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TREADSTONE: Spy fun, but don’t say the B-word (Season 1 – Review)

Treadstone feels like a show that somebody made in 2008 and forgot about for over ten years.

There is something a little strange about Tim Kring’s series set in the Jason Bourne universe. For one thing, it seems utterly determined to never mention the ‘B word’ at any point. Not Blackbriar, the second secret CIA project to recruit, train and brainwash super-spies. That gets a mention, having collapsed during The Bourne Ultimatum and The Bourne Legacy. The events of those films, particularly Ultimatum, are expressly referenced or at least heavily hinted at. Bourne *himself* is referred to (as “the asset”, or something deliberately wink wink nudge nudge), but his name? Nope. It could be a rights issue. The credits do after all say “based on an organisation from the Bourne series of novels by Robert Ludlum” which is about as thin a tether as you can mine in order to put together a TV show. You can have the name Treadstone, and that’s it.

Yet at the same time, Kring goes out of his way to make this show, effectively, a lower-budget tribute act to the Bourne franchise, predominately the Paul Greengrass films which really established the tone and style of that saga – all shaky cam, pass the sick bag Krav Maga fight sequences, a global travelogue, lots of shady government intelligence agents in rooms trying to outfox assassins working as much with raw instinct as intellect. You’ve all seen a Bourne film, right? This doesn’t just inhabit the same narrative world but also the same visual and iconographic one. The music has John Powell’s percussive style. The fighting is close combat, no quarter, balletic hand to hand. The intrigue is post-Cold War (and mid-Cold War, actually) spycraft. It works to place itself as a side-story to the Bourne saga in the same manner as The Bourne Legacy from Tony Gilroy. That worked to distance from Greengrass in many ways. Treadstone works to revel in the comparisons.

The biggest surprise of all is that Treadstone, well… it’s actually not that bad, for what it is, even as a show caught between two worlds and two eras.

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STAR WARS EPISODE IX: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER: the expected, soulless capstone of a four decade saga

CAUTION: contains some major spoilers so only read on if you’ve seen the film.

If you were looking for the perfect film to put a capstone on the 2010’s, Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker arguably would be it.

Even with the blockbuster heavyweight of Avengers: Endgame concluding the first ten years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, TROS—as we’ll call it for ease—was the most anticipated cinematic event of the year, given it doesn’t just serve as the third part of a trilogy but also the concluding chapter of a nine-part, four decade spanning saga within easily the biggest film franchise in movie history. This is about as epic as franchise filmmaking gets. Though Star Wars, the jewel in Disney’s all-dominating media crown, will of course continue into the 2020’s, this marks the end of the Skywalker Saga with which George Lucas changed the landscape of movie-making more than perhaps any director in the 20th century. The final conclusion to a story we thought had definitively ended twice before.

Going into The Rise of Skywalker, you may experience cautious optimism. Rian Johnson delivered a defiantly auteur-driven, insular examination of the core mystical and philosophical themes within Star Wars with 2017’s trilogy middle-part The Last Jedi, going in brave new directions from 2015’s vibrant trilogy opener The Force Awakens, in which JJ Abrams revived the franchise with a verve that spoke to Lucas’ original, Saturday adventure serial vision. With Abrams back at the helm, following the departure of original director Colin Trevorrow, there was every reason to believe TROS would recapture TFA’s spirit and top off Star Wars with a fulsome flourish. You may leave The Rise of Skywalker somewhat perplexed that that didn’t happen. That, in fact, Abrams has delivered the weakest Star Wars film since, quite possibly, fetid prequel Attack of the Clones.

For a myriad amount of reasons, The Rise of Skywalker feels like an argument, on screen, for why going into the next decade we need to rethink how we approach franchise filmmaking. It doesn’t just feel like a culmination of indulgent cinematic excess but a cautionary bulwark against it.

Forget the Past: MEN IN BLACK and Neutralising History

If we are great at one thing as a collective human species, it is forgetting our own history, often by choice.

It is easy to forget how Men in Black, one of the breeziest, cheeriest examples of B-movie science-fiction updated for a big-budget late-1990’s audience is built on one of the darkest and more sinister aspects of American folklore, urban myth and conspiracy theory. If you’re over 35, chances are you fondly recall the days when Will Smith was at his jaunty, Fresh Prince-coasting heyday as one of Hollywood’s biggest action stars, laying down hugely popular and catchy rap tunes to fun, explosive tentpole movies or, as in Independence Day, greeting an alien invader with a right hook and a pithy “Welcome to Earth!”. Building a franchise around Smith as the hip, young, cool streetwise guy who becomes a ‘galaxy defending’, super slick government agent made a world of sense, and serves as the perfect way to cloak how disturbing the legend and myth behind it all is.

In reality, the legend of the ‘men in black’ is one of the most pervasive and ongoing representations of an oppressive, repressive American underbelly which wants us to forget the sins of their forefathers.

New Podcast: Between the Notes – ‘Good Omens / Game of Thrones’ (ft / David Arnold)

Hosted by myself and journalist/film score aficionado Sean Wilson, Between the Notes is a podcast devoted to the sounds of cinema which airs between every two-four weeks.

This time, we’re talking TV Shows instead of movies with a discussion of Good Omens, featuring an interview with composer David Arnold, and dive into Ramin Djawadi’s Game of Thrones Season 8 score.

Plus we put together a Top 5 TV Show scores list to honour this TV special, including discussion of shows including Lost, Battlestar Galactica and The X-Files…

Tony Talks #11: Introducing My First Book + Extra Details

Hola teamsters!

Those of you who follow me @ajblackwriter on Twitter or via Facebook may already have seen this announcement, but I’m thrilled to finally reveal the title of my long-gestating non-fiction tome: Myth-Building in Modern Media: The Role of the Mytharc in Imagined Worlds, now available to pre-order from McFarland and due for release later in 2019.

Given I’ve discussed the book on the site before, I wanted to give you all a bit more detail than I’ve shared yet on social media about what the book is, what it contains and what you can expect, in advance of the official blurb.

Alias (Season 1) – Overview

The first season of Alias, the show that put superstar producer-director JJ Abrams on the map, has aged remarkably well.

Airing in 2001, a matter of weeks in the wake of the traumatic September 11th attacks on the Twin Towers in New York, Alias had the unenviable task of providing overblown, B-movie, pulp escapism to an audience reeling from the most existentially terrifying attack on American soil since the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. Abrams, fresh off his first TV series Felicity (starring the later-to-be-famous Keri Russell) and a career penning screenplays across the 1990’s for major Hollywood blockbusters, had to try and sell a show which captured the retro, cult aesthetics of 1960’s adventure shows and movies he had grown up with – Mission: Impossible, I Spy, the James Bond series – shot through with a stylish, slick, modern action sensibility.

It was a hard sell. Audiences gravitated far more to the intense, dour, revenge fantasy of 24 and all-American hero Jack Bauer, who steadily across a decade in which Americans and Western Europe turned their gaze toward Islamic fundamentalism and the threat of the Middle East became more of the superhero Americans wanted. If he was The Punisher, a man of dubious morals ready to compromise his soul for the greater good, then Alias’ hero Sydney Bristow was Captain America; virtuous, homely, and a reflection of wholesome American values, wrapped up inside familial and emotional angst that recalled Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Audiences never truly took Sydney to their breast, to their heart, and almost immediately Alias became a cult genre hit, never to explode fully into the global mainstream.

The sad thing about this is just how well executed Alias’ first season is, one of those rare shows that arrives almost fully formed and very quickly steps into a unique tone and rhythm, only building on that start to deliver twenty two episodes which provide a real sense of payoff.

End Game of Treks: Is Time-Travel Becoming a Storytelling Crutch?

In one of the busiest few months in science-fiction and fantasy popular-culture, the beginning of 2019 has seen three major franchises in cinema and on television become embroiled in what could be rapidly becoming a narrative crutch.

Time-travel.

The lacklustre Season 2 of Star Trek: Discovery (I *really* promise to stop talking about this soon) saw the crew of the Starfleet ship launch themselves almost 1000 into the distant Federation future to prevent a universe-destroying, rampant AI from wiping out all life. The gigantic conclusion to the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first era, Avengers: Endgame, saw our superheroes enter the Quantum Realm and zip backwards across time to recover the universe-shattering Infinity Stones before the Mad Titan, Thanos, can snap his fingers again and wipe out half of all sentient life. And just this week, Game of Thrones saw the ultimate battle with the Night King and his army of the dead, coming to wipe out the living, which all hung on the fate of Bran Stark, a time-travelling tree-wizard.

Anyone noticing a pattern here? Three legendary franchises. Three titanic threats to the fabric of the entire universe. And in each case, the resolution of the paradox has the potential to lie in the bending of time.

We’re in danger of death by temporal mechanics if we’re not careful.

Alias – ‘Q&A’ (1×17)

While on the surface, Q&A may be Alias falling back on a tried and tested televisual trope, this epilogue of an episode is remarkably concentrated around testing philosophical concepts of fate, destiny and free will.

Alias has experienced a succession of earth-shattering revelations since the climax of The Confession that Sydney Bristow has been increasingly struggling to digest. She pulled back from quitting her life as a double agent in The Box, only for the stakes to infinitely rise as ‘The Man’ aka Alexander Khasinau emerged on the scene as a direct challenger to the Alliance and SD-6, before Page 47 and The Prophecy personalised the central Rambaldi mythology for her in a way which added a further reason why escaping this life in the short term would be impossible. Q&A may appear to be a time out from these escalating narratives but in real terms it serves more as a point to pause and take stock of where we have ended up over the last sixteen episodes.

It dispenses with Alias’ uncommon ‘double previously’ sequence, which for the entire season has reminded viewers of the complicated central concept of the series before segueing into a more immediate reminder of recent events. Q&A throws us straight into the action using the tried and tested J J. Abrams trope of ‘in media res’ storytelling, which he used to fine strategic effect in pilot episode Truth Be Told, as we see a bewigged Sydney—in full Thelma & Louise-mode—on the run from a flotilla of cops before barrelling into dockside water in either an apparent escape or suicide attempt. Q&A doesn’t need a contextual reminder because the entire episode is structured as one big ‘previously’.

Welcome to Alias’ first, and indeed last, ‘bottle episode’.

Skywalker Rising: Star Wars, Abrams and familiar territory

Until this weekend, Star Wars: Episode IX was in serious danger of having its thunder well and truly stolen by the twin pop-culture giants on the immediate horizon – Avengers: Endgame and Game of Thrones’ final season.

As if sensing a disturbance in the Force, Disney—who bear in mind own Marvel so control two of the biggest cultural entertainment events of 2019—released to much fanfare, including an entire live-streamed celebration event, the long-awaited trailer to a film we now know will be subtitled The Rise of Skywalker. The trailer naturally didn’t give all that much away – Rey doing a neat Jedi flip over a tie fighter, a desert barge fight channeling major Return of the Jedi vibes, what looks like a crashed Death Star on a watery world, and a very gleeful old Lando Calrissian back behind the wheel of the Millennium Falcon. Enough to stoke some fan theories for the next few months and keep the wheels of speculation moving.

There was, however, one final part of the trailer which seems to have confirmed a suspicion on many fans minds. Namely that returning director JJ Abrams is steering the Skywalker saga back into safe, familiar territory for the climactic beat.