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I have occasionally written in the past of the distinct pleasure of going to see a film knowing very little in advance about it, especially in a genre I particularly enjoy. This is why there are a bunch of Russian SF movies lined up on my hard-drive, waiting for a day when it is too sunny for me to comfortably move around outside, and also why my interest was piqued when the UPP’s vintage slot was taken up by Czech director Jindrich Polak’s 1963 film Ikarie XB-1, which it billed as a ‘pioneering and much-imitated cornerstone of contemporary sci-fi’. This was particularly intriguing, as this is a film I had never been aware of before.

One thing about old SF movies from behind the Iron Curtain is that they seem a bit more likely to be based on a respectable piece of literature than their American equivalents – you still get terrible, low-budget knock-offs like Space Cop, but also lots of movies based on the works of the Strugatsky brothers and especially Stanislaw Lem. Ikarie XB-1 is apparently a loose adaptation of a Lem novel entitled The Magellanic Cloud, but it seems to me to have a much greater and somewhat surprising significance within SF as a cinematic genre.

The film has a slightly disconcerting in media res opening, with a clearly troubled and somewhat disfigured crewman (Otto Lackovic) in the process of running amok on the ship with a blaster, wailing about the Earth never having existed. The stark black-and-white photography and camerawork instantly puts one in mind of continental art cinema from around the period, even though the sets and costumes are still to some extent in the glitzy pulp SF tradition. From here we launch into opening credits powered along by a memorably jangly and discordant musical score.

We flash back to the beginning of the mission which the film is concerned with, and the departure into deep space of the Ikarie XB-1, effectively a small space colony dispatched on a decades-long mission to the Alpha Centauri system – however, due to the mysterious effects of time dilation, only a couple of years will pass for the crew. The craft is mostly crewed by strapping young men and young women with a certain exotic something about them; there are also a couple of distinguished-looking character actors in command, most obviously Zdenek Stepanek as Captain Vladimir Abajev. There is also the ship’s robot, an extraordinarily clunky and unconvincing prop – this is the single biggest weakness in the whole picture.

The ship heads out into the great darkness, and various members of the crew reflect on their position, some in an existential sort of way, others contemplating more personal concerns – one of them, for instance, has left their pregnant partner back on Earth, and is struggling to get his head around the fact his daughter will be fifteen when they meet, even though for him only a fraction of that time will elapse. They also encounter various hazards, such as derelict spaceships from the 20th century (this film does that thing of being set exactly 200 years into the future, with the XB-1 setting off in 2163), and a ‘dark star’ emitting lethal radiation.

If the slightly episodic nature of the plot is an attempt to evoke the feeling of an epic journey across space, then this scheme is somewhat undercut by the fact the film is just shy of being 90 minutes long: as a result it just feels like a movie which is lacking in a strong central narrative. Now, it is certainly possible to try and do this kind of SF film as a mood or character piece, but it is unusual to find it being attempted in Czechoslovakia in the early 1960s, regardless of whether or not this is a film based on a novel.

Watching the movie, you are much more aware of it as a piece of cinema anyway – I have occasionally wondered about the extent to which Communist film-makers were influenced by their western counterparts, especially when it came to genre movies, and Ikarie XB-1 suggests they were certainly aware of what was going on. Quite apart from the fact that some of the effects shots come perilously close to evoking 1930s Flash Gordon serials (the XB-1 is just a little bit too wobbly on its plunge across the stars), it seems a no-brainer that the makers of this film had watched Forbidden Planet, if nothing else – the plot bears no real similarities to that of the American movie, but there is something there in the aesthetic of the film, especially in that awful robot, which has an exposed brain like an miniature fairground attraction, obviously based on Robbie the Robot.

Despite all that, Ikarie XB-1 never actually feels like a piece of kitsch, derivative B-movie cinema – not in the Czech-language version, anyway. It has a rather downbeat, naturalistic quality that I wasn’t expecting at all, the performances are serious, and it isn’t afraid to touch on some more thoughtful ideas  and psychological issues along the way. The ending does come a bit out of nowhere, but it concerns humanity making unexpected contact with a totally unknown, clearly very alien civilisation or intelligence, and this is epochal event is presented not as something to be terrified of, but a source of wonder. Perhaps one is looking too hard for connections which don’t actually exist, but it is not really surprising to learn that when Stanley Kubrick was assimilating the SF genre in the early 1960s, looking to make ‘the proverbial good science fiction film’, this was apparently one of the films that really influenced him.

It is a bold move to suggest that Ikarie XB-1 is, in fact, the missing link in the development of the SF movie between Forbidden Planet and 2001: A Space Odyssey, but I do think there is an element of truth to it. I suspect most of this is obscured in the US version of the film, which was inaccurately re-titled Voyage to the End of the Universe and had a different, feeble-sounding, Twilight Zone-ish ending foisted on it by the American distributor. As usual, the original version is much more interesting. I still think the Czech version has issues when it comes to the script, but in many other ways this film lives up to the claims made for it as a significant entry in the genre’s history.

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What can one say about David Yarovesky’s Brightburn? I can only pass on my response to seeing the first trailer for the film, which was to paraphrase what Rudyard Kipling said after first encountering a particularly startling story by Arthur Machen – all I could think of was the sheer audacity of the thing. This is one of those films built around a single breathtakingly good idea, the kind of thing that makes one wonder why no-one came up with it earlier. That said, it is strange to consider how a film which is by its very nature almost totally derivative can feel so fresh and original.

The film is set in Brightburn, a small town in rural Kansas. Almost at once we meet Tori and Kyle Breyer (Elizabeth Banks and David Denman), a farming couple whose dearest wish is to have a child. But all is fruitless, until one night when a strange meteorite lands in the woods near their home. Investigation reveals that it is not really a meteorite, but some kind of wreckage, and within it they find a baby boy, miraculously unharmed. Their prayers have been answered!

Well, ten years or so skip by and the baby has grown up to be Brandon (Jackson A Dunn), an extremely bright young lad, who ends up taking flak from his peers as a result, as is so often the case. But all is good until something flickers into activity in the wreckage buried under the Breyers’ barn. Brandon begins to become surly and uncommunicative, which his adoptive parents naturally assume is due to the onset of puberty. Kyle takes him off to the woods on a hunting trip and explains how it is perfectly natural to feel certain urges and impulses, and that Brandon shouldn’t be afraid to act on those now and then. This is advice he probably comes to regret.

Tori in particular is as devoted to Brandon as ever, even though his erratic behaviour continues: a girl who has rejected his awkward romantic overtures ends up with a pulverised hand. The sheriff is called, but no charges are proferred – and the sheriff soon has other things on his plate to worry about, anyway, such as a string of mysterious disappearances and deaths (coincidentally amongst people who have ticked Brandon off, funnily enough). But how are the forces of truth, justice and the American way supposed to contend with a killer capable of throwing trucks, melting holes in steel doors and moving too fast to be seen…?

The film makes no real attempt to disguise what it’s doing, which seems sensible because what would be the point? The whole raison d’etre of the film is to subvert one particular story, which even though it’s only about 80 years old has already achieved the stature almost of folklore. For very good legal reasons, Brightburn is very careful about just how closely and particularly it references its source material. It seems slightly perverse that the first organisation listed in the ‘Thanks To’ section of the credits is Marvel Studios, while Warner Brothers (legal owners of that source material) are not even mentioned.

Then again, the producer of Brightburn is James Gunn, and a perverse sense of very dark humour is exactly what we would all have expected from him up until about five years ago. These days Gunn is famous for his work on Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy movies, but before that he wrote and directed twisted genre films like Slither and Super (an extremely obscure reference to which duly appears in Brightburn). Brightburn is cut very much from the same cloth, because for all of its SF trappings and the references to the superhero genre, this is at heart a gleefully gory and brutal horror movie.

Well, that’s what happens when you couple the almost limitless power of an alien demigod with the psyche of a messed-up boy on the cusp of adolescence, I suppose. This is, obviously, a nightmarish prospect, and the film is energetically inventive in finding ways of illustrating this. It’s only a brisk ninety minutes or so in length, and doesn’t hang about worrying too much about things like establishing atmosphere or deep characterisations; the fact that most of these characters are thinly tweaked versions of well-known archetypes helps in this respect.

Even so, I still feel the film really misses a trick – a particularly brutal twist of the knife, as it were – by suggesting that Brandon is effectively the victim of brainwashing or possession by something from his place of origin. There’s no sense of his inner conflict, of him fighting a losing battle with the temptations presented by his burgeoning powers and finally succumbing to corruption and evil. The film just seems to want to get on with the set-piece horror sequences. As a result he emerges as something of a stock figure from paedophobic horror cinema, obviously a spiritual descendant of Damien from The Omen as well as (possibly) the biological offspring of someone from a planet named after a noble gas.

However, this isn’t an entirely superficial piece of storytelling, either: front and centre for most of the film is Elizabeth Banks, one of those people you underestimate at your peril – I know she is probably best-known as the one with the crazy hair from the Hunger Games films, but she has a CV filled with smart choices (she was in Slither, which may explain her connection with Gunn). Banks gives the film some real heart and a sense of angst, as Tori initially flatly refuses to believe that there is anything amiss with her son, only to slowly realise it may be a mistake to take undocumented space refugees into your family, no matter how cute they may initially appear. David Denman has a slightly less flashy role as the father, but still gets some good moments and really makes you feel them.

It’s also quite impressive that the film manages to stay focused on its concept as carefully as it does, and never seems in danger of turning into an obvious spoof or exercise in tongue-in-cheek humour. This is all done in deadly earnest, which, ironically, is one of the things which makes it feel so fresh and fun. This is not a perfect movie, but (provided you can take the grisly moments) it is a very impressive and entertaining one. It may sound like dark burlesque or subversion of its source material, but in an admittedly strange fashion it honours that source material at least as well as any of the most recent adaptations of it.

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Having an orderly brain, I noted a few years ago that the gap between the first Men in Black film and the second one was five years, and further that the gap between the second and the third was ten years. It seemed a fairly reasonable assumption that there would be a twenty year gap between the third and the fourth, presumably with Will Smith moving into the role of the grizzled old veteran and someone as-yet-unheard-of providing the youthful glamour. Friends, I am shocked to have to relate this, but I was wrong. The new Men in Black film has come out thirteen years early, and I have to say that some might suggest it shows.

The title of the thing is Men In Black International, concerning the global doings of the secret agency which, for the purposes of this franchise, polices alien activity on the planet Earth. (‘But… but…’ anyone who was paying attention back in 1997 might be spluttering, ‘wasn’t it kind of established then that aliens were really just limited to the New York area?’ Good point. But shush.) The story gets going, chronologically speaking, with a young girl named Molly witnessing the Men in Black in action and wiping her parents’ memories afterwards. She grows up to be a massive over-achiever (Tessa Thompson) and through diligence and ingenuity manages to track the agency to its secret base, where she persuades the director (Emma Thompson, mostly phoning it in) to recruit her.

She is then packed off to the London branch, where there are suggestions of something not being quite right in the ranks of the persons with a wardrobe of a limited chromatic range. It seems that a few years ago there was a showdown atop the Eiffel Tower, which contains some sort of hyperspace gateway built by M. Eiffel, who was also a Man in Black. (‘But.. but… wasn’t it kind of established that the Men in Black came into existence as an exclusively American agency, in 1961?’ Another good point. But shush again.) The two agents involved (Liam Neeson and Chris Hemsworth) saved the world from an invasion by shape-shifting alien horrors, but Hemsworth’s character has been acting rather erratically ever since.

And there is some more plot following this, but I will not trouble you with the details as they are unlikely to linger much in your head, even if you see the movie. The general recipe for the film is kind of the same as before: there’s a gentle send-up of some of the tropes of B-movie sci-fi, mixed with some spy and cop movie clichés, and also a few potentially slightly scary bits with an almost Lovecraftian sense of gribbly tentacled unpleasantness pressing in on the margins of the mundane world.

The thing is that this time around… well, here’s what I have been led to understand about this film. Apparently director Gray was keen to make a film with a bit of a satirical edge to it and some social commentary on the topic of immigration (you can imagine how that would work, along with some of the more obvious gags – one wonders what kind of dismal alien hell-world could have spawned the current US administration). Producer Walter Parkes (who I feel obliged to mention has some pretty decent movies on his CV) wanted something a bit more middle-of-the-road and proceeded to start rewriting the script while the film was actually in production. Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson, who reputedly signed on on the strength of the Gray script, were understandably bemused and independently recruited writers of their own to polish their dialogue.

(Yes, I know, it is utterly baffling that films are made this way, and we have to assume that it is not standard practice in the industry. Even so, this is a production with a budget of somewhere in the region of $100 million, yet the creative process involved seems to have primarily been based around squabbling and bemusement.)

When you consider all this, not to mention the producer and the director both assembling their own edits of the finished film (the producer’s version won out), one does have to say that Men in Black International is a staggering achievement in the way it still manages to be a more or less coherent story without a large number of holes in the plot. This is not to say that there aren’t any – there are still a few, and to be honest they are biggies, but it is unlikely to bother most members of the audience as the clash of different visions has resulted in a film with very little sense of what it’s supposed to be beyond a brand extension and franchise instalment. No one is likely to care or be engaged enough to worry too much about whether it makes any sense.

I mean, look, there is virtually wall-to-wall CGI for most of the film, and it is all very professionally done; fights and chases turn up on a regular basis; there are plot reversals and so on too. But none of it feels as if it means anything – it is all very mechanical and uninspired. It feels like a Men in Black film produced by some sort of artificial intelligence, or a joke written by a computer – all the structural elements are present and correct, it’s just completely flat and lifeless.

Now, of course, with this kind of film, winning chemistry from charismatic leads can go a long way towards taking up any bagginess in the other departments, but the film is also afflicted with, if this isn’t too harsh a way of putting it, the Chris Hemsworth problem. I have certainly enjoyed many Chris Hemsworth films and Chris Hemsworth performances in the past (mostly the ones where he has been playing Thor, to be honest). I have no beef with him as a person, not least because I have no personal relationship with him. However, he is in the awkward spot of being someone whose films make hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars, but only when he plays that one character he’s famous for. So just how big a star is he really? Opinion seems to be divided on the topic, especially if you consider the stories that one of the reasons the fourth Bad Robot Star Trek movie folded was Hemsworth’s involvement being judged not to be worth his very hefty asking price (he was due to reprise his before-he-was-famous role as Captain Kirk’s dad). Hemsworth’s attempts to establish himself as a leading man in his own right are not helped by the fact he is essentially giving a lightweight version of the same performance he delivered in his last couple of MCU movies (here the ratio is about 70% swagger to 30% smug), or the fact he’s paired with Tessa Thompson, one of his regular foils from those same movies, or the fact that the film brazenly includes cheesy in-jokes alluding to Hemsworth having played Thor for the last eight years. As for Thompson herself, I have to say I’m not entirely sure she has the chops to be co-lead in a big aspiring blockbuster like this one. She’s not actually bad. But you’re still perhaps a little surprised to see her there, vaguely feeling that you were expecting someone else.

This is cinematic entertainment as disposable, mechanical product. It is rarely actually dull, for at least it has been edited together to provide a good deal of pace. But it is just a succession of sounds and pictures that makes sense in a transactional sort of way. It has no resonance, no subtlety, no depth, nothing new to say or do. It almost feels like it is aspiring to be mediocre. Anything which made the first couple of films in this series memorable and entertaining has been scraped out of the carcass and what remains lurches across the screen in an almost wholly affectless way. It doesn’t engage the emotions, the brain, or the sense of humour. Nobody was demanding this film, I suspect, but it could still have potentially revitalised and updated the series. Instead, I think that in a sane world it would constitute the final swift blow to its throat. So we can probably expect a reboot at some point in the next ten years.

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It is, obviously, much easier to make a good film worse than to make a bad film better, but that doesn’t mean the degradation process is never without points of interest. In the past we have discussed the phenomenon of the ‘American edit’, in which a foreign movie (usually something fairly disreputable to begin with) was sold to the States and had new scenes added with Caucasian performers to make it a bit more appealing to the supposedly xenophobic folks of the Land of the Free. I always think of this as a phenomenon from the 1950s and 1960s, but it did linger on much later – the late-90s remake of Yonggary was heavily re-worked and released in the US as Reptilian, for example. A bit earlier than this, the world was troubled by R.J. Kizer and Koji Hashimoto’s Godzilla 1985 (I will leave you to guess what exact year saw this film released).

This is the American edit of a Japanese film known either as The Return of Godzilla or Godzilla 1984, the fifteenth film in the unstoppable franchise. It is somewhat notable for being the first Godzilla movie following a nine year gap in production, following Terror of Mechagodzilla, and was characterised by a conscious attempt to lose some of the more campy elements that had overtaken the series as it had progressed, with a return to a more antagonistic Godzilla and no monster tag-wrestling. Sounds hopeful, doesn’t it? Well, Constant Reader, I have The Return of Godzilla on VHS somewhere and all I can say is ‘Fine in theory’, for while the film’s attempts to be serious are laudable, it has a somewhat sluggish plot and struggles to find itself a decent climax (this seems to be a flaw in all Godzilla movies which don’t have another monster in them for him to fight, and – if we’re honest – even some that do). Nevertheless, for all of The Return of Godzilla‘s flaws, it’s still superior to Godzilla 1985.

Just as The Return of Godzilla is a direct sequel to the 1954 Godzilla, ignoring the intervening fourteen films, so Godzilla 1985 is a sequel to Godzilla, King of the Monsters! – not the current-at-time-of-writing, rather fun movie with Charles Dance and Ken Watanabe, but the 1956 American edit of the 1954 film. Now, this is a movie I haven’t seen, but it seems like the main difference to the original – at least, the only one anybody talks about – is the addition of scenes in which Raymond Burr, playing an American foreign correspondent in Tokyo, occasionally looks out of the window and shouts ‘It’s a monster!’ down the telephone. Burr’s character, quite reasonably in 1956, is named Steve Martin.

Godzilla 1985 opens very much like its progenitor, with a fishing boat caught in a storm at sea. Finding themselves almost forced onto the rocks of  a bleak and remote island, the crew are naturally alarmed when the island starts to break apart, letting out a familiar roar as it does so. Half a world away, Raymond Burr wakes up with the bleak stare of a man who has seen something dreadful. Probably the script for the rest of his scenes in this movie.

Well, next we meet square-jawed young journalist Goro (Ken Tanaka), who happens to be the one to find the missing trawler. One might very well ask what the air-sea rescue services are doing, but not if one is familiar with the plotting in this sort of movie. Goro goes on board and finds most of the crew are dead and look rather dessicated – he is attacked by a gribbly giant insect (the culprit) but rescued by a lone survivor (Shin Takuma), who tells him of the ship’s encounter with Godzilla. (Godzilla 1985 never bothers explaining what the gribbly insect is; in the original it is revealed that this is a mutant sea louse which is normally a parasite on Godzilla’s skin.)

The Prime Minister of Japan is duly informed that Godzilla has returned; exactly where he has returned from, and how, is not really discussed (beyond the suggestion, late on in the film, that the first Godzilla’s body was never recovered). His aide hopefully suggests that there is no reason to think Godzilla will attack Japan again – clearly another man unfamiliar with this kind of film. Meanwhile, Goro’s story on Godzilla is being suppressed by the authorities, and he is sent off to interview a brilliant but conflicted scientist who is an expert on the monster. Who should he find working in the scientist’s office but the sister of the survivor (Naoko Sawaguchi)? Never knowingly underplotted, these films. Needless to say he ticks off the government by informing her of her bro’s whereabouts.

Thankfully, the plot progresses as Godzilla is taken hungry and proceeds to snack on a Soviet nuclear submarine in the ocean off the coast of Japan. This raises international tensions, as you might expect, and the Pentagon take an interest. This makes a change from their usual interest, which seems to be in caramel-flavoured carbonated soft drinks, judging from how prominent the products of the Dr Pepper corporation are, in and around the Pentagon’s rooms and corridors – we are definitely in the realm of the preposterous when it comes to the product placement in this movie. The top brass decide to call in the only American witness to the first Godzilla’s rampage in 1956, a man known only as… Martin.

Enter Raymond Burr, looking grave. Hello, he says, my name’s Martin. Is that your first name or your surname, Martin? would be the logical question. But no. Clearly not wanting to raise the awkward issue of him having the same name as a white-haired banjo-playing comedian, the Pentagon adopts a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy as to what Steve Martin’s first name actually is (he’s even listed in the end credit as Steven Martin), and together the senior staff and he proceed to… well, blather a lot.

Godzilla eats a nuclear power plant? They blather about it. He pops up in Tokyo bay and shrugs off the usual efforts of the JSDF? Blather. The Japanese deploy their new weapon, the Super X flying tank, equipped with cadmium missiles to neutralise Godzilla’s nuclear metabolism? Blather. They do nothing that actually impacts on events back in Japan, mainly because these scenes were shot a year after the rest of the film was finished.

The one exception to this is when the captain of a Russian ship, damaged by Godzilla when he appears near Tokyo harbour, triggers the launch of a nuclear missile from a Soviet weapons satellite, thus threatening all of Tokyo with obliteration. The Americans heroically intercept the Russian nuke with one of their own. The thing is, that in the original film the Russian missile is fired by accident, and this version has been re-edited to make the Russians into bad guys. It is a rather clumsy hack of the plot to make the film more consonant with Reagan-era values, and still doesn’t quite mesh with the consistently anti-nuclear weapons, anti-superpower stance of the Japanese version – for once, the Japanese actually manage to put Godzilla down, but the radiation from the exploding missiles over Tokyo revive him in time for the final act of the movie.

It isn’t even as if The Return of Godzilla is a movie which can easily absorb this sort of jiggery-pokery, for, as mentioned, it is a clumsy beast it its own right – although perhaps not quite as clumsy as its star, for the wobble-headed Godzilla in this movie shows every sign of having been at the sake. There are some quite impressive scenes of Japanese tanks, planes, artillery and laser cannon taking their usual ineffectual pop at Godzilla, and the battle with the Super X would work well as a supporting set piece – but overall the film feels sluggish, and while its method of actually getting rid of Godzilla is inventive, the climax is very flat indeed. You can see why New World Pictures (architects of the US edit) planned to play up the campy elements of the story, but apparently Raymond Burr refused, feeling it was important to preserve the seriousness of the central metaphor of the Godzilla story.

Well, an admirable stand, but I can’t help thinking that the best way to preserve the integrity of this story would be not have made the American edit in the first place. If you want to watch a version of this film, watch the Japanese one first: The Return of Godzilla shares this along with its illustrious forebear, even if it lacks most of its other qualities.

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Some of my friends refuse to believe me when I say I’ve never seen the Disney animation of Aladdin. It’s true: didn’t see Aladdin, didn’t see Beauty and the Beast, didn’t see Little Mermaid. Of all of those 90s cartoons the only one I caught was Lion King, and that was because someone gave me free tickets to it. My whole attitude to the Disney Aladdin may in fact be coloured by the fact that, in November 2005, I found myself obliged to watch ‘A Whole New World’, one of the big production numbers of the film, performed on live TV by Peter Andre and Jordan. No living soul could remain unaffected by such an experience.

Given this baleful connection between Jordan and Disney’s Aladdin, I suppose there is something of an irony that the corporation’s latest attempt to farm money from their back catalogue by updating the charming animations with live action and CGI, which is of course a new version of Aladdin, was actually filmed there. It’s a funny old world sometimes, as well as a whole new one. Although possibly not in this movie, where much of the humour is either laboured or rather sentimental.

The fact that Guy Ritchie’s film is likely to define perceptions of this story for another generation causes me a mild pang, for it persists in relocating the story of Aladdin from ancient China to somewhere generically middle-eastern, and furthermore ruthlessly scythes Widow Twankey and Wishee-Washee from the plot (they don’t even have the bit where they divide up the audience for the singalong near the end). Instead we just meet Aladdin (Mena Massoud), an improbably well-groomed small-time crook and homeless person, who makes the acquaintance of sultan’s daughter Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott), who has some rather anachronistic ideas about emancipation and self-empowerment. Things get more complicated when…

Oh, come on, Constant Reader! Do I really need to describe the plot of Aladdin? It’s from A Thousand and One Nights (albeit somewhat unrecognisably), one of the most famous collections of folk-tales in history! There’s an evil vizier/magician (Marwan Kenzari). There’s a cave. There’s a lamp. There’s a genie (Will Smith). There are a finite number of wishes to be granted. There are show-tunes, power-ballads and dance routines. You know how this one goes, I would imagine.

Well, if nothing else it is less horrid than Tim Burton’s baffling version of Dumbo, but once again the whole thing is somewhat hobbled by the fact that it is essentially a recreation of the 1992 animation rather than an attempt to do something genuinely new and creative with the story: in addition to all the required beats from the folk-tale, the film is also obliged to include all the bits people will remember from the cartoon, as well. It even attempts to look like a cartoon, with a garish colour-palette and cinematography, although the list of things which seem to have influenced this new film is a long one: it is a peculiar chimerical beast made up of panto plotting, blockbuster CGI, Broadway show tunes, MOR power-ballads, and Bollywood dance routines. No doubt the film is expecting to receive plaudits for ethnically-appropriate casting (not that anyone is actually Chinese), although I do note that the closer a character is to the centre of the story, the greater the chance that they speak exclusively in an American English idiom.

Frankly, I found it rather hard going, not really being in the target audience – I only went because we normally go to the cinema on a Tuesday night and my friends preferred this to yet another trip to watch Godzilla: King of the Monsters (yes, I know; but I try to be kind to them anyway). It does acquire a certain energy and sense of fun once Will Smith turns up, but on the whole you could easily dismiss this as very bland, rather vacuous stuff.

I did notice, however, that beneath all the froth and nonsense there is a film putting across an unexpectedly rigorous, if somewhat flawed thesis about the nature of power, particularly as it relates to the citizens of traditional hierarchical societies. All the major characters are to some extent defined by their social mobility, or lack of it: none of them, initially at least, have any prospect of changing their station in the manner they would prefer. Aladdin is going to stay on the street forever, Jafar is not going to ascend the throne due to his lack of the blood royal, Jasmine (being a woman) is not going to be allowed to rule as she would like, and the Genie’s whole peculiar existence is defined by some rather arbitrary rules (you could argue that the Genie is in fact emblematic of the whole subtext of Aladdin).

Obviously this is a cause of frustration for all of them, and when Aladdin and Jafar decide to do something about it, it is in the same way: the use of magical (and thus unnatural, i.e., outside the bounds of conventional society) power to change their station in life. (The hero-and-villain-are-two-sides-of-the-same-coin trope is a common one, but it’s presented here in an unusually systematic fashion.) What’s notable is that neither of them is ultimately successful in this, and the changes that do result are more due to their essential characters than whatever magic they have managed to lay their hands on. The deeper subtext of the film is that power itself is an illusion at best, a trap at worst: we see Aladdin symbolically represented as a puppet of the Genie, an inversion of the supposed power relationship here. By the end of the film it has been made clear that the degree of power a person nominally wields is in inverse proportion to their ability to actually make free use of it – the Genie, whose powers seem to border on omnipotence (with a couple of exceptions), actually has the least control over his own existence, while it is the homeless Aladdin who is closest to being actually free.

And yet the film is ultimately rather conservative (perhaps this shouldn’t be a great surprise), choosing to ignore its own thesis in the closing stages and present a happy ending in which the characters do manage to achieve some fairly improbable changes in the previously-monolithic status quo of the film. The root cause of all the suffering and conflict in this story is the existence of the strictly hierarchical society, and therefore for the film to have a truly happy ending one would expect to see the old power structures torn down and a new model of society in some kind of nascent form – but no. There are some specific and not especially significant reforms, primarily that Jasmine gets to be the Sultana (one might describe this as her raisin d’etre). So in the end, as I said, the film is ultimately flawed in how it implements its sociological and political analysis. But some of the songs are quite catchy anyway.

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‘One ticket for the new X-Men film, please.’

‘Certainly, sir. Somewhere in the middle?’

‘Well, from the beginning, ideally.’

Well, it’s not exactly first-rate cinema-queue badinage, but at least it had a bit more upbeat peppiness to it than the conversations I was hearing on the way out at the end of the film (at the risk of spoiling the rest of the review, ‘That was so bad’ was about the gist of it). I think there’s been a sense for a while now that this latest X-Men movie has been up against it – the anticipation for it has been nothing like that for either of the last two spin-offs, with most people looking ahead to the point at which the mutants get folded into the MCU. Perhaps the sheer longevity of the series has also begun to count against it, and there’s also the fact that it’s less than two months since Endgame came out, a movie which I expect will prove incredibly hard to equal, let alone top.

Certainly the advertising for Simon Kinberg’s Dark Phoenix has tried hard to trade on the long pedigree of these films, as well as positioning it as some kind of Endgame-esque grand finale. ‘Twenty years ago, one movie showed us what makes us different makes us heroes,’ chuntered one of the trailers, accompanied by star-studded clips from well-received early instalments. Well, yes, but I feel obliged to point out that the original X-Men came out 18 and a bit years ago – 1999 is, in hindsight, notable for being one of the last years without a heavy superhero presence at the box office – the only superhero movie that came out that year was Mystery Men, which in hindsight looks rather ahead of its time. I’ve digressed again, haven’t I? Anyway: my point is that when a movie starts appealing to brand loyalty, rather than promising an exciting new experience, it is perhaps not the best sign.

Writer-director Kinberg has been knocking about the franchise since the 2000s, his first script being for X-Men: The Last Stand, generally regarded as one of the wobblier episodes. So the fact that the new film is essentially another pass at the same storyline (from Uncanny X-Men #101-138, of course) should really qualify as Ominous Sign Number One. It takes place in the 1990s, not that this influences the storyline in the slightest, nor does the film attempt to explain why most of the main characters have barely aged in thirty years. Things are looking pretty good for Professor X (James McAvoy), as good PR management and wise grooming choices mean his students are now superheroes, adored by the public, with the President having a special X-Phone on his desk so he can call them up in a crisis (yes, I know).

Well, the space shuttle gets into trouble due to a mysterious solar flare, and the X-Phone is duly used: the X-Men (a bunch of familiar characters this time around, but not including the chap with the claws, obviously) are rocketed off into space to carry out a rescue, somewhat against the better judgement of team leader Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence). The mission is essentially a success, but one of the team – a young girl played by Sophie Turner, whose comics codename is a bit problematic by modern standards so she just goes by ‘Jean’ – is exposed to the flare’s radiation and returns to Earth with her mutant powers of telepathy and telekinesis increasing at an exponential rate.

This would not in itself be terrible news, except for the fact that Jean had a traumatic childhood and was subject to a little discreet telepathic adjustment by the Professor. This is now unravelling as her powers develop, and she heads off in search of personal closure, despite the fact her behaviour is increasingly erratic. The team try to stop her and tragedy results (you can guess what this is if you’ve seen the trailer, it’s not exactly subtly handled); Xavier is forced to confront his own arrogance and hubris, while Jean seeks refuge in a mutant colony led by Magneto (Michael Fassbender). But it gets even worse! It turns out that the solar flare Jean absorbed is actually a primordial force of inconceivable cosmic power (funny, I thought all six of those had been accounted for), and a mob of evil aliens led by Jessica Chastain is also looking to take control of it…

This is, if you include the various spin-offs, X-Men 12, which is a very decent innings for any movie franchise.  What’s even more impressive is the fact that, for a long time at least, I found each new film to be at least as enjoyable as the one preceding it (I am part of the minority that actually thought The Last Stand was a fun romp). That changed with Apocalypse, which was all right but not up to the standard of Days of Future Past – and now, with Dark Phoenix, I fear we are confronted by the first no-two-ways-about-it genuinely poor main-sequence X-Men movie.

It’s not just that this movie revisits the same material as a previous episode, because there’s only one sequence which vaguely recalls the earlier film. The issues run deeper than that, and most of them stem from the script. One thing the advertising for this film does get right is that the previous films were so successful because they presented rounded characters with believable personalities, and credible relationships between them. There was potential here for more along those lines, and yet the script has a weirdly perfunctory quality, seldom pausing for reflection: the film has a slightly pedestrian, obvious quality completely at odds with the fantastical elements it depicts. Even worse, most of the characters are simply thin and forgettable – you hardly care about any of them.

Even normally reliable performers like James McAvoy struggle to make an impact, and the same is true of Jennifer Lawrence – J-Law seems to have negotiated herself a brilliant deal for this movie, by the way: she’s third billed, despite having limited screen-time, and only has to wear minimal prosthetics (none of that full-body make-up this time). The only person who brings any kind of presence to the movie is Michael Fassbender, who is as good as ever as Magneto. I suppose you could argue that one of the ways in which this film innovates is the fact that the bad guy is an actual alien – a new version of a character who first appeared in Avengers #4, in a fine historical irony – but, once again, Jessica Chastain really struggles to find anything to do with her.

There is plenty of well-staged crash-bang-wallop as the film goes on, and much use of swirly CGI, and it would be remiss of me not to mention that there is an impressive synth-heavy score from Hans Zimmer. But none of it feels like it means anything, most of the characters are flat and empty, there is nothing here you haven’t seen before in another X-Men film, where it was probably done better anyway.

No-one would deny the significance of the X-Men movies when it comes to the development of the fantasy genre, and the superhero film in particular. This series genuinely did change the way these films are made. But things move on, and while the genre has continued to develop, it’s starting to look like the X-Men have not evolved along with it (ironically enough). We are promised one more spin-off, then a break before new versions of these characters join the main Marvel Studios continuity. (I suspect it’s worth a flutter that Avengers Vs X-Men will make $3 billion before the end of the 2020s.) Well, that’s fair enough. Have a good long rest, X-Men: you’ve certainly earned it, and more importantly, it looks like you desperately need it.

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You know that thing, when you meet a person and initially don’t get on, but after spending some time together and getting to know them, you actually become really close friends? That’s really what Motoyoshi Oda’s 1955 film Godzilla Raids Again (also known as Godzilla’s Counter-attack and Gigantis the Fire Monster) is about – well, it illustrates the first part of the process, anyway. (I make no apologies for reviewing two Godzilla movies in a row, by the way.)

I was discussing this topic (Godzilla movies, not the process of making a friend) with Anglo-Iranian Affairs the other day. We are talking about possibly going to see Godzilla: King of the Monsters (again, in my case), and he expressed the hope that it was better than the last Godzilla movie we saw together, which was Shin Gojira (aka Godzilla: Resurgence), a couple of summers ago. I have to say that the response to this movie from my colleagues was neither kind nor especially positive, with the googly-eyed incarnation of Godzilla from the start of the film and the long scenes of dysfunctional committee meetings drawing particular stick. My response was to make the point that Godzilla movies are kind of like a lens, through which you can look at different things and get different responses: Shin Gojira is obviously a seriously-intentioned film with things to say about the Fukushima nuclear disaster, in an oblique way, very much in the tradition of the very first Godzilla, while King of the Monsters, though not entirely bereft of subtext, is much more of a fun monster mash.

So what kind of a movie is Godzilla Raids Again? Well, it was made relatively quickly following the massive success of the first film, and you can almost detect the producers wondering just exactly what they’re going to do to avoid a simple retread. The idea they eventually hit upon is one that has sustained the series for over sixty years since it was made, so the film has that in its favour – on the other hand, as is wont to happen in these cases, the idea as implemented here clearly still has a few wrinkles to be worked out.

The film opens with the introduction of its two protagonists, Kobayashi (Chiaki Minoru, guaranteed immortality as one of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai) and Tsukioka (Hiroshi Koizumi), who are both pilots working for a tuna canning company in Osaka. It’s business as usual for the lads until Kobayashi’s plane has engine trouble and he is forced to land near a desolate volcanic island. Tsukioka goes to rescue him, and both pilots are shocked by the appearance of Godzilla, locked in battle with another giant creature. (The film is very clear about the fact that this is a different Godzilla to that in the first film, the original being dead at the bottom of Tokyo bay.)

The pilots report this discovery, rather to the dismay of the authorities. Nobody worries too much about where the monsters have come from (‘atomic testing’ is the handwave used), the big issue is how to stop them. The second monster is identified as Angilas (or possibly Anguirus, depending on which version you’re watching), a mutated ankylosaurus, although judging from his contribution, the chap doing the identification appears to be one of those escaped lunatics you often find pretending to be paleontogists in this sort of film.

The authorities hold a big meeting to decide what to do to resolve this new Godzilla crisis, which is honoured by the appearance of another of the Seven Samurai – Takeshi Shimura, reprising his role from the first film and making his sole contribution to this one. After showing some clips from the original film, he basically gives a big shrug and says that with the Oxygen Destroyer no longer available, Godzilla is essentially unstoppable and Japan is completely screwed. All he can offer is the idea that Godzilla is especially annoyed by bright lights and can be lured away from populated areas by dropping a ‘light bomb’ (basically, flares).

Well, it’s better than nothing, and when Godzilla resurfaces heading for Osaka, the authorities go for it, ordering a blackout and the use of flares. One of the real weaknesses of this film is that Ishiro Honda and Akira Ifukube don’t return as director and composer, but the following sequence does have an impressively eerie quality to it, the lights descending around Godzilla as he wades across the bay. Unfortunately, a group of convicts take advantage of the chaos to break out of custody, and end up crashing their stolen van into a gas refinery (as inevitably happens in these situations). The resulting fireball far outshines the flares and soon Godzilla is stomping into Osaka, looking intent on breaking things – and the news gets worse, as Angilas is not far behind, looking for a fight…

Yes, the main reason to see Godzilla Raids Again is the city-flattening tussle between Godzilla and Angilas which ensues. By the time the series entered the 1970s, Angilas was quite well-established as one of Godzilla’s key allies, even a friend, but there is little to suggest that here: the fight takes a surprisingly grisly turn, as Godzilla tears out his opponent’s throat with his teeth before setting fire to the corpse with his nuclear breath. The main reason to watch it may be, but it’s still not necessarily a very good one – in subsequent films, the film-makers had figured out that to make suitamation fights more convincing, they had to overcrank the camera so the creatures appeared to be moving more slowly and ponderously. Here, they hadn’t worked that out yet, with the distracting result that the monsters appear to be moving much too quickly and jerkily.

I’m not going to say that the discerning viewer may as well switch off at this point, but I do think that the main problem with Godzilla Raids Again is that all the interesting stuff is in the first half. The film is weirdly structured and badly-paced, with the monster fight that should really be the climax occurring round about the mid-point of the film. Following this there is a long and far from scintillating digression into the lives of the tuna canning factory owner, his family and employees. The first film’s subtext is clearly about the experiences of Japan during the Second World War; if this one has a subtext, it’s that the emergence of giant atomic monsters really complicates the business of running a tuna canning company. Godzilla burns down the factory! They have to think about relocating the company to Hokkaido, where there are at least fewer monsters (heh, just wait until King Kong and Legion turn up). There is a school reunion and a fairly well-mannered stag party, of sorts.

From here we go into a climax which just about deserves the name, as it is extremely protracted and not exactly gripping stuff: Godzilla is tracked down to another remote island, which is repeatedly bombed until he is buried under ice cubes. It is notably short on tension, though sadly not on sentimentality – once again, a heroic self-sacrifice is required to put a stop to the marauding monster.

That’s really the main problem with Godzilla Raids Again: too often, it just feels like a limp retread of the original, surprisingly formulaic even though this is only the second film in the series (the scene where the armed forces turn up and shoot at the monsters a lot, to no effect, already has a formal, almost ritualistic feel to it). Nor does it have the same kind of intensity or fire in its belly – the monster rampage in the first film is shocking for the horrendous casualties it causes amongst the civilian population, but here it just seems to be spectacle – pow, there goes Osaka Castle! – with no-one worth worrying about dying.

The monster suits are good, and there are some genuinely impressive special effects shots at various points in the film, but it really does suffer from the poor structure of the script and the lack of a strong final act. Although this film was a financial success, you can almost understand why it was six years before they made a third Godzilla film. Monster wrestling was to prove the future of the franchise (that, and regular appearances by aliens from Planet X), but the main problem with this film is that it’s treated as filler for the story, rather than the main attraction. It was not a mistake the series ever made again; this is obviously an important film in the franchise, but you would struggle to call it a great or even a particularly good one.

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