Film

STAR WARS and why Fandom cannot “let the past die”

The cyclical nature of storytelling is one of my fascinations, and something I fully intend to write more about on Cultural Conversation. Star Wars is one of many major franchises which taps into deeply mythological, archetypal stories which end up telling cyclical narratives about characters and worlds which repeat history, repeat myth and cleve to prophecy. These concepts are all over fiction, in myriad ways. What people don’t always realise, however, is that cyclical narratives are all over Fandom too, and yes that is Fandom with a capital F. Insert your own word appropriately. Fandom started as a beautiful thing, a coming together of like minds. Much like the rest of our society circa 2017, the Force no longer seems, sadly, to be with it.
If the reaction to The Last Jedi, the latest entry into the legendary Star Wars lexicon, proves anything, its that Fandom cannot cope with change. This is no startling revelation. Many writers have been discussing the toxicity of Fandom for some time now, particularly since the advent of Twitter and the rest of social media gave a voice to a legion of what many would consider ‘trolls’; intentional rabble-rousing, mischief making naysayers who love nothing more than to be reactionary and tear down anything the majority love. /Film has written recently about the toxic reaction to The Last Jedi, a film which as I discussed is not without its problems. It does, however, expose the issue of change and Fandom in greater detail.

Film Retrospective: THE ABYSS (1989)

James Cameron is an unusual director, in many ways, and The Abyss underscores this quite keenly. Despite the fact Cameron has made some of the biggest motion pictures of the last almost four decades, you consistently still feel the pull of his Roger Corman-training, his B-picture origins on movies such as Pirahna after spending years as a Corman student, helping put together his beloved but schlocky contributions to cinematic history.

Cameron took plenty of those lessons, those touchstones, and threw them into his movies across the 1980’s & 1990’s with such arrogant bravura, such relentless chutzpah, that he crafted movies which by all accounts probably shouldn’t have been as critically successful as they were. The Terminator in 1984 is a B-movie with the style, smarts and cutting wit to rise above its origins, while Aliens saw Cameron perhaps at his egotistical directorial best, remarkably for only his third picture. The Abyss feels like his first attempt to make a film which can’t be defined, clearly, as a James Cameron movie, and it’s probably why it’s amongst the worst of his efforts.

Film Retrospective: WATERWORLD (1995)

Excess is probably the word to best associate with Waterworld.

The excess of Hollywood in the 1990’s. After the blockbuster formed at the tail end of the 1970’s thanks to the efforts primarily of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, the 1980’s saw the phenomenon largely dominated by Olympian action heroes or stars whose names towered on the poster above the title – Schwarzenegger, Ford, Willis, Stallone, Snipes. Alternatively, sequels and franchises began to form and dominate – Bond continued making money, joined by Indiana Jones, Star Wars of course, Star Trek back from the dead, and a whole surfeit of sequels which evolved into trilogies, and continued the trend into the 1990’s. That decade, nonetheless, added an extra dimension.

Waterworld is indicative of the mega-budget ‘high concept’ which had crept in over the last decade and really bore fruit during the 90’s. A high concept movie, essentially, was a picture you could boil down in one, easy for a movie studio executive to understand soundbite. Waterworld’s, without question, would be ‘Mad Max on water’. Simple, clear, readable. Everyone had heard of Mad Max, a successful trilogy itself early in the 80’s. The idea of trying to replicate the success of George Miller’s desert-based post-apocalyptic action series would have seen the bean counter’s eyes kerching with dollar signs. Waterworld smacks of a high-concept, money-making exercise, taking this one-line idea and bulking it out into an event blockbuster.

The irony, of course, was how expensive Waterworld ended up being. A year later, Independence Day revitalised the alien invasion B-movie with a high-concept, simple idea which, schlocky as it may have been, reaped the rewards in dividends. Though chock-full of CGI, some of which at the time was stunning to audiences, it wasn’t nearly as expensive as Kevin Reynolds’ fourth collaboration with star Kevin Costner, given the amount of water-based sets which needed to be constructed in order to adequately sell the idea of a futuristic world where the polar ice caps have melted, consigning the ‘ancient’ world we live in now to the sea bed.

Though a picture designed to make big bucks, Waterworld ultimately became one of the biggest critical and financial disasters of its decade, or indeed any decade.

Quentin Tarantino’s STAR TREK makes no sense to me – this can only be a good thing

Let’s be honest, nobody expected this, did they?

Though specific confirmation hasn’t exactly taken place, it’s looking more and more likely the rumour that Quentin Tarantino met with Paramount and series producer JJ Abrams to pitch a Star Trek movie is true, and that said movie could well be his tenth picture after filming his 1969 Manson era drama. Not only that, Paramount reputedly have assembled a working writers room to flesh out Tarantino’s idea into a script, and have signed off on his insistence the picture be R-rated.

Just let this all digest for a moment… that’s an R-rated Star Trek movie directed by Quentin Tarantino.
It really does sound like the stuff crystal meth dreams are made of, don’t you think? That level of fantasy casting when it comes to cast and crew for your favourite property. Usually when rumours like this float up to the surface, they’re quickly disposed of as lunacy or the workings of a website or tabloid, a perfect example of Trump-ist ‘fake news’. This one, bizarrely, seems to be true, at the very least the notion that Tarantino pitched Paramount a Star Trek movie idea which they absolutely loved.

Star Trek IV: Effing and Jeffing? Well, this is now part of the reactionary state of worry within much of the fandom.

Film Retrospective: ROMANCING THE STONE (1984)

You don’t hear many people talk about Romancing the Stone very much anymore, which feels surprising.

It was, after all, a powerful surprise hit in 1984 which launched the career of none other than director Robert Zemeckis who, just one year later, would go on and develop not just the signature film of the 80’s but one of the most iconic of the 20th century – Back to the Future. Nobody expected this romantic action adventure caper to work, least of all 20th Century Fox, the studio who made it, who, so convinced Zemeckis had delivered a dud, fired him from the Cocoon directing gig in anticipation. Nobody predicted it would romp home at the box office, cement Zemeckis as a major new talent following in the footsteps of his contemporaries Spielberg, Lucas etc… and establish Michael Douglas as a rugged action hero in Hollywood terms.

What’s strange is why the studio, and most people involved, believed this would be dead on arrival. What gave them that impression? It could be an endemic level of sexism given the fact Romancing the Stone is very much angled from the perspective of Kathleen Turner’s heroine, Joan Wilder. Did they believe such a female entry point into the film would alienate a core male audience? Bear in mind how Zemeckis’ film followed in the wake of the hugely successful Raiders of the Lost Ark, which in Indiana Jones and Marion Ravenwood helped re-cement the Golden Age of Hollywood idea of the couple with antagonistic, sparky repartee, only wrapped around an adventure movie style. The Empire Strikes Back, with Han Solo & Princess Leia’s biting barbs courtesy of Golden Age scribe Leigh Brackett, did the same thing.

The difference, perhaps, is that Spielberg and Lucas (by way of Irvin Kershner) approached their movies in this context from much more of a male perspective, certainly in terms of how the studio may have experienced these films during production and test screenings. Unlike Raiders with Indy or even Empire with Luke Skywalker, Romancing the Stone’s central protagonist is unquestionably Joan – it is her journey of fantasy wish fulfilment we follow across the picture, not that of Douglas’ Jack Colton, the Indy proxy of the story, who we don’t even meet until almost thirty minutes into Joan’s story. Douglas may have been a producer on the film but he’s not showy, despite having top billing – he’s aware this is Turner and Joan’s showcase.

Cinematic Universes: the divisive wave of cinema’s future

With the advent of Justice League, many fans and commentators are once again discussing the concept of the ‘Cinematic Universe’, given the formative attempts by DC Comics over the last several years to emulate the rampant success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the first truly successful and revolutionary cinematic model of an overarching mythological world of characters and narratives informing one another. Inevitably with the internet, it’s leading to a war of trolls – Marvelita haters and DC sceptics waging a pointless conflict over territorial ownership and trying the answer the utterly subjective question – ‘which is better?’. For every critic who tells you the MCU is technically stronger as a tapestry, you’ll easily find more than enough ‘DCEU’ defenders to race in with their Amazonian swords and claim everything Marvel has done is powerfully overrated. There can be no victor in such a battle.
In truth, discussion of the Cinematic Universe has never gone away. Hollywood and the blockbuster movie system has been utterly consumed and dominated by the power of a connected storytelling model, following the template Marvel Studios laid down. It has arguably changed the very fabric of the cinematic franchise. Following the essential advent of the ‘blockbuster’ in the mid-1970’s with Jaws and of course Star Wars, it took Hollywood a while to truly embrace the idea of creating what we accept as a ‘franchise’. Sequels had always existed – we can go back as far as 1916 indeed for the first recognised follow up, Thomas Dixon Jr’s The Fall of a Nation, which carried on the story from DW Griffith’s historically polarising The Birth of a Nation – but it was truly the 1980’s that gave birth to the notion of a franchise, once Star Wars developed sequels to George Lucas’ game-changing original movie and developed an entire cinematic eco-system around the property.
Sequels, nonetheless, remained *sequels*. Film number two. Taking the characters and situations from the first successful picture and moving them in new directions, though not always. Many sequels in the 80’s and 1990’s simply re-trod all of the same beats people loved about the first movies, mostly with diminishing returns. That’s what made The Empire Strikes Back so powerful; it took Star Wars and those characters truly in new, challenging directions and forever altered their destinations. Not every sequel took such a bold leap forward for its characters and narrative. Many played it safe, an accusation oddly levelled at some of the recent cinematic universes which were born out of the ashes of continuing storylines.

JUSTICE LEAGUE: Modern Superheroes and the God Complex

We are living in the Age of Superheroes.

Cinema has been transformed over the last decade, largely since the inception of what became the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe), by the ongoing adventures of men (and occasionally, though not often enough, women) in costumes fighting theatrical villains and thwarting global doomsday scenarios. These archetypal creations have been leaping off the comic-book panel onto the silver screen since 1978’s Superman adaptation from Richard Donner and have never looked back, but in decades past they jostled for supremacy with action stars or major science-fiction franchises. Now they dominate. Now they’ve started to become more than just heroes; they’re becoming modern, mythological Gods.

Or, at least, that’s what filmmakers like Zack Snyder would like you to believe. Justice League, his culmination of the DC Comics attempt to emulate Marvel’s transformative ripple effect across blockbuster cinema, builds on ideas he has played with across a career where he has grown increasingly fascinated with finding the Divine extraordinary in the ordinary. 300, his take on the myth of the Spartans mostly remembered for Gerard Butler and his surely CGI’d abs, uses a striking, otherworldly visual palette to mythologise the band of warriors against a hegemonic enemy. Watchmen too, a decent stab at adapting Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons’ seminal 1980’s anti-war tract, plays with concepts of inhuman, all powerful Godhood in Doctor Manhattan.

Then we get to Man of Steel, Snyder’s enormously divisive reimagining of the Superman origin story, and the God complex hovers fully formed into view. Donner’s take on Superman emphasised a man whose innate humanity helped him save those around him, and fall in love, a take modernised but later essentially repeated by Bryan Singer in the slightly misjudged Superman Returns. Snyder’s Clark Kent is a brooding, haunted shell of a man with the kind of lingering introspection that worked for Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins but feels utterly at odds for the Smallville farm boy, while Snyder’s Superman is distant, all-powerful and ultimately feared by the very people he stayed on Earth to protect. Snyder doesn’t see the last son of Krypton as a man, but a God.

Perhaps the better description would be Christ, given how keenly Superman’s return from death factors into the salvation in Justice League. If Man of Steel suggested the idea of Superman as a Divine figure for humanity to fear, Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice—the true instigation point for the ‘DCEU’—actively hits the concept head on. Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) quite literally describes the conflict between Superman and Batman as “Man vs God”, and his character is central in attempts to characterise Superman amongst the American public as an unchecked force of cosmic power, certainly following his destructive takedown of sinister Kryptonian Zod across Metropolis.

Now, honestly, the idea of exploring a superhero like Superman as a Christ or God-like figure isn’t remotely a bad one. Superheroes by their very nature have skill sets and specific demographics they protect as vigilante crime fighters or defenders of justice, but Kal-El operates on a scale beyond almost any other ‘superhero’ in all of fiction. Justice League is built around the very idea that an ultra-powerful, galactic alien threat targets Earth after the death of Superman, knowing despite all the tooled up, powered heroes such as Batman or Wonder Woman etc… no one even comes close the ‘man of steel’ in terms of providing an adequate defence.

When God abandons Heaven, who is left to protect it from the hounds of Hell?

Film Review: MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (2017)

Murder on the Orient Express isn’t just a remake, or another adaptation of a classic text, it’s also undoubtedly an attempt to contemporise an incredibly well known piece of work, in this case Agatha Christie’s legendary 1934 detective novel featuring her most famed, irrepressible character: Inspector Hercule Poirot.

Don’t get me wrong, the piece remains set in the mid-1930’s, with period production values and Kenneth Branagh’s protagonist sporting the most daring, rakish moustache you could imagine, but everything about Branagh’s new take on the material is concerned with highlighting the simmering, modern day issues which Michael Green’s screenplay picks out of this hugely popular piece of detective fiction.

Christie’s original story sees Poirot seeking a holiday, following a case in the Middle East, but upon being recalled back to London to consult on a case, he boards the Orient Express in Istanbul with an eclectic group of passengers from all corners of the world, one of whom in short order ends up dead as the train is stalled by an avalanche while travelling through the mountains. Cue the inspector attempting to put the pieces together in true sleuth fashion, negotiating the myriad egos and personalities of everything from middle-aged American lushes to aged Russian princesses. Well known for its ultimate twist (one I didn’t infact know, nor which I will spoil), Poirot’s ultimate detection leads him to multiple realisations, both literal and emotional.

JAMES BOND Will Return – Should Continuity Come With Him?

After quite some time in the shadows, the James Bond rumour mill has kicked into overdrive with the announcement this week that the 25th film in cinema’s longest running franchise will be arriving in November 2019 (or very late October if you’re in the UK). That’s a whole year later than most Bond fans were expecting, given the usual three-year cycle most of us have come to expect. An interesting debate has arisen around the usual questions, however, and it concerns continuity.

Before we get to that, here’s the current state of play. MGM have announced the release date, as studios are often wont to do with major franchises (look at how Marvel let us know what they’re up to years in advance), but since the release of Spectre in 2015 the producers of the franchise, EON, have been locked in a difficult financial back and forth over distribution. Last year, Sony’s distribution rights expired and it seems Bond stewards Barbara Broccoli & Michael G. Wilson have struggled to find a replacement. This no doubt accounts in no small part for why 2019 and not 2018 is when 007 is returning.

There is also the unresolved issue of Bond himself, Daniel Craig. A lot of misreporting has circled around the actor, especially since his clearly flippant comments about not wanting to play the role anymore were taken seriously by many, and while almost certainly Craig has made his choice by now, the MGM announcement wasn’t accompanied by confirmation Craig is coming back in the role that made him a household name. This could indicate negotiations are still ongoing, that maybe Craig wants extra time to finish other projects, or indeed that he’s not coming back at all.

Right now, it’s uncertain.

Christopher Nolan, DUNKIRK and his Cinematic Ideology

Across the last week, since the release of his latest movie Dunkirk, much has been written about Christopher Nolan, as always happens whenever he puts a picture out. Nolan may be the most divisive mainstream, heavyweight filmmaker working in cinema today. Some believe he’s a genius. Some believe he’s Stanley Kubrick reborn. Some even believe he’s a rampant Conservative and his films are nothing more than ‘Tory Porn’.

You would do well, incidentally, to read the writing of my friend and super-talented pop culture writer Darren Mooney on Nolan recently, as its insightful, filled with wisdom and there’s every chance he’s not done on the subject yet, simply because the gaggle of voices weighing in on Nolan once again has reached fever pitch. Is Dunkirk a masterpiece? Or is it yet another piece of super-overrated cinema from a filmmaker who can’t see past his own delusions of grandeur? For me, it’s the former, but this is coming from someone who has always considered Nolan to be, if not the greatest living cinematic auteur, then at least among the top five.

What interests me is the accusation he is a Conservative filmmaker when a titanic weight of evidence suggests quite the opposite. Do read the above linked article with the accusation, much as partly I’m loathe to link to it – despite having been written by someone very pleased with their prose, someone with visible disdain for modern film criticism and a level of bitterness toward politics in general, it nonetheless outlines an argument with a level of brevity. Frankly it’s not a piece worth dwelling on and picking apart because some of the arguments are lunacy, but what it does is raise an interesting question: just where does Nolan, and his films, stand on the political spectrum?