Month: May 2019

Film Review: GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS (2019)

If the release of Godzilla: King of the Monsters has taught us anything, it’s that the expectations of audiences and critics are a fair distance apart.

This is no great revelation. For every serious reviewer of cinema, you will find two casual cinema-goers pop up to remind them “it’s only a movie”. This is completely fine. Some people just enjoy cinema for the experience and don’t study it too closely, bathing in the drama or spectacle. Others like to dissect, unpick, or place into context. Some, admittedly. simply enjoy trashing a project for their own personal, particular reasons, and often reside in the sketchier corners of online fandom. Ultimately, we enjoy what we enjoy for the reasons we enjoy it, but Godzilla: King of the Monsters struck me as the purest exercise in giving the people what they want, Roman-forum style. It is, in the most primal sense, a monster movie. A movie starring monsters. There is so subtlety, no cloak and dagger subterfuge. You see Godzilla in the first frame. All of him. In his prime.

Compare this to Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla, off the back of which King of the Monsters follows, and we could be in different stylistic galaxies. A key complaint from paying punters in 2014 was that we simply didn’t see all that much of, as the Japanese call him, ‘Gojira’. For a film named after the big guy, he was conspicuous by his absence as Edwards attempted to root his film in human drama around which Godzilla appeared as a force of nature, a towering titanic beast it took a significant amount of the film to reveal. Edwards wanted awe in a different manner to King of the Monsters director Michael Dougherty. He wanted to keep us waiting for Godzilla, and make his entrance a *moment* to take our breath away. For some, this was the wrong approach, and King of the Monsters goes in a very different direction.

King of the Monsters wants you to know, very clearly, that Godzilla and a host of other monsters are what this film is about. The humans are plot devices. It is the *monsters* who are the real characters.

From the Ashes – X-MEN: THE LAST STAND (2006)

With X-Men: Dark Phoenix on the horizon, a film predicted to signal the end of the original iteration of the X-Men franchise, I’ve decided to go back and revisit this highly influential collection of comic-book movies.

We continue with Brett Ratner’s third film, 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand

If you ever needed proof of the law of diminishing returns, you could look no further than X-Men: The Last Stand.

Over the years, X3 (as it was never officially known but we will call it for expediency) has developed what could be charitably described as a bad reputation amongst fans of comic-book cinema and indeed fans of Marvel’s X-Men comics themselves. There is no question – The Last Stand is a profound step down from the preceding two films, particularly the strong and layered X2. Brett Ratner’s film is emptier while being crammed with more plot, and more mutants, that you can shake a stick at it. The script is unfocused and at times obnoxious, while Ratner’s direction has none of the poise and subtlety Bryan Singer brought to the previous movies. Several of the key, well-developed characters from X1 and X2 are unceremoniously dumped and numerous key journeys and arcs across those two films are ditched or given short shrift. If X2 was X-Men’s The Empire Strikes Back, this is a poor man’s Return of the Jedi, with 2009’s execrable X-Men Origins: Wolverine probably the Star Wars Holiday Special.

Yet… yet… there is something about The Last Stand which prevents it from being a complete and utter failure. It is perhaps the purest invocation of the kitsch pulp Stan Lee & Jack Kirby gave us in the earliest 1960’s X-Men comics, far more so than the updated, modernised take across Singer’s movies. While churning through at times underwhelming material, key actors such as Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen are comfortable in the skin of their characters and are visibly enjoying playing them. The Last Stand, in how it pits the X-Men against the Brotherhood of Mutants by the climax, is one of the first major comic-book blockbusters to pit a whole team of super-powered heroes and villains against each other, something we would by now come to expect in many Marvel Cinematic Universe films; indeed, The Last Stand introduces the post-credits teaser sequence before Iron Man in 2008 goes on to steal it and make it a staple of the MCU.

Don’t get me wrong: The Last Stand is not a good X-Men film, or indeed a good comic-book movie. We have, however, seen much worse.

Shock and Awe – X2: X-MEN UNITED (2003)

With X-Men: Dark Phoenix on the horizon, a film predicted to signal the end of the original iteration of the X-Men franchise, I’ve decided to go back and revisit this highly influential collection of comic-book movies.

We continue with Bryan Singer’s sequel, 2003’s X2…

Though far more of a muscular and accomplished film than its predecessor, X2: X-Men United would never have worked without it.

X2 is in danger of being overlooked in our era of dominant comic-book movie franchises and behemoth superhero pictures as one of the key, formative pieces of cinema in the genre, something we must work hard to avoid. Bryan Singer’s sequel is a skilled piece of work which does precisely what a follow up is designed to do – build on the foundations of the previous film, add complications and greater depth, and provide a heightened, meaningful experience. X2 does that very successfully. It is The Empire Strikes Back to X-Men’s A New Hope. It even has strong shades come the denouement of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan in how it punches you with an earned sacrifice on one hand, while promising a rebirth on the other. X2 feels like a picture that everyone involved had been constructing in their minds long before it was ever committed to celluloid.

On that basis, X2 feels on some level like the first truly meaningful X-Men movie but one that needed the prologue of the original 2000 film in order to function in the manner it does. When Singer came back to helm the sequel, he combined screenplays by David Hayter—who penned the previous movie—and Zak Penn, brewed up with rewrites from Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris, in order to fuse together a film which develops many of the established character arcs from X-Men, placed the film distinctly in a post-9/11 context, and digs deep into the ideological and existential conflict between Professor X and Magneto – namely whether mutants should believe in humanity or reject and destroy them. It does this while never forgetting the human cost of being different, exploring the difficulty of living with what genetics, evolution, gives you in a less than tolerant society.

X2 does this with a poise and panache that few comic-book movies have equalled since.

Film Review: ROCKETMAN (2019)

Rocketman doesn’t like to use the word ‘biopic’.

Dexter Fletcher prefers the term “true fantasy” for his flamboyant take on the life story of Sir Elton John, arguably one of the most iconic British rock stars of the last fifty years. That certainly fits many of the creative choices inherent in Fletcher’s film and Lee Hall’s screenplay, not to mention the casting of Taron Egerton as John’s cinematic avatar – the culmination of numerous actors in the frame over the two decades in which John has tried to get a film about his life produced, including Justin Timberlake and Tom Hardy. Now if that is not fantasy, it’s hard to imagine what is! Elton John may be many things but a movie heart-throb he is most certainly not. Rocketman, from that perspective, is pure wish-fulfilment.

Yet this is not a hagiography, despite John and his long-term partner David Furnish producing (the latter more heavily). Hall’s script does not pretend that Elton rise to legendary fame was all champagne and rainbows. The drugs are there, the booze, the sex, the angry outbursts and egotistic trappings. Rocketman points a big, intentional, neon sign at the indulgent largesse of Elton’s life that more than once almost killed him at the height of his fame, and is unafraid to show the man at the most down point of his life. The reason Rocketman fails to quite ascend to the heights of great drama, great biopic or even great musical, is because it stops *just* short of showing Elton at his worst. This Elton is still the hero of his own story, looking for love in all the wrong places.

It leaves you wondering just how much bite Rocketman *might* have had if Elton had been less involved.

Mutated Anxiety at the Millennium: X-MEN (2000)

With X-Men: Dark Phoenix on the horizon, a film predicted to signal the end of the original iteration of the X-Men franchise, I’ve decided to go back and revisit this highly influential collection of comic-book movies.

We start with Bryan Singer’s original, 2000’s X-Men…

Though not always discussed in the annals of great comic-book cinema, or even considered the height of its own franchise, Bryan Singer’s original adaptation of X-Men is a seminal moment in superhero cinema.

Before Singer brought Stan Lee & Jack Kirby’s formative 1960’s Marvel Comics property to the screen, after over a decade of attempts by a range of filmmakers (most notably James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow), comic-book cinema was principally dominated across the 1980’s and 1990’s by two heavyweights: Superman and Batman. The former ruled the late 1970’s into the 80’s before falling from grace with a succession of sequels whereby the budget went down as the schlock went up, while the latter moved away in the 90’s from Tim Burton’s initial Neo-Gothic vision into a high camp, overblown blockbuster confection. Beyond these behemoths, comic-book films were curiosities – The Rocketeer, The Shadow, The Phantom, The Crow, Darkman, Spawn – films which either garnered a cult audience or disappeared from the radar entirely.

X-Men changed all that. While not the first Marvel property brought to bear on the big-screen, Singer’s film was without doubt the first adaptation of their source material to go mainstream as a major box-office success – two years earlier, the Wesley Snipes-fronted Blade arguably also did well but was too violent and pulpy to reach a wide audience, and many to this day are unaware it even *is* a Marvel adaptation. X-Men changed the game. X-Men showed that comic-book movies could be more than kitsch spectacle or showy theatrics. Superheroes could be *real* people with heart and soul, their villainous antagonists complicated foes, both morally and psychologically; plus, these films could, much like the related genre of science-fiction, work as powerful allegory and social commentary. In other words, comic-book cinema could do what actual comic-books had been doing, without much in the way of critical respect, for decades.

While X-Men absolutely gives in to some of the silliness that weakened comic-book movies of decades past, it also shows what is possible in this sub-genre, and unknowingly lays down a template for the eventual rise and domination of superhero cinema.

Film Review: JOHN WICK CHAPTER 3 – PARABELLUM (2019)

Parabellum is not an ending. That’s the first point to make about the third John Wick movie. Rather than a conclusion, this is the next part in what is rapidly becoming Hollywood’s most anticipated action franchise.

This feels important to state because it goes some way of approaching Chapter 3 of what most people assumed would be the capper on one of the most fine-tuned and striking Hollywood action movie trilogies of recent years. John Wick and John Wick: Chapter 2 threw some striking components into a cinematic blender – high-concept, hyper-real Hong Kong and Korean kung-fu/action, post-Jason Bourne close quarter fight stylistics, the dark glamour of James Bond and even the comic-book superheroism of The Matrix and brewed them up with a Neo-noir, even Neo-Western visual spectacle. Chad Stalhelski’s franchise manages to do what Gareth Evans’ The Raid films never quite succeeded in doing; taking a pulp action movie concept, filled with influences from the last twenty-five years, and turn it mainstream. Keanu Reeves as the titular assassin no doubt helped – a familiar, likeable household name giving the one-two punch to the chest and reviving his career in the process.

The first John Wick film skews more toward Americana than the subsequent movies; while the chief villains may be Russian, they have a sleaziness about them which only allows Stahelski to hint at the deeper mythology lurking beneath the world Wick inhabits, and while it certainly lays necessary foundations for Chapter 2 and establishes the character successfully, it is only Chapter 2 when Stahelski turns John Wick into a truly iconic 21st century action anti-hero. Festooned with stunning visuals and exemplary action choreography which feels more like a violent ballet than a shoot-em-up, Chapter 2 expands the scale and brings death, throwing obstacle after obstacle in Wick’s way before leaving a tantalising cliffhanger on the bubble which suggested Chapter 3, subtitled Parabellum, would be an intense, thrilling experience.

While that *is* the case, John Wick: Chapter 3 is also somewhat less revelatory, and an emptier experience than the film that preceded it.

The Middle Age of Laddism: MEN BEHAVING BADLY (Series 5, 6 + Last Orders)

Celebrated 1990’s British sitcom Men Behaving Badly recently returned to UK Netflix, which feels like a good opportunity to explore a show which helped define its decade, series by series. Has it stood the test of time?

Men Behaving Badly, across its final two series, sees the misadventures of Gary Strang and Tony Smart slide out of the laddism culture they propagated and into the earliest vestiges of comfortable middle age. You can feel the show doing the same along with them.

In the year 1996, Men Behaving Badly was at its cultural peak as Series 5 began to dawn, but this coincided with a significant cultural challenger to the New Lad thanks to, just two weeks after the series premiered, the arrival of the Spice Girls. Their debut single ‘Wannabe’ hit the charts in July of that year and launched the single biggest musical sensation in Britain since The Beatles over three decades earlier. Where in the swinging Sixties, Beatlemania sent legions of young people into paroxysms of excitement, the Cool Britannia of the 90’s saw the impact of ‘Girl Power’ and Geri Halliwell dressed in a Union Jack mini-skirt, the impending dawn of New Labour, the most liberal government in decades, and the Austin Powers franchise which threw everything back to a halcyon age of British ‘coolness’, injected this time with a call to female empowerment in a Britain filled with a renewed sense of optimism as it sailed toward a new century and a new millennium.

In retrospect, two men deep into their thirties swigging lager, frequently chanting “wa-hey!”, displaying disrespectful and sexist attitudes to women, indulging in infidelity and becoming almost disturbingly obsessed with sex, feels starkly retrograde in the face of the changing face of British popular culture in the late-1990’s. Men Behaving Badly was still popular, and Series 5 remains enjoyable, but it is clear that the show has passed its Series 4 peak at the true apex of lad culture, and in some respects had said everything it had to say. Writer Simon Nye spends the last few seasons continuing to mellow both Gary and Tony, not to mention their relationships with endlessly patient women in their lives Dorothy and Deborah, beginning the process of moving the show to being about not just two mates ‘and their birds’, but two couples who grow ever closer as friends and, to a degree, a dysfunctional, surrogate family. By the end of Series 6 and Last Orders, the final three concluding specials, Dorothy and Deborah feel as integral to the storytelling as Gary and Tony. Their importance grows as these two men, in their own way, slowly and surely begin to grow up.

By the final episode, Delivery, there is an argument that you could start calling this show People Behaving Responsibly.

ALIAS (Season 1) – Overview

The first season of Alias, the show that put superstar producer-director JJ Abrams on the map, has aged remarkably well.

Airing in 2001, a matter of weeks in the wake of the traumatic September 11th attacks on the Twin Towers in New York, Alias had the unenviable task of providing overblown, B-movie, pulp escapism to an audience reeling from the most existentially terrifying attack on American soil since the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. Abrams, fresh off his first TV series Felicity (starring the later-to-be-famous Keri Russell) and a career penning screenplays across the 1990’s for major Hollywood blockbusters, had to try and sell a show which captured the retro, cult aesthetics of 1960’s adventure shows and movies he had grown up with – Mission: Impossible, I Spy, the James Bond series – shot through with a stylish, slick, modern action sensibility.

It was a hard sell. Audiences gravitated far more to the intense, dour, revenge fantasy of 24 and all-American hero Jack Bauer, who steadily across a decade in which Americans and Western Europe turned their gaze toward Islamic fundamentalism and the threat of the Middle East became more of the superhero Americans wanted. If he was The Punisher, a man of dubious morals ready to compromise his soul for the greater good, then Alias’ hero Sydney Bristow was Captain America; virtuous, homely, and a reflection of wholesome American values, wrapped up inside familial and emotional angst that recalled Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Audiences never truly took Sydney to their breast, to their heart, and almost immediately Alias became a cult genre hit, never to explode fully into the global mainstream.

The sad thing about this is just how well executed Alias’ first season is, one of those rare shows that arrives almost fully formed and very quickly steps into a unique tone and rhythm, only building on that start to deliver twenty two episodes which provide a real sense of payoff.