Friday 28 April 2023

AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER sequel film gets 2025 release date

Paramount have revealed a first look at the upcoming Avatar: The Last Airbender sequel film. The new animated film will be released on 10 October 2025.

The new film is set some years after the events of Avatar: The Last Airbender but still decades before the events of spin-off show The Legend of Korra. Based on the still, Aang and the gang are maybe 10-15 years older than in the original show.

Avatar co-creators Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko previously explored the years immediately after the events of the original show in a series of comic books and graphic novels, which explored the aftermath of the devastating war against the Fire Lord and the fate of the Fire Kingdom's colonies on the mainland, which the other kingdoms wanted removed despite some of them having been there for a century. The conflict over these lands eventually leads to the creation of a new, neutral kingdom which we know will eventually transform into The Legend of Korra's Republic City.

The Legend of Korra, which takes place 70 years after the events of Avatar, previously featured the characters of Katara, Zuko and Toph in their old age (Sokka having died off-screen and Aang, of course, having died to allow Korra to be born). That show featured several brief flashbacks to a time period when Aang and the gang were in their 30s and 40s, which left fans eager to see more.

The new film is in production at Flying Bark Productions, with DiMartino and Konietzko on board as producers, with Eric Coleman and Lauren Montgomery directing. It's not been confirmed yet if the original voice cast is returning. Nickelodeon, Paramount and Avatar Studios are collaborating on the project.

The new Avatar film is the first of several new projects in the setting coming up. Nickelodeon and Paramount are also developing a new animated series and two further films, although nothing about their setting or characters have been confirmed, despite speculation that the second film would focus on Zuko and the third on the next Avatar after Korra.

Netflix also wrapped up filming of a live-action remake of the first season of Avatar some months ago. That series is expected to debut later in 2023.

Friday 21 April 2023

Star Trek: Picard - Season 3

Admiral Picard receives a cry for help from a very old friend: Dr. Beverly Crusher, his former chief medical officer. Warned not to trust Starfleet with the distress call, Picard joins forces with old allies Will Riker and Seven of Nine to surreptitiously guide Seven's new ship, the USS Titan, to a rendezvous with Beverly. The information she shares reveals a danger to the very heart of the Federation, and the returning threat of two of Starfleet's greatest foes.

The old maxim that a Star Trek spin-off show doesn't really start getting good until its third season is, once again, proven correct. Picard's first two seasons had good ideas, solid supporting casts and, naturally, an iconic lead in Sir Patrick Stewart's Jean-Luc Picard, but they were also awash with poor and muddied characterisation, vaguely-defined enemies and variable, at best, writing.

The third and final season of Picard doesn't magically solve all of these problems, but it does make one huge commitment to draw in fans of The Next Generation: bringing back the entire cast of that show. Leaving the underwhelming film Nemesis as their last hurrah always felt a bit disappointing, so giving them another final adventure is a good idea...provided it's good, of course.

In some respects, the season makes some of the same mistakes as earlier ones. There's a lot of faffing around pursuing false leads before the real extent of the enemy threat becomes clear, and the show once again suffers from being built around mysteries. Mysteries are a fine, single genre of storytelling, but it feels like modern shows have drawn too many bad lessons from the likes of Lost in hyping up big mysteries and bigger reveals that almost never land, and Picard's final season spends a bit too long on setting up mysterious events, red herrings and false leads rather than engaging in proper storytelling. Particularly problematic is keeping the true scale of the enemy threat under wraps until the last couple of episodes of the series, meaning we get a bit too much wheel-spinning before that revelation and then we have to wrap up that story with almost indecent (if spectacular) haste.

But this season also makes some very good choices. There are distinct character arcs here, and Gates McFadden gets more to do in her first few episodes in this season then she arguably did in the entire seven years of TNG and four subsequent feature films. It's not just limited to the old regulars, with Voyager and Picard vet Jeri Ryan getting a nice arc as Seven of Nine, and Michelle Hurd getting a small but solid storyline as Raffi, the last actor surviving from Picard's completely original cast (the wonderful Orla Brady gets a couple of scenes in the first episode and is then unceremoniously ejected from the story). Newcomers Todd Stashwick, Ashlei Sharpe Chestnut and Ed Speleers also get some solid material as Captain Liam Shaw, Ensign Sidney La Forge and Jack respectively.

Arguably the MVP of the season goes to Jonathan Frakes as Captain Riker. Frakes was very good as Riker but had to grow into it (arguably not starting to really nail the character until TNG's second year and episodes like A Matter of Honor), and since TNG ended he has focused on directing and reportedly suffered anxiety before returning to the role since he had not acted for so long. However, he is outstanding, giving a warm and witty performance whether he's bouncing jokes off Worf, arguing with Picard over the correct course of action or engaging in romantic banter with his wife.

The season has been both praised and criticised for its evocation of nostalgia. In one sequence the crew visit the Starfleet Museum and get to see all of the surviving "hero ships" from previous Star Trek shows: the NX-01 from Enterprise, the USS Voyager from the titular show, Kirk's Enterprise-A from three of the original films, and even the time-travelling Klingon Bird-of-Prey from "the whale thing." Professor Moriarty from TNG shows up as a hologram sentry. The show tactically deploys the theme music from every previous Star Trek incarnation like weaponised emotions. The "good old days" are evoked, a lot. This risks being sappy, but the writing also finds actual reasons in the plot for this stuff. Rather than just saying, "hey, remember that Klingon Bird-of-Prey from San Francisco Harbor, that was cool, right?", its antiquated technology actually plays a key role in the plot. Rummaging through a ton of old artifacts in the Daystrom Institute Archive isn't just an excuse to wink at William Shatner's terrible Star Trek novels, but also provides the crew with an important piece of the puzzle.

In this way, Picard's final season manages to keep things balanced between fuzzy-nostalgia and the dramatic stakes of the unfolding story. It even manages to round off a bunch of story and character arcs left hanging from the original series in a relatively organic and interesting way (even if Picard's tendency to reintroduce a beloved side-character only to brutally murder them five minutes later remains fully intact). But it has to be said that the main storyline is a bit on the vague side. The enemy's plot feels uncharacteristically over-complicated and too reliant on Starfleet personnel holding the idiot ball en masse to really work, and there are canon and continuity plot holes you could comfortably steer the new Odyssey-class Enterprise-F through. For a show that's simultaneously making such a huge deal of continuity, there are some curious choices being made here on what old ideas to invoke and which to blatantly ignore.

Ultimately, this season ended up reminding me a lot of The Force Awakens. The plot is often held together with duct tape and clothes pegs. But a promising, young new cast and the steady hand of experienced veterans help paper over a lot of the problems, and effective use of nostalgia and returning characters makes you forgive a lot. The final season of Star Trek: Picard is not the smartest slice of Trek, but it also has a lot of heart, and it is fun in a way the previous two seasons very much were not. For parking your brain in neutral, chuckling at gag callbacks all the way to the start of TNG and cooing over some great action sequences, this is fairly solid entertainment, and it also makes a reasonable case for itself as a backdoor pilot for a new show focusing on the younger characters introduced in this season.

The third and final season of Star Trek: Picard (****) is streaming globally on Paramount+, and also in some territories on Amazon Prime, right now.

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Wednesday 19 April 2023

Far Cry 6

The island of Yara in the Caribbean has been an isolated nation for decades. But the discovery of a new miracle cancer treatment on the island has brought it immense wealth, most of it funnelled into the coffers of President Antón Castillo and his elite servants. This fuels the start of a brutal civil war, with multiple factions fighting for supremacy. Dani Rojas, a talented fighter, is convinced to fight for the main opposition, Libertad, but also has to unite three other factions under one banner to stand a chance of bringing down Castillo.

Far Cry 6 - actually the ninth game in the series because who's counting? - is perhaps the most quintessential game in the Far Cry franchise to date. Once again, an unjust-but-charismatic villain needs to be taken down and once again a rebel movement that can't find it's arse with both hands is totally hapless until a single figure shows up and does 95% of the gruntwork in the war for it, single-handedly. Along the way there are some fairly superficial musings on the futility of violence (just before you get to commit lots of it) and bloodshed, and the corrupting influence of power on the soul etc etc. If you've played any Far Cry game before - particularly the last three numbered games and their spinoffs - you'll not so much know what to expect, but be able to play this in your sleep before you even install it.

The appeal of the series has always been presenting an open world environment and presenting you with objectives that you can achieve through several means: front assault, stealth, using vehicles, employing allies or some mixture thereof. That element of the series is present and correct in Far Cry 6, with a nice back-to-basics feel to the action. The previous full game in the series - 2018's questionably-designed Far Cry 5 - interrupted its freeform action with an obnoxious narrative that constantly snatched control away from the player for ludicrous cutscenes featuring the most banal cast of villains ever to grace a video game. Far Cry 6 thankfully jettisons this approach. You have your charismatic villain, this time around played by Breaking Bad and The Mandalorian star Giancarlo Esposito, but he shows up relatively rarely, and the game thankfully gets out of its own way to let you undertake missions how you see fit.

The return to a tropical island map also adds to the game's retro feel, recalling the setting of both the original 2004 Far Cry and 2012's breakout game for the series, Far Cry 3. Whilst the first game had you fighting mercenaries and genetically-engineered monsters (don't ask) in an archipelago, the third had you fighting pirates and petty criminals. This one has you fighting a full-blown insurgency against a fascist, corrupt government, which definitely ups the ante.

The map is divided into three regions, each one inhabited by a different rebel faction. As Dani, you have to convince each faction to work with Libertad and, as usual for this sort of game, you have to win their loyalty by, er, fighting every battle of the war for them. Dani is a walking avatar of death at the start of the game and this only intensifies through the story, as they (you can choose their gender) are proficient with every weapon you can think of and also get a ludicrous backpack-mounted superweapon that can do everything from poisoning entire platoons of enemy soldiers to shooting down helicopters to disabling tanks with a massive EMP pulse. You can also take one of a series of slightly ridiculous animal companions into battle with you, who can cause havoc, spot resources for you and sniff out enemies from around corners.

The old levelling system has been jettisoned, with you now customising Dani through the use of cosmetic items, types of armour and weapon mods, which can impact everything from how much ammo you can carry to how you recharge your back-mounted personal WMD. This customisation system is both decent and a little unnecessary: you can play the whole game through with your starting weapons without too much difficulty. In this sense, Far Cry 6 represents a step back from the increasing RPG-like direction of the last few Far Cry  games (and Ubisoft open-world games in general) and something of a return to the hardcore FPS focus of the earlier titles, which I found quite welcome. However, you are definitely a tougher character from the off then I think was the case in any of the previous games, meaning on standard difficulty the game can be a little too easy. I found switching up the difficulty or making self-imposed restrictions, like trying to stealth my way through every mission, a reasonable way of keeping things fresh.

As usual, you progress the game by taking over bases, eliminating checkpoints and performing a large battery of side-missions, many of them adding detail or colour to the large supporting cast of characters, or allowing you to recruit more crazy animal companions. It's all pretty traditional by now and those seeking fresh ideas may be disappointed by the lack of them here; then again, playing the ninth game in the series expecting it to maybe pull off some shocking kind of slide into originality may be a doomed endeavour from the start.

What Far Cry 6 does very well indeed is serving up chunky first-person, single-player (with some co-op modes) action, with a nice side-line in stealth. The graphics are solid if unspectacular, the Cuban-influenced soundtrack is excellent, and the action is frantic and mostly satisfying, even if enemy AI even on the hardest difficulty level is limited, at best. The map is large but not too large, and the game tries to play fair but also logically, with you able to use a variety of vehicles but having some reasonable limitations on doing so (i.e. you can't fly helicopters or airplanes around willy-nilly without degrading the enemy anti-aircraft network first, and driving a tank soon attracts tons of attention from enemy airpower, tanks and AT units). After Far Cry 5 falling flat on its face in a lot of what it was trying to do, Far Cry 6 refreshingly makes sense and doesn't cheap out on the player.

What the game does poorly is narrative. It's been the case that every game in the series since Far Cry 2 has to have lengthy moralising cutscenes on the self-destructive nature of violence, which I'd have more truck with if the games didn't then unleash absolute tons of violence in every single mission. It's a first-person shooter, so that's kind of its thing. It feels like the series wants to tell a more nuanced kind of story about revolutions, how hard it is to create and maintain a democracy and so on, but it can't overcome the limitations of the FPS genre, at least not within the very tight development timelines these games have. A Far Cry game that goes full RPG and offers non-violent solutions to situations might be interesting, but then I'm not sure if it would be a Far Cry game any more.

In that sense Far Cry 6's biggest problem is the competition: more than any other game in the series, it feels like a Wish version of the epic, massive Just Cause 3, which has a larger playing space, a less in-your-face narrative and much more fully embraces manic fun whilst also making you feel more like you're fighting in an actual war with shifting fronts. Just Cause 3 also wipes the floor with Far Cry 6's vehicles, mainly because of FC6's refusal to allow you to use a third-person camera mode when using helicopters or tanks, which makes them borderline unusable in a lot of situations. The influence is even more obvious in that Far Cry 6 borrows both the wingsuit and grapple from Just Cause 3 but fails to implement either in a way that's interesting or fun.

Still, the core gameplay loop of the Far Cry series is still enjoyable in Far Cry 6 (***½). Scouting out an enemy base, marking troop positions (with a smartphone this time, which at least makes more sense than the previous magic binoculars) and then devising an attack strategy is still as much fun now as it was way back in 2004. The on-foot FSP action is excellent and, at a reasonable 35 hours for the single-player story (a lot more if you want to explore every corner of the map, find every collectible and do every side-quest, obviously), it doesn't outstay its welcome as some recent open-world games have. Those looking for something new and fresh should look elsewhere, but Far Cry 6 is as solid an entry as the series has had for some time.

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Wednesday 12 April 2023

HBO greenlights second GAME OF THRONES spin-off show, KNIGHT OF THE SEVEN KINGDOMS

HBO has taken the plunge on a second Game of Thrones spin-off show. Joining House of the Dragon will be A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms: The Hedge Knight.

The new show will be based on George R.R. Martin's Dunk & Egg series of novellas, of which he has so far published three: The Hedge Knight (1998), The Sworn Sword (2002) and The Mystery Knight (2009). Two more novellas are partially written or planned, The Village Hero and The She-Wolves. The first three novellas are available in an omnibus edition called A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms, hence the inspiration for the series title.

The novellas begin eighty-nine years before the events of Game of Thrones, during the surprisingly peaceful reign of Good King Daeron the Second. The Targaryen dragons are long gone, but the family's hold on the Iron Throne seems secure. A young, tall but poor hedge knight named Ser Duncan the Tall sets out to make his fortune at the Ashford tourney, where his paths cross with a young boy named "Egg." Duncan takes the young boy under his wing as dramatic events unfold from a very minor incident that will completely change the future history of Westeros.

George R.R. Martin has around twelve Dunk & Egg novellas planned in total, but his plan to release them between novels of the mainline series has suffered from the lengthy delays affecting the main novels. It is unclear if the TV show will adapt all of the planned-but-unwritten novellas as well as the published ones, or - if the title suggests - it will adapt The Hedge Knight by itself and then maybe focus on original adventures in the same time period. Unlike the main books, the Dunk & Egg stories are more standalone and also span a much vaster span of time, with the novellas planned to cover the period 209-259 AC (Game of Thrones begins in 298 AC; House of the Dragon will conclude in 131 AC), with years-long gaps between each one.

A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms will be executive produced by George R.R. Martin and House of the Dragon showrunner Ryan Condal. Ira Parker is expected to be head writer and showrunner, having previously written for The Nevers, House of the Dragon, Better Things, The Last Ship, Four in the Morning, Rogue and The Pinkertons.

HBO is also considering a spin-off movie and accompanying TV series about Aegon the Conqueror, and is working with Kit Harington on a possible Game of Thrones sequel series about Jon Snow.

Tuesday 11 April 2023

Avatar: The Way of Water

2170. Sixteen years have passed since Jake Sully aided the Na'vi in repelling the human incursion on Pandora, forcing most of them to return home to Earth. With the resource situation on Earth deteriorating, humankind returns to Pandora with a vengeance, establishing a major presence and using specially-grown Na'vi clones inhabited by personality downloads of Colonel Quaritch and his men to hunt down and kill Sully. Sully and his family relocate to the coastal Metikayina clan to seek refuge, but it's not long before the war comes to this new tribe.

Avatar was the most financially successful movie of 2009 and, indeed, all time (despite briefly losing the title to Avengers: Endgame, before a canny re-release saw it reclaim the crown). Remarkably, despite having voluminous notes for a sequel, director-writer James Cameron chose not to proceed immediately with more films. Instead, he spent a lot of time in pre-production, developing scripts and ideas. He eventually came up with plans for four sequels, beginning shooting in 2017 and filming all of the second and third films back-to-back, along with some material from the fourth film.

In the meantime, Avatar's legacy seemed to almost immediately dim. With no sequels, prequels or ill-advised spin-offs featuring minor side-characters, the movie fell out of the popular consciousness and the Marvel Cinematic Universe became the biggest thing at the box office. For many years Avatar has existed as a meme, its very name being mentioned inevitably resulting in immediate chortling references to Dances with Wolves and Ferngully, and how the sequels would inevitably crash and burn.

The Way of Water, the first up of this sequel series, perhaps inevitably crushed such predictions with ease, becoming the third highest-grossing movie of all time (and three of the top four are all James Cameron joints). "Never bet against James Cameron," became its own, rebutting meme instead.

Enough of the context, what of the film? Avatar: The Way of Water is very much "moar Avatar." If you hated the first film, there will be little here to change your mind. If you loved it, you'll probably love this one even more. For those who were middling on it, The Way of Water improves a lot of things about the first film to make it a somewhat stronger prospect. The visuals of the first film were incredible but advances in CG technology have just about managed to start taking the shine off some of them (even if 99% of movies still look worse, thanks to rushed production schedules). The Way of Water is effortlessly superior, the CG is photo-realistic in almost every shot, the visual design is sumptuous and Cameron uses excellent direction to make sure we read and comprehend what's going on in every frame. Cameron is also still the master of action, bringing his Aliens and Terminator 2-honed skills to bear in epic battle sequences which outshine anything in the first film and where everything from the geography of an undersea chase sequences to the choreography of a single combat scene are well-handled.

When it comes to story and character - things the first film was only adequate at - the movie is a bit more of a mixed bag. For the most part, it's fine. There's a lot of new characters to meet here, with Sully and Neytiri producing three children and adopting two more, and that's before we even meet the massive new water tribe. Cameron establishes character and emotion with brisk efficiency, although a few characters do get more development, particularly rebellious son Lo'ak and walking mystery box Kiri. The characters are solid enough to get the job done, and the performances are all pretty good. Neytiri is the one character sold a little short, with relatively little to do other than cry, hiss and occasionally do that jumping through the air firing her bow in slow motion thing. Even Stephen Lang's splendid scenery-chewing villain spiel is let down a little by his performance almost entirely being restrained to CG.

As a piece of storytelling art, The Way of Water will not be winning any major awards, but as a sheer visual spectacle and feast, it's highly compelling. The worldbuilding of Pandora takes a big step up here with the introduction of a second sentient species, and the underwater scenery whets the appetite for someone to make a movie version of subsurface video game masterpiece Subnautica.

Where the film enters shaky ground is its pacing. For most of its first two-thirds, this is pretty good, with the film rotating between action setpieces, character-building moments and worldbuilding vignettes in a fairly compelling manner (and better than the first movie, which had to slow down for its long-winded romance plot). What lets it down is longest, most drawn-out grand finale since Peter Jackson turned the concluding two-page battle from The Hobbit into an entire two-and-a-half hour movie by itself. This finale is divided into two parts, a massive battle sequence which segues into a tense disaster movie sequence. Both of these are brilliantly-directed and either would have made a great finale, but by putting them both sequentially into the film, Cameron over-eggs the pudding. Over a third of the movie's already-stupendous length is dedicated to this finale, which is definitely too much.

There is still a lot to enjoy here. James Cameron has built a career on building incredible worlds, delivering mind-blowing visuals, and orchestrating action setpieces you will remember for decades, and he delivers on all of that here. The story could be a little stronger and a little more original, and the ending could have been truncated by a good twenty minutes without losing much, and as Cameron sequels go, the placings of Aliens and T2 in the pantheon are not exactly being troubled by this movie, but it's still an enjoyable slice of epic cinema of the kind we don't see enough of these days.

Avatar: The Way of Water (****) is available to watch worldwide on physical media and streaming services. A third film is already in the can and will be released in December 2024.

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Sunday 9 April 2023

Shadow and Bone: Season 2

Ravka has descended into civil war as a result of the Darkling's attempt to seize power. Both the Darkling and Sun Summoner are feared dead, but they both re-emerge to form new alliances and raise new armies. Meanwhile, the criminal gang known as the Crows return home to Ketterdam to find some major changes have taken place in their absences, changes they cannot abide.

Shadow and Bone is an adaptation of the Grisha Trilogy by Leigh Bardugo, drawing on other books set in the same universe to add more details and more characters, and enlarge the scope of the story. The first season, released in 2021, was enjoyable and competent, gaining strength from its solid cast and, perhaps, the fact that many other fantasy TV shows that had hit the ground in the preceding few years had been quite weak.

The second season picks up where the first dropped off and immediately makes some bold choices. The most obvious is that whilst the first season only adapted Shadow and Bone by itself, with some additions from the novel Six of Crows, the second season adapts the latter two Grisha Trilogy novels, Siege and Storm and Ruin and Rising. This immediately results in a faster-paced, punchier season with major events happening at a more frequent clip. Netflix also continue to tell the story of the Six of Crows characters, setting up their "big heist" story from that novel (although the heist itself sounds like it might be its own spin-off series, not part of a future third season for Shadow and Bone itself).

The show's trump card remains its cast, a mix of steely experience (Zoë Wanamaker has an expanded role this season, Ben Barnes gives great scene-chewing villainy) and younger up-and-comers. It's hard to fault any of the cast for their work this season, although perhaps turning Barnes into an outright villain does waste some of the nuance he brought to the role in the first season, when his character's motivations were more ambiguous. There's also a number of solid newcomers, with Jack Wolfe and Patrick Gibson doing solid work and Lewis Tan and Anna Leong Brophy adding some serious action chops. Amongst the established hands, Jessie Mei Li continues to be a good lead and Danielle Galligan arguably emerges as the MVP of the season with her dry, comedic observations on what's going on at any moment.

There's some excellent action setpieces, and a number of intersecting storylines. The quickened pace keep things moving along nicely. Occasionally this rapid pace and busy story means that motivations and travel times are neglected, and the way the Crows characters are drawn back into the "main" story cannot help but feel contrived. The world also feels extremely small, with characters flitting from one side of it to the other in less time than a between-episode break. The tone also distinctly remains YA-ish, with a strong focus on character romances but dialled-back on sex; the occasional, if fleeting, graphic violence of the first season occasionally returns, though.

To give a lazy review, if you enjoyed the first season of Shadow and Bone, you'll enjoy the second, whilst I doubt this season will do much to change the mind of anyone who wasn't keen on it. It is a stronger season, helped by the storyline only having two elements to it (Alina and her battle against the Darkling versus the Crows doing their thing) that intersect, rather than the three that had relatively little to do with one another in the first season. It also feels more confident, one wonders if because the fantasy shows that have emerged since the first season have largely been something of a letdown.

Shadow and Bone's second season (****) perhaps remains a little lightweight (not necessarily a bad thing, not everything needs to be wrought and grim), but its humor, strong cast, better pacing and more epic battles result in an improvement over its debut season. The show is available now worldwide on Netflix.

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Friday 7 April 2023

Lucasfilm and Disney announce three new STAR WARS films

As part of the Star Wars Celebration events in London, Lucasfilm and Disney have announced three new Star Wars live-action films are in development.

First up, and most removed from the others, is a "Biblical" story set many thousands of years prior to all existing Star Wars media. This film will be about the very first person to become a Jedi and will be directed James Mangold, best-known for his acclaimed movie Logan (2017). He also directed Cop Land (1997), Girl, Interrupted (1999) and the upcoming Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny (2023).

Dave Filoni's film will "close out" the interconnected series of stories being told in the Disney+ shows The Mandalorian, The Book of Boba Fett and Ahsoka. The film is believed to unite all of the major characters from those series in an Avengers: Endgame-style battle against an ultimate foe, probably Grand Admiral Thrawn (who will debut first in the upcoming Disney+ series Ahsoka). Filoni is best-known for his work on the Star Wars animated shows The Clone Wars, Rebels and The Bad Batch, as well as his work on The Mandalorian and the upcoming Ahsoka. Filoni has previously only directed three episodes of The Mandalorian, one of The Book of Boba Fett and an unknown number of Ahsoka episodes, so this is a vote of confidence in his skills (intriguingly, the much-more experienced director and Mandalorian co-creator Jon Favreau is not doing this gig).

The final film will be directed by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy (the 3 Bahadur trilogy, Sitara: Let Girls Dream and episodes of Ms. Marvel) and will be the first new Star Wars film set after the events of Rise of Skywalker. Daisy Ridley will return as Rey and will chronicle her rebuilding of the Jedi Order, possibly with appearances by other sequel trilogy characters and other Force-using characters from the other projects. Damon Lindelof developed the first draft of the script but has since left the project.

Not mentioned is Rian Johnson's trilogy idea (although he has indicated that project is on ice until he completes his Knives Out series) nor the Rogue Squadron movie from Patty Jenkins, with some reports indicating the latter has been cancelled outright. Taika Waititi's Star Wars movie is apparently still in development, but has not been mentioned amidst these new announcements.

With the disappointing box-office for Solo (2018) and The Rise of Skywalker (2019) and numerous projects getting stuck in development hell, there was some speculation that Lucasfilm might avoid returning to the cinema with the franchise for a long time. Today's announcement indicates they have renewed faith and confidence in the franchise.

By also "closing out" the current era of TV shows and establishing new material set after The Rise of Skywalker, they may also be looking at setting up a new era for Star Wars stories where they are not locked into the events of the earlier films and shows, which can only be a good thing, otherwise we will get an origin mini-series about Admiral Ackbar at the current rate.

First trailer for STAR WARS: AHSOKA name-drops HEIR TO THE EMPIRE, introduces REBELS cast to live-action

Disney+ have dropped the first trailer for Star Wars: Ahsoka, the upcoming live-action mini-series that will focus on the fan-favourite character of Ahsoka Tano.

Ahsoka debuted in the animated Clone Wars feature film from 2008, before becoming a mainstay of the seven-season run of Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008-14, 20). She was originally voiced by Ashley Eckstein. Ahsoka is a Force-sensitive from the Togruta species, and is assigned as Anakin Skywalker's padawan (apprentice) during the Clone Wars. Some months before the end of the conflict, Ahsoka is accused of a crime she did not commit and outcast from the Jedi Order. Although exonerated, the Jedi Council's lack of faith in her shakes her confidence and she quits permanantly, neatly avoiding Order 66 and the near-extermination of the Jedi Order.

She reappears fourteen years later in Star Wars: Rebels (2014-18) as an older intelligence operative working for the Rebel Alliance and acting as a liaison with the crew of the Ghost, who are running Rebel operations on the Imperial-occupied world of Lothal. Ahsoka confronts her former master, now known as Darth Vader, and is apparently killed by him in battle. Ezra, the would-be trainee Jedi of the Ghost crew, uses a powerful time-bending device known as the World Between Worlds to rescue Ahsoka at the apparent moment of her demise and rescue her. So as not to disrupt the timeline, Ahsoka goes into hiding until after Darth Vader's demise at the battle of Endor. With Ezra's disappearance in battle with Grand Admiral Thrawn in the Rebels finale, Ahsoka joins forces with Sabine Wren, a Mandalorian warrior from the Ghost crew, to track them both down.

Ahsoka made her live-action debut in Season 2 of The Mandalorian, now played by Rosario Dawson. Ahsoka works with the Mandalorian, Din Djarin, to overcome a mutual threat. She also appears in The Book of Boba Fett, working alongside Luke Skywalker to help train Grogu in the Jedi way. However, she references the threat posed by Grand Admiral Thrawn in both series.

The trailer for Ahsoka confirms that her quest to find and eliminate the threat posed by Thrawn now takes precedence. We see her join forces with Ghost crewmembers Sabine Wren (Natasha Liu Bordizzo), Hera Syndulla (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Chopper (Dave Filoni, probably) on a mission to find Ezra (Eman Esfandi) and Thrawn (cast, but not identified so far). Their mission will involve a journey to Lothal and meeting Baylan (Ray Stevenson) and an unknown pilot and lightsaber-wielder (Ivanna Sakhno), who may be friends or foes. They will also revisit the World Between the Worlds.

Genevieve O'Reilly also reprises her role from Revenge of the Sith and Star Wars: Andor as Mon Mothma (now, it appears, Chancellor or President of the New Republic). Diana Lee Inosanto also returns as Magistrate Morgan Elsbeth, whom debuted in Season 2 of The Mandalorian. David Tennant returns as the lightsaber-crafting droid Huyang from The Clone Wars, and Hayden Christensen will return as Anakin Skywalker (presumably in flashback).

The trailer also name-drops Heir to the Empire, the popular 1991 novel by Timothy Zahn that hugely popularised the Star Wars Expanded Universe. In that novel and its two sequels, set five years after Return of the Jedi, Grand Admiral Thrawn seizes control of the remaining Imperial factions and launches a war against the New Republic, including besieging Coruscant with cloaked asteroids which he threatens to drop on the planet. Thrawn strikes an ill-advised alliance with the mad dark Jedi clone Joruus C'boath to gain access to advanced weaponry and technology at Mount Tantiss (which recently made its new canon debut in The Bad Batch). Luke, Han, Leia, Lando and the rest of the old Rebel Alliance crowd help defeat Thrawn and Joruus in battle. Although no longer canon, the novel remains a beloved touchstone by old-skool Star Wars fans, and it might be that Ahsoka will draw on it for inspiration.

Star Wars: Ahsoka will debut in August this year on Disney+.

Ahsoka Tano Timeline
  • 36 BBY (Before the Battle of Yavin): Born on Shili.
  • 33 BBY: Found by Jedi Master Plo Kloon and taken to the Jedi Temple on Coruscant. Begins training.
  • 22 BBY: Assigned as padawan to Anakin Skywalker at the outbreak of the Clone Wars. Also serves as a commanding officer over the 501st Legion of the Grand Army of the Republic, meeting CT-7567 “Rex” and becoming his close friend and ally (The Clone Wars).
  • 20 BBY: Framed for murder and treason, banished from the Jedi Order and forced to go on the run. She clears her name and is exonerated, but feels betrayed by the Jedi Order and refuses to return. As a private citizen, she fights alongside Bo-Katan Kryze in the liberation of Mandalore. Shortly after the battle, she is betrayed by Rex during the execution of Order 66. She saves Rex from his inhibitor trip and they escape. Anakin, now Darth Vader, believes her dead in a Star Destroyer crash (The Clone Wars).
  • 18 BBY: After years in hiding on the Outer Rim, Ahsoka joins Senator Bail Organa’s nascent Alliance to Restore the Republic. She becomes an intelligence specialist coordinating the activities of dozens of autonomous cells, codenamed “Fulcrum.”
  • 5 BBY: Ahsoka begins working with the Lothal rebels, principally the crew of the Ghost (Rebels).
  • 3 BBY: Ahsoka battles Darth Vader on Malachor, confirming he is her former master, Anakin Skywalker. Ahsoka vanishes during the battle, Vader believing her dead. In reality, she is rescued by Ezra Bridger from two years in the future, using the time-warping power of the “World Between Worlds.” Fearing her survival has changed history, Ahsoka lies low (Rebels).
  • 0 BBY: Liberation of Lothal, disappearance of Grand Admiral Thrawn and Ezra Bridger (Rebels).
  • 3 ABY: Destruction of the Second Death Star at the Battle of Endor and death of Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader (Return of the Jedi).
  • 5 ABY: Ahsoka and Sabine Wren join forces to search for the missing Ezra Bridger in the Unknown Regions of the Galaxy (Rebels).
  • 9 ABY: Adopted Mandalorian Child of the Watch Din Djarin encounters Bo-Katan Kryze during his search for the Jedi. Bo-Katan directs him to find Ahsoka Tano, whom she believes is currently located on the planet Corvus (The Mandalorian). Ahsoka aids in the training of Grogu along with Jedi Master Luke Skywalker (The Book of Boba Fett). The events of Ahsoka take place (Ahsoka).

Tuesday 4 April 2023

RIP Klaus Teuber, the creator of CATAN

The German board game designer Klaus Teuber has passed away at the age of 70. He is best-known as the inventor of the board game Settlers of Catan (more recently, just Catan), often cited as one of the most important board games of all time.

Teuber was born in Rai-Breitenbach in what was then West Germany in 1952 and started designing board games in the early 1980s, whilst he was working a day job as a dental technician in Darmstadt. Inspired by Patricia McKillip's Riddle-Master trilogy, he created the fantasy board game Barbarossa (1988), which was a significant hit and won a coveted Spiel des Jahres prize.

Several more board games followed, with varying degrees of success. Teuber was inspired by Viking stories of colonising, farming and resource-gathering (rather than the more traditional stories of blood-letting) to create a game based around building a new civilisation on an island, both competing and cooperating with fellow players. This resulted in The Settlers of Catan, originally released in Germany in 1995 and the USA and  UK in 1996. The game was an instant, massive success, rapidly outselling all of his other games combined and garnering immense attention in the gaming press. In 1998 Teuber decided to quit his dental day job and incorporated a company to expand the Catan franchise further.

Since the late 1990s, The Settlers of Catan - since renamed just Catan - has sold almost 40 million copies, making it one of the biggest-selling board games of all time. Catan has also been celebrated with being the game that jump-started the modern board gaming renaissance; despite its age, the game is still well-regarded as an excellent entry point to the modern genre. The game has seen numerous expansions, various enhanced editions and a whole ton of themed versions taking on franchises like Game of Thrones and Star Trek. A Catan World Championship is also held every two years, along with various online and physical tournaments at conventions across the world.

Teuber himself always seemed vaguely perplexed why the game took off as it did. Neither of the two board games he designed subsequently, Entdecker (1996) and Löwenherz (1997), did anywhere near as well. Teuber has spent most of the years since working on different editions and versions of Catan instead.

Teuber passed away on 1 April after a short but severe illness. He is survived by his wife Claudia and two sons, Guido and Benny. Klaus Teuber's impact on the global board gaming scene cannot be overstated, and he will be missed by everybody who's ever enjoyed rolling dice, dropped a hexagonal island tile down the back of a sofa or gotten into an argument over the value of wood versus sheep.

HBO eyeing a GAME OF THRONES movie and TV series about Aegon the Conqueror

HBO are reportedly, strongly considering greenlighting another Game of Thrones spin-off/prequel show. This time around they are looking at the possibility of combining a feature film with a TV show about Aegon the Conqueror, the first Targaryen king who united the Seven Kingdoms and forged the Iron Throne.

Aegon the Conqueror and his sister-wives Rhaenys and Visenya. Art by Roman "Amoka" Papsuev.

HBO's attitude to the Game of Thrones franchise has been a bit variable in recent years, with immense satisfaction of the massive commercial success of the final two seasons being undercut by a risible critical reception and heavy criticism of the series finale. The successful launch of the first successor show, House of the Dragon, last year seemed to restore some good cheer, but we then recently heard of the show's second season having its episode count slashed. Meanwhile, talk of further spin-off shows had become muted, amidst rumours that the ongoing complexities of the Warner Brothers/Discovery merger (which had resulted in companion streamer service HBO Max being gutted of almost all its drama material) had even spilled over to impact HBO's biggest success story.

This news seems to suggest that HBO is tilting back to reinforcing its investment in George R.R. Martin's vision. The story of the Conquest is more focused and concentrated than that of the Dance of Dragons, the civil war that unfolds during the events of House of the Dragon, and is more linear, with less preamble. It is a shorter linear story that might appeal to HBO, aware that some viewers had problems following the constantly-skipping timeline of the first season of that show. It could also be told faster, likely to be a relief to fans facing the dispiriting possibility that House of the Dragon might take eight years to produce just four seasons, three of them only consisting of eight episodes apiece.

The show would be based on the same book as House of the Dragon, 2018's Fire and Blood, although notably the Conquest gets far less coverage than the Dance of Dragons, so it would have to be expanded considerably to fuel a two-hour movie and several seasons of television.

Season 2 of House of the Dragon is now in production to air in 2024. HBO is pushing this new project into a fast turnaround but has not yet attached any writers or showrunners.

Sunday 2 April 2023

Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves

Edgin Darvis, a former member of the Harpers, is serving time in the prison of Revel's End for a heist gone wrong. Together with his barbarian partner, Holga Kilgore of the Tribe of the Elk, he breaks out of prison to try to reunite with his daughter, Kira, who is in the safe keeping of their former partner Forge Fizwilliam. Holga and Edgin discover that Forge is the new Lord of Neverwinter, something he accomplished with the aid of the evil Red Wizards of Thay, and has nefarious plans for the city.

Edgin and Kira recruit a former sorcerer ally of theirs, Simon, and set about assembling a team to break into Neverwinter during the Highsun Games, rescue Kira and find an artifact capable of resurrecting Edgin's slain wife. Each plan runs into new problems, but the gang have to find a way to win through to save Neverwinter.

Next year marks the 50th anniversary of Dungeons & Dragons, the first tabletop roleplaying game which allowed players to undertake stirring and dramatic adventures with nothing more than a couple of rulebooks and some dice. There have been various attempts to adapt D&D to the screen, resulting in some fifty video games, a 1980s animated series and four previous feature films, although only one of them made it to the cinema screen. It was not very good.

Honor Among Thieves is the latest attempt to make such a film and both immediately and comfortably becomes the best-in-class. It helps that the film uses the established world of the Forgotten Realms as its setting, with various cameo appearances by various creatures, spells and locations. It also helps that director-writers Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley (Game Night) have gotten the assignment, making a film that's fully accessible to everyone who's never held a 20-sided dice or knows what a beholder is.

Instead, the film emerges as the finest slice of film fantasy since at least Stardust, if not the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The tone is somewhat light, with plenty of gags and moments of humour, but it does darken considerably whenever the evil Red Wizards of Thay appear. This tonal variation is handled well, making the film both entertaining but with moments of real stakes and dramatic tension. The film is aiming for the same kind of tone as Stardust and in the ballpark of The Princess Bride, and more or less nails that target. Those hoping for a gritty and darker film will be disappointed, but it feels like the creators have found a tone close to that of the D&D tabletop game.

The film dodges some of the balls of other recent, disappointing blockbusters. An extended post-production schedule has allowed for a good mix of live-action, prosthetics, physical locations and real stunts with CG enhancements, and only a few 100% CG scenes, and what there are are mostly very good. After some recent movies from the Marvel stable with very embarrassing CG, it's a relief to be able to say that the effects in this film do their job.

The actors are all on board with the tone, with the MVP being Hugh Grant. Grant adopts his typical British fop/cad accent and mannerisms to the material, but there are several moments in the film where Grant's character drops his facade and a much more ruthless character appears. It's fleeting, but hints at much greater character depth. The rest of the case do their jobs well: Chris Pine brings roguish charisma as the protagonist, Michelle Rodriguez delivers taciturn violence well, Sophia Lillis is the best owlbear you'll ever see on screen, Justice Smith manages to stay just on the right side of irritating and Regé-Jean Page is easily the best depiction of a paladin seen to date. None of them are fascinatingly deep characters, but they are a likeable bunch and it's easy to root for their success. The film even nails some of the brilliantly over-elaborate plans that D&D gaming groups can come up with if left loose with the rulebooks and a flexible Dungeon Master.

The film falters on occasion. It is slightly overlong and maybe a little too flabby, with maybe one extra setpiece than is strictly necessary. But each setpiece is quite good fun, and it's hard to suggest one to fully cut. It's possible the ancillary worldbuilding is not fully explored, such as why the Red Wizards think their plan would be tolerated by the other powers of the Sword Coast, but halting the movie for a ten-minute lecture on Faerûnian geopolitics would have likely not improved it much. It's really not that kind of film.

Honor Among Thieves (****½) gets the assignment and executes it well. This is a well-played, engaging slice of fun with some great D&D references and cameos for hardcore fans, but which is accessible to everyone. A great cast, excellent effects, a terrific score (from Lorne Balfe) and a fun, relaxed tone makes for an engaging, fun but not disposable movie. Assuming it makes a nice bit of change, I think we can expect this to be only the beginning of the D&D multiverse on screen. The film is on general release worldwide.

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