Tuesday, 15 August 2017

TV Review: Game of Thrones awkwardly reshuffles its pieces into place

S07E05 - "Eastwatch"

Contains Spoilers.

Game of Thrones has never been very good at depicting time. In fact, I'm not even convinced it's ever concerned itself with doing so. In the early seasons of the show this wasn't an issue - there was no big imminent threat, no incessant talk about running out of time. Season 7, thus far, has seen the show bounce its characters around the Westeros map like a pinball machine, and I, like most, have been easily forgiving of it. At this stage in the game, we don't want to sit and watch characters on boats simply making the journey from one place to another, and by cutting this out the show enables itself to feel more streamlined.

However, "Eastwatch" threatens to take this notion too far. Characters venture back and forth to cities days away, people make sudden returns to places without the episode giving us any sense of how long it took them to get there. Jon keeps rambling on about this enormous and immediate threat North of the Wall, but the show willingly skips over a good week or so to take him up to Eastwatch. Well...what's going on during this week? Is Dany advancing her battle against Cersei? Is Cersei rethinking her strategy against Dany? Where does Sam fit in with all of this, at what stage in the timeline is he right now?

It's a tough criticism to make, as I'm not sure I could serve up an easy solution to it - but that isn't my job here. "Eastwatch" throws its characters around the map so frequently that it borders on laughable by the end. And speaking of the episode's end, was it really worth all these subplots and character returns just to send Jon beyond the Wall with six of the dullest, most forgettable and expendable characters that Game of Thrones has ever written? I can't really answer that until next week, but right now it feels anticlimactic and awkward. A handful of different characters coming together should feel like progression, but here it feels like engineering work.

There's also a sense that "Eastwatch" struggles to really allow the individual characters to shine in amongst its heavy plot mechanics. Dany has become a more interesting character this season than she's been in years, but here she's reduced to a simple "Join me, or die" speech, complete with a worried look from Tyrion. Y'know, as if the show doesn't trust us to understand that Dany is showing similar signs to the Mad King, it has to make sure it cuts to a reaction shot so that we definitely know. The long conversation between Dany and her many friends and advisers also falls flat, with every individual in the room popping up to deliver a piece of information each. Again, rather than feel like a natural plot progression or a real conversation between real people, it feels engineered.

A lot of moments in "Eastwatch" are suitable enough to get the job done, but aren't exactly smooth about it. Matt Shakman's direction is impressive again, but the episode's script seems to fall behind him. Cersei's dramatic revealing to Jaime that she knew of his secret meeting with Tyrion didn't really land, the scene only saved by Lena Headey's reliably strong performance as Cersei reveals her pregnancy to Jaime. The last few episodes this season saw Game of Thrones return to a terrific reliance on interesting dialogue pieces, but "Eastwatch" seems to forget this in favour of moving the plot forward. Again, it gets the job done, but isn't exactly smooth about it.

Much to my surprise, though, "Eastwatch" actually does work to correct one of my biggest issues with Season 7 - the handling of the Stark reunion. This episode finds a conflict between Sansa and Arya, as Arya questions Sansa over her intentions in the long game and Sansa fails to really understand her little sister's new mentality. Staging the scene inside Ned and Catelyn's old bedroom is a genius move too, adding to the sense of an emptiness inside a home that I've wanted the show to explore with the Stark children this year. It's a terrific scene, and one that should remain interesting as we move forward. In fact, it's almost good enough for me to forgive the poorly executed moments of Arya spying on Littlefinger and then Littlefinger spying on Arya. Emphasis on "almost".

This isn't necessarily a bad hour of TV, but it's one that makes a pretty big sacrifice in favour of (hopefully) making the two episodes still to come as good as they can possibly be. After the unfocused and cluttered season premiere, Game of Thrones launched into three consecutive stellar episodes - let's hope "Eastwatch" can leave a similar legacy.

  • So one of the biggest Game of Thrones theories was confirmed this week - something that will change the show forever and alter a great deal for a huge number of characters - and it was revealed by Gilly. That is so brilliant that I don't even know where to begin with it. This scene also featured Sam's rant about High Septon Maynard's 15,782 shits. It was a great scene.
  • Is Cersei really pregnant? Or is it a ploy to keep Jaime by her side? If she loses him then she'll have lost everyone.
  • That shot of all the ravens on the tree, their eyes warging one after the other? Yeah that was pretty stunning. The Night King remains terrifying.
  • We still don't know the title for episode six yet, which is both brilliantly exciting and annoying. Come on guys, you can give us episode titles, right? No?

The Spoils of War - Previous | Next - 

Monday, 7 August 2017

TV Review: Shifting war dynamics and a field of fire bring Game of Thrones back to its biggest self

S07E04 - "The Spoils of War"

Contains Spoilers.

Shall we get some of the dodgy stuff out of the way right at the very beginning so we can just spend the rest of this review freaking out over how great this episode was? Sounds like a plan.

As nice as it was to see three Stark children sharing the frame - and in Winterfell, no less - this season is kind of dropping the ball in terms of exploring said Stark children. Arya and Sansa's reunion is frustratingly hollow, only really evoking emotion by doing the bare minimum of having them hug each other and smile. Game of Thrones has made a comeback in terms of strong dialogue pieces this season, why not let the two Stark girls be a part of that? Let them sit down, let them talk about what they've been through. Instead, both Arya and Sansa's journeys are dismissed with "It's a long story" and it's tough not to feel shortchanged by it all. It was all very surface level, never really using the characters' separate arcs to attempt to define who they can be to each other now.

Thankfully, the Winterfell set sequences improve drastically once the Stark children split up. I found Arya and Brienne's training sequence surprisingly effective, which is impressive on the show's behalf considering that if asked to list my three least favourite characters on this show, both of their names would be mentioned. There's both an energy and a homeliness to the sequence, it takes Arya and Brienne's personalities and narrative arcs and lets them come out during an almost wordless training session. Sansa watching silently from behind adds to the scene more, it evokes memories of way back in the show's pilot, with Ned and Catelyn watching Jon and Robb train Bran at archery. Littlefinger's presence in the moment can't help but distract, but the scene works far better than it has any right to.

We only checked in with Cersei and King's Landing briefly this week, but the moment was solid. Cersei discusses the Crown's debt with Tycho, assuring him it will be paid in full and just casually dropping in the fact that Qyburn is in the process of recruiting a new, currently unheard of army to join the Lannisters' side during the upcoming war. It highlights an element that Game of Thrones is seriously excelling at this season: the repeated shifting of the war dynamics. Going into this season a big win for Daenerys seemed inevitable, but now the show has worked to level the playing field, to bring Cersei back into the game. The lack of discussion over her actions in the last season finale still feels awkward - I mean, a Queen did blow up her own Sept and kill hundreds of people - but I think I'm willing to forgive the show for focusing more on the future than the past. Just a bit more dialogue on the subject would have been nice, a way to draw Cersei's former actions into the present war more effectively.

On the other side of the war, though, things are considerably less quiet. Jon takes Dany into the caves beneath Dragonstone to show her the mountain of Dragonglass they'll be mining, but he also presents her with cave drawings depicting the Children of the Forest and the First Men coming together to fight the White Walkers, insisting that the two of them must do the same thing. Dany's mentality remains unchanged though, she tells Jon that if his people chose him as their King then they will still follow him should he bend the knee to her. Game of Thrones is exploring the moral battle between Jon and Dany brilliantly well, a dynamic we've waited years to see and one that isn't disappointing. It's also giving Emilia Clarke arguably her strongest material to date, and her performance is emphasising this. Clarke has always been one of the show's strongest performers but there's a newfound confidence to her this season, an assuredness to her dialogue and a power to her body language that's working to pull Daenerys back to her most interesting self.

We eventually return to Jaime on the Rose Road as he prepares to return to King's Landing. After a brief conversation between him, Bronn and Dickon Tarly about shitting yourself in battle, "The Spoils of War" throws itself head first into one of the biggest battle sequences Game of Thrones has produced, and that's saying something. A horde of Dothraki charge towards Jaime's army, Dany herself soars into battle on Drogon's back as he lights up the battlefield in a blaze of fire. The scene is thrilling, and superbly tense, but what makes everything here so effective is the way it turns a slaughter into a battle of morals, both for the characters and the viewer. We've seen large scale battles before - Hardhome, the Wall, the Battle of the Bastards to name a few - but never before has Game of Thrones pit fan favourite characters against each other. I'm not exactly the biggest lover of Bronn's presence remaining part of the show, but I have to confess that when Drogon flew towards him as he fired that crossbow, I didn't know what outcome I wanted.

The scene throws you into a frenzy of confusion, but unlike the shorter battle on the Greyjoy fleet two episodes ago everything here is shot and edited with clarity. First time Game of Thrones director Matt Shakman demonstrates a remarkable talent for action film making, contrasting giant sweeping shots of Drogon igniting an army on fire with tight close up moments of Bronn on horseback. The battle takes on a multitude of perspectives - there are POV moments from Jaime, Bronn, Dany, Drogon and eventually Tyrion too, not to mention countless unnamed soldiers - but brings them together effortlessly, creating something as frantic as it is focused, as engulfing as it is intimate. I don't think Dany's field of fire quite tops the horror-esque slaughter of Hardhome or the wholly unpredictable nature of Blackwater, but that's a tough crowd to compete in. This is brilliant, dizzying stuff from Game of Thrones.

And, much like how I mentioned earlier, it shifts the dynamics again. The show is refusing to sit still this season, and it's a thrilling feeling. The battle ends with Jaime charging towards Daenerys while she cares for a downed and injured Drogon, but before he can reach her Drogon comes to her defence. Jaime ends up knocked into the river, his heavy armour sinking him to the bottom and the episode fades to black before we can discover his fate. It should feel like a cheap cliffhanger, but the episode closes on such a high from the preceding fifteen minutes that I'm willing to reserve judgement for now. "The Spoils of War" heavily implies Jaime's death here, and I'll be frustrated if it uses the climax of such a terrific scene as a laboured "is he or isn't he dead" cliffhanger, but for now I'll just sit back and watch that battle over and over again, and marvel every time at how beautifully constructed it is without ever appearing so.

  • Arya having to debate with guards to get back into Winterfell was a really nice parallel to her doing the same thing to get back into King's Landing back in season one. A clever way to bring Arya's journey to a close now that she's returned home.
  • Dany and Missandei's little talk catch up about their personal lives might be the most forced dialogue Game of Thrones has served up all season. I'm all for fleshing out characters away from the battlefield, but please, not like this.
  • Jon really is in a morally peculiar place right now. It only seems like yesterday he was begging Mance Rayder not to give in to pride and to help his people, and now Dany is asking the same of Jon. The show is handling these two brilliantly, perfectly exploring both sides of their argument without giving in to cheap ways out. I feel like they're beginning to understand each other better now, but I'm really glad the writers are taking this development slowly.
  • Jon greeting Theon at the shore of Dragonstone was gleefully tense. I really didn't know what would happen there.
  • It also combines nicely with Tyrion watching Jaime in the battlefield, quietly pleading for him to flee and survive. Both involve families turned into enemies, whether or not intentionally or for the right reasons. It'll be really interesting to see Jon and Theon's dynamic next week.
  • We're still yet to see any White Walker action this year, but looking at next week's episode title makes me think we aren't far off.

The Queen's Justice - Previous | Next - Eastwatch

Friday, 4 August 2017

Film Review: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a whole new breed of dumb-fun film making

Luc Besson's space opera Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets features entire planetary destruction, interdimensional shootouts and imagines the entire galactic future of the human race. And that's just the first act. From the awe-inspiring trailers it was possible to get the impression that Valerian was going to be pretty nuts, but nothing could really have prepared me for just how beautifully weird and lovably zany this film would end up being. Take Star Wars, give it an acid trip, shove it through a kaleidoscope and you're about half way there.

But this is the 21st Century and Valerian isn't directed by Nolan or Abrams or Villeneuve, which means that despite all the stunning spectacle on display, there really isn't much else going on beneath the surface. The characters are woefully thin, and their dialogue even more so, Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne have less chemistry than two empty chairs at a table, and the less said about the film's gender politics the better, really. Yet, with its infectious energy and sheer visual splendour, Valerian manages to overcome all of these flaws. I'm not sure I can remember the last time I saw a film that didn't deserve to be as good as it was as much as this one.

The plot is barely serviceable. Set years into the future by when humanity has made contact with thousands of alien species and the International Space Station is now an inter species home ground called Alpha, DeHaan and Delevingne are Valerian and Laureline, special agents of a kind of human police force. After a mission to retrieve a valuable item from a black market, Valerian and Laureline are tasked with protecting their Commander in the build up to a potentially deadly attack. However, the attack comes sooner than expected and in ways different to how they predicted, resulting in their mission changing by the minute.

It's tough to properly summarise what Valerian is about. It isn't really a film that concerns itself with telling a coherent, consistent narrative. In fact, a great deal of the film's bloated 140 minute runtime is spent on subplots that don't actually serve the main story - they're all just distractions. But they're distractions with ideas, distractions with a big imagination and a talent for making them look breathtaking. There are moments in this film so delightfully weird I'm still not convinced they actually happened.

Valerian's action sequences are uneven in terms of execution but uniformly great when it comes to ambition. There's a particularly inspired one early on which sees Valerian attempt to flee a giant market while his hand and gun are stuck inside another dimension, it's entirely delirious but so excitably portrayed that you can't help but enjoy it. The film's final act feels a bit like an engine trying and failing to get started - it keeps almost reaching something worthwhile and then fading away again - but once the action does kick in its brilliantly choreographed. There are enough thrills here to warrant the cinema trip.

DeHaan and Delevingne also aren't as poor as the film's naysayers will have you thinking they are. Granted, chemistry isn't really something they excel at here - talks of marriage border on laughable - but I'd argue chemistry is almost impossible from a script so lacking in their characterisation. All we really know about Valerian is that he's a bit of a womaniser (but he does love Laureline, he says), and all we really know about Laureline is that she's a woman and can do things for herself (y'know, like that needs saying). Their performances are perfectly fine, and they land more jokes than the script deserves, just don't expect to fall in love with their love story any time soon.

It's probably not a good sign that the film's supporting characters easily outshine its protagonists. Valerian opens on a beach planet, a world of bright, dense colour that oozes tranquillity and homeliness, and the species that occupy it are instantly fascinating. I'd willingly have spent a whole film with them. Rihanna even pops up for a brief subplot in the middle act, playing a shape shifting performance artist creature that longs for Shakespeare but can't escape a strip club. It's all about as bonkers as it sounds, but there's a soul to her character, a simple but effective longing for something better than makes her impossible to dislike.

It becomes very clear early on that Valerian isn't really about the titular character, nor is it really about Laureline or any one character in particular. I'm not even sure if Valerian is a good film, per se - there are wild character inconsistencies, entirely pointless subplots, horribly disjointed tonal shifts - but it's an enjoyable one, for certain. This isn't a film about characters, but it's a film of character. A film of ideas and imagination and spectacle, even if its ideas never coalesce into a narrative at least it still has ideas - it feels new, and it feels exciting. Valerian is a comic book movie filled with ambition, it overflows with personality even if its protagonists don't, and it has more visual thrills than anything I've seen all year. I'll take that over an unambitious, derivative origin story any day.

In A Sentence

It's hardly a classic-in-waiting, but Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is infectiously imaginative and visually inventive enough to overcome its flaws.