Archive for October, 2016

Star Trek and The Perils of Prequels

Posted: October 27, 2016 in Star Trek
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When Enterprise was cancelled in 2005 many thought that was the end of Trek. Even when the films were revived in 2009 it still seemed unlikely Trek would ever return to television. It was therefore a pleasant surprise when a new Trek series was announced. When it was further announced that the showrunner would be Bryan Fuller who, as well as working on DS9 and Voyager, had recently given us the sadly cancelled, yet impeccably magnificent, Hannibal, people got excited. The arrival onto the creative team of Nicholas (The Wrath of Khan) Meyer was just icing on the cake.

What no one knew was when this show would be set. Would it take us back to the 24th Century, would it feature a 31st Century time ship, would it be another prequel, or would it fill in the gap between The Undiscovered Country and Next Gen? People also wondered if it would be set in the Prime timeline, or the alternate one Abrams used to reboot the films.

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That ship’s kinda funny looking

Finally some information emerged. The show will be called Discovery, it’ll be set in the Prime universe, and we’ve been given a rough glimpse of the ship. It was at this point that fandom’s excitement wavered. Discovery as a name is fine (a trifle on the nose sure, but hardly a deal breaker) but opinions on the ship itself weren’t positive. It looked old, and a little clunky.

It’s clearly based on 1970s’ design from Bond legend Ken Adam and artist Ralph McQuarrie yet people still argued that it might not be a prequel; it could be an old ship pressed back into service after some future collapse of the Federation, or even one designed to look retro by nostalgic 26th Century designers…

Occam’s razor held true. The most obvious conclusion was that this was going to be a prequel, and lo and behold we learned Discovery’s going to predate TOS by ten years.

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The original Number One, before she quit command to go into nursing!

We still don’t know much more. To date no casting announcements have been made. We know the lead character won’t be the Discovery’s captain, but rather its first officer, she doesn’t have a name yet but will be referred to as Number One (a homage to Majel Barret’s character in The Cage), and we’ve been told that the series will be connected with the Original Series episode Balance of Terror, but we know not how.

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Fuller has written some great stuff, but let’s never forget he wrote Spirit Folk, where Harry Kim kissed a cow!

Originally the show was due to premiere in January 2017, but that air date was pushed back to May, and just today it’s been announced that Fuller, due to his heavy schedule working on an adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and something called Amazing stories, is stepping down as showrunner, though he will stay on as Executive Producer. Only time will tell what impact this will have on the show, but already you can see why fans might worry.

I’m not in a position to comment on the impact of Fuller stepping back, but one thing I think I can wax lyrical about is this: if we’re getting another prequel then Discovery needs to avoid many of the pitfalls Enterprise stumbled blindly into.

Prequels are big business. For franchises that may have reached a conclusion they’re seen as a way to keep the series going by delving into past events. You have a built in audience in a way something completely new doesn’t. The highest profile recent examples were the Star Wars prequels (Interestingly Enterprise was conceived shortly after The Phantom Menace, and both feature a shadowy holographic figure manipulating events behind the scenes—and people say Berman and Braga had run out of ideas…) but we can see this in other franchises as well. Look at the X-Men, or how much effort went into turning The Hobbit into a fully-fledged prequel for the Lord of the Rings.

TV in particular loves prequels. So in the US there’s Caprica and Better Call Saul, whilst in the UK we get Endeavour, featuring young Morse, and Rock and Chips, the Only Fools and Horses prequel. You can see the lure. Who doesn’t want to see a character’s formative years? The trouble is that prequels come with inherent problems.

Most obvious is the fact that we know what’s going to happen, unless you go for the option of creating a new timeline of course. Before Enterprise we’d had four series and nine films. The franchise had a lot of canon. We knew that Balance of Terror was the first time humans saw Romulans, that The Last Outpost was the first time the Federation met the Ferengi, and that Q-Who was the first encounter with the Borg.

Trouble is Enterprise wanted to use these familiar staples. People love the Ferengi, so we’ll be ok if they turn up but no one finds out their species! Same with the Borg, people love the Borg, we just won’t have anyone call them Borg and it’ll be fine.

The trouble is this awkward workaround falls apart if you give it much thought. I can just about buy that the Enterprise D’s database wouldn’t flag “big ears, ultra-capitalistic- sounds familiar!” but the notion that a race of cybernetic vampires wouldn’t ring a whole host of alarm bells is another matter. Now I know there’s been some retrofitting to suggest that the events of Enterprise’s Borg episode were what led Seven of Nine’s parents to go Borg hunting in the first place but that just highlights the problem. To get the Borg into a prequel you have to do a lot of retrofitting.

Enterprise hamstrung itself in other ways; they wanted a ship named Enterprise and a Vulcan first officer, which is fine until someone pointed out that NCC-1701 was the first starship Enterprise and that Spock was the first Vulcan in Starfleet. It’s ok, we’re pre-Federation here, came the response. Yet another clunky workaround.

And don’t get me started on the whole “Meet Captain Kirk’s childhood hero” malarkey. What, this is a show about Abraham Lincoln?

In many ways Enterprise made a rod for its own back by trying too hard to reference existing storylines, then handling them badly; e.g. trying to explain Klingon ridges. Rather than try and chart its own course it too often tried, and failed, to link in with what we knew had happened/would happen.

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Theoretically the show should look like this, but it probably won’t.

Another problem is in the look of the show. Now personally I think TOS looks pretty darn iconic (if anything TNG looks more dated) but it’s a look that would be hard to convincingly replicate now. If you’re making a Morse prequel that’s easy, we know what the 1960s looked like, and whatever your views on Lucas’ prequels, it’s easy to explain everything looking shinier because we can rationalise that everything goes to shit after Palpatine’s take-over.

Creating a future that’s supposed to predate TOS (especially by 100 years) is trickier. So NX-01 ended up looking a little too modern, and technology that was supposed to look archaic compared to what was to follow seemed to work the same way. Phase pistols were only supposed to have two settings but within a few episodes were being used to cut and weld like they were 24th Century phasers. And then there were the uniforms. The NASA/Right Stuff vibe wasn’t necessarily a bad idea, but the bland jumpsuits just made the crew look like janitors.

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Janitors in space!!!

Of course many of Enterprise’s problems weren’t down to it being a prequel. TV Trek had been going nonstop since 1987 and there was more than a hint of franchise fatigue; on the part of both creators and the consumers. Characters in Enterprise were poorly sketched, it was perhaps the least diverse Trek show, featured wince inducing attempts at being sexy (decontaminant gel anyone?) and then there’s the theme tune…

Setting aside the prequel setting, Discovery already has a few advantages over Enterprise. Trek’s been off TV for over a decade, so when it returns it should seem fresh, and Discovery is being produced by people who haven’t been using all their best Trek ideas up for the last 13 years. It also has the benefit of a 13 episode season, unlike previous Treks that had to try and come up with 24+episodes a year, and the story will be serialised rather than being episodic, so it’ll be more Westworld than Voyager, and the fact that it’ll be streamed via a subscription service could give the show scope to deal with more adult topics, as well as allowing more latitude when it comes to language and violence. It seems highly likely Number One will be played by a non-white actress, and Fuller has already made it clear there’s likely to be an LGBT character so the show should feel the most diverse Trek since DS9.

I’m sure there will be missteps. However much attention to detail there is the technology on show is bound to look more advanced than the Original Series’, and I’ll be amazed if they never play fast and loose with established history, but what’s important are the characters and the writing. If they get those right, and if the show feels like Trek (even if it’s a very different kind of Trek) then myriad sins can, and will, be forgiven. Weaknesses in characterisation, as well as plots that too often felt rehashed from other Treks, just prompted people to look more closely at the detail of Enterprise. If Discovery has engaging characters and interesting stories to tell, then it’ll be a lot easier to let it slide when the ship visits Kwaplaxx-Major ten years too early or Ensign Schmidt’s computer makes Spock’s look like a ZX81…

Whatever we get I know this, I’m really rather excited to be boldly going once more!

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Icebound

Posted: October 14, 2016 in Book reviews
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By Dean Koontz

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It’s the near future and a group of scientists in the arctic have an audacious plan to help ease world hunger by breaking off glaciers to be towed southwards to help irrigate farmland. A group of scientists led by Harry Carpenter and his wife Rita have just finished planting sixty explosive charges deep in the ice, designed to shatter the glacier and create an iceberg. Unfortunately an earthquake creates an underwater tsunami that breaks the part of the glacier they’re on free.

Cast adrift, with limited supplies and fuel, it seems likely they’ll freeze to death before help can arrive, except they probably won’t get the chance because the explosives are due to go off at midnight. When out of nowhere the chance of salvation appears they think they might have a chance, but they haven’t reckoned on one of their number being a psychopath who’ll stop at nothing to fulfil his own twisted agenda…

 

I’ve been a fan of Koontz’s work for a long time. I think he’s a great, if flawed author. He usually comes up with fantastic plots that can run out of steam, and great characters who often wind up reminding you of other Koontz characters (they’re damaged because of some trauma in their past but they find hope in the love of a good man/woman etc.). For all his flaws he is a good writer, and a Koontz novel I haven’t read before is always something to nab when I see one going cheap.

Not that Icebound is new, in fact it’s forty years old now, originally having been published in 1976 under the title Prison of Ice. Koontz reedited it to make it more current and it was rereleased in 1995, so it’s been knocking around for a while.

The first thing to say is that it isn’t your classic Koontz, there’s no supernatural, or apparently supernatural, or otherwise fantastical force at work, instead this is a relatively straightforward thriller, and if it feels a little like an Alistair MacLean novel there’s a very good reason for that, in his notes at the end Koontz explains that he wrote it as a homage to the MacLean style of thriller.

It’s not a terrible book, but it rarely soars. The setup is interesting, and Koontz evokes the environment of the ice shelf upon which our helpless heroes (plus heroine) are marooned well. The would be rescuers are an engaging bunch, in many ways more interesting than the scientists, and it would be intriguing to see how they were originally played in the 1976 novel given the world was a very different place.

Where the book falls down is in the central mystery of who the would-be-killer is, and why he’s so determined to murder one of his fellows. For a mystery like that to work you need interesting characters and plenty of red herrings, but Koontz fails on both parts. Aside from characters who aren’t even on the ice shelf everyone is a thinly drawn caricature. So one of the group is an older Frenchman, one of them is young scion of a thinly veiled Kennedy’esque political dynasty, one is Chinese, one is a towering black man, one of them is Rita’s ex and one is a laid back bodybuilder, yet despite this it’s hard to tell them apart, and Koontz pretty much ignores the need for red herrings, which means when the psycho is finally revealed my initial thought was pretty much, meh.

Koontz’s prose means it isn’t a chore to read, and it’s got an intriguing set up, but in the end the book, and in particular its characters, left me feeling rather cold.

Blood Father

Posted: October 12, 2016 in Film reviews
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Directed by Jean-François Richet. Starring Mel Gibson, Erin Moriarty and William H Macy.

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People were undecided about the Terminator 2 remake

John Link (Gibson) is an ex-con who’s trying to go straight. After nine years in prison he’s managed to stay sober for two years with the help of his sponsor, Kirby (Macy). He’s living in a rundown trailer park earning a living as a tattoo artist. Everything is going fine until he receives a call from his daughter Lydia (Moriarty). Lydia ran away from home when she was fourteen and Link hasn’t seen her since. Now Lydia is in trouble, she’s just shot her drug dealer boyfriend and the cartel want her dead, with nowhere else to turn only her estranged father can help her.

Can Link keep his daughter safe, even if it risks him winding up back in prison, and will Lydia reconnect with her father, or is she just using him as a means to an end? And just why are the cartel so interested in vengeance?

 

There’s a very straight-to-video feel about Blood Father, which isn’t necessarily a negative, this is a pure B-movie and it knows it. Still it’s sobering (sorry) to remember a time when Gibson was one of the biggest movie stars on the planet, not to mention a noted director, but, much like his character John Link, Gibson has battled his demons and one can only hope has won. Now he seems to be rebuilding his career one film at a time, still one can’t imagine he would have made Blood Father 20 years ago.

Which isn’t to say this is a bad film, it’s just a bit average. The story is fairly generic and the film doesn’t really go anywhere you wouldn’t expect a film like this to go, which is kind of the point of a B-movie, but still it left me wanting more. There are a few decent action scenes, but on the whole I felt a little cheated in the gun battle/fistfight stakes. What raises this above mediocre is the cast. Macy has always been great and he have a wonderful chemistry with Gibson, it’s just a shame he isn’t in the film more. As Lydia Moriarty makes her irritating enough to annoy us, but just the right side of redeemable that we don’t really want to see her horribly murdered, and she’s allowed to mellow as the film progresses thankfully. As one of Link’s former associates Michael Parks does that wild eyed quiet menace he’s done so often for Tarantino, less impressive is Diego Luna as the bad guy, who isn’t given any character beyond being a low rent Vincent Cassel.

It’s Gibson who holds the film together though, and Gibson whose presence lifts mundane material to something that approaches (even if it never quite reaches) above average. I recall watching Expendables 3 and noting that, much as I love Arnie and co, it’s obvious how much better actors Gibson and Harrison Ford were, and Gibson is again on good form here. His broken father has echoes of his real life issues, yet Link is still the kind of character you want to root for. He handles the action with aplomb, and still has a great delivery for the more comedic lines. And he plays haunted exceptionally well, especially when he’s trying to sober his daughter up and stop her making the same mistakes as him.

The plot’s wafer thin, and as a result the film tends to meander at times, and the big gun battle you always imagine you’re on the cusp of seeing sadly never arrives. At times it’s very sharp and funny, but too often the film treads water to the extent that even its sparse run time seems a little too long.

Not necessarily one to avoid, but not something likely to end up in your DVD collection either, but if nothing else it proves that Mel Gibson is still a force to be reckoned with.

The Magnificent Seven

Posted: October 5, 2016 in Film reviews

Directed by Antoine Fuqua. Starring Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt and Ethan Hawke.

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“I told you none of the shops would be open on Sunday!”

 

In the late 19th Century the mining town of Rose Creek is being menaced by evil industrialist Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) who’s trying to bully the townsfolk into selling their land for a pittance so he can make a fortune. After an outbreak of violence from Bogue’s men leaves several townsfolk dead the widow of one of the victims, Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) rides out to find help.

In a nearby town they encounter a warrant officer/bounty hunter named Sam Chisholm (Washington). Emma begs for his help but Chisholm declines, until he learns of Bogue’s involvement. Realising he’ll need men to help he recruits smart mouthed gambler Josh Faraday (Pratt) to his cause. Soon they’re joined by infamous Confederate sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux (Hawk) and his knife wielding associate Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee). Chisholm recruits Mexican outlaw Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) with a promise never to come after him, and they also take on mountain man Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio). The final member of the seven is a renegade Comanche brave named Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier).

The seven gunfighters ride into Rose Creek and easily despatch the men Bogue left in charge, but Chisholm knows this first battle was only a skirmish. Bogue will be coming, and he’ll be bringing an army with him. Can Chisholm and his men beat the odds, and even if they do how many of the Magnificent Seven will be left alive to tell the tale?

 

And so we get another Hollywood remake, although in fairness it’s hard to be too offended given the 1960 original was itself a remake of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. Still it seemed an odd film to remake, if only because westerns seem a trifle old (ten gallon) hat these days, and it has to be said right off the bat that the 2016 remake is a very old fashioned film.

But that’s note remotely a bad thing.

The film reunites Washington and Hawke with their Training Day director Fuqua, albeit this time the two actors aren’t out to kill each other. Washington leads the line well, and for a man who’s now over sixty (yes he really is) he handles the action scenes just as well as the quieter more emotional beats. If he has less fun with the role that’s less to do with his ability as an actor and more to do with having to play the nobler, more stoic leader, a role he excels in. By contrast Hawke gets to throw everything but the kitchen sink at his confederate sharpshooter, a man with a reputation he may no longer be able to live up to, but his role is more than just tics and “yee haws!” and it’s amazing to consider that he’s over fifteen year’s Washington’s junior because he convincingly plays a contemporary.

As Faraday Pratt completes the big name triumvirate at the heart of the Seven, and he’s a lot of fun to watch, but…his character is quite like his character in Jurassic World, and a lot like Star Lord too, and as engaging as he is it would be nice to see if he has another string to his bow beyond smart mouthed and cocky. Don’t get me wrong, plenty of movie stars have thrived on playing essentially the same character, but I hope there’s more to come from him.

The rest of the seven by necessity get less to do, although in fairness each of them gets their moment in the sun, oft times more than one. D’Onofrio in particular gives a peculiarly engaging turn as the mountain man who appears to have spent rather too long on his own in the wilderness. Kudos as well to Lee for making as much as he does from a character that could have just been a.n.other Japanese marital artist. Our Mexican outlaw and Native American team members fare less well sadly. It is difficult when you’ve got seven characters, and in fairness as a men on a mission kind of film these guys are more engaging than the flipping Suicide Squad were. It’s just a shame that, given they’re a much more diverse Seven than the original, there isn’t more nuance to their characters.

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“ma’am, could you not shoot that tree, one of my best friends is a tree.”

But this isn’t a film for nuance. Take Bennett’s plucky gal with a gun or Sarsgaard’s moustache twirling villain, who’ll shoot a henchman just so you know he’s the bad guy. Both are very good though, Bennett handles her action scenes well, it’s just a little distracting how much she looks like Jennifer Lawrence however. As Bogue Sarsgaard doesn’t get much grey, but he does at least imbue his character with wonderful sense of arrogance.

 

So yeah, pretty much everyone in the film is, to a greater or lesser extent, something of a cliché, but this did not dent my enjoyment one bit, if anything it might well have enhanced it. Don’t get me wrong, I like nuance, like shades of grey and stories and characters that aren’t just black and white, but oh my sometimes it’s just a whole lot of fun to watch an old fashioned tale or white hats and black hats, and that’s what this is.

Fuqua has never quite equalled Training Day, but he’s a solid director, especially of action, and the shootouts and battle scenes here are nicely done, not so frantic you can’t see what’s going on but still visceral and exhilarating. My only quibble would be that during the climactic battle one of the Seven seems to go missing only to turn up again later, but that’s a minor quibble given the sheer number of characters. Fuqua also makes excellent use of the landscape and the film’s quite beautiful in places.

I need to mention the music as well, which caught me off guard because I saw James Horner’s name at the start. This was the last film he scored before he passed away, in fact he hadn’t completed it and it had to be finalised by Simon Franglen, it’s a nice tribute to hear some familiar riffs again. There’s hints of Titanic, and whilst it never goes full on 1960, echoes of the classic theme are there for all to hear.

It’s a little too long, a little clichéd (to say the least) and it’s arguable whether it actually adds anything to the original other than providing more diversity, but it’s so well put together and the cast are so engaging that this doesn’t matter nearly as much as it might have with another film. And it has to be said that the film did surprise me in one respect, because if you’d ask me to name who’d live and who’d die before the film started I’d have got it wrong.

It might be a film that ends up forgotten, but while I was watching it I was heartily enjoying it, and at the end of the day that’s the very least one should ask of a film.

Not quite magnificent, but not far off it.