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.

Sunday, 20 October 2019

The Leftovers: Season 2

On Departure Day - 14 October - 120 million people vanished with a trace, disappearing from all over the Earth. The people left behind are shellshocked, confused and mystified as to how it happened. But in one place it didn't happen at all. The town of Jarden, Texas did not lose a single person, which is statistically impossible for a town of its size. Now nicknamed Miracle, the town has become a mecca for the dispossessed, the grieving and the traumatised...including the Garvey family.

Season 2 of The Leftovers picks up a few months after the events of the first and throws a hard, hard curveball at the viewer. A large chunk of the regular cast have relocated over 1,500 miles from Mapleton, New York to Jarden, Texas. On first viewing this feels massively contrived, with the Garvey family, Nora, Matt and his still-comatose wife all finding reasons to make the move and less-interesting characters from Mapleton unceremoniously dropped. Once in Jarden the show also focuses on the Murphy family, who are undergoing their own woes and difficulties.

This shift in location is quite a lot to get used to, and at first it feels less like a continuation of the first season than the start of a spin-off series. However, we eventually touch base with Meg and the Guilty Remnant, what Tom and Jill are up to and a few more dangling storylines left unresolved from the first season, but it takes a while. One upshot of this is that rather than getting a few disconnected scenes with other characters in other places a few times per episode, we instead get a large, focused amount of time for these other characters instead, which makes the individual episodes stand out a bit more.

Instead the season introduces a new mystery: three young women, including one of the Murphys, disappears in the middle of an earthquake. The Garveys, who befriend the Murphys on their first day in town, help out in the search but subsequent events re-open old wounds in the family, particularly Kevin's tendency to go sleepwalking and "lose time." Other storylines involve the Murphys' own marital problems and how Matt is coping with the routine of looking after his wife.

In broad terms, the second season is certainly very strong, but it does suffer from several minor problems compared to the first. The complete change in setting means we spend several episodes spinning wheels a bit as the show has to introduce a new batch of supporting castmembers. Showrunner-writer Damon Lindelof also borrows a couple of tropes from his Lost playbook, most notably playing around with time and dedicating the second episode to showing the flipside of events in the first and then doing something completely different in the third episode. This means that we're four episodes into the season, almost halfway through, before the story starts moving forwards again.

Once the story does kick into a higher gear, it quickly becomes irresistible. The fifth episode, No Room at the Inn, is possibly the finest episode of the series so far, with an absolutely outstanding performance by Christopher Eccleston as Matt starts to lose his cool with his routine of looking after his wife and hoping for her recovery. Subsequent episodes (particularly the bizarre International Assassin) then take a step into the weird, spiritual and surreal, but the phenomenal performances anchor the story even as it takes a step further into the odd. The final two episodes then, rather smartly, bring together all the storylines from Season 2 and a few unresolved elements from Season 1 into a surprisingly effective and well-conceived grand finale.

The second season of The Leftovers (****½) starts slow and takes a while to circle around and get to its point, but when it does it suddenly becomes richly compelling television. It is available via HBO in the United States, but in the UK and other territories you're probably going to have look for an imported Blu-Ray set (the Scandinavian one is compatible with UK players) to get the show in HD.

Community: Season 6

Jeff Winger is firmly ensconced in his new role as a teacher at Greendale Community College, but times are changing. Shirley has moved away to look after her sick father and the college is still in danger of closure. The Save Greendale committee is reinforced by the arrival of consultant Frankie Dart and old-skool computer expert Elroy Patashnik, who have to help the few remaining old students save the day.

It's ironic, but also a relief that Community, a show which hovered perpetually on the edge of cancellation for its entire 110-episode run, was allowed to end on its own terms. The show had been picked up by Yahoo after NBC terminated it at the end of the fifth season and Yahoo were keen to allow it to continue for at least one more season, but showrunner Dan Harmon decided to quit whilst he was ahead. His reasoning was that too many of the original regular cast had left and the show was no longer working with the same energy.

This is clearly visible on-screen. Community now feels like a very different beast. Although many of the episode plots were driven by the antics of Jeff Winger, Senor Chang or the Dean's latest crazy college activity (all of which remain intact), in many ways it was Troy and Shirley who were the heart of the show. At least Troy got a farewell in Season 5 but Shirley's extremely abrupt between-season departure is clearly an unplanned event that left the writers reeling to try to overcome it, and they don't really succeed.

This is no slight against Paget Brewster (Frankie Dart) or Keith David (Elroy), who both do very good work. It's just that they're being held to the very high standards of the characters who came before them, who had an unmatched chemistry with the rest of the cast. A sense of continuity is also not maintained due to the inexplicable departure of both John Oliver and Jonathan Banks from the Season 5 recurring cast.

The result is a season of Community that feels like it's running a little with its wings clipped. Episodes are a little less inventive than previously and Abed particularly feels limited as a character, as he no longer has Troy to riff off. This is a shame because many of the episode ideas feel like vintage Community: Honda sponsoring a ridiculous number of product placements at the college, a suddenly-famous Chang leaving midway through Abed's video shoot (forcing him to recycle the same brief clips into an entire movie) and the revelation that the paintball game has not ceased as previous seasons indicated, but instead moved underground.

The show is still funny, there's still some laughs and some more emotional beats, but there's also a sense of unbalance, of something missing. This is a subdued version of Community, one that's certainly still worth watching and is still a lot of fun, but also not running with the energy of earlier seasons. One moment where the show does rise to the occasion is the finale, which is bittersweet, poignant and genuinely funny, whilst retaining the metacommentary creator Dan Harmon is best-known for.

Community's sixth and final season (***½) is available now in the UK and USA. The much-promised movie has, alas, not yet appeared.

The Boys: Season 1

Superheroes are real and have made the world a safer place...and a far more profitable one for their employers, Vought International. Hughie Campbell also learns how powerful that Vought can be after his girlfriend is killed in a collision with the super-speedster A-Train and they try to buy him off. Furious, he joins forces with vengeful vigilante Billy Butcher, who plans to expose the "supes" for what they are. Meanwhile, the gifted Annie January is offered the chance to join the biggest superhero team in the world, the Seven, but rapidly discovers that the real face of the superheroes is very different to the one they show the world.

The Boys is based on Garth Ennis's 2006-12 comic of the same name. The comic was a searing takedown of the superhero mythos. Ennis, rather infamously, is not a fan of superhero titles and feels that in a more realistic setting, superheroes would be corrupted by their power and lack of accountability, becoming indistinguishable from the villains. This resulted in a ruthless, morally ambiguous and at times shocking title that attracted considerable attention for both its violence and its clear hatred of the superhero genre.

The Amazon TV adaptation of the comic is, mercifully, not quite as dark and grim. There's still a lot of violence, shocking gore and unexpectedly unpleasant events, but the TV series is not quite as reliant on it as the comic could be. Instead, the TV show focuses more on characterisation and the exploration of its world through the dual POVs of Hughie (Jack Quaid) and Annie (Erin Moriarty), with a lot of useful exploration being provided by Billy Butcher (Karl Urban) and Madelyn Stillwell (Elisabeth Shue) on both sides.

The cast is exceptional, with everyone delivering good work, especially Urban as he masterfully overcomes a genuinely dreadful British and Antony Starr as Homelander, this universe's equivalent of Superman (if Superman was suffering from a battery of truly worrying psychoses). Starr has a lot of different types of characteristics to play as Homelander undergoes a number of shifts in attitude and personality over the course of the season, and pulls them all off quite well.

The relatively modest episode count of eight episodes helps keep the story tight and focused, and the generous budget allows for some genuinely spectacular visual effects sequences. The Boys actually feels like a comic book TV show, unlike say the Netflix Marvel shows which felt like more ordinary TV shows which just happened to be based on comic books. There's also a dark sense of humour to the series, with the most outstanding sequence being one where Billy weaponises a super-powered baby to his own ends.

With high production values, a tight story focus and good performances, The Boys is never less than watchable. It does have some negatives, however. This is a relentlessly grim series, which is occasionally alleviated by the moments of dark humour but never for very long. The show is not just grim, it's cynical and it often feels like it's verging on the misanthropic, with almost every character revealed to be selfish, amoral, or even outright evil. There's also a glee to some of the character deaths and violence that feels unsettling. That certainly seems to be the intent, but it often verges into the gratuitous.

The show also suffers from comparison with its fellow Amazon superhero show, The Tick. The Tick actually did a lot of the same things - right down to its deconstructed failure of a Superman analogue and a corrupt superhero organisation - but did it with much more flair, genuine humour and optimism. If, as some may feel, Amazon had a choice between which of two graphic-novel-adaptations-helmed-by-a-former-Supernatural-writer to proceed with, the conclusion at the moment is that they probably chose the wrong one.

The first season of The Boys (***½) is impeccably produced, well-acted and with a strong narrative momentum. It's also so dark that at times it verges on the miserable, and its relentless cynicism and belief that almost all human beings are scum becomes wearying. It is available to watch now in the UK and USA.

Season 2 of The Boys recently finished shooting and will air on Amazon in 2020.

The Last Kingdom: Season 3

AD 899. King Alfred's health is failing and his grand vision to unify the seven kingdoms of England under Christian rule has not yet been fulfilled. His son Edward stands to inherit the throne of Wessex but he is callow and untested, and the troublesome Prince Athelwold is again pressing his claim to the throne. To secure his dynasty, Alfred asks his greatest warrior, Uhtred, to pledge his sword to Edward for life. Uhtred refuses, yearning to set out on his long-planned quest to retake his ancestral home of Bebbanburg. Their quarrel turns violet and Uhtred finds himself banished from the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms...just as the Danes prepare their boldest plan of attack yet, and seek his support.

The Last Kingdom is one of the most enjoyable programmes on air, a (mostly) historical romp through the life and times of Alfred the Great and his heirs, who seek to unify England as one kingdom whilst facing constant pressure from the heathen Danes. Bernard Cornwell's novels are great fun and the TV adaptation is mostly faithful, although occasionally compressing events or characters for clarity.

The third season loosely adapts the fifth and sixth books in the series, The Burning Land and Death of Kings, and follows an over-arcing plot where the various tensions between Alfred and Uhtred that have built up over the series explode, bringing them to blows and seeing Uhtred banished from his new home. Uhtred is ensnared in the machinations of the alleged sorceress, Skade, and is convinced to join an alliance of Danes against Alfred, to the disquiet of some of his men who are still loyal to Wessex. The result is ten episodes of political intrigue, action and character development as the various agendas of the factions involved are put into conflict.

For a show in its third year, The Last Kingdom still feels fresh and ambitious. The show has moved from the BBC to Netflix with a notable budget increase, so battles and sets are suddenly a lot bigger and more impressive than before. This is also why we get ten episodes this season rather than eight. The extra episode-per-book is a good idea, as it allows the story a bit more room to breathe. That fast and furious pace for the earlier seasons was good, but did sometimes feel a bit rushed. This time around, there is more time to digest what is going on. This is especially useful as the story is now unfolding on many fronts simultaneously, with Alfred, Uhtred, Beocca and Brida each getting a fair slice of the action.

The regular cast are on top form, with the show getting its finest dramatic moment when Alfred and Uhtred finally abandon their formal stations and speak honestly to one another about their interlocking lives and destinies. Alexander Dreymon and David Dawson do superb work in this sequence.

There are some weaknesses. The Skade storyline is somewhat dull, not helped by Thea Naess not being the strongest actor in the show's line-up, and it's somewhat merciful when it is resolved mid-season, allowing for a lot more interesting drama revolving around Uhtred and his torn loyalties in the build-up to the excellent season finale.

The third season of The Last Kingdom (****½) represents a show still on top form, with excellent writing, performances and better pacing than previous seasons. It is available to watch on Netflix now.

A fourth season recently finished filming and should air on Netflix in 2020.

Saturday, 19 October 2019

Live-action COWBOY BEBOP delayed by on-set injury

Netflix's live-action reboot of Cowboy Bebop is facing a potentially major delay after star John Cho suffered an on-set knee injury.

It's unclear how the injury was sustained, although it appears to have not been part of a stunt. The knee injury is apparently severe enough that filming for the new series will be suspended for at least seven and potentially up to nine months.

Netflix have confirmed they stand by the casting of Cho as main character Spike Spiegel and will not recast the role.

Apple TV+ to launch with Ronald D. Moore's new alt-history SF series

Apple TV+ is set to launch on 1 November, spearheaded by Ronald D. Moore's ambitious alternate-history drama For All Mankind.

For All Mankind starts in 1969 when mankind first reaches the moon...but the spacecraft that arrives is Russian, and it's the hammer-and-sickle of the Soviet Union that is erected first over the surface. The Americans do arrive, but a few weeks later.

Frustrated and angered by being beaten to the punch, President Nixon orders NASA to step up its efforts to beat Russia to the next milestones: a fully-functioning lunar base and the first man on Mars. The shock of the early landing also persuades Ted Kennedy to cancel his party on Chappaquiddick Island, putting his personal career - and the political trajectory of the United States - on a very different path. The Russians, buoyed by the success of their mission, pour more resources into space travel and technology rather than nuclear weapons, which also changes the destiny of the USSR. One of the consequences of the Russian advance and the need for more US astronauts is the reactivation of the Mercury 13, thirteen American female astronauts trained in a similar manner to their male counterparts as part of a physiological comparison programme in the early 1960s, to quickly (but controversially) provide NASA with much-needed extra manpower.

Moore, the executive producer, co-showrunner and writer of the second Battlestar Galactica and, more recently, Outlander, is serving in those capacities on the new series. The series stars Joel Kinnaman (Altered Carbon), Michael Dorman (Patriot), Wrenn Schmidt (Boardwalk Empire, The Americans, Person of Interest), Shantel VanSanten (One Tree Hill, The Flash, Shooter), Sarah Jones (Sons of Anarchy, Alcatraz, Vegas, Damnation) and Jodi Balfour (True Detective, The Crown, Primeval).

The first three episodes will be released on 1 November, with more episodes to follow on a weekly basis.

Other shows on Apple TV+'s slate include Lisey's Story (based on the Stephen King novel, adapted by King himself); Defending Jacob; Amazing Stories; Time Bandits (to be co-written by Taika Waititi, based on the Terry Gilliam movie); Servant (a new M. Night Shyamalan project); The Morning Show (a drama starring Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Aniston and Steve Carell); and Foundation, based on the Isaac Asimov novels. Apple TV are also considering picking up Lionsgate's Kingkiller Chronicle TV series, recently dropped by Showtime.

Friday, 18 October 2019

Jacqueline Carey's KUSHIEL series optioned by Lionsgate

All nine books in Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel series of fantasy novels have been optioned by Lionsgate.

Art by Tran Nguyen.

Lionsgate have picked up the rights to the trilogy-of-trilogies with a view for developing them for film, TV or possibly both. The early announcement suggests a film (presumably of the first book in the series, Kushiel's Dart), but both options seem to be on the table.

The Kushiel series is set in a fantasied, alternate-reality version of Europe, principally in the kingdom of Terre d'Ange (a parallel history version of France). The series deals with complex worldbuilding, including a parallel version of Christianity which evolved in a very different form, not to mention a different version of Judaism. The series is also noted for its explicit sexual politics, which would seem to favour a TV adaptation rather than a movie (which would have to be rated R).

This is only an option for now and Lionsgate have been through some difficulties recently, including some setbacks to their Kingkiller Chronicle mixed TV-and-movie project. However, the Kushiel series has the benefit of being complete, which addresses the major problem with the Kingkiller project.

LORD OF THE RINGS: THE SECOND AGE adds a new castmember

Amazon's Lord of the Rings: The Second Age TV series has added a new castmember in the form of Maxim Baldry.

Baldry is best-known for playing Viktor Goraya in Years and Years, Russell T. Davies' dystopian drama series, and Liam Donovan on British soap Hollyoaks. He also appeared on Skins. American may best know him for, at the age of eleven, playing Caesarion in the second season of HBO's excellent Rome.

It is unknown what role Baldry will be playing on Lord of the Rings: The Second Age, although some commentators have suggested he might be good for the role of Sauron, whom in the Second Age went by the name of Annatar and lived among the elves of Eregion "in fair guise," to trick them into helping forge the Rings of Power. This is pure speculation though.

Lord of the Rings: The Second Age is in pre-production in New Zealand, with some filming believed to have already taken place (to satisfy a contractual requirement for the show to start filming before November 1st, or the rights revert to the Tolkien Estate). Shooting in earnest is expected to start in the spring.

More WHEEL OF TIME casting news: two Cauthons and an Aybara

Three new castmembers appear to have joined the Wheel of Time television series. As with the previous news of Naana Agyei Ampadu's casting, this comes from one of the UK casting agencies involved in the project who announced the news via their website and promptly deleted it, presumably as Amazon were not ready to announce the news themselves.

Christopher Sciueref is a British actor who has appeared in films including Skyfall, 300: Rise of an Empire and The Flood, and TV shows including Sons of Anarchy and The Last Kingdom. He is reportedly playing Abell Cauthon, the father of Mat Cauthon.

Juliet Howland is an actress and composer, best-known for roles in Colditz, Skins and Doctors. She is rumoured to be playing Natti Cauthon, the wife of Abell and the mother of Mat Cauthon.

More interesting is the news that Helena Westerman (Quota) is playing a character named Laila Aybara. From her surname, she is apparently  related to Perrin Aybara. Westerman was seen at the table-read for the first two episodes, sitting next to Marcus Rutherford who plays Perrin. There is some speculation that the TV show is changing things so we meet Perrin's family in the first episode; in the books Perrin is living in the Luhhan smithy and we don't meet any of Perrin's family until the fourth book. Establishing his family earlier on may be a better way of laying the groundwork for later storylines. Another unconfirmed and much more speculative rumour is that Laila may actually be Perrin's wife who is killed on Winternight, the battle that opens the series. This is a significant change from the books, where Perrin, Rand and Mat are unmarried and clueless about women, but it may also differentiate the three boys more and give Perrin a different focus to the other characters.

With filming on the show now in its second month, hopefully Amazon will confirm some of this casting news soon.