A long time ago, we used to be friends…

ImageI have a long list of TV shows that finished too early for my liking. The nature of the industry is such that shows that display rare originality, strong characterisation, fully-developed worlds and compelling stories, often find themselves with the plug pulled and their narrative without a natural end.

Over the years, creators have tried to revive such shows in a variety of ways. Joss Whedon continued his short-lived Firefly as a movie and a comic series. Jericho managed to wring a second (ultimately stunted and disappointing) season out of the production company thanks to overwhelming fan support. Arrested Development makes its return later this year thanks to funding through Netflix. And now a new possible solution has been revealed as cult-favourite Veronica Mars succeeds in sourcing funding for a feature film through Kickstarter.

Kickstarter has always been an exciting propositon; what better way to fund art than by sourcing the capital upfront from the eventual consumers? Rob Thomas is one of those television creators who never seems to catch a break. Every show he has put together (including the fantastic Party Down) has been cancelled. For whatever reason, the masses don’t seem to take to his product.

But now his fans have spoken and Veronica Mars, the feisty teen detective, will live again. I remember been entirely gripped by the mystery-laden first two series of Veronica Mars, yet the third series left me a little cold. I’m not entirely convinced we need a movie, but I’m excited about what this means for television and creative media in general.

Kickstarter has been going strong for a while now and has plenty of success stories under its belt (I recently watched the first series of Video Game High School and was pleasantly surprised). Yet the Veronica Mars movie takes the possibilities to a whole new level. It raised a record-breaking $2 million and stands to become the highest-profile project the crowd-funding website has supported.

Naturally, this has lead to speculation about other moth-balled series that could be resurrected in this manner and television creators such as Joss Whedon and Bryan Fuller have weighed in with their thoughts.

This is definitely a development worth keeping an eye on – another step towards a world where consumers decide directly what is worth funding – and an interesting proposition for dedicated creators who witness their creations failing to realise their full potential.

Fringe: Gone but not forgotten

ImageFringe is one of those rare, rare creatures: a genre television show that gets to conclude its story on its own terms. For every Fringe, Lost or Battlestar Galactica, there are a dozen Fireflys, Dollhouses and Jerichos. Its unusual enough that a show displaying originality, strong characterisation and thoughful plot development comes along. Its even more unusual that the creators of such a show manage to maintain the ratings and creative control necessary to bring their story to a satisfying conclusion.

With Fringe, it looked unlikely for a while there that we would ever come this far. The conclusion of each season since the second has brought doubts over the show’s future. Many fans, myself included, had even resigned themselves to witnessing a premature death and an unsatisfying conclusion, given that the show was produced by the Fox Network, who were responsible for cancelling shows such as Firefly, Wonderfalls and Undeclared. Yet they stuck by Fringe.

Changing times

What started out largely as a procedural ‘monster of the week’ kind of show in a similar vein to The X-Files (but with crazy scientists instead of aliens) developed over the years into something much more compelling. The mythology – which included a parallel universe, semi-omnipotent time travelling beings, a drug capable of bestowing super-human powers and a futuristic dystopian society – was complex and engrossing, yet it never seemed at risk of collapsing under its own weight (see Lost).

As the show struggled to stay alive, the writers were driven to up the ante, taking advantage of whatever time they might have left. During the first two seasons, a casual viewer could tune in and enjoy a crazy, but generally self-contained, story. As the desire to draw these viewers became less of a factor, the compelling, idea-driven story lines quickly took over.

All good things

And so we came to the finale. I have to admit that, during the first half of the last season, I was beginning to have my doubts. Its not that it wasn’t enjoyable and compelling – it was (and I’m never one to complain about a good old-fashioned dystopian future). Yet I had my doubts as to whether they were moving towards a satisfying conclusion, and the near-total separation from previous story lines left me feeling like I was watching a different show.

I shouldn’t have worried. Fringe has a history of making game-changing alterations to its setting and story lines (shifting the action to an alternative universe or changing the timeline so a key character no longer exists) and has proven before that its characters and themes are strong enough to carry it through.

It was perhaps inevitable that the final series should focus to some degree on The Observers. They have always been there in the background; they are the show’s most enduring and unexplained mystery. Now I’m glad they were put front and centre in the Fringe team’s final conflict. Fringe toyed with plenty of ideas over the years, but the dangers of the abuse of science has been the most enduring of them all. The Observers represent the pinnacle of such misuse – what we might become should we forgo emotions entirely in our drive for scientific knowledge.

Thinking of the fans

I’m not going to argue that Fringe is a particularly important series because of its characters (though I did love the characters – Walter Bishop, in particular, will always have a place in my heart), its writing (often cheesy and overly-sentimental) or its story (wonderfully bizarre and unrestrained though it was). What is important is that it finished on its own terms. It wasn’t prematurely cancelled and it wasn’t stretched out beyond recognition to wring out as much profit as possible. It seemed as though the creators had the freedom to take their stories and characters where they thought they needed to go.

At the same time, Fringe displayed an endearing self-awareness. It knew what it was, what it did well and what the fans wanted to see. The final episodes paid tribute to the show in a number of pleasing ways – we saw Walter take acid one final time, we witnessed Olivia injected with Cortexiphan and visiting ‘the other side’ – a clear indication not only that the creators were confident in their knowledge of their own creation, but also that they understood that their fans loved Fringe for much the same reasons they did.  

Check out some Sundance 2013 shorts

I’ve been watching quite a few short films online of late, most of them thanks to the diligent work of Short of the Week, who keep my inbox well-stocked with an interesting and eclectic selection of oddities.

sundance_shorts_2013The 2013 Sundance Film Festival is already under way and it brings the usual frustrating revelations of interesting prospects that probably won’t be available to the general movie-going public for many months (or years) to come.

Now, thanks to the magic of the internet, we can feel in some way as privileged as those in attendance at Redford’s big indie love-in. The Sundance Institute has made a selection of twelve short films (of the 64 selected for screening at the festival) available through Youtube.

Highlights include Black Metal, an all-too brief study of how a family man reacts when his black metal band takes the blame for a gruesome murder, and Broken Night, a scary short about a mother and daughter’s ill-fated drive through the country that leaves much to the imagination. My personal favourite is Irish Folk Furnature, a pleasant film that employs pleasing animation techniques and is about – um – furniture restoration.

Click here for the full selection.

TV shows you should be watching

Here’s a few TV shows that I’m watching right now that I think you might enjoy too…


Treme, The Wire creator David Simon’s latest television effort, has followed a similar pattern to his previous show. Now recognised as a true classic, The Wire was watched by few when it originally aired, gaining in popularity when it was released on DVD.

Now the same is happening with Treme, Simon’s study of the residents of a neighborhood of New Orleans after the devastation caused by hurricane Katrina. Natural in style and light on overly-dramatic story-telling, the day-to-day life of the Treme is easy to slip into. Central to the story is the world of New Orleans music (every episode has extended sequences of New Orlean’s legends playing music in various situations and settings) and the Mardi Gras Indians, yet as with Simon’s previous hit, the scope shifts and evolves, revealing the different ways people were affected by the disaster.

Its been announced now that the current third series will be followed by a reduced fourth series, that will wrap things up. Now is the time to start watching – in future years, you can be one of the guys who can say ‘I watched that when it was on TV!’


If I were to read a synopsis of Parenthood, I’m fairly confident I would have little interest in watching such a show. Luckily, the first thing I read was that it was created by Jason Katims, the executive producer of the near-flawless Friday Night Lights (just don’t mention that thing that Landry did…).

That was enough for me, as it should be for you. Having watched three seasons now, I’m confident that Katim’s touch is essentially gold – few show runners seem to have the skills that this man does when it comes to creating and guiding sympathetic and likable characters. There have been few shows where I have been this emotionally involved and, whilst it might be a cliche to say it, it does feel like hanging out with old friends each week.

The trials faced by the Bravermans – an extended and character-filled American family – are varied, ranging from life-changing issues such as mental illness, adoption, religion and divorce through to everyday concerns like becoming school president and hitting a home run in the little league. And if this all sounds like something you have seen before, rest assured that the characterisation and writing are strong enough that it feels like these topics are being tackled for the first time.

Currently in its fourth series, Parenthood has settled into a good rhythm and seems to have a strong enough following to ensure we will see more of the Bravermans over the next few years.

Parks and Recreation

Somehow, the cast I love the best – that holds a place closest to my heart – feature in a 20-minute single camera sitcom. When you first enter into the lives of the Parks and Rec team for Pawnee City Council, it is easy to dismiss Lesley Knope as a cheap knock off of The Office’s Michael Scott. Yet over the years she has evolved into a genuinely warm character who believably earns the respect of those around her.

And those around her take the show to even greater heights. Be it the lovable man-child Tom Haverford (with his never-ending parade of strange money-making ideas), Ron Swanson (an all-American anti-government government worker who loves nothing more than steak and hunting), or Andy and April (one of the oddest and most refreshing couples to grace our screens), there is no shortage of enjoyable characters. And then in series 3 they added Rob Lowe into the mix!

And Parks and Recreation is funny. Possibly the funniest show on TV. If the idea of strong characterisation and laughs isn’t enough for you, I don’t know what it. You should watch Parks and Recreation because, now in its fourth series (where The Office, How I Met Your Mother and other shows started to show a few cracks) it is stronger than ever, and showing no sign of slowing down. I am looking forward to the years we have in the company of Pawnee’s finest yet to come.


I find it hard to believe anyone isn’t watching Louie, yet I thought it prudent to mention it here anyway. Stand-up comedian Louis CK’s self-written, self-directed and self-edited show defies all attempts at catagorisation. Disguised as a single-camera comedy, Louie can be whatever the creator wishes it to be on a week-by-week basis.

This makes it all the more enjoyable to watch. There is no slavish devotion to structure here – Louie takes whatever form CK needs to tell his story (though the story is often minimal). CK’s ideas are central and whilst his alter-ego’s musings on parenthood, relationships, loneliness and life in general are often funny, the humour is derived from the situations and never feels forced.

Occasionally surreal, frequently hearth-breaking and always honest, Louie is unlike anything you have seen before. As CK takes a year off to recuperate from the punishing demands of creating the first three series, you have plenty of time to catch up and be ready for whatever the hell he has in store for us in 2014.

Future releases: Zombie time!

I love Zombies. I know that isn’t an unusual claim in our zombie-saturated pop-culture world, but its true. I suppose it is something to do with the post-apocalyptic connection – the arrival of zombies is rarely a positive event for the human race – but there is also something genuinely terrifying about them as a horror antagonist. Those who are currently watching series 3 of The Walking Dead will undoubtedly agree with me; after countless movies (not to mention comics and novels) somehow the slowly shuffling shadow of a zombie still gets my heart racing.

World War Z

2013 will see the arrival of two new zombie cinematic outings. One has been on my radar for quite some time, yet it is the less anticipated of the two. Click here to watch the trailer for World War Z.

The die-hard zombie fanatics amongst you have almost certainly already read Max Brook’s World War Z, an exhaustive account of a global zombie plague, encompassing the downfall of humanity and ultimately its fight for survival, that also manages to tell personal stories for a number of compelling characters.

The film version looks to be quite a bit different from the source material, which is a disappointment, but not an unexpected one – any adaption of the book would cost in excess of $100 million and a faithful adaption would never draw in sufficient audience numbers to justify that kind of cost.

So I remain quietly hopeful that the film will entertain on some level. Director Marc Forster has some strong films under his belt (in particular, Stranger than Fiction). Yet the production has been troubled (to put it lightly) and the trailer has started the internet horde braying about CGI-zombies. I have to say, the trailer doesn’t exactly fill me with hope, but I will keep an open mind and, fingers crossed, we’ll all be pleasantly surprised.

Warm Bodies

The other zombie release is Warm Bodies, a zombie romantic comedy, or zom-rom-com (thanks Edgar et al)! Check it out here.

I’ve always enjoyed my horror with a touch of humour – after all, is it really possible to take the concept of the walking dead entirely seriously? Warm Bodies may appear on the surface to be appealing to the Twilight crowd, but I do think there will be more to it than that.

Its directed by Jonathan Levine, whose The Wackness and 50/50 I enjoyed quite a bit. Both his previous efforts play against expectations and hopefully Warm Bodies will too. Telling the story from the zombie’s perspective is a nice spin (I feel like it has been done elsewhere, but can’t quite remember where…) and the idea of a zombie falling for a apocalypse-hardened, yet still cute-as-a-button girl might just be ridiculous enough to work.

Plus its got Malkovich in it! Someone has managed to put Malkovich versus zombies on our screens and – frankly – it would be rude not to go see that.

Hollywood plays it safe

Short of the week has put together an interesting ‘info-graphic’ that clearly illustrates a trend we’ve all been aware of for years – sequels,
prequels and adaptations are ruling the box office. With every passing year, it is becoming increasingly difficult to see a big-budget film based on an original idea.

The article doesn’t pretend to critique such films – it makes no effort to discuss whether the latest Transformers film is more worthy of our attention than say, Raiders of the Lost Ark or Independence Day – it simply puts forward the evidence that our blockbuster hopefuls are increasingly less original.

Click here to take a look at the info-graphic and to read the original article.

A worrying trend

Regardless of where you think the blame may lie, I think we can all agree that it is a shame that less original material sees the light of day. Even if we love the Harry Potter series (I do) and are salivating at the thought of returning to Pandora in Avatar 2 (hmmmm…..maybe a little bit), its hard to ignore the threat – creatively speaking – that this trend poses.

Of course, blockbusters represent but a fraction of what I love about cinema, yet I gain a great deal of pleasure from seeing a big-scale, flashy summer release. All too often that pleasure is tempered by the nagging thought that what I am watching has little in the way of soul and, all too often, a mere wisp of a plot hidden behind the CGI and explosions.

I do think that these short-comings are directly linked to the fading originality of summer releases. Seriously, how can they expect us to become emotionally invested in the movie adaptation of the board game Battleships? And surely it must be  increasingly difficult for film-makers to be emotionally invested when they hold so little sway over the subject matter of the films they are creating.

Its all about the money

Of course the driving force behind these changes is money. A film that has a pre-existing audience – that are guaranteed to go and see the film – is a safer investment than a film based upon a strange and new idea. Also it seems that we increasingly expect our blockbusters to be HUGE. Budgets have ballooned to the point where a tent-pole picture is rarely produced for less than $150 million and regularly for $200 million or more.

Do you remember the outrage when $175 million was spent on Waterworld? Well, that is a fairly standard budget now for a big release. When Sam Raimi’s Spiderman was released in 2002, it cost $139 million. Now in 2012, when Marc Webb came to make The Amazing Spiderman, he somehow dropped $230 million, and no one batted an eye.

With these huge budgets becoming the norm, is it any wonder that film companies are less likely to make riskier investments? I’m not sure that a film requires such a hefty budget in order to provide the spectacle that modern audiences want. Whilst I am glad that the new Star Trek film will be as visually impressive as it will no doubt be, I wish there was some way to go back to a time when films did not cost such a huge amount to make.

Ultimately, the movie-going public like their summer blockbusters to always be bigger, louder and more special-effects driven every year. What we need is for Hollywood to to show a little more strength of character and produce some films that will not only generate a nice return for their investors, but also stand the test of time as well as entertain us for a couple of hours.

Budget information taken from the IMDB.

Youtube cinema

I spend a fair amount of my life trawling through bottomless digital ocean of Youtube, usually late at night as I wonder what I’m doing with my life that it has come to this. Naturally, I’m often drawn to videos associated with the cinematic arts.

In a new series of articles, I’ll highlight some of the more interesting clips on this subject, including documentaries on technique and interviews with worthy filmmakers. In doing so I hope to justify those endless lost hours and in some way console myself that my life has purpose, whilst at the same time guiding you through the confusing mire that is Youtube.

The Art of Film and TV Title Design

This video takes an all-too brief look at a subject I’ve had an interested in ever since I saw the opening titles to David Fincher’s Seven (and, if I’m honest, City Slickers) – the influence that an artfully put together title sequence can have on a viewers first impressions of a film.

Tippett studio tour

It’s a name I had never heard previous to first watching this video, but I was glad to get a peak into the studio of Phil Tippett, a special effects supervisor who oversaw the effects on films such as Robocop, Starship Troopers and Jurassic Park. If you are even remotely geeky about special effects, this is a fascinating watch.

New set footage from Return of the Jedi

Odd as it may seem, this footage only recently became available. Filmed by a member of the public without permission of the filmmakers, this silent footage shows the set for Jabba the Hutt’s massive ‘sail barge’ that is featured early in Return of the Jedi. I’m not a huge Star Wars fan, but the footage is interesting none-the-less.

Minnesota Nice

This classic ‘making-of documentary’ takes a look at the creation of a modern classic, Fargo. I remember it featuring on the end of the VHS video release and recall noting how much more interesting it was than most documentaries of this type.

Its a pleasure to see that those involved in creating the film were so acutely aware that they were part of something important and their thoughts and annecdotes are not superficial as is often the case in these making-ofs, they are insightful and add to the wider-discussion of one of my favourite films.

How Jurassic Park should have ended

These guys have made a series of entertaining cartoons that show how films should have ended, often addressing plot-holes and conceits that a film’s climax is dependent upon. In this, one of my favourites, the raptors not only discover how to open doors, they also manage to wrap their heads around how to operate automatic weaponary. Not that that helps them in the end.