Last Week: one film leads to another. Endlessly.

they live byReal-life distractions got in the way of posting reviews last week, and it was a pretty weird week all round. I watched Nicholas Ray’s noir thriller They Live by Night having recorded it off a film channel on the cable box- not the best quality, and certainly no doubt far inferior to the Criterion Blu-ray which I nearly bought in their last sale several months back. Well, next sale-time I’ll be rectifying that mistake, because it was an outrageously great film and one I want to watch again in better quality. It really was one hell of a film.

Its a funny thing- for some reason, this particular January is actually becoming one of the best months I’ve had for catching really good films, although it is also becoming a little expensive purchasing catalogue titles on Blu-ray: my problem is how films seem to endlessly lead to others. You see a great film by one director and it leads to looking up what else he/she directed, or you are impressed by an actor so you look up their filmography. Sometimes it is the featurettes on a disc that do the deed, referencing films that I haven’t seen, which is great if they are accessible on streaming services but frustrating if it requires purchasing titles on disc. For example, a featurette on Indicator’s The Reckless Moment disc -and that’s another great film I need to post a review of soon- referenced James Mason and some of his films made around the time The Reckless Moment was made- one of which was Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out, which from the scenes shown in the featurette looked interesting enough to get me buying it on a Blu-ray from network, but which itself somehow then led me to another Carol Reed film, The Fallen Idol, which again looked really interesting, and as both that and Carol Reed’s The Third Man are in a sale at both HMV and Amazon….

scarlst2Back to The Reckless Moment though, because I was so impressed by Joan Bennett in that film that I went looking at her filmography. Fortunately Fritz Lang’s noir Scarlett Street which starred Bennett was on Amazon Prime, and while it wasn’t the best quality (its obvious streamers dump these older films on their services without much attention to print quality etc), at least it was in its original black and white. Unfortunately, the edition of Lang’s The Woman in the Window, another noir starring Bennett, which is  available on Amazon Prime, is a colourised version (I thought those had been outlawed long ago, but colourised movies somehow still seem to be surfacing). My goodness its unwatchable, I switched that travesty off within minutes of it starting, so my only current avenue for that film seems to be a Blu-ray from Eureka. Oh my wallet. I did spot another Joan Bennett on a cable movie channel so have recorded it – The Woman on the Beach, which I’ll give a try, if only because it also features Robert Ryan- yeah, him. Again. Mind, goodness only knows what films both The Woman in the Window and The Woman on the Beach possibly lead to.

Strangely enough, I found myself watching two more episodes of 1970s popular cop show Starsky and Hutch last week. I don’t know why I’m so cruel to myself, but nostalgia can be a rude mistress. Anyway, one of these two episodes in particular was of some passing interest- the third season episode The Action, from 1978, featured an extraordinarily young Melanie Griffiths in a guest role, and also M Emmet Walsh (only a few years away from Blade Runner) and James B. Sikking, later of Hill Street Blues fame and parts in both Outland and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. That episode seems ridiculously overloaded with notable guest stars. The second episode I watched was a late fourth-season episode, with the series clearly on its last legs,  my attention drawn by the episode title (Starsky vs.Hutch, which was intriguing but the actual episode quite another matter). I stuck with the episode because of it featuring an unrecognisable Yvonne Craig (Bargirl sorry, Batgirl, in the Adam West Batman tv show) in a very minor -insultingly so, really, I has a hard time tracking her down- role, and the great Richard Lynch as the villain. Lynch played a psychopathic Vietnam veteran who hated blondes, hunting a dating bar/dance hall – only the brunettes were safe (but he wasn’t fooled by blonde wearing a dark wig, the cunning bastard). Lynch seemed to be a regular bad guy in television shows of that era (Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, The A-Team, you name it he was a villain in it) and he had a notable turn in the fantasy flick The Sword and the Sorcerer (a poor-mans Conan which I gather is getting a 4K release before the John Milius film, somehow. Crazy world.).

On a curiously related note, I did see the very end of Conan The Barbarian during the week, catching the last moments of a showing on television when flicking the channels late at night. Every time I catch the end or mid-point of a film I have on disc -the Dirty Harry films were on over Christmas, so those are a few others- showing on the telly late at night, I think, wow, I’d love to sit and watch this right now, but its always at some ungodly hour. I must have had more stamina for late, late movie watching in the old days. I just can’t do it anymore.

Friday of course brought the final-ever episode of The Expanse (I’m still hoping that Amazon or Alcon Entertainment or the showrunners are bluffing us about it being The End). I had a long day work-wise on Friday (not helped by an eleventh-hour report of sickness re: our old nemesis, Covid) so had to bide my time until late in the evening before I could watch it. It was a bittersweet experience- a great finale, certainly, but we all know there’s three more books waiting to be adapted (as well as a few novellas) so we know the story isn’t complete and indeed, the seeds laid at the start of each of this season’s episodes for what happens beyond this final episode only added to the frustrations of all fans, I expect. But yeah,  its clear that the sixth book was a good cutting-off point (in the books there is a 30-year gap between books six and seven) so it makes some kind of sense. Anyway, Expanse Season Six is another post in the queue list. It seems a long time since I wrote about its first season, years ago; I just can’t believe I’m now writing about its ending.

The 2021 List: January

I’m back. Well, I’ve not really been away, just side-lined by work and life. I’m sure anyone reading this appreciates just how strange life is getting, and how we’re getting worn down. Its really quite relentless, and most nights now I’m so tired in the evenings I don’t have energy to concentrate enough to even watch a film, let alone write about it. Maybe I just need a holiday (ha, ha) – ain’t that the truth/sick joke (delete as appropriate). Its been  more than two years since my last holiday anywhere, and my booked holiday in May (which was deferred from May last year, for reasons obvious to everyone) is looking as unlikely as Vangelis releasing an anthology of his unreleased soundtracks headlined by a complete Blade Runner. Or him ever releasing that Juno to Jupiter album.

So what have I been watching? Not included on the list waiting for your perusal below as its not finished until next Wednesday, is Season Five of The Expanse, which has been quite brilliant. As someone who championed this series way back when I had to import the Blu-rays to watch it, its great to see the show having some critical success before it ends next year. Amazon saving The Expanse from its third-season cancellation is the rescue Farscape deserved but never got. Anyway, more on that next week/month/when I get to write about it.

toastJanuary is a hell of a bleak month, and Lockdown is just making it all the bleaker. I’ve been retreating to sitcoms, mostly Toast of London, a show from a few years back that I vaguely recall noticing but never watching. Finally watching it thanks to the Netflix algorithm bringing it back to my attention,  its quite funny and quirky and I enjoyed it enough to binge all three seasons of it, but not enough to write a post about it. There’s that energy-sapping thing again. I don’t know. There was a feeling of biding time watching it; I knew I should be watching something more worthwhile but it was low-effort, making little demand of me. I’ve just moved on to another feast courtesy of the Netflix algorithm, an American sitcom titled Superstore, currently watching season one. There’s five seasons of this show and I never knew it even existed until I started watching it last week. I think this is what’s called Sitcom Hell. I need to find some escape.

Television

Most ill-conceived reboot of the month:

2. Black Narcissus (BBC Miniseries)

Sitcom ‘comfort food of the month’ (lockdown special):

6) Toast of London Season One

7) Toast of London Season Two

11) Toast of London Season Three

Sexed-up Downton Abbey of the month:

15) Bridgerton Season One

Female Space Messiah Award:

9) Star Trek: Discovery Season Three 

Films:

The Good, and the even Better:

3) Proxima (2019)

4. Hidden Figures (2016)

5) The Garment Jungle

8) The Lineup (1958)

16) The Wages of Fear (1953)

The Distinctly Average:

10) The Gentlemen (2019)

12) Sputnik (2020)

14) The Wackiest Ship in the Navy (1961)

The Utterly Woeful:

1) The Midnight Sky (2020)

13) Outside the Wire (2021)

So that’s sixteen titles, split between six seasons of TV shows and ten films. Regards re-watching stuff, apart from the fantastic Millennium Actress that I did actually post about, I did re-watch The Two Towers, the second film of the LOTR trilogy, part of the 4K UHD boxset that came out late last year and which I seem to be struggling to get to actually watch, never mind actually writing about. I watched The Fellowship of the Ring over the Christmas period, and while its proving a struggle, strangely, to get around to watching all three films (possibly its because they are the extended versions which makes it awkward to schedule, in all honesty, with everything else going on) its been very interesting, returning to what is quite possibly the last genuinely great blockbuster trilogy ever made, and seeing how well they have aged (or not).  I intend to possibly expand upon this in a future post once I’ve managed to watch The Return of the King, which, on my apparently monthly schedule will happen in February. Some people managed marathons of the LOTR in a single day, or over three consecutive days- I haven’t even managed it over three weekends.

It has occurred to me that the sheer bravura of shooting all three films back-to-back might be something we never see again, considering the state of theatrical exhibition in this Covid World. We are in a situation now in which traditional blockbusters are not economically viable and are being delayed one or even two years waiting for some kind of stability regards exhibition. Where this leaves Villenueve’s Dune and its ‘will-they-won’t-they’ second film completing its story is anyone’s guess. At some point if things don’t change, more of these films will end up relegated to streaming premieres such as those Warner have announced for HBO Max in America, and what that means for studios cutting their losses and plans for 2023, 2024 etc is really a concern.

So anyway, that’s January. Looking towards February, well, its anyone’s guess how that month will likely turn out. Indicator’s second Columbia Noir set is due out so I look forward to getting into that, having so enjoyed the first set. And I have a pile of unwatched films on the Tivo etc and waiting on Netflix and Amazon, if I can ever muster the enthusiasm to watch any of it. Or indeed the time, due to working at home proving particularly problematic of late. We’ll just have to see. Oh, and its possibly going to include my biggest non-event of a birthday in all my 55 revolutions of the sun. That should be curious, although as a bonus it sees me jump up a group on the Vaccination schedule. Life. Is. So. Strange. Now.

COVID-Vac-priority-tiers

The Expanse finds its Event Horizon

exp3At the risk of seeming an intolerable geek, I was immediately dumped into a funk this morning when I looked up my news feed at Breakfast and was met by headlines that The Expanse has been cancelled at Amazon. I nearly choked on my Muesli, and that’s a hell of a way to start the day. Sure, there’s plenty more genuinely concerning and life-effecting bad news on the news every morning, we’re living in a very strange world now, but I think getting outraged by one of my favourite tv shows getting cancelled is almost reassuring, a glimpse of what used to be reality, what used to be my ‘normal’. 

It was so out of the blue that it was shocking, really. Amazon, once the exalted saviour of The Expanse, has now cancelled it. Seems that its too expensive, and even in the strange economically bizarre world of streaming, viewing figures do matter after all, and The Expanse hasn’t gotten enough, apparently. Colour me surprised by this one, though: I thought Amazon’s owner Jeff Bezos (personal net worth $181 billion and counting) was a big fan, which would pretty much guarantee us nine seasons (to match the nine original books). If the richest man on Earth can’t afford to bankroll his favourite tv show so he can watch it, then nothing makes sense. Viewing figures? Where does that get in the mix? Oh Ghost you’re such a naïve fool, I know, I hear you. Of course Bezos didn’t get so rich as he is by throwing money away… well actually, he practically did, I remember Amazon being a fiscal black hole for years. So how come he has decided to allow the show to be kicked into that Black Hole now? Did Bezos even see the memo?

The good news is that the imminent fifth season won’t be its last- Amazon have agreed to make a sixth season to allow the showrunners to give the show a decent ending. Which is pretty damned great in my book and something positive I can clutch at, in a world where ST: Discovery somehow gets renewed for another interminable season. How does a show like The Expanse gets cancelled when absolute garbage like Discovery gets made? Well, the answer is 42, my freinds, the answer is 42 (God bless you, Douglas Adams, I always turn to you in moments such as this).    

Feeling the Leviathan’s Wake

leviI’ve recently finished Leviathan Wakes, the first of the nine-book series that forms The Expanse. Partly its to fill the empty expanse (see what I did there?) in my life as I wait for season five of the show to drop on Amazon (hopefully before the end of the year), and partly its to sate my curiosity about what the original books are like, compared to the series.

As it turns out, the series is very faithful to the books by the evidence of this first entry. Can’t imagine many original readers being annoyed by any changes. I must admit I was rather surprised at how much of a page-turning potboiler it turned out to be. The book lacked the slow start and world-building that the series featured, with some characters appearing in the first series of the show not in this book at all, but clearly due to turn up in the second and third books. In some ways I found this a little disappointing, and I actually think the television incarnation might actually be an improvement on the book, because I quite enjoy all that world-building and exposition. It did seem odd, having been used to reading the Game of Thrones books, the sheer density of which dwarfed the HBO series even when it that series followed the decidedly sedate pace of the books. I suppose some readers might actually find the lack of possibly irritating explanations of how the Epstein Drive works or the detailed planetary politics going on in the background etc as being a bonus. I suppose I’ll have to see if the following books fill in some of those details.

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.

 

Star Trek: Picard Episode Two

stpicard2Where I think a lot of the current genre material, on both television and film, gets into trouble is that it often feels a bit like trying to get square blocks into round holes- it doesn’t really fit right. I don’t know if its a general lack of imaginative, new thinking creatively or just the Corporate pressure to keep resurrecting old properties (because its easier to update/reboot/sell old stuff than come up with something genuinely original) but when you think about it, a lot of the genre stuff we see now is Star Trek or Star Wars or based on Marvel and DC comics we read as kids back in the 1960s or 1970s.  Its rather like the old saying, ‘there’s nothing new under the sun’. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, after all, I’m not adverse to anyone making a show or movie based on a 1920s Lovecraft story or bringing back Conan or Tarzan or John Carter. But Star Trek was a 1960s show and of its time, retconned somewhat in the 1980s for The Next Generation, and Star Wars likewise was a 1970s/1980s film series. Bringing them back in the 2010s and now, crikey, the 2020s… well, its certainly causing a friction because a lot of our ‘wiser and more progressive’ thinking , as it is often referred to, is pretty much a bad fit for some of our genre classics.

Moreover, people rather forget that back in the day, there wasn’t a dozen other shows competing with Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek, and while there were a few sci-films etc (The Black Hole, Star Trek: TMP, Battlestar Galactica, take a bow) there wasn’t really much competition with the Star Wars films either. These days there are so many genre shows and films being made I think the talent pool is really pretty thin, and I think we’re getting films and shows written and made by people who just aren’t up to it, but are finding careers easy to pursue in an arena where Netflix and Amazon and Disney are throwing so much money into it. Genre stuff is too popular now and I think as we’re getting so much of it general creativity and the quality of writing is sinking fast.

I don’t think JJ Abrams was a proper fit for the Star Trek reboots and I don’t think he was a proper fit for the new Star Wars films either. His Star Trek films tried to refit so much of the old shows mythology but never seemed right, with characters and plot-devices (teleportation to ships in warp or across star systems) that just weren’t correct to established logic or mythology. I know, I sound like a raving geek all the time raising that stuff, but it gets to a point at which Star Trek stops being Star Trek, and it may as well be something else entirely, but of course the Corporate heads want to exploit already established and easily marketable IP. What, after all, does Star Trek: Discovery really have in common with Star Trek that isn’t just in name only,  if the Klingons don’t look or act like Klingons, the Vulcans don’t look or act like Vulcans, and Star Fleet doesn’t look or behave like Star Fleet proper? Its the same thing with the new Star Wars films, which I have frequently berated elsewhere on this blog- if characters or events are so indistinguishable from what was established before in the Original Trilogy or elsewhere, when is it frankly no longer Star Wars and something else?

Its happening now with the current iteration of the BBCs Dr Who, with established cannon being sacrificed, far as I can tell, to just excuse bad writing or lack of creative responsibility to the franchise. Fans and critics are being blindsided by a lot of ‘progressive’ and blatant  ‘social agenda’ material being thrown in, but on the whole its disguising the real tragedy that is a really crummy, lazily written show that is really Dr Who in name only.

Its not that everything is creatively redundant. Ironically some new stuff is very good- The Expanse, for instance, is terrific and is perhaps thriving because it isn’t beholden to decades of established mythology and fans who are experts on those decades of material. Characters in the show can be fresh and exciting and challenging because in behaviour they don’t have to be true to anything established decades before, only what has been written in novels written by genuine talented sci-fi writers who know what they are doing.

Which brings me, finally, to the subject of this post, which is the second episode of Star Trek: Picard. Yeah, I got here eventually. Its not that I dislike this show, its certainly watchable (if only much of that is simply from the presence of Sir Patrick Stewart) but it certainly has its problems, and a lot of this is the writing, the creative choices. Its not a disaster on Dr Who levels, but it does have the feel that the core idea for this series is from some other franchise. Maybe somebody at Alcon had an idea for a Blade Runner series on Netflix and retconned it into a Star Trek story, because all this talk about synths and rebellions Off World (sorry, Mars) feels more Blade Runner, or maybe Westworld, than it does Star Trek. I can almost imagine a pitch meeting where one of the suits responded “yeah, nice idea but that Blade Runner flick flopped, can you maybe write it for the bald guy from Trek, I hear he’s looking for a gig?” I’m sure that’s not how it happened but it feels like it could have. Or maybe the suits looked at HBOs Westworld and thought, “yeah, I fancy a bit of that on my streaming channel, what IP do we own that we can retcon?”.

The result is something that looks good, and can even be entertaining, but doesn’t quite feel right. I enjoyed the first episode because for all its issues, it at least felt more like Trek ‘proper’ than Discovery did, but with its second episode that feelings getting a little stretched. Moreover, returning to my point about the talent pool getting thin, some of the writing here is really pretty atrocious and slipping to Dr Who levels. The rooftop fight (and explosion, remember) of the first episode, has been cleared up, the evidence disappeared, we are told, as if it never happened. Picard doesn’t wake up in hospital but in his villa back in France and his testimony apparently the ravings of a crazy old fool. Going back to the apartment of Dahj we see that it has been cleared up, all traces of the fight (and murder of her boyfriend) all gone, until some magic gadget can recreate what happened in a 3D Hologram until some point at which even that has been erased clean (my sorcery is more powerful than your sorcery!). If it wasn’t for the charisma that Stewart had, or the fact that this show would still be watchable if it was just him reading names out of a phonebook, I doubt I’d be sticking with it. You see, in the old days of Babylon 5, Fringe, the BSG reboot etc, when shows like this had mysteries or multi-episodic arcs, they were often worth sticking with, because I could have confidence in the creative team and the main arc winning through, but on the evidence of so much current genre stuff I really have my doubts here.

And really, I don’t know if its the writing, but other than Stewart, some of the acting is really pretty bland and dire.

Here’s hoping it gets better!

End of Year Report, 2019.

Didn’t get my Replicant Pleasure-Model in the mail, nor did my new car launch vertically into the air for a commute to work in the sky-lanes… and neither was I able to book my holiday Off-World, so thanks for ‘nowt, Ridley…

But 2019 did come with some great television shows and movies. That said though, there were plenty of clunkers and disappointments.  I think what I shall remember most of 2019 is that it was clearly a year when television content surpassed movies in quality by a pretty wide margin.

In my previous post I mentioned that I watched three seasons of The Expanse this year, which was pretty amazing and certainly one of my favourite shows of the year, but there was plenty of other quality shows. Some clunkers too, mind- February brought the first (and thankfully last) season of Nightflyers, a truly abominable creation that so soon after having enjoyed the brilliant The Expanse brought my sci-fi viewing crashing back down to Earth. At the time I was confident it would be the worst piece of television I would see all year, but I was innocently ignorant of Another Life coming later in April. The fact that Another Life has been granted a second season is just mind-boggling and very, very scary.

Certainly the good outweighed the bad, though, if only because you can afford to be judicious with so much content available across Netflix and Amazon Prime. By March I’d also see season two of The Crown, the first outing for The Umbrella Academy, season one of Stranger Things and Love, Death & Robots, a ridiculously entertaining anthology show that was a Fantasia for sci-fi geeks like me, and totally beautiful.

Regards movies though, I had really struggled to see anything really memorable until April, when I saw both Bad Times at the El Royale and Spider Man: Into the Spider-Verse. El Royale really impressed me on a rental, so much so that a few months later I bought the 4K disc. Then in May John Wick Chapter Three: Parabellum blew my mind on a rare trip to the cinema, an absolutely dizzying action-fest that instantly put itself as prime contender for my Film of the Year. In an era of politically-correct naval-gazing and various worthy agendas being shoved in my face all the time, Wick was refreshingly old-school, unfashionably simple action-movie nirvana. May also brought Avengers Endgame, another rare cinema outing that this time proved hugely disappointing. I’m really curious to see if a rewatch will revise my opinion of the film, but even though I bought the 4K disc of the film when it came out a few months back, I still haven’t actually watched the disc. I keep thinking I should watch Avengers Infinity War first, maybe the two films in a double-bill over a weekend, but the length of the darn things proves rather daunting. All those Marvel geeks who watch all these movies often and know them inside-out are made of sterner stuff than I. Watching Captain Marvel just once, when the 4K disc came out in July , left me pretty burned-out on all things Marvel- the thought of the ultra-fans watching and re-watching that one is just plain scary.

Away from movies, April brought us the big television disappointment of the year, with season eight of Game of Thrones. In hindsight, it could only ever disappoint, it had hyped up the conclusion and all the show’s mysteries and intrigues over several seasons to such a degree, it was inevitable that it would all just implode. Didn’t think the crash would be quite so spectacular though. Having bought all the Blu-rays already, I bought the 4K disc set of season eight anyway, and am hoping that when I get the courage to watch it again after all these months the pain will be less, I can make my peace with some of the wilder crazier twists and maybe manage to see something in all the episode three murk now its in 4K UHD. We’ll see.

Much better television followed in June: and no, I’m not talking about season two of Star Trek Discovery, but rather it was the month when I caught up with Chernobyl, a breath-taking and harrowing series that was pretty much perfect. Discovery was far, far from perfect- it ably demonstrated that while much television can be great, it can also out-dumb and out-stupid anything Hollywood movie studios can do.

In August, I caught up with both Aquaman (a film that proved DC could still make worse movies than Captain Marvel) and Shazam! (a film that proved DC could actually make great, fun superhero movies). Aquaman would be another of those terribly busy movies that tried to fit three films into one, like some kind of Readers Digest edition of an actual film trilogy. It doesn’t work, it just gives me an headache. I watched the 2017 remake of Flatliners, and although I thought that was diabolically appalling, I had no idea I’d also see the Jacobs Ladder remake later in the year, a film which would make the Flatliners remake seem a classic and put me in a total dark funk for a weekend.

Returning to television shows, August also sprung a major surprise with the quite excellent The Boys over on Amazon. The quality television continued into September with the long-awaited (by me, anyway) disc release of the third season of True Detective, which I really enjoyed (I love all three seasons of that show- yes, that includes the maligned second season) and Carnival Row, another Amazon show that was much better than I’d expected, even if it did leave me pining for the superior (and sadly missed) Penny Dreadful.

Sheesh, all these seasons of television shows and all their complicated multi-layered narratives. I suppose I should be glad most movies turned out to be rather less demanding, more simplistic and comfortingly predictable. A prime example would be September’s Ad Astra, which I was expecting to be a high-concept sci-fi take on Apocalypse Now. Well, it was certainly a sci-fi take on Apocalypse Now, almost literally so, but with lunar space pirates and a mad Space Baboon, it was rather more Event Horizon than 2001: A Space Odyssey. A disappointment then, and another example of the lack of confidence of movie studios to challenge and provoke audiences as much as HBO etc do on television. I would imagine that had HBO made Ad Astra as a ten-episode serial, it would have proven far more enticing and thought-provoking.It would probably look just as good too- the gap between television and cinema in regards of visual effects is obviously still there, but its much narrower than it used to be, and television more than makes up for any deficit there by better script writing. November’s The Lion King would prove to be a startling reminder of what visual majesty only cinema budgets can presently afford, but the same months Spider Man: Far From Home ably demonstrated that cinema could just get dumber and dumber even as it got prettier.

November also presented us with The Irishman, a Martin Scorsese gangster ballad that incredibly came to us via Netflix (I prefer ‘ballad’ to ‘epic’ just because its more, well, thoughtful and mature than the joyously questionable glorification of Goodfellas). The idea that a $150 million Scorsese flick could just drop onto Netflix on a Friday night still feels dizzying and possibly game-changing. I really enjoyed the film (its certainly more Once Upon A Time in America than Godfather or Goodfellas).

The Irishman did show, though, just how much has changed during 2019. Streaming services are all the rage now, and really will prove more of a Big Deal in 2020. The prevailing move by studios towards streaming and away from physical media, and indeed away from traditional vendors like cable and satellite television providers, is just a gathering storm that gets windier by the month. For someone like me who likes to own my favourite films and television shows and enjoys special features and commentaries, its pretty worrying. I can see a future not far away where streaming and pay per view is everything. Its clearly inevitable, but its a future where The Irishman can’t be purchased on DVD or Blu-ray, a future where you’ll probably need to subscribe to Disney+ in order to watch future Star Wars and Marvel movies in the comfort of your own home (and I’m pretty certain that premium content on Disney+ will eventually require additional purchases in-app to watch; it may start as a subscription service but it’ll inevitably evolve into a pay-per-view service when alternative avenues like physical media are gone). Hopefully that’s more 2029 or 2039 though, and I’ll be past caring as long as I have a Blu-ray player working.

 

 

The Expanse: Season Four

exp1At the time, here in the UK it entailed importing the Blu-rays, but I started this year watching season two of The Expanse and watched season three immediately after, thoroughly enjoying both the series, safe in the knowledge that a fourth season was due later thanks to Amazon having saved the show from cancellation. We had to wait a little longer than we’d hoped for this fourth season to drop but it turned out to be a great early Christmas present.

Did I mention how hooked I am on this show? Three episodes on the Friday that it dropped (staying up until the early hours even after a typically long Friday shift at work), four episodes on the Saturday, and the rest on the Sunday- ten episodes over three days. Its just that kind of show for me, and while I can understand the argument that a ‘normal’ (if there is such a thing these days) weekly transmission schedule may have served the show better regards weekly digest and discussion, how can one resist binge-watching such a great and satisfying show?

Alas, it leaves me having to start another long wait for more new episodes- currently the team are mid-way filming the fifth season (thanks to Amazon green-lighting two whole seasons), so a late 2020 estimate seems reasonable. So I’ve decided to finally do the decent thing and start reading the books, the first three of which have handily just been reprinted in hardcover (well, it was either that or re-watch the whole thing again, tempting as that is). That’s me covered for reading into the New Year.

So I’ve praised the show up and not gotten into any details regards why it is so great. I think that’s related to my reticence regards reading the books that the show is based on. I love watching each episode not knowing whats going to happen next, and have carefully avoided spoilers on the ‘net, and am worried that if I get carried away I’ll eventually be reading the books beyond where the show has gotten and possibly spoil my enjoyment of the series (there’s one problem that Game of Thrones never had in the end). Having published the eighth book now, the authors have made it clear that the series ends with a final ninth book, which is obviously going to come out before the corresponding television season does. I know, First World problems and all that. But its a pertinent point that I’m intensely reticent to spoil anyone’s enjoyment by giving away anything at all if they read one of my posts and decide to give the show a go.

So anyway, its a pretty great cast, some great characters (I’m still pissed that some don’t survive to the fifth season, so consider that a further indication of its ‘Game of Thrones in Space’ description being apt), and it looks pretty damned gorgeous streaming it in 4K UHD. The visual effects are excellent, the writing is great… and it features Real Science, and Real Physics, which is something rather new to television science fiction. Now that Amazon has it, the future for the show just seems brighter, and the odds of getting all nine seasons more likely than it ever was. As we are approaching, in theory, the midway point of the whole saga next year, this seems an ideal time for people to jump on board the gunship Rocinante and find out what a protomolecule of alien origin can do.

(The Expanse is available in its entirety on Amazon Prime, and the first three seasons on DVD and Blu-ray)

Trailer Madness: The Expanse Season Four etc

Comic-con hit San Diego last weekend and lots of trailers and teasers hit the net. I particularly enjoyed the footage Amazon dropped of season four of The Expanse: a five-minute sequence from one of the episodes and a teaser proper featuring highlights from the season. It looks like it’s going to be great, although Amazon likely disappointed many by revealing that the season isn’t going to be released until mid-December. While it will no doubt prove a great Christmas present to us fans, it leaves us with a longer wait than we might have expected. Perhaps there is still a lot of post-production work still to be done (it’s easy to forget, considering the scale of something like this show, how tricky and time-consuming it must be to pull off).

Other trailers of note included an expanded one for Westworld Season Three, which won’t arrive until next year. After the mixed season two, I have cautiously high hopes that season three will be a return to form- it certainly is ripe with all sorts of possibilities. Although the second season had its issues it was still one of the most interesting things I watched last year. I have both seasons on disc and keep trying to find the time to watch them, its infuriating really, but there is just so much to watch these days it gets so tricky to manage the time enough to rewatch stuff. Have we ever had it as good as we do now, all this genre stuff out there? Probably just as well I have little current interest in ever subscribing to Disney+ when it (eventually) reaches these shores- something just has to give.

Amazon have announced that season four of The Man in the High Castle will arrive in November and that this will be the final season, promising a proper conclusion to the series. As I have yet to watch season three, I guess that means I’ll be watching that in October to prepare for the final season, and squeezing that in before The Expanse arrives December.  I’ve enjoyed The Man in the High Castle very much, although I’ve found it a more intellectually satisfying exercise than an emotional one, leaving me some sense of distance from it (hence why I’ve not watched season three yet). Which reminds me, I still have the latest season of Outlander to watch. Crikey. Maybe it’s just as well The Expanse isn’t coming until December afterall.

 

The Expanse – Season Two

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I’m almost lost in it. Haven’t felt like this since the heady heights of season three of Babylon 5 or BSG in its prime – only this time around, I’ve not been limited by weekly airdates, watching this season on Blu-ray. Basically, I’d be watching an episode late in the evening, be so swept up by the story and curious to see what happened next that I’d ignore common-sense (and the clock on the wall) and be unable to resist starting the next episode and then… yeah, sneak up to bed around midnight or later and suffer at work the next day… and then repeat again the following evening. Somehow I was beyond hooked, and The Expanse had become all-consuming and irresistable. How had I managed to leave it two years between season one and two on disc when now I struggled to leave it be for several hours? I’m seriously considering buying the books and giving them a go, just to soak it all up again and perhaps find extra details.

I was very impressed with season one of The Expanse, and a frankly embarrassing, all things considered, lengthy hiatus between watching seasons enabled me to rewatch the first season again a few weeks ago just prior to finally giving season two a go. This rewatch probably helped me get the most of season two, as it literally follows immediately on from the events depicted in the first season’s final episode, and as I’m not familiar with the source material it helped to keep track of all the characters/factions. The first season of the show depicts about 65% of the first book, Leviathan Wakes, the remainder left for the first five or so episodes of season two- which seemed a bit odd to me, in my ignorance, when I first saw season one.  Suffice to say spreading the story out properly, beyond the restrictions of the first seasons ten-episode limit, was a very smart move. While it makes it hard/impossible for newbies to join the show cold, the second season really gets up and running very quickly, and the finale of that first book gives the second season a blistering mid-term crescendo that is breathtaking in the sheer audacity of its scope and it is to the show’s credit that it doesn’t go downhill from there, but actually maintains that level and manages a gobsmacking finale.

To be clear, while the first season was very good, this sophomore season is just simply amazing. Really, I was so blown away at just how brilliant this show had become in this very confident and assured second season. Its almost faultless; a refreshingly hard-sci fi series that tells a huge and involving, at times surprising and extraordinary space-opera tale that’s up there with Babylon 5 in its epic scale of politics and space-battles, balanced by a gritty and realistic approach that is clearly indebted to the BSG reboot of several years ago. Many times I would be watching the show thinking ‘this is how Babylon 5 might have looked with a bigger budget/modern tech’ and while we’ll never see the likes of B5 again with its brilliant, unique (and sadly lost, over the intervening years) cast, The Expanse has taken on the achievements of that show and taken it forward to the next level. Not coincidentally, it also seems to have carried the torch of being the next anti-Star Trek. Seriously, I have no idea when I’ll be in the mood to watching the new Discovery episodes now.

exp2You’ll have possibly noticed that I haven’t actually mentioned anything about plot or actual events etc. That’s because I don’t want to spoil this show for anyone- it needs to be experienced blind, full of those twists and surprises that I have found so enthralling. Which likely seems funny to some readers, particularly those in the US as season two is already a few years back for them.

Of course, there is one particular commonality between Babylon 5 and The Expanse– and that is cancelation. B5 always teetered on the brink each season and The Expanse actually did get canceled as its third season aired. Thankfully Amazon saved the day and I can now turn to season three confident I’ll see the story continue in 2019. It’ll be a bitch having to wait, mind. Having three seasons to watch like this spoils you. I’ve read that Amazon will have the three seasons of The Expanse up on Prime next month and hopefully that will ensure the possibility of a new wider audience prior to season four arriving later this year. The Expanse deserves bigger success.

Now if you will excuse me, I have that third season box waiting for me…