It’s Star Trek, Jim, But Not As We Know It – Discovery Arrives

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Star Trek: Discovery finally arrives, after troubling tales of behind the scenes problems and somewhat less-than-thrilling trailers, and I suppose the first question to ask is whether it’s the disaster many were expecting?

Happily the answer is no. The first two episodes, which dropped yesterday on CBS and the network’s CBS All Access subscription service in the U.S.A. and on Netflix almost everywhere else today, are generally exciting and well-told, with high production values and a decent cast. However, at least with the evidence at hand, it does veer away from creator Gene Roddenberry’s hopeful spirit of exploration, and this may be an issue for some.

Taking place some ten years or so before the original series’ tales of Captain Kirk and co (a point I’ll come back to later), Discovery features as its focus not the traditional Starfleet Captain (though there is one, played by Michelle Yeoh) but instead on the first officer of the USS ShenzhouMichael Burnham, as portrayed by Sonequa Martin-Green.

Burnham’s parents were killed by Klingons, which resulted in her being raised by Spock’s father, Sarek, on the planet Vulcan. This becomes important in the opening episode when Burnham’s ship is the first to engage in a direct encounter with the Klingons in almost one hundred years. Needless to say, the encounter quickly goes pear-shaped and we’re treated to a pretty epic space battle, alongside some interesting twists and turns for the characters (particularly in the second episode).

Michelle Yeoh is good value, and thankfully brings more humour and emotion to her role than the stilted trailers led us to believe, Science Officer Saru, played under heavy prosthetics by the always welcome Doug Jones, is also immediately likeable. Without these two the show would definitely have been lacking the human touch, as the rest of the crew singularly fail to register anything beyond dark-haired man, red-haired woman and grizzled admiral who only appears as a hologram, etc.

Viewers should be advised there’s also a lot of Klingon grousing about purity of race and what a rum lot we humans are. With subtitles. Of course, looking at the state of the world right now, it’s difficult to disagree with their summation of mankind. Let’s hope the show gives us enough of an opposing viewpoint to feel better about ourselves as it goes on.

Jason Issacs, another actor I usually enjoy, didn’t make an appearance in the first two episodes, so we have that treat to look forward to.

My biggest problem with Discovery was with Martin-Green, who faces the tricky problem of engaging us with a human raised by the emotion-subsuming Vulcans. It’s a delicate balance pulled off marvellously over the years by the late, great Leonard Nimoy, but across the first two episodes I found that balance to be weighted in favour of some stiff-sounding line readings and an inability to connect with the character.

Martin-Green faces a difficult task, especially being the viewer’s eyes through these shenanigans, but the cliff-hanging climax to the second episode at least suggests she’ll be getting a promising arc as we move forward. Of course, some better dialogue might help too. *cough*

My second big issue comes with the show’s setting. As mentioned above, we’re rolling around a decade before Kirk and co, but everything here looks WAY more advanced than the original series. Again, this was always going to be a tough nut to crack: you either embrace the 1960s-produced vibe of the original series or you say “Screw it, no one will buy that in the age of shiny CGI” and go for a modern design ethic. The producers of Discovery have chosen the latter.

Is this a geek-only problem? Will more casual viewers give a hoot that it looks more like the new timeline-set, JJ Abrams movies (particularly in its annoying overuse of lens flare) than a prequel show? Casual viewers may not care but this decision is baffling when so much of Discovery’s Klingon Cold War setting relies on understanding its place in Star Trek’s chronology. If nothing else it smacks of indecision at best, and downright carelessness at worst. The large number of producers and executive producers listed in Discovery’s opening credit sequence may suggest an answer to this…

What is for sure is that most of Roddenberry’s idealism is gone, as Discovery has more in common with a Game of Thrones viewpoint that humans suck and war is hell than it does with discovering Tribbles and dallying with green-skinned dancing girls, while it rams home analogies about fundamentalism with all the subtlety of a Klingon punch to the face.

Finally then, Discovery shows some promise in its set-up, but it’s likely to tick-off many long-term Star Trek fans. Personally, we have endless hours of Star Trek in its various forms before this, so I’m happy enough to see the franchise try something different. However, it’s so mired in Star Trek history (while simultaneously contradicting it left, right and centre) that I’m not certain how much it will appeal to Trekkies or non-Trekkies. Which could be something of a problem.

Whether or not that different feel is enough to sustain my interest in the long run remains to be seen, or to bring in those obviously much-hoped for casual viewers, but I’m certainly intrigued enough to see what this… sorry to use the word, but… grittier take on the final frontier has to offer. I had fun for its duration, and there’s something to be said for that, plus it’s good to see Star Trek back on television, its spiritual home.

Beam me up, at least for now…

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Netflix and King – 1922

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Netflix appear to be getting into the Stephen King business in a big way.

With their film of Gerald’s Game dropping this week and looking as kinky, creepy and gnarly as King’s book, the channel has now released a trailer for 1922, based on a novella taken from his 2010 collection, Full Dark, No Stars.

Starring the always watchable Thomas Jane as a farmer who manipulates his son into murdering his wfe, the Netflix film looks like it will fully embrace the ghastly goings-on as Jane’s wife (played by the equally watchable Molly Parker) comes back to torment him along with a plague of rats.

With the success of IT and these two new productions from Netflix, it’s good to see a rash of King adaptations that might just help us to forget 2017 was the year Sony made a trainwreck from The Dark Tower.

1922 arrives on Netflix on October 20.

The Defenders: Better Together (And Shorter)

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After the double-stumble of the generally entertaining but stuttering Luke Cage and the thoroughly tone-deaf and lazy feeling disaster of Iron Fist, the Netflix/Marvel universe was on decidedly shaky footing. It was beginning to seem like the growing promise of Daredevil and Jessica Jones had been blown in two seasons of stretched-out superheroics, so I’m happy to say that The Defenders puts our heroes firmly back on track.

Marvel’s anti-team alternative to The Avengers began in the pages of Marvel Feature # 1, in 1971, before gaining its own long-running title the following year. The reluctant, non-team initially consisted of Doctor Strange, the Sub-Mariner and The Hulk, but soon expanded to include a rotating cast of heroes. Although both Daredevil and Luke Cage tagged along for a while, they were never core members.

Netflix’s The Defenders takes this group in name only, instead bringing together the casts of their previous shows: Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist. Also brought along for the ride are returning supporting characters and villains.

The first big plus point here is the big bad, none other than Sigourney Weaver. Weaver is quite obviously having fun with the role, clearly relishing her many arch lines of dialogue, but the character is given some essential moments of vulnerability too, leaving us with another in the stable of successful Marvel TV villains (after Vincent D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk/The Kingpin and David Tennant’s Killgrave).

But you came here for the heroes, and of course The Defenders delivers these in spades. Daredevil continues to be tortured (though with some welcome added humour), Jessica Jones is all-snark and snap, Luke Cage is the picture of wounded noblility and Iron Fist is, well, he’s actually rather likeable here. Consider that a triumph after being an asshole for thirteen episodes of his own show. In fact, for long-term comic book fans, seeing long-term buddies Luke Cage and Danny Rand spar off against each other will be a genuine buzz.

Which brings us to another big score for The Defenders. I’ve said repeatedly that the fixed thirteen episode season format has harmed the Netflix/Marvel shows (even the good ones), taking interesting stories and stretching them way beyond their shelf life. The Defenders is a relatively brisk eight episodes and boy, can we feel the difference!

The first two episodes take their time to get moving, somewhat pointlessly reintroducing the various characters and their supporting casts, but they soon begin to pick up speed and then the third episode is where everything comes together: narratively and literally.

Episode three is one of the best hours of Marvel TV to date, with a fast-paced, driving narrative, kick ass action sequences, snappy dialogue and great interaction between the leads. In fact there were one or two moments that had me punching the air in delight, definitely a first for Marvel TV.

From here the story moves deliberately and enjoyably, neatly pulling together a lot of threads which had been left dangling in other shows and at last we have a show which doesn’t feel like a chore to get through. Netflix/Marvel, please take note: eight episodes is the perfect format for these shows and unless you have an incredibly compelling reason otherwise, this should be your model!

There’s still the odd bit of clunkiness lurking around and overall I’m not sure there’s too much in the way of character development (except, surprisingly, something of a maturing for Danny Rand/Iron Fist), plus The Hand have proven to amongst the most ill-defined and ineffectual bad guys ever (after four whole seasons yet) but despite these failings, and in terms of watchability, Netflix/Marvel have definitely upped their game with The Defenders. Whatever failings the show has are more than compensated for by its brisk pace and fun antics. And there is a lot of fun to be had here.

With more seasons announced for all four main characters, plus a first run for Jon Bernthal’s Punisher, it’s clear the superhero train will keep on running on Netflix. Let’s hope they learn all the right lessons from this enjoyable Marvel team-up!

Netflix’s Empty El Chapo

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I’m a sucker for a good series about crime lords, gang wars and drug trafficking, so when I saw articles suggesting Netflix’s El Chapo might be their answer to The Wire, I was practically drooling.

Sadly, anyone seeing this show as being anywhere near as dramatically satisfying as David Simon’s classic tale of the narcotics trade in Baltimore is probably getting high on their own supply.

Co-produced by Netflix and Univision, El Chapo recounts the beginnings of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán in 1985, when he was a low-level member of the Guadalajara cartel until his rise to power and his last fall.

Guzmán’s story makes for rich dramatic picking. From 2009 to 2011 Forbes magazine ranked him as one of the most powerful people in the world, and named him the 10th richest man in Mexico in 2011, with a net worth of roughly US$1 billion. The magazine also called him the “biggest drug lord of all time.” The U.S. federal government considered him “the most ruthless, dangerous, and feared man on the planet.” So, you know, there’s quite a lot to get your teeth into here.

There is a wealth of great material: the cartels and their various squabbles, the involvement of the U.S. government, the rise of a lowly government official to a position of power involved with the underworld, a crusading reporter, appearances by Pablo Escobar (and the show’s first real dropped ball by not getting Narco’s Wagner Moura to reprise his role, robbing us of the chance to experience a Narcos shared universe) and of course, the trials and tribulations of Guzmán himself.

The show looks fine, though it doesn’t exactly drip with period feel, but what really lets down the whole endeavour is the writing.

As I’m typing this review I’m six episodes into the nine episode run and I know literally nothing more about Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán than I did at the beginning of the first episode. Oh sure, the events are all in place and there are sporadic bursts of excitement and bloodshed, but Guzmán remains nothing more than a cypher, as in fact does every single character in the show. Guzmán stays unknowable, as does his wife, his girlfriends, friends, allies, rivals and enemies.

No one speaks about their emotions, nothing happens that’s character-driven, and no one has an inner life of any kind. The scripts must have been a doddle to write, because never before have I come across a high-profile show of this kind where the dialogue is 100% functional. Characters tell us where they’re going, what they’re going to do, who they’re going to kill or pay off… but never why.

The nearest we get to an actual living, breathing character is Humberto Busto as conniving politician Conrado Higuera Sol “Don Sol”, but even he never gets a single line of dialogue that does anything but gloss over the veneer of his actions.

As a result El Chapo is purely functional, moving people you’re not allowed to care for, empathise with or hate from one situation to another. The events themselves are interesting, but ultimately it’s a hollow shell. As drama it’s a complete disaster and an object lesson in how not to write compelling, nourishing TV because there’s no meat on El Chapo’s bones.

UPDATE: the final two episodes deal with Guzmán’s internment and also give us a glimpse of his formative years (and therefore something passing for character development). It’s a mystery why this material wasn’t spread out as flashbacks throughout the season, as it would have added sorely-needed depth.

So finally, the show ends with some improvement but sadly it was a case of too little, too late for me.

Netflix’s Super Friends – Marvel’s The Defenders

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After the hugely disappointing Iron Fist, my hopes for The Defenders, Netflix’s all-star Marvel mash-up, were seriously on the wane.

Thankfully, positive word of mouth and this latest trailer have done a great deal to restore confidence.

The pilot episode was screened at the San Diego Comic-Con yesterday and reports are largely positive, including this review from Birth.Movies.Death. Alongside the good news, a second trailer has been released which not only makes the show look like a whole lot of fun (a quality seriously lacking from Iron Fist) but also promises a terrific performance from the show’s Big Bad, the legend that is Sigourney Weaver.

The thought of Evil Ellen Ripley going toe-to-toe with Jessica Jones is worth the price of admission alone. Throw in Daredevil and Luke Cage too (…okay, and Iron Fist, if we must) and I’m certain I’ll be bingeing come release day. That this show is only eight episodes is also a huge plus point, as all of the Netflix/Marvel shows have suffered from over-extending their dramatic life.

All episodes of Marvel’s The Defenders drop on Netflix, August 18th.

Godzilla: King Of The Anime

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Care of Godzilla expert August Ragone’s always authoritative website, The Good, The Bad, and Godzilla, news comes that Toho Animation have just dropped the first teaser trailer for their forthcoming anime, Godzilla: Monster Planet (international title: Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters).

With a screenplay by Gen Urobuchi, writer of animated TV series including Peulla Magi Madoka Magica and Kamen Rider Gaim, and directed by Koubun Shizuno (Knights of Sidonia) and Hiroyuki Seshita (Ajin: The Demi-Human) the film, the first in a trilogy, will premiere in Japan in November, while Netflix have picked it up for international worldwide distribution.

Executive producer, Yoshihiro Furusawa, was reported in Variety as saying “I wasn’t familiar with Godzilla, and I made the film so even those who don’t know Godzilla can enjoy watching it.”

The story is set in the future world of 2048 and centres on a group of human beings who take revenge after being pushed from Earth by monsters such as Godzilla.

Here’s hoping for an animated Godzilla that will banish thoughts of Godzooky from the collective consciousness once and for all.

Iron Fist – Not Such A Master of Kung Fu!

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Regular readers will know me as an unabashed fan of the Marvel franchises, heck I’ve even been known to say kind things about Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. This act alone, while possibly wiping out any standing I have as a critic, should firmly place me as a fully-fledged Marvel geek. I carry my F.O.O.M. card proudly.

So it’s with a heavy heart that I have to label Marvel’s Iron Fist on Netflix their first real misfire.

So full of problematic elements it’s kind of difficult to know where to begin, but let’s start with an issue common to all the Marvel/Netflix shows: folks, it’s just too darn long! The first four or five episodes are a genuine slog to sit through, it’s the first Marvel effort I’ve had to convince myself to continue. All of the Netflix shows have suffered from this, eight or at most ten episode seasons would make things feel far more palatable. It’s possible a shorter season would have made Iron Fist more entertaining but then there would still be… well, Iron Fist.

Boy oh boy, the showrunners make Danny Rand, A.K.A. Iron Fist, tough to like. Brash, entitled, aggressive and… well, I’m not quite sure what else he’s supposed to be. There’s a final moments line about Iron Fist becoming a shining beacon in the darkness, yadda yadda, but by this point we’ve sat through thirteen episodes of him generally acting like a complete ass to everyone around him with only a few glimmers of anything nice from star Finn Jones shining through.

And, Marvel… come ON!! Thirteen episodes of Danny Rand wandering about in a hoody is just plain dull. Audiences are now so well versed in the Marvel world that we’re quite happy to accept masks and long johns… Thor and Doctor Strange even wear capes. Without the costume this frequently comes off like just another straight-to-DVD action flick. The costumes are what makes the characters visually distinctive, so please stop wussing out when it comes to getting your characters to suit up!

Finally, for a series about a legendary, mystical kung-fu dude, the fight choreography was unforgivably dull. There wasn’t a single sequence with the gusto or panache of Daredevil season one’s hallway fight or season two’s stairwell scrap.

There are still pleasures here, including Rosario Dawson’s Claire Temple, an increasingly important thread in the Marvel Netflixverse (ouch) and the nods to the wider universe are fun – not to mention vital since Iron Fist leads to the forthcoming all-star mash up show, The Defenders. Good value is also provided by Tom Pelphrey and Jessica Stroup’s Meachum siblings, whose arcs are infinitely more interesting than that of Jones’s Rand (who pretty much remains an ass throughout).

But these few pleasures are unfortunately outweighed by a storyline that’s too afraid to let the crazy elements of its central character through, and so it ultimately lands with a dull thud instead of a kick to the groin.

Sorry Marvel, you know I love you, but Iron Fist felt more like a limp slap.

The OA -A Metaphysical Triumph!

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When Netflix drooped the trailer for their new show, The OA, last week, it raised a lot of questions. Happily, by the climax of the eight episode show, the creators are happy to answer some of them, leave others hanging, and gift you with a whole bunch more.

Created by Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij, in their third collaboration together (after the films Sound of My Voice and The East, both well worth seeking out, by the way), this tells the story of Prairie (Marling), a young woman who returns home after disappearing several years before. That she was blind when she vanished and returns with sight is only one of the many mysteries explored across the series.

The OA asks big questions, explores wild concepts but never strays away from emotional truth. In fact it’s an amazingly affecting story and its climax left me in floods of tears (for a number of reasons I’ll avoid for the sake of spoilers). Suffice to say I needed to sit and quietly process what I’d experienced before starting this review.

It’s a bold, smart story, subtly creepy, a psychedelic head-fuck, desperately sad and astonishingly hopeful all rolled together in one tour de force of script, casting, directing and acting.

Allow yourself to be pulled along by it and you’ll be enveloped in a philosophically challenging, emotionally captivating drama unlike anything Netflix has produced to date.

Now that issue of allowing yourself to be pulled in is an important one. In this post-truth age of ever deepening (and often fully justified) cynicism, The OA could be seen as frequently skating close to thin ice. To get maximum effect from Marling  and Batmanglij’s story you will need to loosen up and go with the flow. Do so and you’ll be rewarded with a truly exceptional experience, occasionally frustrating but wildly ambitious and wholly satisfying.

Let’s have more from Marling and Batmanglij please, Netflix, because The OA is an absolute triumph!

The OA – stranger things on Netflix

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It’s always nice when something comes out of the blue and surprises you. Such is the case with the new series from Netflix, The OA.

The extremely atmospheric and downright creepy trailer for this series has just dropped and it pretty much guarantees that I know what I’ll be doing this coming weekend.

Very little is known about the show, and the press release from Netflix only serves to whet the appetite even more:

From Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij, the visionary filmmakers behind Sound of My Voice and The East, comes a powerful, mind-bending tale about identity, human connection and the borders between life and death. The Netflix original series The OA is an odyssey in eight chapters produced in partnership with Plan B Entertainment, Netflix and Anonymous Content. The groundbreaking series offers audiences a singular experience that upends notions about what long-format stories can be.

The eight-episode season stars Marling, Emory Cohen, Scott Wilson, Phyllis Smith, Jason Isaacs, Alice Krige, Patrick Gibson and Brendan Meyer. Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner and Sarah Esberg produce for Plan B Entertainment and Michael Sugar for Anonymous Content, alongside Batmanglij and Marling.

If you react to this trailer in the same way I did, I guess I’ll be seeing you on the couch next to me come Friday…

Iron Fist, The Defenders and… Sigourney Weaver!

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With Luke Cage seemingly another success for Marvel and Netflix (albeit one receiving more of a mixed signal from critics – and I mean regarding its dramatic qualities, rather than the absurd non-argument about the wonderful diverse cast coming from dull witted racists), excited viewers have been looking towards their next fix for binge watching from this team.

And this weekend at the New York Comic Con, the companies have dropped two fabulous pieces of information. First up, the first, full teaser trailer for Iron Fist (which finished filming just yesterday).

There’s been some discussion from fans of the comics that this might be the show to veer furthest away from its four colour origins, but for those concerned with such things (and you can count this author among those) the signs are encouraging in this latest and more revealing trailer. Full on kung fu action? Check. Dragon tattoo on his chest? Check (Though if he gains that tattoo by fighting with a giant, fiery dragon, a la the comics, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle). Glowing fist of power? Check and double check.

As you can see in the trailer, “The Final Defender Arrives” which leads to the other major morsel dropped by Marvel, that the villain for the big team up series, The Defenders, featuring Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist, is none other than Ripley herself, Sigourney Weaver.

The thought of these superb characters coming together in one, big Netflix-tastic mash up is enticing enough, but the knowledge that they’ll be squaring up against La Weaver is enough to make this must see TV already.

Iron Fist drops March 17th, 2017 while The Defenders is expected to drop later in the year. I’ve already booked my place on the sofa for both!