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Game of Thrones, Season 8 Episode 1: Winterfell

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[SPOILER WARNING: Please don’t read unless you’ve seen the episode. Come on, you know how this works]

As a Game of Thrones fan it’s impossible not to feel a frisson of excitement as we begin this eighth and final season. Everything has led to this. Every battle, every sneaky murder, every root – ill-advised and otherwise – is all culminating in this season. It’s a lot to get your head around and the first episode, “Winterfell”, does an admirable job of restating the various factions and loyalties, and reminding us of the stakes at play.

They’re big stakes. It doesn’t get much bigger than “the Wall has collapsed and the army of the dead are flooding in with a bloody zombie dragon”.

“Winterfell” begins with an updated credit sequence, one that reflects the very unwally state of The Wall, and opens in miserable, cold Winterfell. The grand army of Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) has arrived and she and Jon Snow (Kit Harington) are taking in the sights, riding together in an obvious display of support for one another. However the hard, stubborn locals aren’t exactly stoked with the whole caper, and stare at Dany with their mouths puckered like cat clackers. This isn’t quite the hero’s welcome she might have hoped for.

Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) rides along with the procession in a covered wagon, busting Lord Varys’s (Conleth Hill) lack of balls. Honestly, it’s not his best material but we get the feeling the whole conversation is to mask Tyrion’s bone-deep nervousness at being in the home of a people with a fairly sensible grudge against his family.

Next minute the dragons, Drogon and Rhaegal, soar over the wintery district, scaring the absolute shit out of the locals and causing Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) to watch with a mixture of awe and foreboding.

The first of many reunions takes place, with Jon meeting up with Brandon Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright). Jon’s super happy to see Bran, but the wheelchair-bound mystic acts like that one mate of yours who’s just a little bit into his mushies, speaking all cryptic and portentously. Sansa and Dany give each other some vicious side eye, and share a few choice words, but Bran tells them to knock it off. “We don’t have time for this,” he says accurately yet somehow still very annoyingly, “the dead march south.”

Later, in a staff meeting, the locals are becoming increasingly confused by who the hell is actually in charge. Is it Jon? Sansa? Dany? Lyanna Mormont (Bella Ramsey) best epitomises the confusion, saying to Jon, “you left Winterfell a king and came back a… I’m not sure what you are, now. A lord? Nothing at all?” Jon tries to explain that a zombie army is defo a bigger worry than local politics, but the crowd are unconvinced. Tyrion attempts to win them over by mentioning Cersei’s army is on the way. It goes down about as well as a lamb chop at a vegan dinner party.

Later, Tyrion and Sansa have a reunion of their own. They haven’t actually hung out since the Purple Wedding, where Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) died choking in front of everyone. “Miserable affair,” Tyrion recalls.

“It had its moments,” Sansa replies with a smile.

The two sort of bond, but there’s been a lot of history since those days. Sansa also doesn’t believe for a second that Cersei is going to help, which – to be fair – is 100% accurate.

Jon and Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) reunite in the Godswood and it’s actually a delightfully sweet scene. They hug, compare weapons and chat about current events. In a nicely observed twist, Arya praises Sansa, calling her the “smartest person I’ve ever met”.

“You’re defending her? You?” Jon chortles.

“I’m defending our family. She is too,” Arya replies.

Meanwhile, Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) glowers on the battlements at King’s Landing. When she’s told of the dead breaking through the Wall she smirks and says, “good.” Subtle stuff, guys, very nuanced. In the harbour nearby, Euron Greyjoy (Pilou Asbæk) swaggers about, crowing of his magnificence to still-alive-but-captured Yara Greyjoy (Gemma Whelan). Then hops back onto dry land to impress Cersei with the brand spanking new army he has delivered. Euron makes it clear that he really feels Cersei should throw a quickie his way. At first Cersei doesn’t want a bar of it, but ever calculating seems to realise a well-rooted Euron is most likely a happy Euron, and gives him the nod.

Speaking of rooting, Bronn (Jerome Flynn) has a foursome interrupted by creepy Qyburn (Anton Lesser), which is enough to put a bloke off his stroke. Qyburn is offering riches beyond compare for one job: kill Cersei’s brothers. This is setting up a potentially tragic arc with Bronn possibly murdering his mate Tyrion, or dying in the attempt. In one scene we see that everything really is up for grabs this season and a lot of our favourites aren’t going to survive.

Next up, a bunch of people are killed and Yara freed by… Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen)?! Yes, it appears the dickless one grew some balls. Yara thanks him with a headbutt but then pulls him to his feet; he is forgiven. Later, she gives Theon permission to fight with the Starks, because she knows that’s where his true loyalty lies.

Back in Winterfell, Tyrion, Varys and Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham) discuss what a handsome, Westeros-uniting couple Dany and Jon would make if they wed. Tyrion sees sense in the idea, but worries that love doesn’t last, particularly in political unions. Jon and Dany go to check on the dragons, who aren’t eating much, and the pair mount the scaly beasts and go for a ride. It’s an exhilarating sequence, with Jon barely staying upright during the trip and ends with some sexy times. Although Jon can’t quite get past the fact Dragon is staring at him. You know when your significant other’s cat won’t stop staring at you? Imagine that, but the cat is the size of Rooty Hill RSL. Yeesh.

Gendry (Joe Dempsie) impresses Sandor “The Hound” Glegane (Rory McCann) with his weapons-crafting skills but then Arya rocks up and a tense scene takes place between the latter pair. The Hound either forgives Arya for their last altercation, or can’t be bothered getting into it, and gruffly admires her ability to stay alive. Then Gendry and Arya have a scene together dripping with sexual tension and oh my, is this going to be a thing now?

Dany and Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen) pay what should be a lovely visit to Samwell Tarly (John Bradley), to thank him for curing Jorah’s dragonscale. The problem? Well, when Sam responds to Dany’s generous offer of reward it comes out that she had both his father Randyll (James Sebastian Faulkner) and brother Dickon (Tom Hopper) burnt alive by her dragons. Sam mostly manages to keep it together, admirably, but we can see his mighty heart is broken. This is actually the episode’s best scene, because it hammers home that there often is not a right answer in politics and war, just a series of least worst options. This leads to the biggest moment of the night – the one we’ve all been waiting for – when Sam goes to see Jon and tells him he is the child of Lyanna Stark and Rhaegar Targaryen. This makes Jon not only not a bastard, but the true heir to the Iron Throne! Jon is rocked by the revelation and oh man, this is going to be awkward with Dany!

The episode then delivers a wonderfully creepy scene where Tormund Giantsbane (Kristofer Hivju) and Beric Dondarrion (Richard Dormer) find young Ned Umber (Harry Grasby) very much dead and nailed to the wall, with a spiral of limbs left as a message from the Night King. However, Ned’s not as dead as he first appears, and attacks our heroes. He is stopped, and dispatched with fire, but it’s clear the Night King, and his army of the dead, are not pissfarting about anymore.

In a final scene, that appears to circle right back to the show’s very first episode, Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) arrives in Winterfell, attempting to be incognito. However, Bran – who apparently never leaves his spot in the yard – recognises him. You know, the bloke who put in the damn wheelchair in the first place!

“Winterfell” is a cracker of a first episode back, that manages to successfully reintroduce everyone and remind us why we’ve missed these characters over the long break between seasons. In keeping with latter era Thrones, it’s not exactly subtle. The writing is fairly blunt, as all the plot strands hurtle towards their respective climaxes, but atmospheric direction by David Nutter and stellar performances from all, particularly John Bradley, anchor the proceedings and give a sense of gravitas.

Welcome back, Game of Thrones! Now, if you could please confirm that Ser Pounce is actually still alive, and doing fine, that would be grand.

 
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Castle Rock: The Complete First Season

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The premise for Castle Rock could only go one of two ways: bloody great or bloody awful. The conceit is a drama thriller that takes place in the town of Castle Rock, the location of some of Stephen King’s most horrific tales. In lesser hands this could have rendered the series an inert collection of King fanservice, where every car is called Christine and every dog is a Saint Bernard. Happily, and surprisingly, the actual end result is a far more subtle and stranger proposition.

We’re slowly introduced to the weird world of Castle Rock through criminal attorney Henry Deaver (Andre Holland) who is drawn back into his hometown after getting an anonymous call to represent a strange young man called “The Kid” (Bill Skarsgard). Said character is a creepy amnesiac who had been kept at Shawshank Prison off the books, and seems to have a strange effect on those who he touches… Of course this is just the tip of the weird iceberg that Castle Rocks represents, and we soon meet possibly psychic Molly Strand (Melanie Lynskey), chirpy but quirky Jackie Torrence (Jane Levy) and Henry’s adopted mum, Ruth Deaver (Sissy Spacek).

In terms of Stephen King’s mythology, it’s Scott Glenn as Alan Pangborn who is the most direct reference point. Pangborn was the sheriff of Castle Rock for a decade, and in that time faced the sentient pseudonym, George Stark (The Dark Half) and owner of a store with an extremely dodgy returns policy, Leland Gaunt (Needful Things). In this series, Alan has a personal relationship with Henry and a very intimate relationship with his mum, Ruth. This leads to quality family drama and genuinely surprising twists and turns, with the viewer never entirely sure about who to trust.

In terms of performances the entire cast are stellar, with Holland, Lynskey and Skarsgard doing superb work; however it is Sissy Spacey (previously cast in Brian De Palma’s 1976 adaptation of Stephen King’s Carrie) who owns the show with a stunning turn as a woman beset by Alzheimer’s trying to hold onto the past for as long as possible. The seventh episode titled “The Queen” isn’t just the best of Castle Rock, it’s possibly the best hour of television from 2018.

Ultimately, Castle Rock is a risky genre experiment that pays off beyond all expectations. Certainly, there are questionable elements, the deliberate pace of the series left the final episode with too much to do and the ending hotly contested, but the journey to get there remains deeply satisfying. Plus this is the first series of (hopefully) many, so the lingering unresolved plot strands will no doubt be revisited at some point down the line.

The extra features are a tad scant here, with two featurettes that are essentially puff pieces, however the Inside the Episode mini-docos for each part are a great deeper dive into the more obscure elements of the story.

Castle Rock is stellar genre television and a loving homage to a master storyteller that can stand on its own. You don’t need to be a fan of Stephen King to appreciate it, but those who are even vaguely familiar with the work of Maine’s most famous son are in for a deliciously twisted treat.

 
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All the Devil’s Men

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Jack Collins (Milo Gibson) is an unstable, world-weary ex-Navy Seal who tracks US’s most-wanted and terrorist targets under the auspices of CIA outsourcing. His handler for the CIA, Leigh (Blade Runner 2049’s Sylvia Hoeks) offers him a job, despite the apparent PTSD Jack’s been suffering and the other mental issues that assail him.

He’s dispatched to London (on what sounds like the premise to a Mission: Impossible film) in order to take down a rogue CIA operative named McKnight (Elliot Cowan) before he procures a nuke from Russian gangsters.

Jack’s assigned a team, in the form of operatives-for-hire Brennan (William Fichtner) and Samuelson (Gbenga Akinnagbe). Once in London, the group meet CIA compatriot Deighton (Joseph Millson) and it’s Deighton’s wobbly morality and possible connection to McKnight and his ‘is-he-or-isn’t-he-about-to-cross-everyone’ persona that leads to more violent shenanigans across London, in pursuit of McKnight and the warheads he’s trying to snarf.

There are double (and triple) crosses aplenty as Jack and Deighton continually lock horns and tread the well-worn path of bromance turned sour grapes.

It’s hardly an original format: the battle-weary warrior, the ‘Ronin’ looking for an end to the pain of existence. We get it. Writer/Director Matthew Hope is a dab hand at directing low-budget action sequences and on that front, if shoot-outs are your bag then there’s a fair bit of that to enjoy here. Other than applauding the filmmakers for wringing every drop from an all-too-obviously small budget, there’s little else to recommend this, except the sharply acidic William Fichtner, a hardened veteran of Hollywood supporting roles; he’s incapable of being anything less than enjoyable. As the lead, Gibson is unabashedly riding his surname’s coat tails (and his physical similarity to his dad) but physically, he’s got the goods, it’s just the underwritten script that leaves him – and the rest of the cast – twisting in the wind.

Overall, the fight choreography and action sequences are deftly executed but the brutally ‘by-the-numbers’ scripting, coupled with a considerable lack of character depth or humour, just annihilates any joy that could be derived from the film.

 
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The Bombing (aka Air Strike)

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This Chinese-produced, big-budget action drama was devised as a salute to the Allied victory of fascism in World War II, however, it became a casualty of the tax evasion scandal that embroiled star actress Fan Bingbing, who was convicted, jailed (and subsequently released) for financial fraud. From a PR perspective, the film was damaged-goods and for various reasons, it was ultimately shelved (it was shot in 2015) and its Chinese release cancelled. Now, it’s undergone a name change, coupled with a re-jigged release in the US.

As it stands, the story features a crumpled and thoroughly disengaged Bruce Willis as U.S. Military advisor Colonel Jack Johnson, ‘training’ a squadron of Chinese pilots who are battling an onslaught of Japanese air attacks. At the same time, ex-pilot Xue Gangtou (Ye Liu) drives a military truck with a top-secret cargo through dangerous territory, along the way rescuing a schoolteacher (Ma Su) and some of her students who’ve survived an air attack. All this is capped off by a mahjong tournament that takes place in the capital during the bombing raids, presumably meant to give some sort of human-focused climax to the proceedings.

What was clearly intended to be a lavish, Hollywood style epic with multiple plot threads, numerous characters (both Chinese and American) and an epic scope, has been mercilessly re-edited into a frenzy of action sequences interspersed with discombobulated dramatic scenes and squeezed into a running time of just over 90 minutes.

According to the credits, Mel Gibson was a ‘consultant’, though it’s hard to see how any such creative input has been applied to the characters or story, or for that matter any overall logic applied to the tonal flow of the film.

The plotting and pacing have been so bizarrely clipped, there’s been zero effort in editing the film to create an emotional through-line on which to hang the character moments. The resulting experience amounts to a montage of segments from scenes where the scripting and performances weren’t that great to start with, where Chinese actors deliver over-dubbed lines like “Sir! Please allow us to go kick some ass!” This punctuates the gossamer-thin story thread with a leaden thud.

To make things worse, what are clearly, half-finished effects shots and sloppily composited CG action sequences that wouldn’t feel believable on a PlayStation 2 only serve to undermine any semblance of drama.

Tonally weird character histrionics take Hollywood style combat jeopardy clichés to a laughable extreme (the pilot with a picture of his sweetheart and child next to his altimeter is fundamentally going to die, that was established quite clearly in Hot Shots and even then, the character was called ‘Dead Meat’).

A great deal of money was spent here, though it seems to have been utterly derailed by the problematic production woes. There have been a number of slickly executed, western-aimed Chinese productions that managed to effectively cross the cultural and lingual barrier, however, it seems that this one exploded on the launch pad.=

The rapid-fire hack and slash editing that skips through dramatic beats like a trailer montage, is testament to the fact that there was at least an intent to tell a sprawling story on an epic canvas, but that crucial balance of story, tone and character is reliant on the wax and wane of the financial and creative forces at play during production. If these elements were interfered with, then the whole damn thing can unravel – and how.

 
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Naked Ambition: Lincoln Hall and Rory Kelly team up for Naked Strangers

Get 4 actors in a room (including Kate Williams and Jennifer Rani, pictured), physically and emotionally naked, and address hot button topics such as sexuality and identity, and you might just have a low budget feature film that connects with the elusive young audience for Australian content. That was the credo of producer/director Lincoln Hall and writer/actor Rory Kelly, who discuss their experience of making their first feature film, which premiered at overseas film festivals, and has just hit iTunes.