Saturday, 16 January 2077

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After much debate (and some requests) I have signed up with crowdfunding service Patreon to better support future blogging efforts. You can find my Patreon page here and more information after the jump.

Monday, 23 May 2022

More details revealed about ROGUE ONE prequel show ANDOR

Writer and showrunner Tony Gilroy has dished the dirt on his upcoming Star Wars TV show Andor. A prequel to the movie Rogue One, the TV series focuses on Rebel Alliance agent Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), a ruthless operative who won't let anything stop him from helping bring down the Empire.

The show has the distinction of being the longest live-action Star Wars season to date, with twelve episodes in its first season. That compares to the six of Obi-Wan Kenobi, the seven of The Book of Boba Fett and the eight of each of The Mandalorian's seasons so far. The show is also already prepping a second season, which will apparently complete the story.

According to Gilroy - who previously wrote the first four Bourne movies and helmed the extensive rewrites and reshoots on Rogue One during its production period - the first season (which starts five years before Rogue One) is about how Andor becomes a revolutionary and joins the Rebel Alliance, whilst the second season tells the story of the events leading up to the start of Rogue One. As a result of that structure, don't expect K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) to show up until Season 2.

The show will have more of an ensemble feel, with a large cast of characters as well as Andor, and a major focus on the character of Mon Mothma (Genevieve O'Reilly), the head of the Rebel Alliance. Mothma previously showed up in Return of the Jedi (when she was played by Caroline Blakiston) as utterer of the infamous line, "Many Bothans died to bring us this information." O'Reilly took over the role of the younger Mothma in a scene cut from Revenge of the Sith, but finally got to play the role onscreen in Rogue One. Apparently Mothma and Andor will not cross paths until Season 2, but their parallel journeys in Season 1 are a major part of the story.

I'm not entirely sure this is a story that needs to be told, but Diego Luna is a great actor and Gilroy is an excellent writer and director when it comes to spy stories, so it should, at the least, be intriguing. Rogue One also stands tall as the best Star Wars movie of the recent era (if not the best since Empire), so seeing an extension to it's story could be worthwhile.

Star Wars: Andor is expected to debut on Disney+ before the end of the summer.

STRANGER THINGS Season 4 to run super-sized episodes

This Friday, Netflix is dropping the first part of the fourth and penultimate season of one of their biggest shows, Stranger Things. Netflix have confirmed they will be running the season in two chunks, with their longest episodes to date.

Debuting in 2016, Stranger Things opened in 1983 and saw a young girl with mysterious powers being rescued by a bunch of kids, who have their own problems with a missing friend and mysterious corporation which might or might not be up to no good. Heavily indebted to the likes of Spielberg, Lucas, Dante and Zemeckis, the series proved a huge hit with viewers old and young. Further seasons aired in 2017 and 2019. Stranger Things has historically been one of Netflix's biggest-performing shows, with an enormous long tail, cross-generational appeal and career-boosting kudos for many of its actors. Shows like Bridgerton and Squid Game have eclipsed it recently, but it's still one of the biggest feathers in Netflix's cap.

Season 4's production has been beset for problems due to the COVID pandemic, with repeated shutdowns, quarantines and delays to shooting. This has led to a three-year gap between seasons, something that has apparently severely concerned Netflix executives (who were already unhappy with the widening waits between seasons even before the pandemic). However, it does appear that creators/showrunners the Duffer Brothers are giving viewers maximum bang for their buck. They have split the nine-episode season into two parts, with seven episodes in the first part and two in the second. The two parts will be split by a month. The runtimes of the episodes will also be significantly longer than preceding seasons, as follows:

  • Episode 1: 76 minutes
  • Episode 2: 75 minutes
  • Episode 3: 63 minutes
  • Episode 4: 77 minutes
  • Episode 5: 74 minutes
  • Episode 6: 73 minutes
  • Episode 7: 98 minutes
  • Episode 8: 85 minutes
  • Episode 9: 150 minutes

If Stranger Things was a typical network show airing 45-minute episodes, Season 4 would be 17 episodes long. Which is actually pretty good, with declining episode counts for modern shows being roundly criticised by some viewers (though applauded by others who don't want to see a comeback of the days of 22-episode network shows, where 15 of those episodes are pure filler).

Episodes 1-7 of Stranger Things will be released this Friday, 27 May. Episodes 8 and 9 will be released five weeks later, on 1 July.

A fifth and final season of Stranger Things has been commissioned.

RIP Colin Cantwell

Star Wars spacecraft designer Colin Cantwell has sadly passed away at the age of 90. Cantwell designed some of the most iconic spacecraft seen in the original Star Wars movie. Amongst others, he created the X-wing and Y-wing fighters, the TIE Fighter, the Star Destroyer, the Death Star and the Rebel Blockade Runner.

Cantwell was born in California in 1932 and became an expert in computers, filming techniques and visual effects. He assisted Douglas Trumbull in his work on 2001: A Space Odyssey for Stanley Kubrick, and then worked at NASA in the late1960s, providing technical assistance to news anchor Walter Cronkite as he covered the first Moon landing. He then worked on multimedia presentations on space travel.

Cantwell showing the Y-wing design to George Lucas, c, 1976

In 1974 he was introduced to George Lucas and began work on concept art based on his Star Wars film script. He worked alongside Ralph McQuarrie, creating designs that McQuarrie fleshed out into stunning art pieces. He also used "kitbashing" to create early 3D models of spacecraft, which Lucas could then present to potential studios and investors. Lucas has credited this work with getting studios more interested in the project.

Cantwell designed the iconic X-wing starfighter, combining elements of a dart and dragster car. He came up with the split-wing concept as a way of showing when the fighter was at rest and when it was ready for action. He also designed the Y-wing, although it was partially redesigned by model maker Joe Johnston when he realised the cockpit didn't quite work. A rejected Y-wing design became the Skyhopper, which would be used by Luke on Tatooine, but budget restrictions meant that the Skyhopper only appeared as a toy that Luke plays with. The replacement landspeeder, also designed by Cantwell, was a much more simplistic design. Cantwell also designed the Jawa Sandcrawler.

For the Imperials, Cantwell designed the Star Destroyer, merging two separate designs (a two-man fighter and large capital ship) into one. He also created the TIE Fighter, following Lucas's suggestion of an instantly-recognisable and threatening silhouette. For the Death Star, Cantwell created a highly detailed model to clearly show it was an artificial construction rather than a planet or moon. The equatorial trench came about because the construction process caused the model to "dip," making creating a perfect sphere impossible.

Cantwell also created the first prototype of the Millennium Falcon and Joe Johnston built a model of it. However, at the last minute Lucas spotted a similar-looking ship in an episode of Space: 1999 and, concerned about plagiarism accusations, asked for a complete redesign. Joe Johnston handled the redesign leading to the "eaten hamburger" design seen in the finished film. However, Cantwell's work was not in vein as his prototype, re-scaled, became the Tantive IV or "Rebel Blockade Runner," later canonised as the Corellian Corvette.

Lucas asked Cantwell to help head up Industrial Light & Magic, but Cantwell felt he had loyalties to Universal Studios and decided not to work full-time with 20th Century Fox (who financed and released Star Wars). As a result, he did not return to work on The Empire Strikes Back or Return of the Jedi.

After Star Wars, Cantwell worked with Hewlett-Packard on the development of the 9845C computer, and used such a computer to create all the graphics for the 1983 film WarGames. He was nominated for an Oscar for his work on WarGames, but was (perhaps ironically) pipped to the post by Return of the Jedi.

Cantwell passed away on 21 May 2022 in Colorado after several years of being afflicted with Alzheimer's. The creator of some of the most iconic and enduring spaceships in history, he will be missed.

Sunday, 22 May 2022

A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine

The Teixcalaanli Empire stands on the brink of war with an unknown alien race. Fleet Captain Nine Hibiscus and her fleet stand at the edge of the conflict, tasked with defending the Empire from an enemy whose numbers, capability and disposition are all unknown. She calls in Envoy Three Seagrass to help formulate a way of talking to the enemy...who in turn calls on her friend, Lsel Ambassador Mahit Dzmare, for aid. These are the same two people recently involved in the circumstances surrounding the accession of the new Emperor, and this triggers a tidal wave of political intrigue stretching across light-years. But their mission must succeed, for the aliens pose a threat to far more than just the Empire.

A Desolation Called Peace is the second book in a loosely-connected duology, following up on A Memory Called Empire. That novel was as dramatically impressive as any space opera debut from the last couple of decades, a confidently-written novel about politics, identity and intrigue that won a Hugo Award. This book is the continuation, although the main story (about the first encounter with an unknown alien race in deep space) stands alone.

Desolation is not quite as striking a novel as Memory, maybe because it is trying to do a bit too much. The novel continues the political intrigue on the Teixcalaanli homeworld from the previous novel, albeit with some new players (most of the intriguers from the previous novel having been fired, killed, imprisoned or exiled), whilst also throwing in a widescreen, big-budget space war and an Arrival-style subplot with the protagonists trying to understand the aliens' language, which is difficult because it is rooted in concepts, ideas and fundamental biology that humans are completely unfamiliar with. Further subplots revolve around the new Emperor trying to assert their authority, the Emperor's heir learning important lessons about statecraft and Seagrass and Mahit's relationship, which was left on an awkward pause in the first book. There's also internal politicking within the Teixcalaanli fleet and a lot of business on Lsel Station as well.

It makes for a busy, breezy book with a lot going on, but the tight page count (480 pages in paperback) means a lot of these ideas are not explored in as much detail as maybe they could have been. Extending the duology to three books or making A Desolation Called Peace into a Peter F. Hamilton-class shelf-destroyer might have been a better way of expanding these stories more satisfyingly. Still, leaving readers wanting more and making novels as tight as possible is not a bad thing either.

Many of the themes from the first novel continue to be explored, such as the tension between the semi-decadent Teixcalaanli, whose overwhelming power makes them both arrogant and overconfident when faced with a potentially greater threat, and the much more pragmatic inhabitants of Lsel Station. The aliens are an added wild card here, with an interesting biology and impressive technical prowess, and a truly alien way of thinking that the author evokes well through the text. The aliens are also not over-used, deployed just enough so we get a sense of their strangeness but not so much that they lose their effectiveness.

If poetry was a theme of the first book, language is a theme here, and how language shapes ideas and ideology (and vice versa). Like some other plots, the Arrival-like storyline of talking to the aliens is a little curt, but what we do get is fascinating. There is also the way the Teixcalaanli use language themselves, and how they communicate and what methods of communication they use. This becomes a key point of the subplot involving the Emperor's heir, which initially feels detached from the main narrative but loops back in satisfyingly later on.

A Desolation Called Peace (****) is an accomplished, page-turning, idea-packed space opera which tells a lot of great stories, but the sheer number of stories it is telling in a constrained page count means that occasionally you find yourself wishing more greater elaboration of a storyline or character arc. But it also gives the novel a relentless, compelling pace. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

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Friday, 20 May 2022

BABYLON 5 reboot still in development amidst major changes at The CW

Mark Pedowitz, CEO of The CW, has confirmed that the channel's Babylon 5 reboot is currently still in development. This is despite The CW going up for sale and a whole slew of the channel's shows being cancelled.

Created by J. Michael Straczynski, Babylon 5 aired for a pilot, five seasons and four TV movies from 1993 to 1998, followed by a spin-off series, Crusade, that was cancelled after half a season in 1999. A subsequent additional TV movie aired in 2002, and another one was released direct to DVD in 2007. The show also incorporated spin-off novels and comic books. The show was noted for its pioneering use of both serialised storytelling and CGI. It had modest ratings during its original run but strong critical acclaim, winning back-to-back Hugo Awards in 1996 and 1997.

After the end of the original run, original creator-showrunner-writer J. Michael Straczynski (also noted for his work on He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, The Real Ghostbusters, Jeremiah and Sense8, as well as his comics book work and the Clint Eastwood/Angelina Jolie film Changeling) spent some years developing a feature film featuring the original cast. However, a large number of the original cast has sadly passed away, making a Next Generation-style continuation of the show impossible.

Renewed interest in Babylon 5 was generated by a middling HD remaster which was released in early 2021 (which updated the live-action footage but not the CGI). Word of reboot of the show followed in September. Unusually, it was confirmed in February that Babylon 5 would not proceed in development for 2022, but would instead be held back until 2023, apparently so it would not be impacted by the imminent sale of The CW network.

The CW was founded in 2006 as a merger of The WB and UPN, owned by Warner Brothers and Paramount respectively. The two channels had struggled for a decent market share and joined forces to ensure more resources. The channel initially saw a reasonable hit with Supernatural and then a number of shows based on the DC Universe, starting Arrow and continuing with The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow, Black LightningSupergirl and Batwoman. The network also established other hit properties with The 100, Riverdale and The Vampire Diaries, among others. The network became stereotyped for having shows aimed at younger audiences with variable special effects, low budgets and a cheesy, old-fashioned feel. However, the network also became immensely profitable through a 2011 deal with Netflix worth $1 billion, which subsidised shows that aired to low ratings on their original American airing but garnered a much larger international audience.

The Netflix deal was terminated in 2019, with CW shows instead finding an outlet through direct overseas sales and American streaming via HBO Max. However, this did not in any way approach the sheer income generated by the prior Netflix deal. As a result, the network starting cancelling shows at rate of knots, culminating in a massacre in May 2022 when ten shows were cancelled, including Legends of Tomorrow. The CW is now being sold to the Nexstar Media Group.

The news that the Babylon 5 reboot is not dead is good, but it should come with caveats. It is possible and likely, once the deal is completed, that Nexstar will install their own CEO to replace Mark Pedowitz, who notes that he is a huge fan of the original show and has been trying to bring it back for many years. It is unlikely that a new CEO will be as invested in the project as him. New channel CEOs in fact usually terminate any shows in development they were not involved in and bring in their own projects to develop. There are a few exceptions, but they are rare. If Nextstar retain Pedowitz in the role, it's much more likely that the B5 reboot will happen. More news as we get it.

Thursday, 19 May 2022

New DAREDEVIL series in development at Disney+

Disney+ have put into development a new season of Daredevil, the extremely popular Marvel drama series that previously ran for three seasons at Netflix and spawned a number of spin-off and companion shows, culminating in the Defenders event mini-series. Disney+ recently gained the rights to all the Netflix series and seemingly formalised Daredevil as part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe when actors Charlie Cox (Matt Murdoch/Daredevil) and Vincent D'Onofrio (Wilson Fisk/Kingpin) appeared in Spider-Man: No Way Home and the streaming series Hawkeye respectively.

Matt Corman and Chris Ord will serve as showrunners on the new project. They previously co-created Covert Affairs and have worked on several other projects as a writing team. At the moment, none of the creative team from the previous Netflix iteration of the property are involved. However, it seems inevitable that at least Cox will reprise his role as the Man Without Fear, and hopefully the rest of the cast will follow.

The new series will likely answer the niggling question of if events of the Netflix shows are canon, rather than just using the same actors to portray a similar version of the characters. Fans will be hoping that other characters make the cut, particularly Krysten Ritter's take on Jessica Jones and Jon Bernthal's intense portrayal of Frank Castle/The Punisher.

The project is only early in development. Beforehand, Disney+ will launch a number of other Marvel TV shows including Ms. Marvel, She-Hulk: Attorney at Law, Echo, Secret Invasion, Ironheart, Armor Wars, Agatha: House of Harkness and Wakanda, as well as a second season of Loki.

RIP Vangelis

The news has sadly broken that composer and keyboardist Vangelis has passed away at the age of 79. He is best-known for composing the soundtracks to the films Blade Runner and Chariots of Fire, as well as the Carl Sagan TV show Cosmos. He also had a successful solo career.

Evángelos Odysséas Papathanassiou was born in 1943 in Greece. He started learning to play the piano at four, inspired by his father's love of music. He began scoring work early, working on three Greek movies in the mid-1960s whilst recording with the band The Forminx. In 1967 he relocated from Athens to Paris and co-founded the group Aphrodite's Child, which enjoyed moderate success and a critical hit with the 666 album in 1972. He began a solo career and continued scoring European films, as well as nature documentaries. In 1974 he auditioned to replace Rick Wakeman in the progressive rock band Yes, but ran into visa problems. Although he never joined the band formally, he did work alongside various Yes bandmembers on later projects.

In 1975 he relocated to London and continued to release solo material at an impressive clip throughout the rest of the decade, as well as continuing to work on more documentary soundtracks. His work on Opera Sauvage (1979) was particularly praised, raising his profile considerably. In 1980, Carl Sagan's hugely influential television series Cosmos used a number of Vangelis compositions from throughout his career, including an extract from "Heaven and Hell" as its main theme.

Vangelis had his biggest career breakthrough when he was asked to compose the soundtrack to Chariots of Fire (1981). His main theme tune for the film became a huge worldwide success, hitting #1 on the US Hot 100 chart. The soundtrack album sold a million copies in the USA by itself. The following year he won an Academy Award for the soundtrack, but his fear of flying meant he did not attend the ceremony.

Vangelis was flooded with offers for work, but turned most of them down, fearing becoming typecast only as a film composer. He returned to working on documentaries and only on films which he felt intellectually stimulated him, such as the Japanese film Nankyoku Monogatari (1983). Another such film was Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982), where his work hugely praised. However, a legal dispute meant that his soundtrack was not formally released until 1994.

Vangelis also composed the soundtracks to 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992), Alexander (2004) and El Greco (2007). In 2012 he collaborated on the score for Chariots of Fire: The Play.

He continued to produce solo albums and contribute to projects that interested him, such as a soundtrack for the 2001 NASA Odyssey mission to Mars. His most recent solo album was Juno to Jupiter, released in 2021.

A titan of electronic music and the composer of two of the greatest movie scores of all time, Vangelis will be missed.

Wednesday, 18 May 2022

First trailer for SHE-HULK released

Marvel have unveiled the first trailer for their upcoming streaming series She-Hulk: Attorney at Law. The series debuts on 17 August.

She-Hulk: Attorney at Law follows lawyer Jennifer Walters, the cousin of Bruce Banner, better known as the Incredible Hulk. When Walters is injured, her cousin saves her by donating some of his blood, leading her to gaining his powers of transformation, albeit at a lesser scale. Walters has to adapt to life as She-Hulk, including unwanted fame and her newfound ability to tear metal doors off their hinges (aided by somewhat questionable CGI).

The series stars Canadian actress Tatiana Maslany, who won an Emmy Award for Best Actress for playing multiple characters in the clone-based drama Orphan Black. Mark Ruffalo reprises his role as Bruce Banner/Hulk from the Marvel movies, whilst Tim Roth return as Emil Blonsky/Abomination. He previously played the character in The Incredible Hulk (2008) and briefly voiced the character in an uncredited cameo in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Five Rings (2021). Benedict Wong also returns as Wong, having played the character previously in Doctor Strange (2017), Avengers: Infinity War (2018), Avengers: Endgame (2019), Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Five Rings (2021), Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021) and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022).

Other actors announced for the project include Ginger Gonzaga as Nikki, Jameela Jamil as Titania, Renee Elise Goldsberry as Amelia, and Josh Segarra, Jon Bass, Anais Almonte, Nicholas Cirillo and David Otunga in undisclosed roles.

Jennifer Walters/She-Hulk is a popular Marvel character, having debuted in The Savage She-Hulk's first issue in 1980. She was created by Stan Lee and artist John Buscema, initially as a female version of the Hulk but with some differences, most notably retaining her personality and intelligence after her transformations. In the comics, She-Hulk has been a member of multiple organisations, including the Avengers, Defenders and SHIELD.

The season will consist of nine half-hour episodes, with a lighter and more comedic feel than some of the other Marvel projects. The show is being set up to lead into additional seasons if successful, with Kevin Feige noting that Walters' job as a lawyer for superheroes could see her showing up in other Marvel movies and series.

Tuesday, 17 May 2022

Lucasfilm outlines ongoing plans for STAR WARS

In a major article for Vanity Fair, the creatives at Lucasfilm have outlined their plans moving forwards for the Star Wars franchise. The franchise has had mixed fortune recently, scoring a major international hit with TV series The Mandalorian but also two box-office disappointments with Solo (2018) and The Rise of Skywalker (2019), and TV series The Book of Boba Fett which had a mixed reception.

During the article, Lucasfilm confirm the release schedule for their upcoming TV shows, with Obi-Wan Kenobi launching on 27 May and Rogue One prequel show Andor hitting screens a few weeks later, before the end of summer. The Mandalorian Season 3 will arrive late this year or early next, with Ahsoka being a confirmed 2023 release. The Acolyte, a show set during the "High Republic" era about 100 years before The Phantom Menace, is likely to appear in 2023 or 2024.

Lucasfilm are also developing a new project, which so far only has the code name "Grammar Rodeo" (a Simpsons reference). The show sounds like Star Wars: Stranger Things, with a group of four children who get swept up in events following the fall of the Empire. The show is reported to have a "Amblin coming-of-age adventure" vibe from the 1980s. Director Jon Watts, who helmed the recent Spider-Man Homecoming trilogy, is in charge alongside writer Chris Ford.

In terms of feature films, it appears that the new focus is on Taika Waititi's Star Wars movie, which is in pre-production and will be Waititi's next project once Thor: Love & Thunder launches and he gets his commitments to that out of the way. That could potentially be a 2024 release. Patty Jenkins' Rogue Squadron movie was delayed a while back due to commitments to Wonder Woman 3 and Cleopatra, but Jenkins cleared Cleopatra by transferring it to another director. Rogue Squadron will be Jenkins' next film once the third Wonder Woman movie is done, possibly for 2025.

Marvel Cinematic Universe head honcho Kevin Feige agreed to brainstorm and produce a Star Wars movie a while back, but he's so busy with the MCU that that project has been back-burnered. Likewise on hold is Rian Johnson's Star Wars trilogy. Johnson has committed to his Knives Out franchise and a Netflix deal, which puts a Star Wars return a long way off. Left unspoken is the mixed critical reception to Johnson's film The Last Jedi, which may have discouraged his return to the franchise altogether.

The Knights of the Old Republic movie, rumoured heavily a couple of years ago, and the rumoured Lando Calrissian TV show, are also left completely unmentioned.

The article addresses potential issues with the Star Wars franchise moving forwards: most of the projects reiterate on eras and things we have seen before. Only The Acolyte seems to be set in a new time period distinct from the prior settings, and even that is apparently going to eventually be setting up The Phantom Menace (I suspect a Darth Plagueis appearance). The article also suggests that the failure of Solo has been blamed on recasting Han Solo rather than its release date or franchise fatigue. This has driven the decision to use CGI to resurrect classic characters rather than recasting, which I think is the wrong conclusion to draw from that. The "deepfake" technology is getting better all the time, but it's still not at the point where classic characters can be restored to the screen convincingly. Even if it could, it feels like that's feeding into the desire to keep Star Wars permanently stuck revisiting the same time periods, characters and concepts.

The mixed reception to Star Wars projects which have tried to go in new directions seems to have resulted in a lot of conservatism in these new projects, which is a shame. The problem with the sequel trilogy wasn't that it was trying to go in new directions, but that it starting off not doing that (with the highly retro and fan-servicing The Force Awakens), then did that only semi-successfully (in The Last Jedi, half of the best Star Wars movie bolted onto half of the most pointless) and then reversed course again and made a complete pig's ear out of the situation (in The Rise of Skywalker). A Star Wars project which did go in genuinely new directions with a coherent plan in place from the start and was genuinely well-written I think would have every chance of success.

Forthcoming Star Wars Projects

  • Obi-Wan Kenobi: Disney+ streaming series, 27 May 2022
  • Andor: Disney+ streaming series, late summer 2022
  • The Mandalorian Season 3: Disney+ streaming series, late 2022/early 2023
  • Ahsoka: Disney+ streaming series, 2023
  • The Acolyte: Disney+ streaming series, 2023/2024
  • "Grammar Rodeo": Disney+ streaming series, tbc
  • Taika Waititi-directed Star Wars movie, tbc
  • Rogue Squadron: feature film, tbc
  • Kevin Feige Star Wars movie: on hold
  • Rian Johnson Star Wars trilogy: on hold