Sense8 to date: Season One and the Christmas Special

sense8-3Streaming services like Netflix and Amazon are spending enormous amounts on original shows. In the frantic race to stay ahead, some of that money will inevitably be thrown at underdeveloped projects. Netflix’s Sense8 is Exhibit A. An enormous budget and vast resources have been lavished on a script with a fatal lack of believability and momentum.

If only these problems had been overcome, because Sense8’s philosophy is admirable and valuable in our divisive political climate. Creators the Wachowskis and J. Michael Straczynski have built a show around the importance of empathy and love. Eight strangers from around the world become telepathically connected, able to share thoughts, skills, and experiences that give them new insights into humanity and themselves as they navigate their day-to-day lives.

To reinforce the scope of their connection, the series doesn’t simulate their home countries from a single production base as most shows are forced to. Sense8 actually filmed in the US, the UK, Mexico, Iceland, Kenya, Germany, South Korea, India, and more. Even the whole cast made the trip, flying around the world despite appearing only as visions in each other’s minds. The effort made behind the scenes intensifies their bond on a meta level.

Considered as a lushly filmed travelogue, Sense8 is a treat; rarely does scripted TV show us so much of the world. And Netflix, eager to make a mark, was willing to pay for it based on the first three scripts. But if they assumed the story would gather steam, they must be disappointed. The show’s lack of buzz – compare Sense8’s cultural footprint with that of SF stablemate Stranger Things – is likely a direct result. A show this expensive can’t afford such narrative inertia unless the character work is supremely confident and effective. Sadly, it’s not.

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Beyond the Walls

beyondthewallsA delightful effect of the increasing global distribution of non-English language dramas is how many surprises pop up. Even those of us glued to TV coverage can still be blindsided by a show that comes out of nowhere exhibiting stunning craft, poise, and ambition. The three-part French horror series Beyond the Walls is the latest show to sneak up on me like this. This remarkable supernatural fantasy deserves to be seen by a wide audience and leaves you hungry for more.

The Returned (Les Revenants) announced France’s capacity for terrific genre television, so Beyond the Walls’ technical accomplishments aren’t unexpected. But on hearing the premise and watching much of the first episode, you wouldn’t assume it was anything truly special. Reclusive speech therapist Lisa (Veerle Baetens) learns she has inherited an abandoned old house opposite her Paris apartment despite not knowing the former owner. After moving in, she hears noises in the walls, in which she finds a labyrinthine doppelganger of her house. Unable to escape, she is stalked by silent humanoid creatures called the Others.

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Midnight Sun

midnightsunThe opening sequence of Midnight Sun is a challenge to the viewer to keep watching. With no context or explanation, we see a man wake up to find he’s strapped to a helicopter rotor. The rotor powers up and he begins to scream. The blades speed up into a blur and, well, you can imagine what happens next.

Nordic noir viewers may not be accustomed to murders quite this grisly. But the choice is a deliberate, stylised one, and the series that follows isn’t a carnival of horrors. Beyond the opening credits is a visually ravishing and heartfelt series with a dense, captivating mystery.

The murder has occurred in far north Sweden during the summer, when night never falls. Because the victim is French, Paris detective Kahina Zadi (Leïla Bekhti) is dispatched to remote mining town Kiruna to investigate alongside local prosecutor Anders Harnesk (Gustaf Hammarsten). As the killings continue, the investigation draws in a local conspiracy and tensions with the area’s indigenous Sami people.

Midnight Sun is created and directed by Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein. Their previous show, The Bridge, was a Swedish co-production with Denmark. This time they’ve joined forces with France. But Midnight Sun is even more of a transnational production. Because the only common language between Zadi and the Swedes is English, large portions of the series are spoken in English with the remainder in Swedish, French, and Sami. The evidently high budget, allowing stunning cinematography of remote locales, further positions the show to stand out internationally. The result is a series whose cultural identity is fluid, breaking down boundaries while asserting that European television intends to compete on the world stage even more vigorously than before.

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The Expanse

expansePeak TV has caused casualties. The recent explosion in scripted drama means that not only viewers are struggling to keep up with it all, but even the critics who tell us what’s worth watching. During Battlestar Galactica’s run only a decade ago when fewer mainstream dramas were vying for praise, even a space show could attract critical attention. Now with streaming services and yet more cable channels producing scripted TV, Syfy’s terrific return to space, The Expanse, has struggled to get much buzz. But it deserves to.

While some unwieldy subplots prevent it from operating at Battlestar’s level for now, The Expanse largely succeeds as a drama as well as a space opera adventure. Like its forerunner, it tackles contemporary themes through the prism of SF, including resource depletion, inequality, and geopolitical manipulation.

Based on the novel series by James S.A. Corey, the show is set in a future when the solar system has been colonised but interstellar travel is still unattainable. Tensions are brewing between a decadent but depleted Earth, a militaristic Mars, and the marginalised citizens of the asteroid belt. In the belt, washed-up detective Miller (Thomas Jane) is assigned to look for the missing daughter of an Earth tycoon. Near Saturn, a mining ship called the Canterbury answers a distress signal that leads to catastrophe, turning the survivors into fugitives. And on Earth, United Nations powerbroker Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo) tackles the alleged threat of the Outer Planets Alliance, who want freedom for the belt.

Syfy has given the show a higher budget than any of its previous dramas, allowing for huge, detailed sets and bigger name actors like Jane and Aghdashloo.  The production values, dialogue, and acting are strong and the themes are timely. This is a step up from Syfy’s recent efforts, and their first genuinely competitive drama since Battlestar.

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The Secret History of Twin Peaks

secrethistoryFor those of us who love Twin Peaks down to our bones, the arrival of new material set in its singular realm is monumental. The forthcoming premiere of the first new episode of the show in 26 years is the main event, but co-creator Mark Frost’s new novel, The Secret History of Twin Peaks, has snuck in ahead to be the first to bring this world back to life.

New Twin Peaks material is significant compared to other cult properties because Frost and David Lynch have wisely restricted what has been produced. Apart from 30 episodes and feature film Fire Walk with Me, only three approved tie-in books and an audiobook exist to date. No new Twin Peaks material has emerged since 1992 except for Lynch-produced Log Lady episode introductions and the 2014 release of deleted scenes from Fire Walk with Me.

This is because, unusually, Lynch and Frost own the property themselves. Given the gradual rediscovery of the show over the last decade and Hollywood’s eagerness to strip-mine established properties, a studio that owned Twin Peaks would presumably have returned to the well already, with or without its creators.

But the resulting drought in new material and Lynch and Frost’s apparent lack of interest in returning to Twin Peaks left us convinced that what we had was all there would ever be. Twin Peaks was a finite creative work, its afterlife offering only ongoing analysis and rediscovery through the eyes of family and friends. We would while away the years interpreting this elliptical and confounding text, certain its creators would never fill in the gaps or provide a resolution to one of the cruelest unresolved cliffhangers in all of television.
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Southcliffe

southcliffeSouthcliffe opens with an elderly woman tending her front garden in a British village. The sky is grey and the street is silent. Suddenly two bangs register that might be gunshots. She looks down and sees a bloodstain on the lower half of her jumper. More bewildered than hurt, she notices a man marching up the street towards her, possibly carrying a gun. We don’t see his face.

The scene ends abruptly, but no sense of suspense or menace lingers. Only a horrified awe that something awful has happened, and with so few of the usual cinematic signals to clarify it for us.

This scene prepares us for how to watch Southcliffe, a series that rejects television’s typical narrative urgency and dramatic crescendos in favour of raw and painful silence. These four episodes recall British television’s social realism of the 1970s and 1980s, when programmes like Boys from the Blackstuff and The Firm were demonstrating that television didn’t take until the 21st century to reach artistic maturity. This is not fun or addictive viewing, but it is immersive, vital, and desperately moving.

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The Boy and the Beast

boyandthebeastWith The Boy and the Beast, Mamoru Hosoda has fused the pathos of Wolf Children with the vibrant chaos of Summer Wars. Hosoda has been anointed Miyazaki’s heir by all and sundry, but his comfort and skill both with endearing comedy and deep emotion truly justify the comparison. The Boy and the Beast may be the most Ghibli-esque yet of his films, but it retains his distinctive stamp of contemplative melancholy.

For the first time Hosoda presents us with a fantasy world, although one that exists alongside modern Japan. Young Ren has run away from his guardians after the death of his mother, and while wandering the streets of Tokyo he meets Kumatetsu, a humanoid beast from the neighbouring bakemono realm. The irascible and lonesome Kumatetsu is competing to take over as the new lord of his realm, and needs a pupil to help him. Seeking escape, Ren follows and starts a new life learning kendo with Kumatetstu, even though his new master has no idea how to teach his skills or raise a child.

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Discovering Kurosawa: High and Low

highandlowKurosawa was better known for his period pieces, so I’ve unconsciously gravitated to those first as I delve into his work. But he made plenty of contemporary films, and High and Low is considered one of the finest. It’s both a domestic drama and a crime thriller, and almost literally a splicing of the two: the first hour is confined to a family home before the case moves outside to the sweltering streets of Yokohama in summer.

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Star Trek is finally returning to TV

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Nearly 12 years after Enterprise left the air, Star Trek will finally return to TV in January 2017. TV is the franchise’s natural home, so this is fantastic news whether or not you like the current batch of movies. At its best, Star Trek holds up a mirror to our times, and TV allows it tell a variety of small stories without the pressure to offer action-adventure again and again. Its voice on the small screen has been missed.

However, it’s not strictly returning to television. CBS, who holds the rights to the TV side of the franchise, will in the US present the new series exclusively on their dedicated streaming service, CBS All Access. With no obvious free-to-air or cable home for the series these days, streaming makes sense for Star Trek and its typically tech-literate audience.

Other than that, we know very little about the new series. But let’s dig into what this announcement means and what we can potentially expect. Continue reading

Ash vs Evil Dead Prep: Army of Darkness

army-of-darknessWe began with disappointment, continued with excitement, but sadly end with more disappointment.

I expected to have a ball with Army of Darkness, that it would build on the dazzling formalism of Evil Dead 2 with the added spark of fantasy and a medieval setting. But just as the first film has too much gore, this one has too much slapstick. The seedy, sexist overtones aren’t pleasant to watch either, whether or not they’re mocking action movie machismo. The trilogy functions as its own tonal spectrum: the first film is too gory and dark and the third too silly and overblown, with the second striking just the right balance between the two.

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Ash vs Evil Dead Prep: The Evil Dead

evildeadAsh vs Evil Dead, the TV series sequel to the original Evil Dead films starts on October 31. As is becoming increasingly common thanks to the rise of streaming services in Australia, I’ll be able to watch it fast-tracked without subscribing to Foxtel or forking out for an iTunes season pass, and in HD and without ads to boot. Stan is streaming it a few hours before its US broadcast.

Given the cult status of the original films and this unusual TV series continuation with the original star (Bruce Campbell) and director (Sam Raimi), I’m going to check it out. But I’d also like to be able to appreciate how the story is finally resuming and how the passage of time has changed how the material is handled, so I’m going to watch the original trilogy in the lead-up to the premiere. Raimi and Campbell have wanted to make an Evil Dead 4 for years, and for some reason it’s finally been greenlit despite the recent remake. Not as a film, however, but as a 30-minute TV series on Starz.

Coming soon after Netflix’s Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, which reunited the creators and all the original cast on the small screen despite their huge careers, Ash vs Evil Dead continues a trend where moving to TV is no longer a comedown for a film series. Both shows are on prestige venues rather than some basic cable backwater.

I saw bits and pieces of Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness over a decade ago, and recall enjoying their exuberant, demented sense of humour. Raimi’s trademark manic camerawork and Campbell’s frenzied mugging were exhilarating to watch, and I was impressed by how intensely energetic they were for horror comedies. For some reason I never got around to watching the entire trilogy, although because the original was reportedly more of a straight horror film – and a very gory one at that – I probably procrastinated.

But no, there’s a TV continuation to prepare for, dammit, so I bit the bullet. And the first trailer for the series was so entertaining that I expected the films would be worth it.

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Unreal is vital, progressive, and riveting

unrealThis century’s high-quality American drama has been marked by the rise of not just the anti-hero, but more broadly of the morally compromised, psychologically complex lead character. The era when torment was the biggest blemish you could hope for in a series lead is over. But most of these newly multi-faceted characters have been male, as TV drama leads largely always have been. Complexity and moral ambiguity did extend to female characters but in a supporting capacity: Calamity Jane, Carmela Soprano, Peggy Olson. But we’re finally starting to see shows that put these women in the lead, and Unreal is superbly blazing the trail.

Unreal is like a dramatic version of The Larry Sanders Show, set behind the scenes of a Bachelor-style reality TV series called Everlasting. The two principal characters are women: Rachel (the excellent Shiri Appleby), one of the producers responsible for bonding with and manipulating the female contestants, and Quinn (Constance Zimmer), the executive producer and showrunner who will happily do anything to her cast and crew to generate good TV.

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