Scene by Scene: SKYFALL Pt I – ‘Take the Bloody Shot!’

As we close in on No Time to Die, and the final Daniel Craig-era James Bond movie, I’m going to take a scene by scene look back in the next couple of months at Sam Mendes’ 2012 Bond mega hit, Skyfall

The opening shot of Skyfall feels like a reintroduction to James Bond, which is perhaps appropriate for Sam Mendes’ first 007 movie.

Bond, out of focus, glides quickly into frame—set to an immediate Monty Norman flourish from composer Thomas Newman—at the end of a dark Istanbul hallway, framed behind by light, before swaggering toward the camera as Daniel Craig’s face edges out of shadow into view, raising his Walther PPK almost into our faces. It stands as the first of many glorious shots from Mendes and his Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins which elevate the 23rd James Bond movie out of mere cinema and into the realm of art.

It also reminds us that our hero will, once again, be front and centre across a story which will dig into 007’s psychology in a manner the series had never before attempted. Fitting for the 50th anniversary Skyfall celebrated since the debut of Bond as a cinematic icon, with Sean Connery’s Dr No in 1962. Mendes’ film, right from the beginning and a pre-titles sequence that for the first time since the Pierce Brosnan-era, truly embraces the Bond formula of old in kickstarting the picture with a thrilling, action-packed mini-movie. Skyfall’s pulse-pounding chase through Istanbul, by jeep, bike and later train, serves as one of the series’ finest.

Four years had passed since Quantum of Solace, a Bond film which, while not without its merits, underwhelmed a vast amount of audiences as largely a post-script to Casino Royale’s bravura introduction to the Craig-era. Skyfall, across the first fifteen minutes, screams loudly and clearly: this is the first true follow up. And it’s going to be an epic journey.

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Bill, Ted & the Dark Fate of the Legacyquel

With the arrival of Bill & Ted Face the Music, we find ourselves facing down the latest example of what has become known as the ‘legacyquel’.

First coined in late 2015 by Matt Singer in a piece for ScreenCrush, in advance of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the legacyquel operates from different principles than a traditional, standard follow up. The standard sequel continues the established story introduced in the original narrative – The Godfather Part II, for example. A legacyquel revives a property and the characters we came to know, years after the fact, often once they have been immortalised in popular culture – The Godfather Part III, for example, which gave us the final part of Michael Corleone’s tragic story sixteen years after we last saw him. Such immense gaps of time are common in sequels which are expressly designed to recapture, in the audience, a sense of reconnection with worlds and characters, and indeed the actors who play them, who mean a great deal to us.

This is certainly the case with Bill & Ted Face the Music, which expressly delivers another key aspect of the legacyquel – familiarity. Most legacyquels do not rock the creative boat and if they do, it is for a specific reason; a good example that bucks the trend is Star Trek 2009, which J. J. Abrams uses as both a legacyquel (allowing us to reconnect with Leonard Nimoy) and canonical reboot in which we rediscover Kirk & Spock while experiencing their origin stories. Star Trek in that sense is an aberration, with most legacyquels operating to the Bill & Ted principle: more of the same, with a much longer gap. This is the appeal of the legacyquel. Reboots offer nostalgia while exploring new ideas. Sequels or continuing franchises build on what has come before. Legacyquels are all about bringing you ‘home’ again.

This was, in many respects, the intention behind Terminator: Dark Fate. What saddens me is that it didn’t really work.

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THE SOCIAL DILEMMA should be everyone’s dilemma

You will almost certainly find many viewers decry Netflix’s eye-opening documentary The Social Dilemma as hysterical polemic; an over the top rebuke of our Information Age. Like everything else around us right now, the content will polarise.

It is an extension of arguments that thinkers and writers such as Shoshana Zuboff (who appears here as a marvellously coiffured talking head) have been making for some time about the perils of surveillance capitalism. That our dominant, all-pervasive big tech platforms—Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, Reddit etc…—deal in, as Zuboff describes it, “human futures”. Rather than we as a society using social media as a tool to communicate, learn and principally buy, we rather are the tool of almost artificially intelligent algorithms that understand more about our psychology and habits than anyone in our lives, and even we as individuals could possibly understand. We are the commodity. And the result is that our entire fabric of society is being controlled and fundamentally broken by this machine-led, money-driven system.

The Social Dilemma packages up ideas that you may well have heard before into an effective, streamlined docu-drama, one that plays as much like a horror movie at times in how it pushes our buttons to be afraid, very afraid, of Big Tech and their manipulation of human existence. Some, therefore, will find it hyperbolic and perhaps even simplistic. It is a film with a clear agenda, one designed to influence us in the manner the networks it decries itself does. Netflix is, technically, no better. After watching the movie, I automatically pressed the thumbs up button and rated it. I therefore sent data off to Netflix’s servers which will influence what their algorithm shows me on the “you might also like…” screen. There is an irony about that that the makers of The Social Dilemma might not have appreciated.

Yet it speaks to how I, as much as you reading most likely, remain a willing cog in the manipulation machine. How do I use social media? And could I detach from it completely? These are the questions I’ve been asking since I finished The Social Dilemma.

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What’s Your Pleasure? Experiencing the HELLRAISER franchise

You might be surprised at the amount of legendary horror franchises I have not yet seen. Hellraiser, until the past week, was one of them.

Halloween, for example, I have only watched digested in its entirety over the past year. Franchises such as Friday the 13th or A Nightmare on Elm St still elude me. As much as I do enjoy horror, being married to someone who abjectly refuses to watch the majority of the genre means, frequently, I end up in another cinematic space. This isn’t to blame my wife entirely – horror has never been my number one genre. Yet, I remain committed to working my way through the entire canon of these long-running, fear-providing staples, as they are key texts in understanding horror as an overarching genre. Hellraiser, if not perhaps the most critically lauded of these examples, has been a pivotal part of the horror experience since the late 1980s.

Pinhead always scared me, even despite not watching the films. The looming visage of Doug Bradley’s sadomasochistic demon appears on the cover of every Hellraiser movie, bar the final two he didn’t take part in, and I remember as a teenager browsing in the ‘90s Blockbuster near home wondering what sights Pinhead might show me. The VHS cover was unsettling enough. As a child with an overactive imagination, I chose rarely to indulge in horror; besides I would no doubt have had to watch in secret from my parents. This was pre-internet and the days anything could be watched at a click of a button. Hellraiser, and Pinhead’s terrifying, come hither dark glare, has fascinated me since. Action movies were mainly my pleasure then but I always suspected Pinhead would catch up with me one day.

Last week, it happened. I opened the box (or in this case the PLEX server) and he came. And what I found was, I’ll admit, at times unexpected…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Revolution & Rebirth: THE DARK KNIGHT RISES imagined America’s fire almost a decade ago

This piece was written in 2018 for my upcoming book Myth-Building in Modern Media, but ended up not fitting the final text. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the protest riots engulfing America, my belief is that Christopher Nolan’s final Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises, before Trump, or Covid-19, or walls and trade wars, saw the possibilities now ahead of us coming.

I thought, given everything happening, I would publish it today. I’d love to know what you think about this film and the current situation…

While the stranglehold of Totalitarianism casts a long shadow over fictional mythology, so too does the freedom of Revolution, in which societies break away from the shackles imposed by a system which frequently benefits the few as opposed to the many. It is often inside the heart of Revolutionary systems that heroes are born. A recent example of the power of Revolution as a national myth, and how it can come to define a society, lies in The Dark Knight Rises.

Christopher Nolan’s trilogy of films centred around Batman, the shadowy vigilante who attempts to liberate the fictional Gotham City from the grip of crime, served to transform a character who had been significantly misappropriated and misunderstood for decades. The bright escapist nature of the 1960’s served to turn into a superhero what was originally in comic book lore, going way back to Bill Finger & Bob Kane’s initial series for Detective Comics back in the 30’s, a detective character who just happened to have a secret identity with the symbology of a shadowy, nocturnal creature, the ‘Bat’. Batman in his Adam West incarnation on TV and later a movie, which began seeping into comics once again, was a larger than life playboy turned crime fighter.

After the Reagan-era gloom of 1980’s comics such as The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller again returned the character to even darker roots than his original legend, introducing a tragic backstory for Bruce Wayne, Tim Burton’s successful blockbuster adaptations heading into the 1990’s captured the neo-Gothic feel of Gotham but once again cast Batman as a ‘superhero’, which only edged back toward the camp and froth of the 1960’s by the time Joel Schumacher got his hands on the franchise for subsequent sequels. What Nolan understood, and which came across in all three of his versions of Batman, was that the character essentially is not a hero in the conventional sense of the word. Batman is a symbol – an idea.

The Dark Knight Rises, in ending the trilogy, took this idea to a natural point of conclusion. Batman Begins had given Bruce Wayne an origin story as the Bat grounded in more of a realistic take on Gotham and the character; a city in the vice-like grip of neoliberalism, with corporations such as his own Wayne Industries vying for control against organised crime organisations such as Carmine Falcone’s mafioso. Liam Neeson’s villain, Ra’s al-Ghul, and his organisation the League of Shadows, seeded the conceptual idea at the very heart of Nolan’s Bat-mythology: that Gotham had grown too big, fallen too deeply into injustice, and was in need of ‘saving’.

Ra’s as a villain has a fascinating backstory. Nolan’s films only mere suggest this, but in comic lore, Ra’s is an immortal, supernatural being who has devoted his endless life to destroying civilisations who are losing themselves to despair and darkness. Batman, in Batman Begins, does serve as the ‘hero’ saving Gotham from this external enemy, from an extremism which Ra’s cannot hide, but which ultimately serves a Revolutionary, philosophical concept. What if Gotham’s people *cannot* be saved? What if everything must be razed, turned to ashes, in order for the city to be reborn? Ra’s may be a megalomaniac suggesting mass murder but he is also a rampant anti-capitalist, and Batman has to serve as the vanguard to protect the existing ‘System’ (with a capital S).

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“Am I Not Merciful?!” GLADIATOR, Commodus and the Rise of the Populists

With Gladiator celebrating 20 years since it was released, I had some additional thoughts about the character of Commodus, expanding on my recent piece covering the film as part of my 2000 In Film series

We live in an age of populists. I’m sure you could name a few. A mixture of entertainment capitalists in the West and dictators in the East, with a few tinpot warlords in Africa and corrupt family dynasties in the Middle East. Sprinkled in between that are a few genuine democracies, sure, but the 21st century is not flying the flag for government by the people, for the people. I wonder, in part, if Gladiator saw this coming.

I wrote recently about the film as part of my 2000 In Film series, looking back the number one box office hits in Hollywood that are not a princely twenty years old, and in that piece I wondered about whether the villain Commodus reflected certain 21st century political anxieties that were facing down America at the turn of the millennium. The parallels between a particular US President, if you strip away the ancient Roman details, are quite striking. Yet Commodus as a character, and what he represents, goes beyond one man. He speaks to the rise of a leader who builds his strength and reputation not on trust, not on his own personal record or success, but on how he can make the people love him.

Populists are, at the heart, complete narcissists. The very nature of the word ‘popular’ stems from the Latin and has a strong connection, in fact, to Rome. The adjective populāris is described as “pertaining to all or most of the people, belonging to or used by the common people (as opposed to the military, the aristocracy, or the senators)”, and that sums Commodus up to a tee. He seeks absolute rule, backed by the military, yes, and supported by the Senate, sure, but has a leader he does not expect to be beholden to any of them. They, and by definition the people they support, are designed to support *him*, and if they don’t they, like Maximus, are considered a threat to Rome, and by extention to “the people”.

In that, we can see strong parallels between the world Commodus wanted to create in Gladiator and the political landscape of the early 21st century.

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