Starz In Your Eyes: Counterpart and the dawn of the Streaming Wars

Raise your hands, who reading this article has seen Counterpart, the recently cancelled science-fiction drama starring JK Simmons? Just as suspected… that’s not very many hands.

Honestly, had you ever even really *heard* of it in the first place? Counterpart, created by Justin Marks, has spent over a year across two seasons being critically feted by writers yet largely being ignored by audiences. Most people who *have* found Counterpart have seemed to embrace its ‘Fringe for grown ups’ narrative; Simmons in the dual role of a UN diplomat, Howard Silk, with two very different personas across adjacent parallel universes in danger of edging into conflict with each other. Counterpart is stylish, measured, dramatic and filled with great performances… so why, two seasons in, has it been dumped?

As is often the way with American networks, it all comes down to ratings. Counterpart aired on Starz with just a network average share of 500,000 viewers across its second season. When Netflix are boasting about Gillian Anderson-starring teen dramedy Sex Education netting 40 *million* viewers, half a million is chump change. Counterpart is filmed in Europe often on location, with actors such as Simmons, Olivia Williams, Harry Lloyd etc… who don’t come dirt cheap, and ultimately the sums simply don’t add up. Not enough people watched to justify the expense. So goes the story of hundreds of other shows a core fan base loved but ended unresolved and sometimes ignominiously.

The difference now is that something like this just should not happen to a show as critically applauded as Counterpart. Not in the streaming era of peak TV.

Continue reading
Star Trek: Discovery, Television

Star Trek: Discovery – ‘An Obol for Charon’ (2×04)

The second season of Star Trek: Discovery proves, with ‘An Obol for Charon’, that it is morphing into a show determined to serve two masters.

On the one hand, there is the kind of consistent, serialised storytelling which caused such division with the show’s first season, thanks to the ongoing search for Spock (pun very much intended) and the mystery of the ‘Red Angel’. Yet on the other, show runner Alex Kurtzman seems desperately trying to heave Discovery more in line with the 1990’s peak of the franchise on TV while continuing to imbue the series with an updated, retro-1960’s aesthetic. 

Continue reading

When the Sun Comes Up: Russian Doll (Season 1)

Russian Doll is a series about meanings within meanings, extending from the double meaning of the very title, through to the genius Netflix stroke of releasing this Groundhog Day-style tale *on* the renowned and celebrated Groundhog Day itself.

Most people are familiar with the ornamental ‘Russian dolls’ which nest inside of each other; revealing the top of the doll only leads to one the next size under and on and on until the smallest is uncovered, usually the seventh. Layers upon layers of dolls. They are known in Russia as ‘Matryoshka’, which derives from the Latin meaning ‘mother’. Matryoshka dolls symbolically represent fertility and motherhood, the largest the matriarch protecting her young.

This on first glance may seem less important to a show like Russian Doll, in which ostensibly the ‘doll’ of the title is the character played by star and co-creator/writer Natasha Lyonne, Nadia Vulvokov – a New Yorker of Russian-Jewish descent around whom the time loop conceit rests. In truth, motherhood and the internal pain represented by the Matryoshka dolls lies at the core of Russian Doll, which, like those ornamental souvenirs, hides more than it first appears.

Continue reading

Velvet Buzzsaw (2019)

Trawling through Film Twitter, it was a surprise to see one particular reviewer suggest they had been informed that Velvet Buzzsaw was a cross between The Neon Demon and Nocturnal Animals. That is lending Dan Gilroy’s picture more praise than, frankly, it deserves.

In some respects, they are all bedfellows, certainly when it comes to the visual juxtaposition of horror, sex and art. Gilroy’s film lacks, however, the operatic eeriness of Nocturnal Animals or the visually arresting palette of Nicolas Winding Refn’s (admittedly somewhat overhyped) The Neon Demon. What they all share is a critique of the world of art and performance, with Velvet Buzzsaw particularly taking a sideswipe at the critique of art critique itself. Gilroy isn’t unloading death wish fulfilment on the creators, rather those who profit *from* artistic creation; critics, gallery owners and agents, all more interested in fame and fortune than what the art *means*.

Continue reading
Books, Movies, Television

TV, Book and Movie Watch Roundup – January 2019

Welcome to February! Because there’s not enough useless information floating around on the internet, I thought I would update readers of this blog as to what I’ve watched/read over the previous month, each month, in the form of TV, movies and books.

Some of this I will have reviewed on Cultural Conversation (or perhaps Set The Tape) but others I’ve just been watching for enjoyment with Mrs Black, or in some cases because I was off sick from work and had little else to be doing.

Let’s start this month with TV… Continue reading

Filmography, Movies

High Spirits (1988) – The Filmography of Neil Jordan

In a brand new project, I am going to be looking weekly at the complete cinematic, feature-length filmography of a director in the run up to a newly-released piece of work.

In the first Filmography project, in advance of his new film Greta to be released in April 2019, I’m looking at celebrated Irish filmmaker Neil Jordan…

There comes a point with any filmmaker, no matter how great or good, when the magic wears off and they produce something they would rather forget. Some get it out of the way early. For some it comes at the end of their career. For Neil Jordan, his fourth picture very much fits the bill. High Spirits is what you might, charitably, coin – a misfire.

You sense with High Spirits the fusion of numerous elements that have marked Jordan’s journey as a filmmaker up to this point, a journey which by now is defiantly idiosyncratic and liable to avoid pigeon-holing. While High Spirits is very clearly a Hollywood product in the manner none of his previous three pictures could be described, it sees for Jordan both a return to his native Ireland when it comes to location and narrative (not evidenced since Angel), plus the interest in fantasy trappings as was The Company of Wolves, even if they are wildly different approaches.

Jordan has stated that he was locked out of the editing room on High Spirits and he has “locked in a vault” the original cut he would have released, suggesting a strong displeasure with a final product which is striking in how forgettable and rote the finished product is compared to, particularly, his last film Mona Lisa. The conflagration of Irish, British and American actors, crew and production values, works to the detriment of the depth and substance we saw in Jordan’s previous films. He remains a director developing and evolving, but this feels from the get-go like an unusual aberration.

Continue reading

Filmography, Movies

Mona Lisa (1986) – The Filmography of Neil Jordan

In a brand new project, I am going to be looking weekly at the complete cinematic, feature-length filmography of a director in the run up to a newly-released piece of work.

In the first Filmography project, in advance of his new film Greta to be released in April 2019, I’m looking at celebrated Irish filmmaker Neil Jordan…

After a sojourn into the realms of Gothic dark fantasy in The Company of Wolves, Neil Jordan veers back toward territory he explored in his first picture, delivering in the process not only his most accomplished works to date, but one of the highlights of his varied cinematic career.

Mona Lisa saw Jordan ply his trade with HandMade Films, who since being formed by George Harrison (yes, the Beatle) in order to bankroll Monty Python’s controversial The Life of Brian in 1979, had emerged as one of the growing, innovative production companies in British cinema, developing pictures such as Terry Gilliam’s curious Time Bandits in 1981 and a year earlier, John Mackenzie’s seminal British crime picture The Long Good Friday, which made a star of Bob Hoskins. Mona Lisa continued that ascent of stardom for Hoskins in the lead role as one of the UK’s most exciting character actors.

You see while Hoskins is the protagonist of Jordan’s neo-noir crime drama, which sees the director using a London setting for the first time, his leading man George is by far a conventional hero within what is without doubt an unconventional, melancholic romantic picture. There is a real sadness that pervades Mona Lisa, despite George’s inherent everyman optimism and the strings of Nat King Cole singing his take on the titular figure, of course so named after Leonardo da Vinci’s most famed Renaissance portrait. Jordan’s film is one of intentional contradictions.

It is also, in more than a few places, quietly heartbreaking.

Continue reading