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Friday, 23 February 2018

Mute

Mute is the story of an Amish-raised (but not devout) man who can't speak and who can't use technology who has to find his girlfriend when she vanishes into the crazy brashness of mid-21st Century Berlin, which requires him to make a journey through the seedy underbelly of a city riven by crime.


Mute is also the story of two ex-US soldiers, both adversely affected by their tours of duty in the Afghanistan (in a war now in its fifth decade with no sign of ending), who team up in the Berlin underworld, one for the money and one in the hope of making a better life for himself and his daughter, but can't help falling prey to their worst instincts.

There are two potentially interesting stories here around which you could build effective movies. Director Duncan Jones appears to, at one point or another, decided to mash them together into one film which is at tremendous mistake. Mute is a movie that is somewhat less than the some of its parts.

It's impossible to dismiss the feeling that Duncan Jones's career hasn't gone quite the way it should. He started out with the excellent Moon (which occurs in the same universe as Mute, although this is in no way relevant to the plot), before moving onto the entertaining Source Code. His third movie was the insaneo-budgeted WarCraft which was, although by no means a complete disaster, not the break-out, effects-driven hit he needed either. He's now gone back to his (relatively) low-budget roots with Mute, a film which he's been planning to make for over a decade, at one point conceiving it as a Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels-style Mockney comedy-thriller before deciding (somewhat randomly) to turn it into a Blade Runner homage and introducing a love story, a mute lead and a missing persons, noir thriller plot.

To say these two plots are a tonal mismatch is an understatement. Alexander Skarsgard plays our non-speaking protagonist Leo with a lot of intensity, putting to use the years of brooding he finely honed on True Blood. He makes for an interesting lead you can't help but root for, even if you're not quite sure how he puts together the clues needed to follow his missing girlfriend's trail (or pay his rent or take part in modern society at all) since he refuses to use the internet or own a mobile phone. However, every time his dogged pursuit through Berlin's neon-lit underbelly threatens to become compelling, we cut away to Cactus Bill (Paul Rudd) and Duck Teddington (Justin Theroux), the American vets whose experiences in Afghanistan have left one a borderline psycho with a Bowie knife obsession and the other one, apparently, with an unhealthy interest in very young girls (which kind of kills any enjoyment you could otherwise get from Theroux's otherwise game performance). Bill and Ted's adventures could have perhaps been more watchable - with less paedophilic overtones and more dark comedy - in a Tarantino kind of way, but the writing doesn't quite snap into life enough to make them interesting protagonists. And even when their storyline does become more intriguing, the camera suddenly cuts away to Leo, who is now doing something completely incongruous from where we left him (like hanging out with a depraved, sex robot-owning Dominic Monaghan or trading punches with Noel Clarke: Mute at least provides gainful employment for actors who were moderately big about ten years ago and have faded from view since then).

It's a bizarre film filled with bizarre characters that doesn't really hang together very well. There's some nice visual effects moments and some entertaining musical homages (Jones's father David gets a few musical shout-outs, and Nirvana's "Heart-Shaped Box" gets a music box cover version because why not), as well a grin-inducing moment when a bunch of what are blatantly cyborgs from classic 1993 cyberpunk game Syndicate (which had a level set in Berlin) show up. Jones's direction is also very effective on a scene-by-scene basis.

Mute (**½) is not without merit and has some outstanding performances, particularly by Paul Rudd who badly needed a role to show him being something other than an amiably goofy nice guy and steals every scene he's in as an unhinged psycho. But overall this is a film that feels like the script needed another two or three passes and a tonal rewrite before it was ready for the screen. Every time the movie does something that makes you really like it, it delivers another moment that makes you groan with embarrassment. But as a failure, it's still an interesting one. Mute is on global release via Netflix right now.

Thursday, 22 February 2018

(Very Strong) Rumour: Amazon developing the WHEEL OF TIME TV series

According to Deadline, Amazon is the company that has been secretly developing the Wheel of Time TV series alongside Sony for the last few months.


Amazon had previously been strongly linked to the Wheel of Time deal prior to their acquisition of the Lord of the Rings TV prequel rights. It was assumed that Amazon would not be interested in developing two epic fantasy shows simultaneously. Since then, they've also announced that they are developing a Conan the Barbarian TV project and are moving forwards with TV adaptations of Larry Niven's Ringworld, Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash and Iain M. Banks' Consider Phlebas. Amazon are not short of money and the company's owner, Jeff Bezos, is a known SFF fan with very, very deep pockets.

Recently there has been forwards movement on the project: the Sony-appointed showrunner Rafe Judkins has tweeted he is in full writing mode on the script and producers Radar Pictures have been gearing up for an announcement (the massive success of their movie Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle meaning that some of their other projects are moving forwards).

A formal confirmation of the news is still awaited, although at this point Amazon is considered the front-runner for developing the series (with the small possibility of Apple TV, CBS All Access or maybe the new Disney streaming service sweeping it up) and it'd be surprising if it went anywhere else.

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Alternate ending to QUANTUM LEAP discovered

Twenty-five years ago this May, the time travel drama TV series Quantum Leap ended. Starring Scott Bakula and Dean Stockwell, the show ran for five seasons and followed the adventures of Dr. Sam Beckett, the inventor of the "Quantum Leap Accelerator". Beckett is stuck leaping from person to person through time, putting right what previously went wrong, solving crimes, helping broken romances etc. It was a very popular, feel-good show.


Or at least it was until it's finale. Mirror Image was a strange episode where Sam leaped into a small American town on the very day of his birth. He met a barkeeper played by an actor who'd been in the very first episode, with the suggestion that both may be a manifestation of "god, fate, time or whatever", and this force had been responsible for Sam's leaps through time. At the end of the episode Sam discovers that he has always had the power to return home, he just chose not to because there were still people to help. In his final leap, Sam sets his friend Al's life to rights, making sure the woman who'd left him because she believed he'd died in Vietnam (instead of being made a POW) knew that Al was safe and coming home. A final title card revealed that, "Dr. Sam Beckett never returned home."

It was a contentious and slightly odd ending, especially because the cancellation of Quantum Leap had come about fairly late in the day, so the finale was a recutting of what had originally been planned to be merely a season cliffhanger (if a far more dramatic one than any before it). Creator Donald P. Bellisario has been tight-lipped about how the story would have continued in a sixth season, but rumours have abounded of a different ending that was filmed and then cut.

A full quarter of a century years later, it's been revealed that there was indeed an alternate ending filmed. Quantum Leap fan Allison Pregler bought some negative from publicity shots for the series via eBay and discovered some odd images that she didn't recognise from any episode. It was only after looking at them closely she realised they came from the much-rumoured alternate cut.

In this scene, we discover that Sam did indeed change history so that Beth waited for Al, they got married and lived very happily together for thirty years. We also discover that Al had still joined Project Quantum Leap, still met Sam and still been his Observer through all his adventures (making fans everywhere breath a sigh of relief). We discover that Sam has vanished without a trace after his last adventure went as normal. The scene ends with Beth convincing Al to go into the Accelerator himself and jump in search of Sam. This, presumably, would have been the premise for the sixth season, with Al physically joining Sam in his adventures through time.

It's great to find these questions that fans have been asking for 25 years have been answered, and will no doubt fuel speculation that the show could either be rebooted or even continued directly (as both Bakula and Stockwell are still with us and acting frequently) in the future.

Amazon developing Iain M. Banks' CULTURE novels as a television series

In a surprise announcement, Jeff Bezos, the head of Amazon, has personally confirmed that his company is developing Iain M. Banks' Culture series of science fiction novels as a television series. The series will open with an adaptation of the first novel in the series, Consider Phlebas.


Originally published in 1987, Consider Phlebas introduces the Culture, a hyper-advanced, post-scarcity civilisation which appears to be a utopia. However, the existence of the Culture is dependent on the incredibly sophisticated AIs known as Minds, which control most of the Culture's ships and space habitats, and also on the existence of Special Circumstances, an elite intelligence agency which intervenes on other worlds to stop them developing into a threat against the Culture (or the rest of the galaxy). Consider Phlebas is set during a brutal war between the Culture and the Idiran Empire and follows the misadventures of the central character, Horza, a mercenary hired by the Idirans to recover an imprisoned Mind from a distant planet.

Banks published nine novels and a short story collection set in the Culture before his untimely death from terminal cancer in 2013. The novels were immensely critically-acclaimed and sold well. Banks also published three SF novels not related to the Culture and fourteen "mainstream" novels (Banks published SF under the name "Iain M. Banks" and non-SF as "Iain Banks"), three of which - The Crow Road, Complicity and Stonemouth - have been adapted for the screen.

The Culture novels have been hugely influential, with Banks regularly acclaimed as the greatest British SF author of his age. The Culture Orbitals - massive, ring-shaped artificial planets (theselves a more plausible iteration of Larry Niven's Ringworld concept) - are one of the main influences and inspirations for the Halo series of video games. Elon Musk has also cited Banks as a literary hero, even naming two of his drone ships after Minds from the books. Bezos himself is also a major fan.

Dennis Kelly, the acclaimed showrunner of Utopia, is developing the new series, which apparently is guaranteed a direct series order if the scripts impress.

Amazon is on a bit of a roll recently, having also greenlit new TV series based on J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings and Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian character.

Monday, 19 February 2018

Pre-production begins on the HIS DARK MATERIALS TV series

Bad Wolf Productions today confirmed that shooting is complete on their first project, a TV version of Deborah Harkess's novel A Discovery of Witches for Sky TV, which is interesting in itself. However, more exciting for many will be the news that Bad Wolf are rolling straight into working on their TV version of His Dark Materials, the Philip Pullman novel series.


His Dark Materials consists of the novels Northern Lights (retitled The Golden Compass in the United States for no immediately discernible reason), The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. One of the biggest-selling YA fantasy series of all time, it's also controversial (mostly in the US) for its depiction of religion and criticism of dogma and fundamentalism. A previous attempt to adapt the series with a movie version of The Golden Compass in 2007 was a box office disappointment.

Writer Jack Thorne is working on the new version, which will adapt the three books as five eight-episode seasons. The BBC is funding and co-developing the project with Bad Wolf, New Line and Warner Brothers. Bad Wolf also has an American co-development deal with HBO (they are collaborating on Industry, a drama about the global financial crisis) which may see the show end up on HBO in the US, although this has not been confirmed.

Bad Wolf are also developing a TV series based on Bernard Cornwell's fantastic Warlord Chronicles novel trilogy, although it sounds like this may be on the backburner for now.

His Dark Materials will probably air in late 2019 or early 2020, assuming that they start shooting this year.

Saturday, 17 February 2018

DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS movie switches studios, gets a 2021 release date

The long-running saga of the Dungeons and Dragons movie has taken another twist.


After a lengthy and curious legal battle between Universal and Warner Brothers, the latter emerged with the rights to develop a D&D movie back in 2016. The project was fast-tracked, with Rob Letterman (Gulliver's Travels, Goosebumps, Detective Pikachu) hired to direct and Ansel Elgort (Divergent, The Fault in Our Stars, Baby Driver) in talks to star. The movie was going to be set in the Forgotten Realms world, specifically the city of Waterdeep and the Yawning Portal Inn, including its secret entrance to the vast subterranean dungeon of Undermountain.

However, things have changed rapidly in the last few months. Warner Brothers' option expired and Hasbro gained full control of the D&D movie rights (for the first time; the previous film rights were sold before Hasbro's acquisition of D&D owners Wizards of the Coast, to their displeasure). They have now teamed up with Paramount to develop the movie project instead. Paramount and Hasbro have developed a close working relationship together over the course of five successful Transformers movies and two successful G.I. Joe pictures.

It is unclear if Letterman and Elgort are still in the frame for the movie and how much of the previous concept will be retained, but it does now at least have a release date: 23 July 2021.

Hasbro hinting that a reboot of the TRANSFORMERS movies may be imminent

Hasbro and Paramount have released a curious statement that suggests that a full reboot/rethink of the Transformers movie universe could be incoming.


The current iteration of the Transformers movie universe began in 2007 with the release of Michael Bay's Transformers. It then continued with Revenge of the Fallen (2009), Dark is the Moon (2011), Age of Extinction (2014) and The Last Knight (2017), all of them excruciating. The next film in the series is Travis Knight's Transformers: Bumblebee (2018), which is the first movie in the series not to be directed by Michael Bay. It's also the first film in the series to pick up some positive vibes, mainly due to the revelation that the movie will be set (at least partially) in the 1980s and will feature Bumblebee in his original Volkswagen Beetle form from the original toys, comics and cartoon series.

Paramount had previously slated another full Transformers movie for 2019 and had also assembled a writer's room to discuss options for other movies, including a movie set on Cybertron at the start of the Autobot-Decepticon War and another one set in Ancient Rome, where the Transformers would have presumably transformed into chariots, triremes and giant war elephants.

As of today's announcement it sounds like this idea has been cancelled. Many of the writers in the collective assembled by Paramount have decamped to other projects - Akiva Goldsman to Star Trek: Discovery, Lindsey Beer to the Kingkiller Chronicle movie and TV series, and Robert Kirkman to an exclusive development deal with Amazon - and the 2019 Transformers VI movie no longer appears on Paramount's development slate, suggesting it has also been canned.

This may be down to the disappointing box office of The Last Knight. It made $600 million worldwide, only slightly more than half of the previous two movies' $1.1 billion. With a production budget of $220 million and marketing to match, The Last Knight certainly still turned a profit, but that 50% audience drop seriously surprised Paramount and clearly has them pondering the future of the franchise.

Hasbro's plans now include a rebooted G.I. Joe movie for 2020, which will ignore the previous two films and will be a return to the franchise's roots. They will also be releasing a Micronauts movie in 2020 and the long-gestating Dungeons and Dragons movie (more on that soon) will launch in 2021. More intriguingly a "Hasbro/Paramount Event Movie" will be released in 2021 as well. This may be a Transformers reboot, but it may also be the long-mooted G.I. Joe vs. Transformers crossover movie. The two properties have crossed over many times previously in comic books and there was a hint that the two 1980s cartoon series took place in the same universe (with a character showing up in Transformers who was almost certainly Cobra Commander in disguise), but this would be the first on-screen, large-scaled team-up of the two brands.

Unlike many franchises, many Transformers fans have been praying for a reboot of the movie franchise almost since it started, with many of Michael Bay's decisions (particularly his awful direction, incompetent action scenes, poor scripts and the genuinely terrible production design of the Transformers themselves) roundly criticised and rejected. Here's hoping if there is a reboot, the next creative team will do a better job.

Friday, 16 February 2018

WHEEL OF TIME showrunner confirms he is working on the script

Wheel of Time showrunner and writer Rafe Judkins is working on the script for the show whilst on a writer's retreat near ACTUAL DRAGONMOUNT.


Okay, I lie, it's the volcano of Volcan de Agua, near Antigua, Sacatepequez in Guatemala.

Judkins is on a retreat with several other writers, including Amanda Kate Shuman who has written episodes of Chuck, The Blacklist, Berlin Station and The Following. This may just be a coincidence, or it may be a sign of other potential writers coming on board for the project.

With recent indications that the project is moving forwards (albeit slowly), with Sony Television working with an as-yet unannounced network/streaming partner, hopefully we'll get confirmation of the project soon.

Thanks to Narg at WoTTV for the heads-up.

Thursday, 15 February 2018

Gratuitous Lists: The Ten Best RED DWARF Episodes

In honour of Red Dwarf's thirtieth anniversary today, it's time to take a look at the ten best episodes of the show's run.

The stories are not presented in quality order because at this level, there's not much between these episodes. This is the show firing at its very best and frankly all of these episodes are worth watching.


The End
Season 1, Episode 1

"Everybody's dead, Dave." The very first episode of Red Dwarf sets up a very strong premise, with Dave Lister, the lowest-ranking crewmember on the five-mile-long mining ship Red Dwarf (because the service robots have a better union than the human maintenance crew), being sentenced to spend the rest of the mission in temporal stasis after smuggling an unquarantined cat on board. This proves unexpectedly helpful when the crew is wiped out by a lethal radiation leak. Holly, the ship's AI (IQ 6,000, "the same as 12,000 traffic wardens"), steers the ship into deep space and waits for the radiation to die down to a safe background level...which takes 3 million years.

Emerging from stasis, Lister discovers his only company is the now-senile Holly, a humanoid lifeform who descended from his pregnant cat and a holographic recreation of Lister's commanding office, the painfully officious and unpleasant Arnold J. Rimmer.

It's a great premise which gets the show off to a good start (arguably the second episode, Future Echoes, is also required viewing as it sets up how the show can move beyond its limited premise), showcases the amazing cast and features some good gags. It all started here, and it's startling to think how far it would come.


Better Than Life
Season 2, Episode 2
Red Dwarf started off being quite claustrophobic, but in Season 2 the writers started finding ways of getting the crew off their miserably grey spaceship. In Better Than Life the crew get hooked into a video game designed to give them their fantasies. Unfortunately, the game is not prepared for the invasion of Rimmer's self-loathing, disturbingly twisted psyche which sets about sabotaging the game for everyone else with wild abandon. The result is an escalating series of catastrophes in the game as Rimmer's subconscious sets about destroying anything that threatens to make him or his friends happy. It's both extremely funny and also desperately sad and twisted as we realise for the first time that Rimmer has deep-seated reasons for being such an unpleasant man, which the series soon starts mining for great material.


Meltdown
Season 4, Episode 6

Red Dwarf is at its best when mixing pathos and comedy, mining the characters to produce funny material. But sometimes the show just likes to kick back and be absolutely daft with a high concept, in this case ripping the mickey out of the movie Westworld. This episode is definitely in that category. The crew arrive on "Waxworld", a theme park planet inhabited by wax-droids who are supposed to act out historical scenes for the edification of visitors. Unfortunately the droids have gone a bit insane over the last million years or so, and are now trapped into fighting a horrendous war based on their characters' programming.

Or, to put it another way, the episode features the crew teaming up with the unlikeliest band of heroes in history, consisting of Pythagoras ("Alas our numbers do not reach twenty-one; at least then we could form an equilateral triangle,"), Santa, Stan Laurel, Marilyn Monroe, Sergeant Elvis Presley, Gandhi ("DON'T EYEBALL ME GANDHI! Drop to your knees and give me fifty, now!"), Mother Theresa and Queen Victoria. Their enemies are the ultimate team-up of evil and depravity: Adolf Hitler, Rasputin, Emperor Caligula ("Bring hither the swimsuit with the bottom cut out and unleash the rampant wildebeest!"), Al Capone, Richard III and James Last. Inspired by the martyrdom of Winnie the Pooh, the good guys have to fight one last battle to gain victory. Which would be more hopeful if some idiot hadn't put Rimmer in charge of military strategy.

Kryten
Season 2, Episode 1 
The second season of Red Dwarf immediately opens up the world of the series, introducing the character of Kryten, a service mechanoid suffering from neuroses and an obsession with cleaning. For this first appearance, the character is played by David Ross rather than Robert Llewellyn (who took over when the character was made a regular in Season 3), but Ross nails the character's tics very well. The episode works so well because it gets up our heroes hopes - Kryten reports that the all-female crew of his starship, the Nova 5, are still alive which turns out to be a slight exaggeration - and then shatters them before delving into both Kryten's character and also the worst excesses of Rimmer at his most obnoxious. The "Kryten's rebellion" scene, where Kryten suddenly starts channelling Marlon Brando, remains excellent.


Back to Reality
Season 5, Episode 6

When Season 5 of Red Dwarf aired back in 1992, the production team let it slip that negotiations for a sixth season had become complicated and the show might end forever. This made the final episode's conceit - that the last four years have been part of a VR game played by four people desperately trying to escape a dystopian cyberpunk future of total law enforcement - a little more disturbing as it could possibly have been true. The episode leans into genuine dramatic moments surprisingly well before bringing things around for an uproariously hilarious finale in which the crew engage in an epic car chase whilst being pursued by rocket launcher-wielding motorcyclists and helicopter gunships...all of which happens conveniently (for the sake of the budget) offscreen. This episode also introduces us to the crew's alternate-reality alter-egos, most memorably Duane Dibley (the Cat's thermos-wielding, sandal-wearing alter-ego) and "Jake Bullet, Cybernautics! (traffic control)".


Quarantine
Season 5, Episode 4
Given that, for most of its run, Red Dwarf has an all-male cast, it's interesting when the show spotlights this fact. Quarantine forces the Cat, Kryten and Lister into living in the same room for a week. At first this seems fine as they hang out all the time anyway, but the inability to leave the room for a break soon pushes them past breaking point. The examination of not-always-healthy male friendships is interesting but not allowed to interfere with the comedy, which kicks in a notch when we are introduced to Mr. Flibble, the universe's most psychotic laser-wielding penguin.


Gunmen of the Apocalypse
Season 6, Episode 3
Did you know that Red Dwarf won an Emmy Award? It did, an International Emmy in 1994, for this episode. Gunmen of the Apocalypse was filmed on location in a replica Wild West town erected in, er, Kent and it's clear that both the writers and actors fell in love with the concept. The episode sees the Wild West town stand in as the personification of Kryten's mind as it is invaded by a computer virus. The crew take on new personas thanks to a VR game and enter his mind to fight the virus, which takes the form of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, here re-conceptualised as Wild West gunfighters.

The whole thing is massively high concept but works well, with some fantastic lines, comic timing and possibly the best musical score ever written for the series.


Thanks for the Memory
Season 2, Episode 3
Thanks for the Memory may be the most melancholy episode of Red Dwarf ever made. Feeling sorry for Rimmer on the anniversary of his death, after Rimmer drunkenly confesses he's never been in love, Lister decides to gift him the memory of the love of his life. It's an act of kindness which, of course, backfires.

The episode works because it has a central, genuinely SF idea that is explored in an interesting manner (namely memory transferal and the question of whether memories are what defines us, recently the focus of Altered Carbon) and the story explores the characters of both Lister and Rimmer in intelligence and depth. A criticism of the series is that the writers found Rimmer such a rich source of humour and story that they sometimes left the other characters out in the cold, including our ostensible hero Lister, but this episode works well in telling us more about Lister and the mistakes he's made in his own life. The result is one of Red Dwarf's finest hours, being emotionally affecting as well as very funny.


Marooned
Season 3, Episode 2

With the third season of Red Dwarf running rather expensive, Doug Naylor and Rob Grant decided to write a tight bottle-episode focusing on Lister and Rimmer after their ship, Starbug, crash-lands on an ice moon. With supplies running low (Lister being forced to choose between a Pot Noodle and a tin of dog food and is genuinely wracked by the decision), the two are forced to resort to desperate measures to survive. We learn more about the two characters than ever before and the episode is unusual in making Lister a bit more at fault than Rimmer. Rimmer is also shown for the first time to have a laudable sense of honour (even if it takes a lot to kick it into action).

Marooned is hilarious and Barrie and Charles have often mooted taking it on the road as a two-man play. Possibly Red Dwarf's best-written half-hour and an unmissable episode.


Polymorph
Season 3, Episode 3
One of Red Dwarf's strictest rules is that there are no aliens. Everything that appears in the show has to be human or made by humans. That means no ravaging monsters. Or at least it didn't, until the writers hit on the idea of GELFs (Genetically-Engineered Life Forms), human-created creatures which, invariably, had broken free of human control and turned in to raging maniacs. The shapeshifting polymorph, which also drains subjects of their negative emotions (turning Lister into a homicidal maniac, Cat into a bum and Rimmer into a vegan hipster) is the finest of these creatures. The crew set out to take on the creature in a mickey-take of Aliens that works fantastically well, resulting in some of the show's finest sight gags. This isn't Red Dwarf at its cleverest or deepest, but it may at it's just laugh-out-loud funniest.

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