Paywalls are a Good Thing

As we slide further into a streaming future and an increasing number of providers, more and more shows and movies are becoming locked away behind numerous paywalls and I’m… well, the natural thing to write here is that I’m obviously missing out massively. But I don’t necessarily think I am. I’m beginning to think its a question of liberation, an indication of the increasing irrelevance of franchises I once thought hugely important.

I watched The Walking Dead for several years, but thankfully gave up on it before its final seasons slipped behind the Disney paywall. I quite enjoyed Outlander for a few years, but fell behind before it too slipped behind a different paywall. Star Trek seems to be slipping behind a Paramount paywall, but other than curiosity regards how disappointing  Strange New Worlds probably turns out, I can’t say I really care. They should have probably done me a favour and put Picard behind that paywall so I couldn’t have suffered through its Season Two (unofficial subtitle ‘The Death of Trek’).

I’ve never subscribed to Disney+ so I haven’t seen any of the Marvel tv shows, or Star Wars tv shows, or some of the movies being put on there and nowhere else (except for those few movies that arrive on disc that I decide to take a punt on). It was a bit annoying at first, hearing great things about The Mandalorian, and a Boba Fett series certainly seemed intriguing, but as time has moved on, I’ve realised I haven’t missed them at all, and according to some reviews, I haven’t missed out on too much of any value/worth, either.  There definitely seems an indication that Disney making so much Marvel and Star Wars content risks diluting the value of those properties, and quality control seems to have definitely fallen to the wayside in the drive to ensure fresh new content pops up on the streaming service. And there’s the odd twist that there’s so many Marvel tv shows presumably linking to the films, that me not watching Disney+ makes the film themselves less appealing to me than ever. I understand back in the 1990s many comic fans gave up on the massive comic crossover arcs that required me them to buy comic series they wouldn’t ordinarily touch with a barge pole, if only because they couldn’t afford to buy them all. Is that happening with streaming platforms and franchises? Might it happen to the MCU too? You can watch the films but they will reference to series and events and characters one hasn’t seen and therefore make less sense? As if the MCU wasn’t hard enough to keep track of anyway.

Maybe I’m getting old. I have been increasingly diverted by older movies, such as the film noir that I have been watching and collecting (becoming a substantially large percentage of the titles on my shelving these days). They don’t show too many of those older films on the streaming services. Actually I find it curious, that so much regards these streaming services seems to be about genre shows, which seems oddly niche, considering streamers are after subscription numbers, and I would have thought that meant chasing Mr Average, not the geek sitting in the basement or up in the back room. Or did the geeks inherit the Earth after all, and nobody’s watching soaps or sitcoms anymore? Its just a bit weird. Maybe in an alternative universe everyone’s watching Westerns or cop dramas or something.

I’m not suggesting that streamers are the Great Evil – there are some great shows and movies being made, that I cannot imagine ever seeing the light of day through any other vendor- like Amazon’s The Boys or Netflix’s Stranger Things. But its true that the elephant in the room regards streaming services (and its not just Disney+ at fault here, as Netflix is as guilty as any) – is that to keep subscribers the services have to ensure a steady flow of new content for them to consume before they get bored and turn elsewhere, but it requires so much content that quality inevitably suffers. How many Netflix Originals turn out to be any good, never mind actually great? If Disney just made one Star Wars mini-series a year, would it enable them to make it at least consistently logical and honest to the franchises mythology?  I’ve heard things about that Obi-Wan series, how bad it is, from reliable people I know that have seen it, that are mind-boggling, frankly. Disney would have to pay me to see it, not the other way around.

There are many tv shows I would like to see, like Apple’s For All Mankind series from Ronald D Moore. But what kind of viewing figures does that show actually get, or indeed most any of the shows on these streaming platforms? How many people actually watch Star Trek: Discovery? A generation past made who shot JR or who killed Laura Palmer hugely popular discussions and as everything fragments that seems to be increasingly rare- maybe its impossible now. I’ve watched tv shows and been unable to even find anyone else who watched them at all, never mind anyone to share them with in conversation. Maybe that’s the result of paywalls, but isn’t that making much of its content irrelevant that would usually be what we used to call water-cooler television? Is that really a Good Thing?

The new Dune trailer

Oh this looks good. This looks so VERY good. Anyone else get a tingle watching those Ornithopters flying over the sand dunes?

But is anyone else concerned that the last ten years of dumbing down blockbusters may have robbed this film of its audience? Nobody turned up to go watch BR2049, and that film wasn’t being dumped on HBO Max at the time either. I don’t know how much of an impact that HBO Max thing will prove to be, or how much Covid will be in the equation come October, but considering the money that Dune needs to make in order to break even/get Part Two greenlit…  My biggest concern is simply that, are audiences going to go in droves to watch a sci-fi epic minus caped superheroes beating the shit out of bad guys while wrecking a city? Are audiences going to sit still for a film with ideas? 

Mind, Dune is an epic story with epic spectacle so maybe that will pull people in. Films are so stupid now though, particularly the ones that make any money. I’m still reeling from the assault on my senses that was Godzilla vs Kong and that Hobbs & Shaw thing. Is that what films are now? While I take some comfort from how Disney’s Black Widow seems to have under-performed recently, that also makes me nervous regards how streaming (and yeah, Covid) seems to have pulled people away from the movie experience, wondering if things have changed forever. Have the weekly drops of content on Netflix and Disney+ so diluted peoples appreciation of tentpole releases (I have to wonder if Disney putting Marvel and Star Wars content for ‘free’ onto subscribers televisions is a kind of self-sabotage) weakened and diluted the appeal of said franchises as regards getting bums on seats in cinemas, like it used to be? We’ve already seen how people don’t seem interested in buying films on disc anymore. Some of the high-end stuff being dropped on Netflix is often poor but production-wise, they are essentially exactly the same thing as is seen in cinemas. I remember when I was kid, I saw The Empire Strikes Back at the cinema on a Saturday afternoon and when I got home Buck Rogers in the 25th Century was on the telly, and funnily enough it was the episode with the asteroid sequence and Buster Crabbe but it was so different in quality, the chasm between home entertainment and cinema entertainment was plain. That’s gone now, and seeing ‘new’ Star Wars and Marvel stuff straight onto the telly…

I’ve noted before that movies don’t seem as important or special as they used to be in my youth, back when Star Wars would be on the big screen only and when you’d wait for years to ever see Jaws again- gradually films have become more disposable. In a world where you can buy Avatar for a fiver, is there any wonder that Avatar itself fails to have any real cultural significance (and I’m really curious how those Avatar sequels will perform in a few years time). Are movies, as we fans remember them as ‘MOVIES,’ essentially dead, and things like Dune simply being made for a world and business model that no longer exists?

One has to wonder if Dune: Part Two will eventually just be a mini-series on HBO Max.

Life’s a Black Water Abyss, and then you…

blackwI’ll keep this one short, I first just have to find an excuse for having watched this… well, it was a long day, a rough day at work (well, in my back room, so ‘at work’ doesn’t mean quite what it used to… ) so I was tired. That’s my excuse, I was tired. I could have put something decent on, something that required my attention, but really, some nights when I’m tired, that’s not doing a good film justice, it feels wasteful. So I was tired, had about 90 minutes to kill before going to bed, needed to ‘escape’ a little… so yeah, the mission is to find some undemanding harmless rubbish that doesn’t insult my intelligence.

But that’s a tricky thing in itself, browsing through all the possibilities on either Amazon Prime of Netflix,  you can be so spoiled for choice, you fail to make a choice. Its happened to me before, thinking I’ll find something to watch that’s about 90 minutes long, and twenty minutes/half-hour later it dawns that the 90 minutes now requires two hours all told and I just give up, cut my losses with a half-hour sitcom and trudge up to bed irritated at having wasted opportunity for an evening movie.

So that’s my excuse; I sensed it was taking too long to find something and just desperately clicked on Black Water: Abyss, the premise of which is clearly a rip-off of The Descent, which was a great little movie that I should really watch again sometime (yeah, 2021 is coming) as well as cynically nodding to all sorts of films like Crawl, which was pretty bloody lousy itself. I have no excuses, really, it was clear this thing was pretty crummy. You watch enough movies, its funny how adept your Shite Radar can be; you can spot it just by the premise. 

So what’s Black Water: Abyss about? Well we’re in Australia, and bargain basement Chris Hemsworth lookalike Luke Mitchell, who honed his acting chops in the gym and on Aussie soap Home and Away, stars as Eric, who leads a group of young non-entities (two couples and a gooseberry) on a jolly outing exploring a cave network out in a remote location. It starts raining, the caves start flooding, and, er, they get trapped with a hungry killer croc. That’s about it.  There’s some subplot about two of them cheating on the other two and girl power winning out, and there’s even a really bad false-ending and silly coda that’s so ridiculous I might have yelled at the screen had I been less tired, but the ending was a merciful relief even if it was appalling. 

Anyway, I promised I’d keep this short. This one’s pretty terrible and one you should definitely avoid, even if you’re stuck late in the evening looking for something short and undemanding to watch.   

The Absurd Ava

ava2Its probably weighed negatively upon my opinion of this film, but I must confess, Jessica Chastain in roles like this seems an unlikely fit. I don’t know why exactly an actress of her calibre should feel inclined to slum in such sub-par action material – its not that I’m being snobbish here, I love good action movies- other than the sad fact that every actress seems to be doing it (the diminutive Natalie Portman a female Thor for goodness sake).

To her credit, Chastain largely manages the action stuff quite well (or her stunt double does, anyway) but any effort she makes in the drama stakes (more of which later) is wholly undermined by the utter preposterousness of the enterprise. Indeed, crucially even the action scenes are totally preposterous- at one point when she has run away from an assailant in a park, and the killer searching for her walks past a water fountain/pool, I thought, ‘even the daftest film wouldn’t have her leaping out of that shallow pool’ and boom, she did just that! I almost applauded the sheer audacity. We are supposed to believe that, in the moments he lost track of her, she submerged herself in that shallow fountain, held her breath underwater -and herself, for that matter, I mean, we naturally float, you know?- for an interminable amount of time on the off-chance he’d walk past that way, and then somehow have traction enough to leap out and dispatch him. She leaps out of the water as if propelled by a spring board. What is this, Wonder Woman here?

Bad enough that -apologies to female empowerment junkies- a woman of the slight build of Chastain can repeatedly beat the shit out of armed heavies twice her weight and size and weirdly dodge bullets. The fight sequences throughout the film are, again, preposterous and laughable. Is this where all the Marvel movies have left us? Any sense of reality, any sense of the real outcome of actual violence, all the punches, stabbings, being thrown through windows and into walls etc is long gone in the face of several years of spandex sensibilities infiltrating sane stunt design, as is the reality of a ten-stone woman taking on a fifteen/sixteen-stone hulking brute. I know its only a movie, but its not a superhero movie, right?

Thinking back to female screen icons like Ripley and Sarah Connor, when I really think back on it, they never really did anything wildly implausible or ridiculous, there was always a sense of reality, of a real woman in whatever situation they were in. You were never expected to see Ripley beating the shit out of several hulking brutes (never mind a Giger monster) or Sarah Connor dispatching a squad of armed goons in a gun battle all by herself.  

Alas, Chastain cannot retreat to using her acting prowess in any drama away from the action, because the absurdity bleeds from the action into what would usually be the dramatic story/character arcs hidden between the stunts and carnage. We are expected to believe Chastain’s Ava was, just eight years before, a teenage delinquent and alcoholic who went off to join the army, got clean, excelled in training, served a few tours and then got hired as an assassin by some mysterious agency, earning a reputation of ‘best in show’ or something by dispatching 40 victims who deserved to die. Well, I say deserved, even Ava seems to have eventually  appreciated her orders may be dubious, taking to asking her victims what had they done to deserve their murder before she finally pulls the trigger, a rebellious tactic that angers her employer enough that it orders her own assassination. Returning home from her eight year stint as a killing machine, she finds her ex is now shacked up with her sister, her mom is in hospital and her scumbag father dead. Yes its all daft nonsense and frankly rather insulting of any audience intelligence. Not Chastain’s finest hour, but I guess it pays the bills.

After Life Season Two

afterlife2bI have this love/hate relationship (to be clear, its mostly the latter rather than the former) with Ricky Gervais that is akin to that between me and James Cameron, and I’m more likely to avoid a film or tv show because I see Gervais involved. Its possibly resulted in me missing out, but what can I say? Its just chemistry or something, irrational as it might be, and he has gotten filthy rich enough without me so he’s on a winner anyhow. To me, his success and popularity has been mystifying, but hey ho.

So thats why last year’s first season of After Life was such a shock and surprise to me, because it turned out to be so bloody brilliant. It was a view shared by the public at large, because it proved incredibly popular on Netflix and has resulted in this second series. I suspect that this success proved as surprising to Gervais as anyone, because that first season was remarkably self-contained and its clear that the biggest weakness of this second series is that it feels almost an afterthought, at worst a needless reprise.

When it works, this second series works, and its surprisingly poignant and effecting; at other times it fails, particularly some of its humour, which increasingly resorts to bad language for laughs, and feels terribly lazy and awkward. Its almost as if Gervais isn’t certain where the popularity of that first season lies: was it the “death is easy, life is hard” subtext, the drama of grief, or is it the reckless, breaking-social-niceities abandon of Gervais’ character’s interactions with others?  I have a suspicion that this second season may have been rushed into production too soon, and that it results in an uneven show that lacks the sophistication it warrants. But to be clear, when it works, the show is quite beautiful and powerfully moving. I’m just not certain it knows what it really wants to be, or where its balance truly lies.

Maybe a third (and final?) series may nail that balance, we’ll just have to see.

Devs: The emptiness of Causality?

devAlex Garland continues to be one of the more interesting writers/directors working today- frustratingly, of course, his recent films have all suffered difficulties; Annihilation being sold straight to streaming via Netflix in territories outside the United States, while Ex Machina had a switch in theatrical distributor that did it few favours.

Leaving movies behind him, Garland seems to have found new and exciting freedom and opportunity in television:  Devs, currently airing here in the UK on BBC2 and available in its entirety on iPlayer, is a deeply thoughtful and intellectually challenging tech-thriller, entirely written and directed by Garland – presumably ensuring he was afforded complete creative control. Deeply thoughtful, it is also graced with some gorgeous photography and art direction, with some arresting and quite chilling imagery (there are few moments that literally set the hairs on the back of my neck standing on end): its ironically, perhaps, very cinematic. Like both Ex Machina and Annihilation, its cinematic with ideas, and compliments those two films (particularly the first) very well indeed, with questions about identity, freewill and the nature of Reality.

What anyone really takes away from the series, though, likely depends on what they think of the series finale. Devs is a one-off, with Garland clear he does not envisage a second season being likely. On the one hand, its refreshing to watch a series and not be left with a tease for another season next year- instead, across its eight episodes the show has a definite beginning, middle and end. The issue is of course, after eight hours of deepening mysteries and tantalising possibilities, that some viewers might be left frustrated by how Devs concludes, especially when one considers that it demands some work from the viewer to interpret what they are seeing and what everything means.

Devs is definitely, deliberately high-concept.  Its a dark tech-thriller about Quantum computing, the dichotomy of freewill in a deterministic universe, the alternatives inherent in multiverse theory, virtual time travel…  its certainly rich with ideas and has lots of twists. Its like the absolute antithesis of stuff like the recent Star Trek: Picard. It also looks great, too, sumptuously designed and directed with a great cast and interesting characters, so again, yeah, the absolute antithesis of stuff like the recent Star Trek: Picard.

I really enjoyed it (binged it over three nights) and would love to expound upon what I think it was all about, what the ending really meant, etc. but as the series is still being aired over here I think I’ll refrain from this for awhile, at least until the comments section (if anyone has seen the whole thing and want to chip in with their thoughts please do). Suffice to say it really is very, very good and deserves to be seen by as many people as possible- certainly it would be nice for Garland’s work to get a wider audience this time around. So yes, I’d heartily recommend it, and hopefully it will lead to more such projects in future.


A sense of the alien in films pre-Covid19

contagionIts really strange watching films of late. There are scenes with crowds and people getting together, even times when  -horror!- someone shakes someone else’s hand in greeting or hugs somebody. Such casual wanton misbehaviour! Whenever this happens I get this weird feeling that something is terribly wrong and alien about it.

We’ve only had a few weeks of this lockdown/social isolation thing going on, and its pretty horrible not being able to visit friends or family properly and, er, touch people like we used to. But the strange thing, even almost insidious thing about it, really, is how it now looks so weird seeing the old ‘normal’ way of living in films and being almost shocked by seeing it. Its a little like seeing pre-2000 films in which people smoke a lot; the further back in time when the film was made, the more prevalent and ‘social’ it is – go back to a film made in the and 1950s and people tend to smoke endlessly in the oddest places (in retrospect) and its so inclusive and social as the people progressively damage each others health and encourage each other to work harder at it. Thinking its fun, that its… sexy.  The old being ‘human’ becomes something decidedly alien.

That’s happening now, as if things actually changed overnight. I’m living in a world in which chat shows on television have ‘virtual’ interviews via webcam or game shows have panellists playing from home (Have I Got News For You is such a bizarre experience just now its almost like watching a Japanese game show). Even on Breakfast television presenters are either doing so remotely from home or sitting in the studio several feet apart, and yet in movies, naturally, things are from a different time, like, from a month ago or something, and obviously very different- its just so weird how it feels watching it. I have to exercise additional suspension of disbelief to just accept such ridiculous scenarios lacking social distancing or enhanced cleanliness. The world has gone crazy and its left all our movies feeling just that little bit odder and unreal.

Mind you, the other night I noticed Netflix have got Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion available, a film I haven’t seen since I first saw it back in 2011 on a rental and like some damn fool who hasn’t had enough fear from watching the news, I watched the first half of it. How horribly prescient that film is proving to be, and suddenly it looks like the most normal film I’m watching now. Seeing people wearing masks, gloves and PPE and trying to manage containment and isolation procedures is like, everyday stuff now. No longer as alien as it seemed back in 2011, its now, er, so normal.

We need life to go back to weird, like those other movies, as soon as safely possible.

Weekly Saul? That’s why 1982 was so great.

bcs1Netflix dropped season five of Better Call Saul yesterday and in a surprise move (well, it surprised me) it comprised of one episode only, with episode two promised for today (Tuesday) and the remainder of the ten-episode season dropping on a weekly basis. There was me girding my loins for a week-long binge of the entire season, putting off books/chores/films/other television shows to enable me to do it, and Netflix pulls this stunt. Weekly episodes? That’s so 1982.

But of course, its a good thing really. It means the show ‘lasts’ longer and stays relevant longer at work as we (well, the two of us watching it) discuss it while getting a coffee. So there’s progress. Lets all go back to the way television used to be, maybe that’s the future after all. Amazon are doing the same thing here in the UK with Star Trek: Picard, albeit that’s been mandated by CBS over in America where the show airs on a weekly basis on the CBS All Access service. I quite like this way of staggering a release like this as opposed to dumping the whole lot in one go. My head loved going through all of season four of The Expanse over one weekend, but my heart knows it would have been better released on a weekly schedule. My head thinks I’m an idiot sticking with Star Trek: Picard, but my heart says its easing the agony watching it weekly doses on Friday nights while winding down from a long day at work. So its win-win.


Altered Carbon Season 2 soon

Netflix has this week finally released a trailer for its upcoming second season of Altered Carbon,  which lands on February 27th. Quite looking forward to this- I just can’t quite believe its been nearly two years since the first season landed.  Altered Carbon was one of  the first shows I watched on Netflix; indeed it was one of the reasons why I started my subscription. I guess I just couldn’t resist its Blade Runner, cyberpunk vibe.

The first season of Altered Carbon had rock-solid production values and an intriguing premise, and was really, really good at times, just hampered by, ironically, perhaps leaning on those Blade Runner nods too often. I’m not familiar with the original books that the series is based on, but I gather this second season has a different cast, is set much later and has a rather different setting. This could be both a good and bad thing, really, with a danger it will lose some of the cast I liked and some of the setting and mood that I really enjoyed, but we’ll see. In any case, it should be a nice change from the rather weak Star Trek: Picard and frankly terrible Star Trek: Discovery. I doubt that The Expanse will be losing its crown as the best and most exciting sci-fi show currently on television, but I’m hoping that Altered Carbon will improve on its first season and fulfil its promise. There’s always room for more good sci-fi.

Another Life Saved

ther3Terrifying news has broke that Netflix has ordered a second season of the frankly abominable sci-fi series Another Life. I’m gobsmacked, frankly. I watched the whole thing and it was possibly the worst sci-fi show I have ever had the misfortune to see. It would appear, however, that Netflix perceived my sticking with the full season as a sign I want more. Yikes.

Time I start ditching shows after two episodes then and to hell with giving them the benefit of the doubt, its clearly too dangerous. Two episodes then press the nuke button, its the only way to be sure.

(As an aside, I feel rather affronted by the knowledge that Netflix don’t seem at all concerned about the quality of the show, as long as people are watching it they just don’t care about whether it is any good or not. Numbers are everything then. I shouldn’t be surprised, but Another Life was clearly such a bad show. Nothing worked, it was terrible. But it gets renewed. Mad. The world is mad.)