Month: August 2020

Chadwick Boseman and the Mourning of Personal Icons

Rik Mayall died on my birthday.
Not the day I was born, of course. On June 9th, 1982, he was about to appear in The Young Ones as his career began a steady incline to becoming one of the irreverent, post-modern Comic Strip crowd of anarchic, anti-establishment comedians of the ‘80s. It was rather my 32nd birthday back in 2014, a day marred by the passing of someone I genuinely considered a celebrity icon. Not simply for the fact, by some cosmic coincidence, he suddenly passed away at just 56 years old on a day I normally celebrate, Mayall’s death meant something to me, as a fan of the man and his work. It hurt.

Fast forward to May of 2017. I’m at work on a normal day (remember when we all went to work as normal?), checking my phone, and up it pops: Roger Moore has passed away at 89 years old. A lump formed in my throat. Moore was a childhood hero for me. Pierce Brosnan was my generation’s Bond, but Moore was my Bond, the one I grew up watching as an impressionable young boy in the ’80s. The man himself seemed charming and kind, and I had even seen him live on stage in Wolverhampton, no less, around six months before his death. He was aged but no less the engaging raconteur. Like Mayall, I imagined Roger would live forever and when he died, so did a little of my childhood. For similar reasons, I dread the day we lose the other great 007, Sean Connery.
These examples illustrate the strange moments when we lose people we never met, never would have met, but whose passing cuts deep. This weekend, many of us had that same feeling once again with the passing of Chadwick Boseman.

SPECTRE suggests James Bond’s ‘team-ethic’ future

Looking back at Spectre, 2015’s unfairly maligned James Bond film, it becomes apparent just how much of 007’s future may lie around a team ethic.
Historically, Bond was, of course, a lone wolf, certainly in Ian Fleming’s source novels and particularly in the film adaptations produced by Eon from 1962 onwards. Fleming describes Bond’s general routine, in Moonraker, as “evenings spent playing cards in the company of a few close friends, or at Crockford’s; or making love, with rather cold passion, to one of three similarly disposed married women; weekends playing golf for high stakes at one of the clubs near London.” Bond’s life is distant, remote and detached from the world around him, aside from gambling or disposable sex. His cinematic adventures bore this out. If ever we did see his personal life, which we seldom do across any of his incarnations, it almost always revolves around women as opposed to family or friends.

Spectre, building on character introductions and developments introduced in Skyfall, begins to change that. Bond only wins the day with the help of the MI6 team around him back home, and sometimes in the field. Q covers for him, later joining him in Austria to help him reach Madeleine. Moneypenny is no longer the sweet, desk bound, lovelorn secretary who he flirts with and leaves behind, she actively aids him in terms of intelligence, and aides him in the field in Skyfall. M, or Mallory, is the most narratively involved head of MI6 in the series’ history, working to expose Max Denbigh aka ‘C’s connection to villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld, and gets his own (admittedly rather anaemic) action tussle with the man toward the end. Blofeld’s plans are only foiled thanks to the entire MI6 squad backing up Bond’s determined action.
This marks a sea change in the Daniel Craig era that could well stick through the upcoming No Time to Die, and into the uncertain waters for 007 beyond, as the franchise adapts to a vastly changing cinematic landscape.

Film Review: I USED TO GO HERE (2020)

★ ★ ★ 1/2

One wonders if Gillian Jacobs is not exorcising some Community demons by taking the lead role in I Used to Go Here, which works as an extension of her name-making sitcom persona.
While stars of television drama often make a fairly seamless transition to the big screen, stars of iconic sitcoms can find the move difficult. Community, arguably, carved a niche in popular culture over the last decade as one of America’s biggest sitcoms, and Jacobs was a consistent part of the ensemble across all six seasons. With the persistently rumoured big screen version still mere fantasy, Jacobs hasn’t had the broader platform to portray her character Britta Perry that could have boosted her status as an actor. She has worked steadily developing her own projects as a director and appearing on both the big and small screen, but Kris Rey’s feature is the first example of Jacobs carrying a movie.
It makes a degree of sense that Jacobs chooses to parlay a proportion of the Britta character into I Used to Go Here, where she plays newly-published fiction writer Kate Conklin, a woman buoyed by her achievement but losing at life. Her book tour has been cancelled due to poor sales, the New York Times gives her a scathing review, and she’s recently split from an unseen fiancé who appears to have very swiftly moved on. Listless, Kate is invited by David Fitzpatrick, her charming writing professor at her Illinois alma mater (played by a roguish Jemaine Clement), to do a reading of her book and observe the creative writing students in his class with a view to taking a permanent position. Fuelled in part by the student crush she had on David, returns to her old yards, only to realise that the halcyon youth of college and promise have faded, and the experience reinforces her own uncertain place in the world.
This description does not match the tone of I Used to Go Here, which rather than a dour existential examination of youth’s decay, instead projects rather a hopeful message wrapped around a leisurely, relaxed sensibility, if boasting a slightly uneven tone at points.

First Impressions and Here Be Monsters – LOVECRAFT COUNTRY

Some are already declaring Lovecraft Country as ‘this years Watchmen‘, but this feels hyperbolic to a degree. Watchmen was an immediate shock to the system. Lovecraft Country will, hopefully, slow build its way to a piece of cathartic theatre.
Based on a 2016 pulp novel by Matt Ruff, the show adapted by Misha Green begins with a statement of intent – here be monsters. This differs from the novel, which introduces us to our protagonist Atticus Freeman (played here by Jonathan Majors) as he ventures back home to Chicago after the disappearance of his father, Montrose. All this will follow in Green’s show, as the first episode Sundown is particularly slavish to Ruff’s first fifty pages or so, but the opening moment indulges by landing Atticus in the wildest of dreams involving Lovecraftian monsters, UFO’s, beautiful women from space and cosmic wars. Pure blood pulp science-fiction which front loads, thematically, what Lovecraft Country concerns – black legacy and heroism within a nation populated by the worst of monsters. The shoggoths and weird places inside H. P. Lovecraft’s fiction are just to whet the appetite. The meal itself stands to be far chewier.

The pedigree behind Lovecraft Country is, of course, pretty damn impressive, and speaks to the confluence of black and white voices who have united to bring Ruff’s vivid yet recognisable world to life. Green, as showrunner, was lauded for her previous work Underground, an apt title given it didn’t break out into the mainstream as Lovecraft Country stands a chance of doing. Jordan Peele, as an executive producer, lends his satirical, ironic horror perspective (indeed the next episode, if it stays close to the novel, could feel very Get Out). J. J. Abrams, super producer du jour, is likely the man who got this on its feet with the prestigious HBO, who are consistently looking for both their next Game of Thrones and now Watchmen, given that show is unlikely to get a second series (immediately – it’ll reappear eventually). HBO have certainly thrown enough money at Lovecraft Country to suggest they have lofty ambitions for it, and it could well be a series that has fallen at precisely the right time.
The difference is that Watchmen felt almost prophetic at the end of 2019 with hindsight, as focused on police brutality and corruption in racial terms as it was, whereas Lovecraft Country simply serves to externalise and metamorphose the hate coursing right now through America into literal, unknowable horror.

Christopher Nolan has his own Pledge, Turn and Prestige

Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts…

So states Michael Caine’s Cutler in The Prestige, the fifth film by director Christopher Nolan, and to some still his best, almost fifteen years later.
The Prestige remains certainly the most intentionally tricksy of Nolan’s films; thus far a cinematic lexicon built on the cinematic puzzle box, built on an intentional level of enigma audiences must buy into if they are to become consumed by his pictures. This was evidenced all the way back to Memento in 2001, his first major film after 1998’s low budget impression Following, which subverts traditional storytelling structure to depict a crime mystery in reverse. Ultimately, however, Nolan’s films are often deceptively simple, and intentionally so. “Are you watching closely?” asks Christian Bale early on in The Prestige, as much to the audience as anyone else, and here’s the truth: if we are, we’ll solve the puzzle.

The trick in The Prestige revolves around three key elements. The Pledge, the Turn and finally the titular Prestige, all building to the culmination of the magic act being pulled on the audience. Nolan’s trick in this film is, of course, that the entire movie is one big ‘prestige’, and we are the stooges. “You don’t really want to know” Cutler tells us in the bookending monologue. “You want to be fooled” he suggests, and this may be true. The key slight of hand in The Prestige is clear if you’re looking for it. I contend, however, that this three act magic trick is, thus far, true also of Nolan’s entire career.
It is a trick he has already pulled off and it is entirely possible he’ll do the same thing a second time around.

How does DJANGO UNCHAINED look, revisited, in 2020?

In an upcoming episode of my podcast Motion Pictures, I revisit Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, one year on from his ninth film being debated, discussed and dismantled by a hungry film-going populous. We discuss several of the film’s controversies, including how Tarantino represents Bruce Lee and ultimately approaches diversity in general… which brings me to his seventh movie, 2012’s Django Unchained.
Having missed the film in cinemas during 2012 (I have no idea why), I first enjoyed Django in the spring of 2014 and hadn’t seen it since, so with Tarantino back in the mind’s eye, it felt like a good point to take another run at a film that Spike Lee openly pilloried for the use of the ‘n’ word at the time, part of an ongoing back and forth with QT about how he portrays people of colour. I wondered if Django Unchained might have taken on new shades in the tumultuous shadows of the second half of the 2010’s.
First though, here’s what I made of it back in 2014 on first viewing…

Film Review: BABYTEETH (2020)

Rarely do you see the overpowering presence of grief played out in advance of death, but Babyteeth quietly conveys an unfolding tragedy with an edgy, uncharacteristic confidence.
The debut feature from director Shannon Murphy, based on a screenplay by Rita Kalnejais (itself adapted from her own stage play), Babyteeth centres on Milla (Eliza Scanlan), an Australian teenager terminally ill with cancer who by chance meets young, ragged drug dealer Moses (Toby Wallace), who crashes into the middle-class life of Milla and her disaffected, slightly broken parents Anna (Essie Davis) and Henry (Ben Mendelsohn), aiding an emotional and sexual awakening for Milla as she teeters on the edge of her own existence, and adds to the cauldron of tragedy Milla’s parents are repressing and restricting as they face down the inevitable.
This description makes Babyteeth sound more incendiary and overtly dramatic than it actually is, as Murphy’s film eschews melodrama where possible in favour of slowly decrypting Milla’s traumatic journey to acceptance, contrasted with her parents inability to cope with the devastating loss ahead of them. It is far more of a mournful coming of age story than anything else.

Film Review: HOST (2020)

Found footage is my favourite genre of horror. Truth be told, horror isn’t my go to genre generally when it comes to film, and I appreciate purists may baulk at a movie like Host, but it’s catnip to me.
Host appears to have caught the imagination of the huddled masses this summer, starved as they are of new content for the most part thanks to the Covid-19 enforced lockdown. It has been trending across social media for a few weeks. It is in pride of place on horror streaming service Shudder. It even was featured in a segment for The Economist, appearing on its daily podcast The Intelligence (which I heartily recommend for a current affairs snapshot), which is where I first heard about it strangely. Not in the pages of Fangoria or even something as highbrow as Sight & Sound, but rather a publication dedicated to examining society through the lens of economics. It could appear a bizarre fit but it perhaps suggests that projects such as Host, and the found footage lineage they are part of, can often serve as a financial boon to the horror genre, and can break out into the mainstream, as it appears Host has done.
What Host certainly does, even if in a relatively minor way, is continue the tradition of found footage not just in the world of lockdown but also within an advancing age of interactive technology used for day to day communication.

STAR TREK is at a cinematic crossroads – which path should it take?

Though we may have entered a second possible ‘golden age’ for Star Trek on television, the same cannot be said for the iconic franchise at the movies.
Forbes writer and movie critic Scott Mendelson, in a recent article, decried that Paramount’s experiment to transform Star Trek into a franchise worth of rivalling Star Wars, the MCU, even Pirates of the Caribbean or Transformers, is dead in the water after the box office failure in 2016 of Star Trek Beyond. He points out that while Star Trek 2009 and Star Trek Into Darkness both made a profit and are in the higher percentile of Star Trek films in financial terms, neither of them came anywhere close to making the profits witnessed in franchise films such as The Dark Knight or Skyfall over the last fifteen years. In all of these summations, he is arguably quite correct.

This topic has reared its head once again following two recent news stories. First, that the reputed movie script being worked on by Fargo and Legion scribe Noah Hawley has for now been shelved, on account of the story revolving around a topical killer virus. Secondly, that Quentin Tarantino’s much speculated film idea would be set heavily in the 1920’s gangster era. Paramount are reputed to be weighing a decision on which path to take for Star Trek at the movies – either of these options, or the fourth intended ‘Kelvinverse’ film for the reboot crew. If not three scripts ready to film, then three very different ideas. All of which place Star Trek at a fascinating crossroads.
The question is simple… which road should the franchise take?