Friday, 17 May 2019

New HIS DARK MATERIALS trailer reveals the daemons

The BBC and HBO have dropped a new teaser trailer for His Dark Materials, their TV adaptation of the Philip Pullman trilogy of the same name.

The new trailer shows off the daemons (animal familiars) of the main characters for the first time. It also confirms that the armoured bears will appear in Season 1. With the show planned to adapt the three books over five seasons, it was unclear if the bears would be included in the first season.

The trailer also shows scenes that appear only at the very end of the first novel in the series, Northern Lights (retitled The Golden Compass in the USA for no readily apparent reason), suggesting that perhaps they have rethought the five-season strategy and might be considering a shorter run.

His Dark Materials has already been renewed for a second season, which is expected to enter production soon. Season 1 is expected to start airing in October or November this year.

Amazon cancels THE TICK

In frankly horrible news, Amazon has cancelled the fantastic The Tick after two seasons.

Amazon have not provided a reason for not proceeding with the series. Creator Ben Edlund has confirmed that he will try to find a home for the series elsewhere, but the initial signs do not look promising.

Across its two seasons, The Tick was funny, oddly moving and brilliantly written and acted, particularly by the immortal Peter Serafinowicz as the title character. It's a real shame we will not be seeing more of the show.

It's also unusual, because Amazon have prioritised finding commercial and critical successes in their quest to rival Netflix. The Tick's two seasons have scored hugely well with critics, including a 100% critic rating for the second season on Rotten Tomatoes. However, Amazon did not publicise the release of the second season well, sneaking it out with relatively little fanfare, which may have impacted on the reception (the same problem Netflix had with Season 2 of Sense8, in which case many viewers didn't know that the second season had been released until the show was cancelled).

Thursday, 16 May 2019

Halo Wars: Definitive Edition

The year 2531. The United Nations Space Command and the alien Covenant are engaged in a war for control of vital resources. The UNSC starship Spirit of Fire investigates Covenant activity on the planet Harvest and uncovers evidence of a plot by the Covenant which could imperil all of humanity. The Spirit of Fire has to pursue a Covenant taskforce into deep space and attempt to thwart their plans without backup.

The Halo series began life as a real-time strategy game for Mac, before transitioning into a first-person shooter for PC before finally arriving on the original X-Box in 2001, the first shooter since GoldenEye to really work with a console controller. The series became a huge success, selling millions of copies of the original game and its sequels Halo 2 (2005) and Halo 3 (2007), and a spin-off, Halo 3: ODST (2009). In a sign of things becoming full circle, Microsoft decided to expand the franchise to other genres and commissioned a real-time strategy spin-off, Halo Wars, which was eventually released on the X-Box 360 in 2009. In 2016, the game was finally ported to PC as a "Definitive Edition," which is the version I have reviewed here.

Halo Wars gained praise on release as the first real-time strategy game made to really work on console. An intuitive interface allows players to build units, expand their bases, select forces and advance across the battlefield from a standard controller. Some standard RTS controls and ideas had to abandoned or simplified for the experience, but the transition was surprisingly successful.

As with most RTS games, Halo Wars opens with you having control of a single base. This can be upgraded with modules, such as supply depots (which generate supply, the game's sole resource), power stations (which generate power, which determines what upgrades and advanced units you can build), barracks, vehicle construction stations and aircraft construction stations. You can also add turrets to bases to help defend them. In an interesting twist, even a fully-upgraded base can't hold all of the structures you need, forcing you to expand early and explore the map to find areas where you can set up secondary bases.

The resource gathering is a particularly nice touch. Rather than send out a harvester of some kind to mine a resource, you simply generate supply points. The more supply depots you have, the more supply you generate, but of course you only have a limited number of expansion modules, so if you build lots of supply pads you may find yourself unable to build a vehicle factory or a barracks. This encourages early-game expansion and exploration. The supply mechanic isn't new, originating as it did in the Command and Conquer: Generals expansion Zero Hour many years earlier, but Halo Wars makes it really work as part of the mechanics.

You can build an extensive army consisting of infantry, aircraft, tanks, anti-air batteries and other units. The elite Spartan super-soldiers can't be built (at least in campaign mode) but can join the fray as special elite units for certain missions.

For a supposedly "cut-down" RTS, Halo Wars surprisingly enjoyable even for an experienced PC strategy gamer. The unit variety isn't the most extensive, but the focus on a smaller roster helps streamline the game and make it more enjoyable. It also allows for battles to be fought faster and more furiously, rather than you agonising of which of several very slightly different units to build.

The campaign is enjoyable, with a fairly straightforward SF story. As the game is set twenty years before the original Halo: Combat Evolved, no prior knowledge of the franchise is needed, making it a perfect jumping-on point ahead of the release of the upcoming Halo Master Chief Collection on PC (which will bring Halo: Reach, Halo: ODST, Halo 3 and Halo 4 to PC for the first time, alongside upgraded versions of the original Halo and Halo 2).

The game does have several problems, however. The game doesn't use many "standard" RTS controls, instead forcibly mapping camera controls to WASD and not allowing you to reassign them. This means many standard RTS controls - A for attack-move, S for stop - are not available in the game. The game is also on the short side: I polished off all 15 campaign missions in about 11 hours. The game feels like it really needs a Covenant campaign to make the game a more worthwhile single-player experience, and indeed the story feels a bit opaque at times, like we were supposed to be getting more information about the Covenant version of events but at some point this was cut.

The other problem is that the game can't help but feel a little familiar, particularly in missions fighting the organic Flood where you have to destroy their living technology. This feels very reminiscent of fighting both the Zerg in StarCraft and the Tyranids in Dawn of War.

Still, given it is now available at a very reasonable price, Halo Wars (****) succeeds as a short, focused and fun real-time strategy game which doesn't make too many concessions to its console origins. It's available now on Steam.

Atlanta: Season 2

Earn is continuing to manage his cousin Alfred, whose career as rapper "Paper Boi" is blowing up. Alfred is unhappy with Earn's management style, whilst Earn feels that Alfred isn't taking advantage of social media and other opportunities to boost his profile. Meanwhile, it's "Robbin' Season" in Atlanta, the pre-Christmas crime spree, which results in a lot of weird stuff going down.

The first season of Atlanta was a mash-up of comedy, hard-hitting drama and bizarre psychological study. It cemented Donald Glover's (formerly of Community) position as a hot up-and-comer. After that season aired, Glover's music career (as Childish Gambino, of "This is America" fame) went stratospheric and he starred as a young Lando in the Star Wars movie Solo. Other castmembers also went big, with Lakeith Stanfield nailing a major role in Get Out and Zazie Beetz starring in Deadpool 2.

On that basis, it's perhaps a surprise we got a second season of Atlanta so soon, but Glover prioritised it and managed to create something even stranger, sadder, funnier and more heartwarming than the first season.

If Season 1 of Atlanta was a surrealist tone poem, Season 2 is a full-blown odyssey of the strange and the grotesque. It moves through a dense period of several weeks in which a lot of stuff goes down for the characters, so much that rather than try to cover events chronologically it instead splits the events between characters. This means we get few episodes where all the major characters appear, with instead most episodes focusing on a single character or group of characters. This results in an intense focus which at times feels claustrophobic, but this is appropriate for the stories that are being told.

Atlanta remains hilarious, with comic highlights including Darius and Earn trying to defuse a confrontation between Earn's insane uncle and the police, involving an alligator. A later episode sees Earn and Van defusing their relationship problems with a game of table tennis at a German party. Barbershop sees Alfred going for a simple haircut, but gets dragged into an increasingly hilarious road trip with his eccentric barber, whilst in Champagne Papi Van and her friends attend an offbeat house party where they hope to meet Drake. In North of the Border Earn, Darius and Alfred travel to a college campus to take part in a publicity event, but things go sideways and they end up taking refuge at a very uncomfortable frat boy initiation ceremony.

The season also goes dark, very dark. It feels like the shadow of the movie Get Out lies heavy on this season and Glover leans into it, delivering in Teddy Perkins possibly the freakiest 35 minutes of television of 2018. Woods is also a dark and depressing episode, but one that ends on a bizarrely redemptive note.

The season ends by coming almost full circle, as major events in the opening episode come to fruition (including one of the most literal uses of the Chekhov's Gun trope you'll ever see) and leaves things in an interesting place for the third season (which isn't expected to air until 2020).

The second season of Atlanta (*****) improves on the first to become a study in tension and tragicomedy, and has an infusion of horror running through it which is both incongruous and compelling. It remains one of the most unique and distinctive shows on air.

Wednesday, 15 May 2019

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

Two children have immense and varying gifts. Patricia is a nascent witch, can talk to animals and has a special bond with nature. Laurence is an engineering and scientific genius who has built a semi-functional AI and a two-second time machine. As children they are both dismissed as freaks, which draws them closer together. They are separated in their teenage years but fate draws them back together as adults, in a world slipping into despair from political, technological and scientific challenges.

All the Birds in the Sky is the second novel by Charlie Jane Anders, a noted writer and critic best-known for co-founding SFF website io9 (for which, full disclosure, I have written the occasional piece). It's a novel rich in character and variety which develops two protagonists and has them engage in two distinct narrative threads (one science fiction, the other fantasy) which merge as the novel progresses.

It's a novel which wears many hats, from coming-of-age-against-adversity YA adventure (the opening chapters), to adult relationship drama to science fiction disaster novel to a lyrical fantasy fable. Anders' strength as a novelist is moving between these subgenres with impressive ease, flipping from the YA setting to the apocalyptic SF one on a dime but never losing the book's momentum. The book has a lot of humour and drama in it (along with a topping of tragedy) and it handles these shifts in tone with skill.

Core to the book's success is the characterisation of its two leads, the rigorous and logical Laurence and the more instinctive and spontaneous Patricia. The two characters gain strength from leaning on and learning from one another's differences, and overcoming their challenges by working together. Disastrous moments in the novel come from them not trusting one another or working as cross-purposes instead of pooling resources. It's a book that, above all else, focuses on the idea of empathy and understanding, and facing down challenges through cooperation rather than division.

There are some undercooked moments. I would have liked to have known more about the Order of Assassins that crops up several times in the novel, and some late-book revelations about how much the scientists and magicians know about each other come out of nowhere, but otherwise this is a very fine and appropriate novel for our times.

All the Birds in the Sky (****½) comes across as a fusion of Neil Gaiman (on a very good day), Diana Wynn Jones and Robert Holdstock, but with a twinkling flair to the prose that is all Charlie Jane's. It is available now in the UK and USA.

Tuesday, 14 May 2019

Disney take over Hulu streaming service

Disney have taken control of Hulu, a popular American streaming service which competes with Netflix and Amazon Prime Video in the States.

It's been speculated for some time that this was Disney's plan. Disney are launching their own streaming service, Disney+, in November this year but have been clear that the channel will only be for children and "family" programming. This left questions over Disney's ability or willingness to create material for an adult audience. It also raised questions about Disney's vast new store of films and TV shows from 20th Century Fox, which they recently completed acquiring, as many of these would be unsuitable for a family audience.

Disney's acquisition of Hulu now ends that speculation. Hulu already produce adult programming, such as the critically-acclaimed Handmaid's Tale (which is preparing to release its third season), and in fact have several more adult-oriented Marvel TV shows in development, including Ghost Rider. It is assumed that, as licences expire elsewhere, Disney will move all of Fox's adult-oriented shows over to Hulu and the younger children's shows to Disney+ (they have already confirmed that Disney+ will be the new home of The Simpsons, although presumably the likes of Family Guy would have to go on Hulu).

A key weakness of the Hulu purchase is the lack of international exposure. Hulu licences its shows to overseas partners, with Channel 4 showing The Handmaid's Tale in the UK, for example. As part of the purchase, Disney will begin expanding Hulu's overseas footprint, possibly as part of a pairing deal with Disney+ when it launches in overseas markets.

GAME OF THRONES showrunners to write and direct next STAR WARS movie

Disney have confirmed that the next Star Wars movie after J.J. Abrams' Rise of Skywalker will be written, directed and produced by Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss.

It was previously known that Benioff and Weiss had been contracted by Lucasfilm to produce a new Star Wars film "series," along with The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson who had his own full trilogy to make (although Johnson is only contracted to write and produce, and may direct one of the films). The news today from Disney and Lucasfilm confirms that Benioff and Weiss's first movie is up first, due for release in 2022.

The subject matter of the new films is unclear, although head of Lucasfilm Kathleen Kennedy has confirmed that both new film series will be unrelated to the Skywalker Saga (as the numbered episode films are now being called) and will be set in different parts of the Star Wars universe, in time, space or both. Some Star Wars fans have speculated that some or all of the new films will be set in the popular Knights of the Old Republic era, the setting for multiple video games and comics, but this remains speculation at the moment.

GAME OF THRONES prequel pilot starts shooting

The prequel spin-off to Game of Thrones has started shooting under the working title Bloodmoon. This is unlikely to be the final title, with George R.R. Martin preferring the title The Long Night (HBO appear to be less keen).

The pilot is shooting in the same Belfast Paint Hall studios that hosted Game of Thrones, with location shooting due to take place in Northern Ireland and several locations in Europe, including reportedly the Canary Islands.

Naomi Watts stars alongside actors including John Simm, Jamie Campbell Bower and Miranda Richardson. The series is set approximately 5,000 years before the events of Game of Thrones, in the Age of Heroes, and charts the collapse of a golden age society into the chaos of the Long Night, when the White Walkers and the Night King arose for the first time and the Wall was built. With the possible exception of the Night King, no Game of Thrones characters are expected to recur in the new series.

Jane Goldman (Stardust, Kick-Ass, X-Men: First ClassKingsman) is writing and executive producing the new series, with S.J. Clarkson directing the pilot and George R.R. Martin serving as a creative consultant.

If HBO greenlight the pilot, full production of the first season is expected to start before the end of the year, for a 2020 debut.

Saturday, 11 May 2019

Bandai joins forces with Games Workshop to make WARHAMMER 40K action figures

In one of those news stories that makes you wonder, "Why did no-one think of his earlier?", Japanese toy company Bandai have partnered with Games Workshop to release a series of figures based on their phenomenally popular Warhammer 40,000 science fantasy setting.

Bandai are starting the line with a 7" action figure based on the Primaris Space Marine model. The figure will have multiple points of articulation and come with different weapons and equipment that can be swapped around.

They are also launching a line of Chibi figures, small or cute models which are designed to appeal to children. This line seems to be part of Games Workshop's new drive to target younger fans, following on from their recent launch of a new range of children's books in the Warhammer 40,000 setting.

These figures will be available later this year. If successful, I suspect the 7" range will quickly expand to incorporate other figures.

Friday, 10 May 2019

Square release trailer for FINAL FANTASY VII REMAKE

Square Enix have released a new trailer for Final Fantasy VII Remake, their upcoming remake of their classic 1997 RPG Final Fantasy VII (as indicated by the title).

Square have not yet confirmed a release date for the game, which has been in full development since 2015. They have revealed that more footage will be released next month. Square also confirmed some time ago that the game will have an episodic release, but not how many episodes or a release schedule for them. They have suggested that the release scope and schedule may be similar to the Final Fantasy XIII trilogy (which was released in 2009, 2011 and 2013 respectively).

Wednesday, 8 May 2019

HBO drop teaser for WATCHMEN TV series

HBO have dropped a teaser trailer for their upcoming Watchmen TV series.

Watchmen is a sequel to the graphic novel - not Zach Snyder's 2009 movie - and picks up on events thirty years after the end of the story. The trailer hints that law and order is breaking down, with a growing movement of copycat vigilantes basing their actions on the character of Rorschach from the original novel. The only major character from the original book confirmed to appear is Adrian Veidt (aka Ozymandias), played by Jeremy Irons, although some characters from Doomsday Clock (a sequel series to the original graphic novel) will also appear. Details of the story and characters are being kept close to HBO's chest.

The series is produced and showrun by Damon Lindelof (Lost, The Leftovers). It is expected to debut in autumn this year.

Star Trek: Discovery - Season 2

The Klingon War is over and the USS Discovery is poised to begin a new mission of discovery and exploration. But a fresh crisis erupts when unusually powerful signals are detected originating from distant parts of the galaxy. Captain Christopher Pike of the USS Enterprise takes command of the Discovery on a temporary assignment to investigate the source of the signals, taking the Discovery and her crew into some very strange places indeed.

The first season of Star Trek: Discovery was a mixed bag. It had utterly spectacular production values, a very solid cast and a willingness to do things differently to any Star Trek series that came before it. It also had muddled storytelling and characterisation, and sometimes overcame narrative roadblocks by simply blasting through them and damning logic, a similar approach to some modern episodes of Doctor Who (and, in its latter seasons, Game of Thrones). Discovery at its best was fun enough that you didn't care about the lack of coherence in the storytelling, but at its worst it was wince-inducingly contrived and trying to be dark for the sake of it. The fact that it was still the third-best opening season of a Star Trek show (after the original show and, arguably, Deep Space Nine) says rather more about how poor most first seasons of 1980s and 1990s series were then about Discovery in particular.

The second season is a moderate, but only a moderate, improvement. It has a much more charismatic and interesting captain in the form of Pike, played with absolutely stellar conviction by Anson Mount (who is probably thanking his lucky stars that Inhumans was cancelled). Mount plays Pike as a captain with sound judgement, ready to take risks but not crazy ones, and who absolutely trusts his crew rather than second-guessing them all the time. Ethan Peck also joins the cast as a younger version of Mr. Spock, a more rigid one suppressing his human side than the character we know from the original franchise. Peck's performance is excellent, overcoming the usual "Spock problem" of having to unleash lots of exposition and technobabble through his dramatic presence. He is probably a better Spock than Zachary Quinto (as solid as he was in the neo-Trek movies), and a fine heir to Leonard Nimoy.

The second season also dials back on the Klingon storyline, only touching base with it in a few episodes, and instead focuses on a fresh mystery, a scientific conundrum which our heroes have to solve through investigation and exploration, concepts much truer to the Star Trek mythos.

Cumulatively, these changes are all for the better. The show feels more like Star Trek, the cast is working better together and we get more of an exploration of the side and background characters, making the cast feel more cohesive as a team.

However, the show still manages to sabotage itself. The plotting and main story arc is still muddled and somewhat confusing, and the writers prefer to blast through under-developed plot points in a blaze of technobabble and hoping for the best. This isn't exactly new to Star Trek (the same problem bogged down Voyager for almost its entire run) but it feels more egregious in the modern TV age. Characterisation for the regulars is mixed, with Michael Burnham still feeling a little too under-developed as our key protagonist but the scripts getting into the motivations and psyches of characters like Stamets and Saru in a more interesting fashion. Tilly, a highlight of Season 1, does feel a little too readily used as comic relief and like an over-indulged child in several episodes, which is a disservice to both the character and actress.

The plotting problems culminate at the end of the season in two episodes which feel contrived at best, with the writers more interested in resolving fan questions about canon rather than organically developing a logical conclusion to this story arc. It's not helped that the final big space battle is a confusing mess of beams and explosions that even Michael Bay would find nonsensical.

The second season of Star Trek: Discovery (***½) is therefore a bit variable in quality: outstanding sets (especially the recreation of the Enterprise bridge), actors and effects, but confused storytelling, continuity and characterisation. The way the story falls out does make sense (even if the route there doesn't always) and it does leave the series with a very interesting new setup to explore in Season 3, but it does feel a little frustrating that show still isn't hitting the high points of the shows that came before it, or even those of the other big space opera series on the air, The Expanse, which is comprehensively owning space at the moment. Discovery is available to watch on CBS All Access in the United States and Netflix in much of the rest of the world.

Angel: Season 3

The team at Angel Investigations are on top form, solving new mysteries and enhanced by the addition of Winifred Burkle - an astrophysicist with a gift for science and research - to the team. As Fred settles in (having spent five years imprisoned in another dimension), the team have to face the consequences of past actions, as Wolfram & Hart continue to undermine their operation and Darla returns...with a surprise for Angel.

The second season of Angel was a success, with a great main story arc and lots of excellent character development, especially for Angel, a character you'd assume by now had been fully explored. The third season is more or less a direct sequel to the second, but the writers pull back on some elements they feel had already been explored in sufficient depth, such as making Angel a darker character or having Wolfram & Hart constantly being behind whatever evil is going on in any given episode.

They also - thankfully - don't explore the camp fantasy world of Pylea again. Although a nice change of pace, Pylea outstayed its welcome at the end of Season 2 and we can do without going there again. Instead, the consequences of the Pylea trip play out several times over the course of the season, particularly for Fred (a winning performance by Amy Acker) and Cordelia (an ever-improving Charisma Carpenter).

If Season 3 has a major problem, it's in its structure and pacing. The writers clearly decided that some storylines in previous seasons had been allowed to dominate too many episodes, so this season each story arc unfolds much more intensely, usually over 3-4 episodes max, separated by stand-alone episodes. This means that stories have much greater verve and pacing, but it also means that the growing narrative momentum of the season keeps being reset with stand-alone episodes, which vary in quality immensely. The story arcs, revolving around the return of Darla, the campaign against Angel by his old enemy Daniel Holtz (a fine performance by Keith Szarabajaka) and the birth of a child with a surprising destiny, are all pretty solid, but the gaps between the stories feel contrived at best.

The season also makes a series of curious decisions regarding characterisation which are still highly controversial. Wesley has been getting more ruthless and capable since the first season, but the way he goes full-on dark and borderline amoral at the end of the season feels a bit undercooked. It makes him a far more interesting character in the final two seasons, sure, but the way he gets there feels implausible. There's also the implication that Wesley, a thirty-something guy who's been around the block a few times, makes the decisions he does because he gets turned down by a woman he likes, which feels like a very juvenile motivation point.

There's also the treatment of Cordelia as a character. Through most of Season 3 she undergoes tremendous growth and improvement as a member of the team and ends up being arguably the most well-adjusted and empathetic member of the crew, which given where she started so long ago (in Buffy Season 1) is remarkable. The end of the season throws this development into some doubt. This is less of a problem in Season 3 itself, but paves the way for Season 4, where Cordelia's character is thrown under the bus in a manner that is still highly contentious.

Still, Angel's third season (****) is highly watchable with some impressive storylines, cliffhangers and dramatic moments. Character development is a mixed bag, and some of the stand-alone episodes are painful, but overall it remains a solid addition to the series, and paves the way for the more impressive (if more controversial) fourth year. It is available now as part of the complete series boxed set (UKUSA).

Russian Doll: Season 1

Nadia Vulvokov is celebrating her 36th birthday - the same age at which her mother passed away - at a party thrown by her friends in New York. Tragically, she is run over by a yellow cab shortly afterwards. But then she wakes up back at her party again, with the exact same sequence of events playing out (unless she changes them). She makes it to the next day, only to die in another freak accident and wake up back at her party. Nadia realises that time and fate are playing a strange game with her, and she rushes to try to find an answer to the mystery of why her life is now going in circles.

Many are the TV show and movie which have "done a Groundhog Day", trapping a lead character in a time loop and seeing how they escape from it. It's a concept rooted in science fiction but played out for both humour - as the character can do what they want without consequence, as the timeline will just reset again - and tragedy. Many of these takes on the same concept are worthy (most recently, the surprisingly solid SF film Edge of Tomorrow) but few of them explore it to the depth of Russian Doll.

Russian Doll is a Netflix series co-created by Natasha Lyonne (who also stars as Nadia). At first it appears to be a comedy, with Nadia's time loop played for laughs. Very quickly it expands beyond that to incorporate elements of family drama, romance and tragedy. The show handles the tonal variation with skill, propelled by Lyonne portraying Nadia as an unflappable, hard-bitten New Yorker who's seen it all but has deep-seated insecurities and vices. In its second half, the show expands to become more of an existential exploration of depression and addiction, and certainly becomes a lot heavier-going. But the show avoids disappearing up its own posterior by refusing to get dragged down into cynicism. The ultimate message of the show is upbeat and hopeful, which is what elevates it beyond being yet another modern TV show wallowing in grimdark.

Russian Doll is a fascinating show to watch, a puzzle which the viewers can unpick at the same time as the characters. Is the time loop being generated by Natasha herself due to her tragic family backstory or an external force? Is the building's unusual history to blame? Was is the drugs Natasha was taking at the time? Was it one of the people she spoke to at the party? Each of the show's eight episodes adopts a fresh take on the concept and develops it further, going far beyond the usual surface exploration of the idea that movies can allow. But the show avoids repetition smartly by throwing a few massive curveballs into the story, which gives it new angles to explore and keeps things fresh up until the end of the story.

Russian Doll is also brilliantly paced. Eight episodes, each less than 40 minutes long, means it has time to explore the concept but not get too bogged down in the details. Each scene feels necessary, well-thought out and vital towards resolving what it is going on. The only major downside to the series is one that is more potential than actual: Russian Doll was pitched as a three-season show and I literally can't see where two more seasons would take the story. They certainly aren't necessary, as Season 1 ends in a strong manner. At the same time, after this season I wouldn't bet against the production team producing something else worthwhile.

Russian Doll (*****) is a thought-provoking meditation on life, death and existence. It's part science fiction, part hipster dramedy and part existential thriller. It's the best thing Netflix has put out in a good few years and is well worth a watch. It is available worldwide on Netflix now.

Disney confirm STAR WARS movies will resume in 2022, alongside AVATAR movies and INDIANA JONES 5

It turns out that the "long hiatus" for Star Wars that Disney has been planning won't be that long after all: the next Star Wars movie after The Rise of Skywalker will arrive in December 2022, a relatively modest three years later.

Rumours persist that one or both of the new Star Wars trilogies will be set in the time period explored by video games such as Knights of the Old Republic.

That's still a retreat from Disney and Lucasfilm's previous stance, which seemed to be heading towards getting two or more Star Wars movies into the cinema every year, similar to the Marvel Cinematic Universe's approach. However, the box office failure of Solo: A Star Wars Story appears to have spooked Disney and they have now backed off from "over-exploiting" the franchise.

That doesn't mean that the future is Star Wars-free however. There will be a Star Wars movie released every other year from 2022 for at least three movies, and they will be interspersed with four more movies in James Cameron's Avatar series. There are also multiple animated and live-action Star Wars TV series in development for the Disney+ streaming service, with the first live-action show, The Mandalorian, due for release late this year or early next.

Lucasfilm are also now actively working on a fifth Indiana Jones film, which is expected to be Harrison Ford's swansong in the role.

The current release schedule is as follows:

  • December 2019: Star Wars - The Rise of Skywalker
  • December 2021: Avatar 2
  • December 2022: Untitled Star Wars Film 1
  • December 2023: Avatar 3
  • December 2024: Untitled Star Wars Film 2
  • December 2025: Avatar 4
  • December 2026: Untitled Star Wars Film 3
  • December 2027: Avatar 5
There is no indication what the new Star Wars movies will actually be about, however. Game of Thrones producers D.B. Weiss and David Benioff have been developing a new series of films, as has The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson. However, both series are apparently on the backburner until Weiss and Benioff complete all Game of Thrones-related responsibilities later this year, and until Johnson's next movie is released, also later this year. It is possible that the two trilogies could be released on a rotating basis (meaning there's potentially three more Star Wars movies to follow these ones, taking us up to 2032!).

Various other proposed stand-alone Star Wars movies, such as a Boba Fett film, appear to have been killed. Others, such as the proposed Obi-Wan movie, have been re-purposed as TV proposals instead.

Friday, 3 May 2019

RIP Peter Mayhew

News has sadly broken that Star Wars actor Peter Mayhew has passed away at the age of 74.

Mayhew was born in 1944 in London and was noted for his exceptional height, peaking at 7 foot, 3 inches. His exceptional height attracted the attention of casting agents, who cast him in the role of the minotaur in Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger in 1976. He was put forward for a role in George Lucas's Star Wars; originally Lucas had cast David Prowse as Chewbacca but had second thoughts and decided that Prowse would make a better Darth Vader. Mayhew noted that he was cast based almost entirely on his height.

Mayhew played Chewbacca solo in four Star Wars movies: Star Wars (1977, later retitled A New Hope), The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Return of the Jedi (1983) and Revenge of the Sith (2005). He also reprised the role for several TV guest appearances and public appearances. In 2015 he returned to the role for The Force Awakens, but ill health prevented him from playing Chewbacca full-time. Instead, Mayhew played the role in scenes with Chewbacca sitting down or standing still, whilst Finnish actor Joonas Suotamo played the role in action sequences.

After the release of The Force Awakens, Mayhew announced his retirement from the role and gave his blessing for Suotamo to take over the role full-time. Suotamo has since reprised the role in The Last Jedi (2017), Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018) and The Rise of Skywalker (2019). Suotamo sought Mayhew's advice when taking over the role full-time in The Last Jedi, leading to Mayhew being credited as "Chewbacca Consultant" on the film.

Despite having no audible dialogue in the films, Chewbacca became a firm fan-favourite for his personality and discernible sense of humour. Chewbacca's inability to talk normally proved challenging for the writers of the Star Wars novels, ultimately leading to the (wildly unpopular) decision to kill off the character (albeit heroically) in the novel Vector Prime. The decision was so unpopular that the author, R.A. Salvatore, received death threats. When Disney took over the Star Wars franchise in 2012, Chewbacca's death was given as the primary reason why the novels would be ignored and the canon rebooted.

Mayhew appeared in several non-Star Wars-related movies over the years and also used his celebrity to promote charitable causes.

Mayhew is sadly the third actor from the core Star Wars cast to pass away, following Kenny Baker (R2-D2) in 2016 and Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia) in 2016.

Thursday, 2 May 2019

The Future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Back in 2014, head of Marvel Studios Kevin Feige laid down his vision for the next five years of Marvel movies. As of the release of Avengers: Endgame, that vision is now complete. Some projects fell by the wayside - an Inhumans movie was dropped and was changed into a TV series (which flopped, badly) - and others have stepped up, with the addition of the Spider-Man character resulting in several new solo movies for him added to the roster.

Spider-Man and Black Panther are expected to be key characters in Phase 4 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Feige is expected to unveil a master plan for the next generation of Marvel movies - "Phase 4" - at the San Diego Comic-Con in July. It sounds like the plan is for a series of new movies that will take us up to the end of 2023, and will lean heavily on the newer generations of Marvel heroes such as Black Panther and Captain Marvel. However, this Phase will also feature a twist, as it will also incorporate a number of TV mini-series for the new Disney streaming platform, Disney+. These short series (estimated at 6-10 episodes apiece) will expand on some characters and will also introduce new characters, possibly setting them up to appear in new movies further down the road. Unlike previous Marvel TV shows (such as the Netflix series, Agents of SHIELD and The Inhumans), whose canonical status with regards to the movies is debatable, these Disney+ series are being made by Marvel Studios under Feige's direct supervision, and will be definitively be canon with regards to the films.

The roster of upcoming TV shows and films is as follows.

Please note that this article will contain spoilers for Avengers: Endgame.


Spider-Man: Far from Home
Directed by Jon Watts
Filming Dates: July-October 2018
Release Date: 2 July 2019

Already in the can, this is a sequel to Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) and will pick up with the character of Spider-Man/Peter Parker shortly after the events of Endgame. The film will see Spider-Man being recruited by Nick Fury to look into a series of strange events during a school trip to Europe. Marvel originally hoped to release this film much later, so marketing would not interfere with promotions for Endgame, but Sony's contract with Marvel requited them to start marketing the movie earlier.

Black Widow
Directed by Cate Shortland
Filming Dates: "soon"
Release Date: late 2020?

A solo Black Widow movie has been under discussion since Scarlett Johansson debuted in the role in Iron Man 2 (2010). Shortland signed on to direct in July 2018 and reportedly the film is due to start shooting "soon." The events of Endgame leave the focus and story of the film a mystery, but reportedly the film is a prequel which will explain some of Natasha's backstory. As far as is known, Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) is not expected to appear, which is unusual as their shared backstory is an obvious place for a film to pick up.

The Eternals
Directed by Chloé Zhao
Filming Dates: August-Late 2018
Release Date: late 2020/early 2021?

Chloé Zhao signed on to direct a movie based on Jack Kirby's immortal heroes in September 2018, and production is due to start in August. Angelina Jolie is playing Sersi whilst Kumail Nanjiani is also in talks to star.

Black Panther 2
Directed by Ryan Coogler
Filming Dates: unknown
Release Date: 2021?

Ryan Coogler has agreed to return to direct and write a sequel to his 2018 mega-hit. The entire (surviving) main cast is expected to return.

Doctor Strange 2
Directed by Scott Derrickson
Release Date: 2021?

Scott Derrickson has agreed to return to direct and co-write a sequel to the 2017 original. The original main cast is expected to return. Apparently the film will be "weirder" than the first one.

Spider-Man 3
Release Date: 2021?

Sony's contract with Marvel is believed to require a sequel to Spider-Man: Far From Home to be released two years after that movie, if Far From Home is financially successful. The cast's contracts are believed to include three-film options, but it's unclear if Jon Watts would return for a third movie.

Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton
Release Date: 2022?

Scriptwriter David Callaham and director Destin Daniel Cretton signed on in early 2019 to bring Marvel's crimefighting kung fu star (well, one of them, along with Iron Fist) to the big screen.

Captain Marvel 2
Release Date: 2022?

Not formally greenlit yet, although Captain Marvel's $1.1 billion take-home makes that a formality at this point. According to Kevin Feige, the sequel may actually be an "interquel", bridging Captain Marvel to Avengers: Endgame and exploring what Carol was up to in space during that time.

The Avengers 5
Release Date: 2022?

After Infinity War and Endgame blew up the box office between them, a further Avengers movie is of course a no-brainer. The film would likely see at least Falcon, Winter Soldier, War Machine, Scarlet Witch, Black Panther and Captain Marvel reunite to face off against some kind of threat, potentially to be joined by Thor, the "new" Hawkeye and She-Hulk (see the TV section). Alternatively the film could also act as a last hurrah for the old Hawkeye and Hulk (and Thor, depending on the timeline, see below) before their retirement.

Ant-Man 3
Directed by Peyton Reed
Release Date: unknown

Proposed but not yet formally greenlit. Director Peyton Reed has been discussing the project with Marvel, and actor Michael Douglas is reportedly keen to return as Hank Pym. It's also believed that most of the cast from the first two movies would return.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3
Directed by James Gunn
Release Date: unknown

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 was greenlit shortly after the success of Vol. 2 in 2017. However, director James Gunn was fired from the project in July 2018 after controversial tweets he'd made many years earlier resurfaced. Gunn signed on to direct The Suicide Squad for DC instead. After discussions with the cast, who were extremely unhappy with Gunn's firing, Disney reinstated him in March 2019. This now means that Gunn can't start production on Vol. 3 until work on The Suicide Squad is completed before its release in August 2021. This puts Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 potentially off until late 2022 at the earliest, and possibly later.

Thor 4
Release Date: unknown

Based on Chris Hemsworth's statements, it was expected that he would be retiring from the role following Endgame. However, both Thor: Ragnarok (2017) and the Infinity War two-parter revitalised his interest in the character and he has since committed to returning. The timeline for Thor 4 is heavily dependent on the availability of Ragnarok director Taika Waititi, who has been in talks to shoot the live-action version of Akira but still hasn't fully committed, and also on the scheduling for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, as Thor is believed to play a role in that movie. Some have suggested that if Waititi passes on Akira, Thor 4 could shoot much sooner and work as an interim Guardians side-movie until the Gunn-directed Guardians 3 hits production, but this is unconfirmed.

The Thunderbolts
Release Date: unknown

Not greenlit, but apparently discussed, is a movie teaming up the Marvel supervillains who have survived this far. Apparently the roster could consist of Zemo (Captain America: Civil War), Vulture (Spider-Man: Homecoming), Abomination (The Incredible Hulk) and Ghost (Ant-Man and the Wasp), along potentially with new characters. This is a very speculative project until a director and writer can be found with passion for the project.

Disney+ Shows

Falcon & Winter Soldier
Release Date: 2020

Greenlit and already in pre-production, with shooting due to start soon. Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan reprise their roles from the movies. The actors and Marvel had apparently discussed a range of options for the series, including a "buddy cop" dynamic similar to 1980s movies like 48 Hours. However, reportedly the tone for the series is going to be a ground-level thriller similar to The Winter Soldier, with a focus on stealth and espionage.

Release Date: 2020-21

Greenlit and in the writing stage. Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany will reprise their roles as Scarlet Witch and Vision from the films. The series will apparently be an interquel, exploring how the characters' relationship evolved between Civil War to Infinity War. Some reports have suggested that there may be scenes set in the 1950s, hinting possibly at hallucinations or even outright time travel.

Release Date: 2020-21

Greenlit and in the writing stage. Tom Hiddleson will reprise his role from the films as Loki. The TV series will be anthology-like, with major events from Earth's history over the last thousand years being revealed to have been orchestrated by Loki for his own amusement.

Release Date: unknown

Not formally greenlit, but negotiations are at an advanced stage for a limited series starring Jeremy Renner as Clint Barton/Hawkeye. The series would see Barton meeting and training up Kate Bishop, a skilled archer who (in the comics) becomes a later incarnation of Hawkeye.

Release Date: unknown

Not formally greenlit, but negotiations are at an early stage for a limited series that would see Mark Ruffalo return as Bruce Banner/Hulk. The series would see Banner meeting his cousin Jennifer Walters, who in the comics is destined to become She-Hulk. The film would act as a passing-the-baton story, allowing She-Hulk to potentially appear in later Avengers movies.

Power Pack
Release Date: unknown

Not formally greenlit and apparently talks are only in the very earliest stages, but there has been some discussion about adapting Power Pack as an ongoing, multi-season TV show. Power Pack is a more children's oriented Marvel Comic series about four children who gain superpowers from a dying alien trying to protect their father, who has perfected a limitless source of energy. Other aliens arrive trying to seize the device, resulting in a running, desperate battle. This is a better fit for television than for film. Intriguingly, Power Pack crosses over a lot with Fantastic Four (Reed Richards' son Franklin becomes a recurring member later on), which means that Marvel might get to use its new rights to that franchise sooner than expected.

Ms. Marvel
Release Date: unknown

Marvel and Disney+ are exploring using the streaming service to set up the character of Kamala Khan/Ms. Marvel. However, this may depend on the direction of Captain Marvel 2, where it has been suggested that Ms. Marvel could be introduced instead.

The X-Verse

At the current time, there are no plans to incorporate characters from Fox's "X-Verse" (plus the Fantastic Four franchise) into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, following Disney's acquisition of Fox. As of now, the Fox X-Verse is expected to come to an end with the release of X-Men: Dark Phoenix in June and New Mutants in August. Films under discussion or in the planning stages, including Deadpool 3, X-Force, Gambit and a sequel to X-Men: Apocalypse have been cancelled.

According to Kevin Feige, the planning for Phase 4 was already at an advanced stage when the deal was confirmed, putting off the introduction of those characters until the advent of Phase 5 in 2023 or 2024 at the earliest. However, some fans have speculated that whilst dumping the entire X-Verse roster of characters into the MCU in Phase 4 might be untenable, it might be possible to use individual characters and villains, with Galactus cited as a worthy opponent for the possible next Avengers film or films.

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A Brightness Long Ago by Guy Gavriel Kay

Danio Cerra is the son of a tailor who, through luck and connections, finds himself working in the household of the Duke of Mylasia, known throughout the city-stats of Batiara as "The Beast." Adria Ripoli is the daughter of a wealthy family who is predisposed to action and danger. Folco d'Acorsi and Teobaldo Monticola are rival mercenary commanders, the greatest generals of their day, whose fame and expertise are desired throughout the world, and who share a hatred and rivalry that will shape all that is to come.

A Brightness Long Ago is the fourteenth novel by Guy Gavriel Kay, the Canadian author who (since the sorrowful departure of Gene Wolfe) may now hold the best claim to being the greatest living writer of fantasy fiction, a claim backed by the likes of both and Brandon Sanderson. Kay's novels take real historical events and then weave a fantastical new shape out of them, creating a rich tapestry of characters, events and emotions that is never less than affecting, and, at his best, can be deeply moving.

Kay's finest novels, arguably, are Tigana, The Lions of Al-Rassan and Under Heaven, in each of which epic events are set in motion but relayed through the eyes of a small number of fantastically-drawn characters. A Brightness Long Ago comfortably joins their ranks, telling a somewhat larger, more epic story than his previous novel, Children of Earth and Sky (to which A Brightness Long Ago can be read as a prequel, although both novels stand alone). Kay's Batiara - his take on Renaissance Italy - is a land of beautiful cities and gifted artists, writers and philosophers, but it's also a land of feuding politicians and frequent warfare, which the High Patriarch in Rhodias (the Pope, effectively) is unable to overcome. With the Asharite armies threatening to breach the walls of Sarantium to the east, the cities of Batiara and the other Jaddite kingdoms are unable to join forces to save the City of Cities from its fate, which looms large in the background of the novel.

The main focus is on the cast of characters, with Danio as our first-person narrator but the action frequently cutting away to Adria, Folco, Teobaldo and several other prominent characters. As is usual with Kay, these characters are vividly well-drawn, with their hopes, desires and pasts driving their motivations. Kay's gifts lie also in atmosphere, and also in his lack of bloodlust. Too many epic fantasy authors seem to thrive on massive battles with bodies piled up like cordwood afterwards, but Kay has always been a more humane author, not to mention a more historically-minded one; bloodbath battles where tens of thousands are killed are relatively rare in real medieval and Renaissance history, with the most successful generals being those who used military force and sometimes just the threat of military force to achieve clear-cut objectives with the minimum of losses (and thus expense). As a result, the military rivalry between Folco and Teobaldo (loosely inspired by the rivalry between the real Frederico Montefeltro and Sigismondo Malatesta) is more of a fascinating game of chess, with both men seeking to out-manoeuvre the other on the battlefield, not slaughtering one another's men en masse.

Like most of Kay's novels, the book also references artists and creatives, with Danio's ambition to be a bookbinder and seller constantly thwarted by being drawn into the affairs of the mighty, and a minor subplot focusing on an artist who is constantly wandering from city to city, being paid vast sums for work that is generally never completed, because the lord in question dies or their city is taken by someone else. As with most Kay books there are also moments of real warmth, friendship and fellowship. Kay is not afraid to the show the uglier, messier side of life, death and war, but he also embraces the good things about life, and shows that it is worth fighting for.

A Brightness Long Ago (*****) is another superb novel from an author who may be fantasy's most reliably excellent, thoughtful, atmospheric and humane writer, and one whose powers remain notably undimmed. It's a book about lives, how people live them and the events that shape them, and how everything is connected. The novel will be published on 14 May in the UK and USA.

Wednesday, 1 May 2019

WILLOW sequel TV series in development

In a surprising move, Disney and Lucasfilm have confirmed they are currently discussing producing a sequel the 1988 fantasy movie Willow for streaming service Disney+.

The original movie saw the diminutive title character, played by Warwick Davis, take custody of a young human baby upon whom the fate of the world depended. Willow teamed up with a group of heroes to safeguard the child and ensure the defeat of the evil villain, Queen Bavmorda (Jean Marsh). Val Kilmer, Joanne Whalley also starred, whilst George Lucas produced and came up with the story. Ron Howard directed.

The film was only a modest financial success but gained a greater following on home video, and has become regarded as a cult classic over the years, along with fellow 1980s fantasy movies Labyrinth, The Dark Crystal, Dragonslayer and Conan the Barbarian. Lucas planned a larger and more epic sequel at one time (essentially a Lord of the Rings to Willow's The Hobbit) but never fulfilled these plans. Instead, he developed a sequel novel series with X-Men writer Chris Claremont, under the title Chronicles of the Shadow War. Three books were published in this series between 1996 and 2000: Shadow Moon, Shadow Dawn and Shadow Star.

The new project came about after Ron Howard and Warwick Davis were reunited during the filming of Solo: A Star Wars Story. Davis discussed ideas for a sequel with Howard and Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy. Solo co-writer Jon Kasdan was also intrigued by the idea of developing a sequel to the original movie. Kennedy didn't think there was mileage in a film continuation, but felt it might be a better fit as a TV series or mini-series at Disney+.

Although not formally greenlit, development of a script is continuing with Davis having already agreed to return in the title role. Val Kilmer has also expressed interest in returning.

Monday, 29 April 2019

Nick Frost and Simon Pegg to adapt RIVERS OF LONDON for television

Nick Frost and Simon Pegg (Hot Fuzz, The World's End, Paul, Spaced) have re-teamed to produce a television adaptation of Ben Aaronovitch's urban fantasy series Rivers of London.

Stolen Pictures, the production company founded by Frost and Pegg to develop new projects, have optioned the rights to the series and are searching for a production partner. Currently the plan is to adapt the first novel, Rivers of London (retitled Midnight Riot in the US for no particular reason) across 8-10 episodes. Subsequent seasons may combine the narratives of several books.

For Aaronovitch, this is coming full circle as he began his writing career in the 1980s working in television, including writing episodes of Doctor Who. After some time out of the writing field, he returned with the Rivers of London series, exploring the adventures of Peter Grant, a young constable in the Metropolitan Police who is drafted into the service's undercover magic division under Thomas Nightingale.

To date the series comprises the novels Rivers of London (2011), Whispers Under Ground (2012), Broken Homes (2013), Foxglove Summer (2014), The Hanging Tree (2016) and Lies Sleeping (2018), as well as several novellas and graphic novels. 

Game of Thrones: Season 8.0

Great armies are gathering at Winterfell. The White Walkers have breached the Wall and are marching south, planning to wipe out humanity. The scene is set for a great confrontation, a war which will determine whether anyone lives to see another dawn.

Originally I'd planned to wait until the season was complete before reviewing the eighth and final season of Game of Thrones, as with the past few seasons, but structurally the final season is panning out in a way that seemed more rewarding to review it as two halves. So here we go.

Way back in 2007, when it was confirmed that HBO was developing George R.R. Martin's fantasy book series A Song of Ice and Fire for television, they also almost immediately confirmed that the show would be called Game of Thrones. It made sense: Game of Thrones is a more concise, faster-to-say title that fits onto merchandise better and is more memorable. Many of the spin-off media from the books had used that title for years for much the same reason. Watching Season 8, it strikes me that the title change may also reflect a much more fundamental and philosophical shift in the focus of the story.

A Song of Ice and Fire is a title rooted in mysticism, prophecy and thematic conflict, the struggle between the ice of the Others (the books' analogue of the White Walkers) and the fire of the living, as championed by the dragons of House Targaryen. It suggests that the core struggles of the series will culminate in a confrontation between humanity and the Others, as personified by the Prince That Was Promised, the singer of the Song of Ice and Fire, who in the books may be Jon Snow or Daenerys Targaryen (or both). Game of Thrones, on the other hand, emphasises the Machiavellian realpolitik of the story, the ground-level struggle between differing political factions for a more mundane goal, control of the Iron Throne of Westeros.

Season 8 of Game of Thrones suggests that the producers had another reason beyond conciseness for changing the name. Season 8 breaks the remaining part of the story into two and addresses them separately, focusing in the first three episodes (surprisingly) on the struggle against the White Walkers at Winterfell and the latter three on who gets to claim the Iron Throne in King's Landing. This suggests that, in the view of David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the final conflict is a mundane, human one, focusing again on the conflict between Stark and Lannister, which is where we came in during Season 1. It's not an invalid take, given the lack of the source material, but it feels like it's at variance with the thematic conflicts and ideas established in the books, where very much it is presented that the mundane political conflict is a dangerous distraction from the true threat gathering to the north (despite the Others' relative lack of screentime - or pagetime - in the books versus the TV show).

As such the first three episodes of Season 8 form more of a three-and-a-half hour movie. The first episode, written by Dave Hill (soon to be tackling a new fantasy TV show as a writer on Amazon's Wheel of Time series) sees the gathering of forces at Winterfell and both long-awaited reunions (particularly Jon with Arya, whom he hasn't seen since the second episode of the entire series). It's a fairly standard "catching everyone up" opening episode for a season, with some nice callbacks to the first episode of the entire series.

The second episode is set immediately before the arrival of the White Walkers and is penned by Bryan Cogman, the writer responsible for many of the show's finest episodes and moments. A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms is a love letter to the characters, delving deeply into character moments and conversations between them on the eve of an apocalyptic final confrontation. It's also a huge nod to book-reading fans, referencing the legend of Ser Duncan the Tall (the star of Martin's spin-off series of novellas about a hedge knight wandering Westeros ninety years before the events of the main story) and his likely status as an ancestor of Brienne.

A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms is in fact probably the best episode of the entire series since at least Season 4. It sets up character conflict down the line (such as Jon's claim to the Iron Throne, which clashes with Daenerys') but also explores interrelationships between characters. It's also quite funny, warm and human, which is something that Game of Thrones can sometimes neglect in favour of cynical backstabbing and death.

The slow build-up ("the deep breath before the plunge" as another fantasy figure said) explodes in The Long Night, an 80-minute episode revolving almost entirely around the battle for Winterfell and for the dawn. Humanity is on the line and the enemy has an overwhelmingly impressive force, but our heroes have some aces up their sleeve as well.

Unfortunately, what is supposed to be Game of Thrones' most climactic and thrilling battle is let down on a number of fronts. The first is that the episode feels like it hasn't been colour-corrected properly. It's hard to make out what's going on, even on a properly-calibrated television. Game of Thrones has done night battles before - at the Blackwater in Season 2 and at the Wall in Season 4 - and it's always done a great job of keeping things clear and visible even in bad light. Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy did the same thing at Helm's Deep. But in this case the action is often muddled and hard to parse. Things are better when the action switches inside - Arya stalking a bunch of wights in Winterfell's library may one of the show's best moments in terms of tension and stealth - but most of the exterior scenes are blighted by poor visibility.

It also doesn't help that it's very much a "TV battle" with very little thought made to genuine medieval battle tactics, hence the bemusing scenes of a light cavalry force (complete with specialised horse archers, who aren't used at all) being sent to directly attack a much larger and stronger infantry formation head-on, followed by powerful siege weapons being mounted outside defensive fortifications and in front of an infantry formation (instead of behind it). The siege weapons fire off two or three salvos and are then immediately disregarded and destroyed. Game of Thrones has done very well in portraying tactics before (particularly in Blackwater and Watchers on the Wall, still the shows' highwater marks in terms of battle episodes), but it's also done incredibly poorly, such as in Battle of the Bastards, and this episode is definitely on the latter side of the scale.

At 80 minutes, with a battle lasting almost twice the length of Helm's Deep, the episode outstays its welcome, with the scenes of people killing wights getting boring much earlier than that. Continuity is a problem as well, as on multiple occasions we see groups of characters being completely surrounded by insane odds, but after a camera cut we see the group is now standing in more open ground fighting off a few wights, who are politely lining up before attacking. The "unstoppable horde" of the wights feels somewhat contrived as a result.

The battle ends in exactly the manner you expect (even if the people delivering the killer blows to crucial enemies are not who you expect) with a far lower casualty count than you'd expect from such a hard-fought engagement. We don't need to see a bloodbath with 75% of the cast wiped out or anything, but it does feel like our heroes got off easily and won a stunning victory at relatively little cost (at least in terms of characters the audience is invested in, the actual body count seems immense).

Still, this opening trilogy does leave some interesting questions for the latter half of the season. The battle for the Iron Throne should be incredibly one-sided, as Team Daenerys/Jon have two dragons and Cersei's side have none, which raises the question of what curveballs can be thrown by the writers to make this final struggle more interesting. We will find out soon enough.

801: Winterfell (***½)
802: A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms (*****)
803: The Long Night (**½)

Friday, 26 April 2019

Narcos: Season 3

1993. Pablo Escobar is dead, leaving a vacuum for control of Colombia's lucrative drug supply market. The Cali Cartel has taken up the strain, making absurd sums of money, and its leaders know to live under the radar rather than attracting attention like the publicity-hungry Escobar. The Cartel's leader, Gilberto, proposes that the Cartel abandon the drug trade in six months to focus on legitimate business, to avoid Escobar's fate, leading to a race against time for DEA Agent Javier Peña as he tries to bring down the Cartel before its leaders can escape justice.

The third and final (in this incarnation) season of Narcos focuses on the fight between the Colombian authorities, "aided" by the American DEA, and the Cali Cartel in the early 1990s. This is a different kind of battle to the one fought against Escobar, which was bloody and merciless, with the Cali Cartel at least initially trying to fly under the radar and not carry out such huge acts of blood-letting. As events unfold, however, the various factions lose control of events and chaos returns to the streets of Colombia.

Boyd Holbrook's character of Steve Murphy has returned to the USA (perhaps thankfully; Holbrook was something of an anonymous link in an otherwise splendid cast), leaving the considerably more charismatic character of Peña (Pedro Pascal) to pick up the slack, which he does brilliantly. The voiceovers and semi-docudrama feel of the first two seasons has also been dialled back, with Pascal providing occasional context-setting voiceovers but not to the same degree as in previous seasons. This makes Narcos much more of a traditional drama, with a larger cast of characters and multiple storylines unfolding in different areas.

The result is a rich drama, packed with excellent performances (Matias Varela as tormented security chief Jorge Salcedo is particularly outstanding) and paced expertly, with less of the repetition of story beats that slowed the previous seasons. However, it does feel like some characters and subplots are less well-serviced, and none of the new antagonists can really match Wagner Moura's Escobar for charisma and presence. The storyline revolving around Maria Salazar doesn't feel like it really goes anywhere and it's odd that the show goes to the trouble of casting the legendary Edward James Olmos as Peña's father and then gives him almost nothing to do. Eric Lange's CIA agent character is also an annoying kind of reverse deus-ex-machina, constantly on hand to thwart the DEA's plans at the last minute because of some realpolitik motivation which usually doesn't make much sense. Of course, Narcos is a prisoner of the real historical events which sometimes don't obey the laws of drama.

Overall, the third season of Narcos (****) is a very watchable, compelling drama that is highly watchable and constantly fascinating, although it can't quite match the tension of the hunt for Escobar. It is available on Netflix now.

Thursday, 25 April 2019

The Avengers: Endgame

The Infinity Stones have wreaked tremendous devastation across the universe, leaving the survivors reeling. The remaining Avengers and their allies from across the cosmos gather together on Earth for one last, possible plan to stop what has happened, at the risk of losing everything that survived.

Fifteen years ago, we experienced a genuine cinematic Moment when Peter Jackson delivered the thunderous conclusion to his Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. He wrapped up an emotional, impactful and epic story in a manner that was (mostly) successful and resulted in huge numbers of people visiting the cinema multiple times to see the conclusion to an entire multi-movie arc. I doubted we would see anything like it again, but a decade and a half later we are here with Endgame, a movie that tries something even more stupendous: paying off not just three but twenty-two movies that have been building things up and leading to this moment. The hype is crazy and if anything greater than that for The Return of the King (where you could go and read the story summary online from the book any time you wanted).

Endgame, surprisingly, delivers a nuanced and tight finale to the story that began in last year's Infinity War. Infinity War was epic and impressive, a stunning sequence of epic battles and quieter character moments that came together in several confrontations with Thanos, which Thanos won (although not without cost). Endgame picks up on the aftermath of that event with the surviving heroes regrouping, but they are caught up in grief and loss. Returning heroes Scott Lang and Hawkeye rejoin the team, whilst Rocket, Nebula and Captain Marvel join the Avengers to help resolve the crisis, but their early efforts have mixed results.

Endgame's generous three-hour running time allows directors the Russo Brothers (who can now write their own meal ticket and direct whatever film they want, ever) and writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely to have their cake and eat it, with huge, thunderous battle sequences and lots of quieter character beats. In fact, much of the first third of the film is taken up by people processing the events of the end of Infinity War, and how you move on when half of the people you've ever met are gone. The rest of the film is taken up by our heroes embarking on A Plan to save everyone, which near-instantly goes horrendously wrong and results in lots of the action, comedy and dramatic beats that you've come to expect from a Marvel movie, but more surprising is the amount of emotion on display. Character after character has to face up to their growth and what they've gone through to reach this point, and how they handle key moments that lead to victory, or in a few cases, their death.

Events culminate in a finale that is jaw-dropping in its scale and features some of the best, punch-the-air moments you've ever seen in a superhero movie, as well as moments of real reversals and pain. The directors walk a tightrope between being self-indulgent (the film may rival Return of the King for the number of endings it has, although I think it sells it much better) and too dark, and manages to chart a difficult course through that. It even manages to use Captain Marvel well, acknowledging her sheer power and her use as an asset against Thanos but not allowing her to dominate proceedings to the detriment of the characters we've spent eleven years with.

There's a lot of movie here and it's almost entirely brilliantly-handled. What's more surprising is the sheer degree of payoff we get in this film, and how many near-obscure characters from older movies suddenly and unexpectedly show up and play vital roles (bar one case where rather obviously the actor involved didn't want to return and they had to film around it using older footage, although it kind of works). Fans of the Marvel TV shows will also get one genuine moment of delight in a scene which seemingly officially canonises at least one of the Marvel TV shows as taking place in the Marvel cinematic universe after all. There's also the film's possibly most epic shot which was foreshadowed by a single moment (not even a scene) in an earlier movie from years ago which you could have missed by just looking at your phone for a second. Another major plot revelation hinges on a line of dialogue from another, even earlier movie which makes you suspect the Russo Brothers and Kevin Feige are genuine, outright geniuses.

Problems are mostly non-existent. This is a movie which, as I think everyone has guessed, does lean into a bit of time travel and as a result viewers can have exciting conversations over whether the story completely makes sense as a result (which Ant-Man and War Machine themselves get into a knot over at one point, trying to work out if the plot of the Back to the Future trilogy makes sense whilst Banner gets frustrated at them talking about movies rather than the science). Beyond that, for the first time, a Marvel movie hits every single beat it means to, with a fantastic villain, excellent characterisation and some titanic character payoffs, some you've been waiting a decade for. The only other criticism that could be made is that the film doesn't even remotely stand alone, at all, but then that's kind of the point of it. This is an ending to a very long chapter, and I can't even work out what happens next.

The Avengers: Endgame (*****) is long, but feels short when you watch it. Every character gets their moment in the sun, and the creators somehow make 21 previous movies worth of foreshadowing and backstory pay off in a real, meaningful way through a story that is by turns tragic, epic, moving, funny and action-packed.

Wednesday, 24 April 2019

Joss Whedon's THE NEVERS casts lead role

Joss Whedon has cast the lead role in his new television series, The Nevers.

Laura Donnelly will play the role of Amalia True, a hell-razing Victorian woman who refuses to confirm to stereotypes and ends up in charge of a group of women with unusual powers. Donnelly is best-known for playing the role of Janet Fraser Murray on Starz's Outlander, and has also appeared in Merlin, Beowulf and Britannia.

The Nevers marks Whedon's first foray into television since the first season of Agents of SHIELD in 2013, and his first original drama series since Dollhouse in 2009. Whedon will write and direct for the show, and will co-showrun alongside Buffy the Vampire Slayer veteran Jane Espenson. Doug Petrie, also a veteran of Buffy, will also serve as writer and producer. Journalist Laurie Penny and playwright Madhuri Shekar will also act as writers on the series.

The Nevers will start shooting in June this year and run through to February 2020, shooting in and around London. It is expected to debut on HBO in late 2020.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe Timeline

Before the release of Avengers: Endgame tomorrow, I thought it might be interesting to run down a timeline of major events in the previous twenty-one films and the relevant backstory.

Nick Fury of SHIELD, who plays a decisive role in assembling the Avengers.

Some notes on this timeline: the canonicity of the spin-off comic books, books and TV shows is open to question (particularly the films' resistance to incorporate the large-scale events of Agents of SHIELD or the Netflix series), so I've restricted things to the movies themselves and their direct publicity materials.

It's also well-known that the team at Disney have themselves retconned the timeline several times, resulting in some on-screen dating evidence that is flat-out wrong and has to be ignored (such as the "Eight years later," title card in Spider-Man: Homecoming). At other times writers seem to have assumed that movies have taken place in the year they were released and then ignored information to the contrary, creating more problems.

The Timeline at the MCU Wiki was useful in assembling the list, although their tendency to use weighted averages to try to pinpoint precise dates feels somewhat inaccurate. I have followed their reasoning in some matters (particularly the convincing arguments for putting Iron Mann in 2009 versus 2008) but have deviated from it where it feels necessary.

For the most part, the precise dating of each film and event is much less important than the order the events take place in.


The Infinity Stones.