to the original book in confusion), but on steroids. Its breathtaking really, riddled with all sorts of clever touches, whether it be squiggles or comic panels and lettering, different styles, as if somehow a comic-book drawn by different artists was brought to animated life by some kind of Frankenstein cine-sorcery. I’m sure having only seen it once there’s all sorts of touches/details/geek easter-eggs (I spotted a few) that I’ll pick up on repeated viewings. Its wild and nuts and beautiful.

Its funny, DC could have done something like this with its Batman series- have the old matinee-serial b&w Batman meet up with the Adam West Batman and the Michael Keaton Batman etc. Its a funny thing how even the movie mythologies of these comic-book characters are as convoluted as the original comic ones are. I guess it’s all those years, decades going by.

Into the Spider-Verse almost makes all those reboots and remakes make sense. Maybe it’s making some kind of commentary on the industry and how all these franchises twist and turn in an effort to keep themselves relevant and topical, and, er, make lots of money. I suppose a sequel would be almost an afront, like selling-out almost..

 

The Reels of Fate

manin12017.10: The Man in the High Castle Season Two (Amazon VOD)

The Man in the HIgh Castle, based on Philip K Dick’s Hugo-award winning book, has a killer premise. Its the early ‘sixties, and we are in a world in which the Nazi’s won the race to create the Atomic Bomb and in so doing won the Second World War. After the Germans dropped the bomb on Washington DC,  America capitulated and the country was divided between the Germans in the West and the Japanese holding the Eastern seaboard. Hitler is still alive but his health is failing, and various Nazi factions are positioning for power ahead of the political chaos that would follow the Führer’s death. The alliance/truce between the Germans and the Japanese is fragile, threatening to collapse into war, a war the Japanese cannot possibly win as they still do not have the technology to make an atomic bomb. Meanwhile, strange reels of film displaying events that have not happened, some in which the city of San Francisco is nuked, some in which the Allies won the war instead of the Axis, are being secretly distributed. What do they mean? Where are they from? Are they alternate pasts, alternate futures? Why does Hitler collect and study them? Who is the Man in the High Castle who has allegedly authored them? How can the films be ‘real’?

I had my doubts, but I have to admit, with season two, this series has really hit its stride. After the gripping pilot, season one took a long time to find its way and didn’t totally convince me, but this season picks up most of the arcs from the first series and takes them on to what turns out to be a very satisfying conclusion. Indeed, if the show had been cancelled (thankfully it hasn’t, a third season has been commissioned) then I must confess I’d have been pretty satisfied how things finally panned out. Most of the major threads are resolved, more questions answered than you might expect, and the stodgy pace of the first season replaced with a fairly swift run towards its finale. In some ways it seems to mirror how the series Caprica turned out, but from a different perspective- Caprica was one long season split into two, aired over two years by its network, the first half suffering from a dull pace from world-building and setting up arcs, the second half picking things up and resolving them at a better pace, but slaughtered by having a twelve-month gap in between, whereas The Man in the High Castle is two short seasons made over two years that forms a whole.

main3Its nice to see a series actually deliver rather than stretch things out further and tease viewers over multiple seasons. We see Hitler’s sickness progress to its inevitable conclusion, the conspiracy amongst his Nazi followers reach fruition, the threat of global conflict between the Axis superpowers reach its zenith, and a tragic twist that likely brings the arc regarding John Smith’s sons illness to an unfortunate end. Its the repercussions of these that will follow in season three, no doubt, rather than simply a continuation of them. Add to that some delightful new teases in the final coda and the second season ends with some style. Much improved over season one,  I’d urge anybody who gave up on the show to return to it- I do think much of season two causes the viewer to reconsider season one in hindsight; it informs much of what may have seemed wrong with that first seasons pace. Had the two seasons been an old-fashioned 22-episode single season it would have been a very solid whole, and I’d advise anybody starting the show to watch the two seasons together.

Its also refreshing to watch a modern show that doesn’t resort to nudity and violence to justify its worth or gain notoriety from such. In many ways The Man in the High Castle is an old-fashioned drama and quite reserved. Violence is very restrained and much of the conflict is from the opposing viewpoints and political ideals. Its very much a drama about ideas, and in so doing remains faithful to Philip K Dick’s works. There’s a number of ‘shifts’ in reality that honours themes prevalent in much of the authors output, disorienting viewer and character alike. Its wonderful that we actually end up rooting for the bad guys to save the world, undermining preconceived notions about whose side we are on and the story we expect the series to be- those same bad guys who save the world are still monsters. And yes, although season two offers resolutions to many of the first two season’s arcs, plenty of mysteries remain.

Its also a very unsettling work- there is something very nervy about an ordinary-looking scene, almost like something out of Mad Men, suddenly invaded by characters in Nazi uniform, or the Nazi banners with the Swastika billowing in the American breeze and dominating the New York skyline. Likewise the evil ideology of the Reich and its perceived superiority of its Master Race and genetics is quite harrowing, particularly in some of the offhand comments made by characters- things that might be lost if the viewer isn’t paying due attention. A worldview and alternate history is slowly established, and the world is increasingly horrific- not in a brutal, in-your-face kind of way, but in a subtle, almost insidious way. Shots of Gestapo officers looking out of panoramic windows on to the New Berlin of Hitler’s dreams -realised with quite impressive photo realism and clarity by the shows effects teams- are the stuff of nightmares.

manin2The show isn’t perfect, but any faults I had with the first season have mostly been fixed with this second season. The scripts are more focused, the acting is excellent and the music score really quite sublime. Its very much improved and I’m really looking forward to season three. I only wish it might turn up on Blu-ray sometime; the show deserves a wider audience than it is likely getting on Amazon and I’d appreciate the opportunity to own it on disc (the possibility of commentaries are intriguing to say the least). Above all else though, this show deserves a bigger audience- more people should have the opportunity to see it, something that can be said of many television programmes these days.

 

 

The Man in the High Castle (2015)

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


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

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

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

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

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

HBO Binge Madness and the Art of the Spoiler-Free

GOT3If you’ve seen it, you’ll know what I mean- there’s a point near the end of the ninth episode (its always the ninth episode with this show) of this third season when my jaw near dropped to the floor. “What?!” I cried out loud, stunned  at what I was seeing; “What!?” And then the end-credits followed in sudden silence, as if sharing the numbness of every viewer who hadn’t seen the events coming.

Just how good is HBO’s  Game Of Thrones?

I won’t discuss what it was that happened for fear of spoiling it; no-one , save someone who has read the books, should ever see this series having been spoiled of its secret delights, its twists and turns. Its something special. Readers of the books may say otherwise, but to me, this show is darn near perfect.

I love stuff like this. When something happens that takes you by surprise, when something turns a corner you didn’t see coming. When a story suddenly carries you somewhere you didn’t think you were going and hands you an emotional sucker-punch that leaves you reeling. It doesn’t often happen with movies lately, if ever at all.  The only time I ever mutter a numbed “what?!!” at the silver screen these days is when I see yet another plot hole open up in-front of me.

Just as some of the very best actors are shifting away from movies and into tv drama, so are the very best writers and producers working in television now rather than motion pictures. I’ve written of this before, that television is no longer the cheap, sub-par alternate to the silver screen that it used to be back during my childhood. Sure, there’s still a lot of crap on television, so many game shows, so much reality tv, inane chat shows, moronic soaps etc but there’s so much quality drama superior to anything you’ll see at the cinema. Stuff like the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, The Walking Dead, Mad Men, Hannibal, and that’s just the American stuff, there’s plenty of quality material from our own shore or across the channel in Europe. 

got3bAnd of course, yes, there’s  Game Of Thrones. I finished the third season boxset last night having started the thing with a re-watch of Season 2’s final episode on Tuesday. That’s eleven episodes all told over five days (two per evening with a three-episode hit on Saturday night). I’ve not read the books (although I have them on my tablet’s Kindle app ready to go) so when watching the series it’s all new to me, but goodness me you have to devour it don’t you? Having a complete season in a box, its simply impossible to ration it out to even one episode a night, nevermind one a week as it originally aired on tv.

However, stuck with having to wait for the boxsets,  I have to watch the show as an annual treat when they are released. Which means somehow avoiding all spoilers for nearly a year. One day, in several years time, I guess first-time viewers will be able to watch the entire thing in one go with a huge Complete Game of Thrones series boxset, in a similar way to how I watched The Wire and The Shield. Well, wouldn’t that be something.

Staying spoiler-free for almost a whole year regards one of the very biggest shows on television takes some doing. Particularly in this Information Age we are living in. Biggest thing is Will Power obviously (anybody remember that 1970s pop act Will Powers? Anyway I digress…), and averting my eyes from every newspaper and website headline involving Game Of Thrones or any of the actors, any Youtube with Game Of Thrones  in the subject-line. Its easy to forget how much we are assaulted by media all the time, at least until you have to consciously work to actually avoid all that media and marketing.  Its hard but staying spoiler-free can be done. I’m doing it with Mad Men too ( I have the season 6 box sitting on my shelf right now, with season 7 soon to air this Spring) and the Harry Potter movies (boxset on the shelf, waiting for a suitable amount of time to finally see why there was such a fuss about that young wizard with the specs).

I wonder if someone is doing this with The Hobbit movies, waiting for the third film to be released on disc in the inevitable trilogy box and only watching them then? I suppose there must be someone doing that; I suspect the films might be better for it. My brother has seen the sec0nd of the films at the cinema (Wild Wargs couldn’t drag me to the cinema for that) and told me the ‘ending’ of the film is particularly poor as a stand-alone experience.

So for Game of Thrones, that’s it again for another year. Except maybe it isn’t; my in-laws have taken Sky (for the sport, funnily enough) and that means they now have Sky Atlantic. So this year I may well be able to watch season 4 when it airs, and thus be able to avoid that long hard work of staying spoiler-free. But I do wonder if my enjoyment/viewing experience will be lessened, compared to if I wait for next year’s season 4 Blu-ray box and have another HBO binge. Hmm.