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Posts Tagged ‘2019’

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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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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I have a friend who I generally get on quite well with, probably because he tends to say very nice things about me – he was the one, by the way, who suggested I should forget about the blog you are currently reading and become a YouTube sensation instead. The only thing which is a source of good-natured animosity between us is his passionate and apparently sincere belief that Batman Vs Superman is not only a good film, but a genuinely great one, comparable to Schindler’s List in terms of its artistic merit and thematic power. Well, as you can imagine, he gets a good deal of ribbing from me about this view – I mean, all opinions are of equal merit, yadda yadda yadda, there’s not accounting for taste, blah blah, and so on, but even so, we’re talking about Batman Vs Superman – my old role-playing group regularly improvised better superhero plotlines than the one that film possesses. My friend is, however, one of the biggest Batman fans I have ever met, which may explain why his objectivity has slipped a bit.

The boot may be about to find itself on the other foot, as I find myself poised to say very complimentary things about Michael Dougherty’s new movie Godzilla: King of the Monsters, a film which has received, shall we say, mixed reviews. Some of them have been downright hostile and even rather scathing, calling it ‘stupid’ and the year’s first indisputably bad blockbuster (I find myself quite ready to dispute that, by the way). I am aware that there are many elements of this film which do not fall within the realm of storytelling excellence as it is conventionally reckoned. I am aware this is an attempt to bring a traditionally mocked and derided movie sub-genre to a mass audience on a $200 million budget, and thus quite probably qualifies as folly on a breathtaking scale. Sorry, don’t care: I really enjoyed it.

I should mention that I am the world’s worst person to give an objective opinion of a new Godzilla film, as I have seen all of the previous thirty-four films in this franchise and – well, I was about to say there’s never been a Godzilla movie I didn’t enjoy watching, but nowadays you have take the three animated Godzilla movies on Netflix into account, and they comprise the most horribly boring interlude in the entire sixty-five year history of the series.

Still, Dougherty’s movie puts the franchise (or the American end of it, at least) back on track. The movie follows Gareth Edwards’ 2014 film, which saw the existence of Godzilla and other massive ancient creatures revealed to the world at large, since when monster-wrangling agency Monarch have turned up more than a dozen others, which they are containing and keeping tabs on. This is rather vexatious to the world’s governments, who would naturally rather see these ‘titans’, as the monsters are referred to, exterminated – even the ones which might be friendly.

A promising premise for a Japanese-style monster movie, then, and the film further demonstrates its familiarity with the tropes of the form by introducing a melodramatic subplot about some thinly-drawn human characters: we meet the Russell family, who were struck by tragedy off-screen during the 2014 – Mark (Kyle Chandler) and Emma (Vera Farmiger) lost their son in the monster attack on San Francisco, leading him to develop a brooding hatred of Godzilla, and her to decide to build a gadget which will allow her to communicate with monsters using their ‘bio-sonar’. Needless to say, they are not on close terms any more, which is a source of angst to their daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown).

The monster-translator seems to be working out, allowing Emma to calm down a baby monster which hatches out in the facility where she is posted: this turns out to be the larval form of Mothra, who despite spraying silk everywhere turns out to be as mild-tempered as ever. The good news does not last, however, as eco-terrorists commanded by Evil British Person Colonel Jonah Alan (Charles Dance, enjoying himself) blast their way into the site, kidnap the Russells, and commandeer the monster-translator.

Monarch boss Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) is naturally alarmed to learn of this development, and he and his team naturally recruit Mark Russell in the hope he will know how to track the signals from the monster-translation gadget. He is not exactly a willing team-member, belonging to the ‘kill ’em all’ party where monsters are concerned. He is only strengthened in his views when it emerges that Godzilla is behaving unusually, showing signs of agitation before heading towards Antarctica. But why? Well, it turns out the eco-terrorists are planning to excavate and defrost a monster discovered frozen in the ice there: a triple-headed dragon code-named Monster Zero – an ancient rival of Godzilla, known in legend as King Ghidorah…

Well, it certainly brings a new meaning to the term ‘extinction rebellion’ – the eco-terrorists have decided that the best way to restore the natural balance is to get giant super-powered monsters to flatten civilisation as we know it. Not sure if Greta Thunberg would be on board with that. Here I suppose we come to the crux of the matter: either you will be thinking ‘that’s a fairly cool and authentically dingbat basis for a Japanese kaiju movie’, or you’ll be going ‘this sounds like the most moronic thing I have ever heard’. And I can empathise with the latter view, I really can.

What you have to bear in mind, though, is that all Japanese monster movie plots seem kind of moronic when you write them down in those terms. It kind of goes with the territory: they are predicted on the existence not just of ridiculously huge creatures performing physically impossible feats, but such creatures who also have distinct personalities and weirdly detailed inner lives. You can either get on board and enjoy the madness, the absurdity, and the extravagantly fantastic imagination of these films, or you can just dismiss the entire sub-genre as a stupid embarrassment to cinema as an art form and not go anywhere near them.

There is a lot about Godzilla: King of the Monsters which even I will agree is no good. The film has an oddly old-fashioned vibe to it, recalling Hollywood blockbusters from the mid to late 1990s, while Kyle Chandler (normally a perfectly able screen actor) is kind of useless as the film’s supposed hero; the character’s arc (it’s hardly a spoiler to reveal he goes from hating Godzilla to being a supporter and ally of the big G) is lumpenly detailed. The same can be said for most of the human characters; they are thin and seldom well-played (Watanabe shows he is a class act, however).

On the other hand, there are a lot of elements in the film which will probably look just as ridiculous to the casual viewer – but which are actually hugely satisfying and enjoyable if you know your monster movie lore. There’s a plot reversal where it is revealed that King Ghidorah, rather than an earthly monster, is actually a malevolent alien invader, contrary to what everyone previously thought. This sounds like a stupid plot contrivance, but it’s actually staying completely faithful to how this character has been traditionally portrayed. The same is true of the revelation of the traditional alliance between Godzilla and Mothra – ‘so these two have some kind of a thing going on?’ asks a sceptical minor character when they learn of it – by normal standards it is a deeply silly idea, but once again this is simply the nature of how these characters have always been presented. Likewise an attempt by the military to kill the monsters using a weapon called the Oxygen Destroyer – it’s only a dopey-sounding plot device until you recognise this is a call-back to the original 1954 film. (Ghidorah’s code-name as Monster Zero itself is taken from 1965’s Invasion of Astro-Monster.)

I feel like this is the first American movie to really embrace the history and traditions of the Japanese monster movie and try to have some fun with the form. It does feel like a genuine fusion of a traditional Hollywood blockbuster with the kind of film Ishiro Honda was making back in the early 1960s. Godzilla, Mothra, Ghidorah and Rodan all look and act pretty much as you would hope – they may be realised through state of the art CGI, but Godzilla is still temperamental and imposing, Mothra is essentially benign, Ghidorah is the villain, and Rodan the bad-tempered sidekick. The soundtrack incorporates terrific new arrangements of the classic Godzilla and Mothra themes by Akira Ifukube and Yuji Koseki, and, most surprisingly of all, there’s even a strong suggestion that a couple of supporting characters are actually Shobijin (something which will mean nothing or everything to you, depending on how steeped you are in the lore of Toho’s universe). Rather touchingly, the film is dedicated to Yoshimitsu Banno, long-time director and executive producer of the franchise, and Haruo Nakajima, the original Godzilla suit actor, both of whom passed away while it was in production.

In short, the film works tremendously hard to appeal to the existing fanbase of these movies and characters. I suppose this is kind of a go-for-broke move, as it could potentially alienate the mass audience who couldn’t give a stuff about which island Mothra usually lives on, or what Rodan’s special powers are. As I say, it quite possibly qualifies as a monumental folly by most rational standards. I honestly don’t know whether the film’s spectacle and action will be enough to lure in the sceptical in large numbers – what I found to be hugely enjoyable, and a film I feel like I’ve been waiting to see for many, many years, may seem to others to be an absurd, poorly-plotted mess.

This is the first American Godzilla movie to bear comparison with the better Japanese films in the series: it’s not afraid to be crazy and fantastical in a way that the films by Gareth Edwards and Roland Emmerich simply weren’t. Whether this ultimately proves to be a good idea or not remains to be seen – it’s less than a year until the next film in the series, Godzilla Vs Kong, comes out, and it will be interesting to see if they choose to sustain the same kind of tone. I really hope they do, because – from my entirely partial and biased perspective – this film was honestly a treat.

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‘Many people lead lives of quiet desperation, but Elton John leads a life of loud desperation’ – if I had said that, I would be somewhat peeved, as it’s a quote that seems to have entered the public consciousness without anyone being able to remember who it was who actually thought it up in the first place. Still, it’s a good line, and that’s the most important thing. Whether or not he agrees with it, Elton himself (he has acquired that odd status of being one of those people recognisable from his first name alone, even though he has thoughtfully given himself three) clearly thinks his life has something to commend it, as he has apparently been trying to get his life-story filmed for nearly twenty years now. Now here it is, in the form of Rocketman, directed by Dexter Fletcher.

One day it may be possible to write about Rocketman without comparing it to Bohemian Rhapsody, but clearly not today. Fletcher wasn’t the credited director on the bemusingly successful Queen bio-pic, but he did finish it off after Bryan Singer was canned, and the subject matter is obviously very similar, too – the life story of a troubled legend of popular music, liberally garnished with hits from the back catalogue. Of course, there are differences as well, the first obvious one being the tone of the film, which opens with Elton (Taron Egerton) arriving unannounced at what seems to be a group therapy session, dressed in an outfit that makes him look like a cross between Mephistopheles and a macaw. Some discussion of Elton’s youth, as Reggie Dwight in the London suburb of Pinner, leads into the first of many full-on musical numbers, staged with verve and imagination.

These continue as Elton/Reggie’s life story unfolds: a musical prodigy troubled by a strained relationship with a cold and distant father, he wins a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music, starts playing keyboards in pubs at an improbably early age, and generally establishes himself as a jobbing musician by the late 1960s. The key moment comes when his natural facility with melody is put together with the lyrical talents of Bernie Taupin (a nicely-pitched performance from Jamie Bell, who fully understands his job is to support Egerton without upstaging him). Success comes quickly, with an early appearance in America leading to astronomical record sales, fuelled by a succession of belting tunes.

But is he really happy? With the fame and fortune come a troubled relationship with his lover and manager (Richard Madden), increasing dependence on drink and drugs, and a terrible sense of loneliness and isolation. This is a life story of extraordinary success (350 million records sold), hand in hand with desolating moments of heartbreak (Watford FC losing the 1984 FA Cup Final 2-0 to Everton).

(Funnily enough, Elton’s period of ownership at Watford is one of those interludes in his life that the film skips over entirely. Clearly, he was on board for a film depicting his struggles with addiction, loneliness, self-doubt, and betrayal, not to mention his failed marriage, but some things are clearly just too painful to revisit, even 35 years on.)

Another key difference between this film and that other one is that, of course, Elton John is still with us and has clearly taken a hands-on approach to the movie (he is credited as executive producer and his husband is one of the producers). To some extent this is no bad thing, as it was Elton himself who resisted attempts to overly-sanitise this film, insisting that his life would not get a PG-13 rating. On the other hand, one also kind of gets the sense that there has still been some smoothing over of rough edges – Elton is mostly presented entirely sympathetically, with no mention of the hair transplant, any of his well-known strops directed at fans or passers-by, or the surprising moment in the mid-80s when he phoned up a member of his staff and ordered him to make the weather outside less windy. Likewise, the film omits the 90th birthday party of his mother, which he didn’t go to as the pair had fallen out a few years previously – so his mum hired an impersonator to go and perform there anyway (I don’t know about you, but I think there’s masses of material for a great movie just in that one story).

I suppose much of this is understandable as the film concludes with Elton coming out of rehab at some unspecified point between 1983 (the film concludes with Egerton recreating the video for I’m Still Standing) and 1991 (the closing captions indicate that the star hasn’t had a drink in ’28 years’). One of the problems Rocketman has to contend with is that there isn’t really a moment in Elton’s career that corresponds with Queen’s legendary performance at Live Aid, and so it lacks a natural end point – the only possibility would have been his performance at the funeral in 1997, which would probably have entailed making a film with an entirely different tone. (An uncharitable observer might suggest that one of a number of things that Elton John and Freddie Mercury have in common is that neither of them have released any really noteworthy music since the 1990s, and Freddie has a better excuse for this.)

However, if the film comes pre-loaded with some flaws, it also has some in-built advantages, which it makes full use of, most obviously the Elton John back catalogue. Looking back, I remember always being aware of who Elton was, but not particularly familiar with his music in the way that I was with, say, the Beatles – I recall the first time I properly heard Crocodile Rock and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, which was on a re-run of Elton’s appearance on The Muppet Show – the image of the singer, in a peacock outfit, conducting a chorus of foam-rubber crocs in the ‘la la la la la’ section of the former song is one burned into my memory, and I was sorry not to see it recreated here. However, most of the famous Elton songs turn up here, although the one about the candle is only alluded to, and the ones licensed to Disney are absent as well – but we do get the title song, Crocodile Rock, Tiny Dancer, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Your Song, and many others.

The film hedges its bets by staging some of these as simple recreations of Elton performing them (and it has to be said that Egerton often looks uncannily like the singer when doing so), but in other places opts to go for the full-on musical number approach. Like the opening number, these are mostly extremely well-done, slick and inventive, and because the film isn’t afraid to be a proper musical they can – for example – insert a song like 2001’s I Want Love (all right, maybe I was a bit harsh about Elton’s recent material) into a scene from the 1950s without it feeling too jarring. Egerton does all his own singing and is more than acceptable, just one aspect of a performance which really surprised me – I’ve always tended to think of Egerton as a rotten actor, but this may well be because I have only seen him in films which were a bit suspect (the Kingsman series) or actively rotten themselves (Eddie the Eagle and last year’s Robin Hood). Rocketman indicates there may yet be hope for him.

In the end we really enjoyed Rocketman. It handles the rags section rather better than riches, and loses focus towards the end, and it doesn’t deliver quite the feelgood emotional wallop of Bohemian Rhapsody, but it’s made with skill and creativity. Olinka, who in addition to being a former rock musician is also in training to become a psychotherapist, found it to be a particularly moving and insightful depiction of how none of us really find it easy to escape our origins, no matter how materially successful we may become. Viewed in those terms, the film has surprising depth and emotional heft, as well as delivering some slick and satisfying entertainment, and some really surprising clothes. In the end I would probably say that Elton has earned whatever indulgences the movie permits him, and I have no doubt he would agree with me.

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Any sensitive person would be forgiven a certain degree of wariness when it comes to the value of democracy nowadays – the track record of major votes in certain English-speaking countries over the past few years has not exactly been stellar. And so I permitted myself the odd moment of foreboding when, in the absence of an obvious candidate, the popular vote as to which film our happy little band should go to see on our weekly cinema trip went almost unanimously to Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut, Booksmart. (Then again, the only other serious alternative – and I use the word ‘serious’ inaccurately – was Ryan Reynolds in Detective Pikachu, and, you know, frankly, no.)

You may have heard of Olivia Wilde; certainly, I can’t hear her name without thinking of a scene in Cowboys and Aliens with a bonfire, and another one from a film called Alpha Dog that has been widely shared on the internet… but I digress. I kind of get the impression that Cowboys and Aliens marked the end of her association with big, broad studio movies (though then again, she was in Rush, but I’d forgotten about that) and she’s been ploughing her own furrow doing a mixture of roles in lower-profile films and making documentaries. Booksmart, while maybe a bit too full-on to be entirely mainstream, is certainly a film aimed to appeal to a wide audience.

Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever play Molly and Amy, a couple of intelligent, dedicated, wide-awake young women just on the cusp of graduating from high school in the time-honoured fashion. Both of them have prioritised academic success over self-indulgent hedonism for the past four years and are feeling rather smug about it, accepting their reputation as a couple of joyless geeks is a reasonable price to pay for going to much better colleges than any of their peers.

Except… it doesn’t quite seem to have worked out that way. All their fun-loving, popular contemporaries also seem to be going to very good colleges, or taking other equally attractive routes in the next stage of their lives, despite having enjoyed themselves fully. Molly in particular is absolutely traumatised to learn this, finding it grossly unfair, and in an effort to redress this decrees that the two of them will be attending the biggest party they can find, there to behave wildly and prove that they are fun people to hang out with. (The fact that both of their crushes will also be attending may have something to do with this new resolution, too.) Amy is a bit less keen on this plan, but goes along with Molly as usual. There is of course the problem of how to actually get to a party they don’t know the location of, but they are, as they keep reminding themselves, officially the two smartest girls in school…

I know there are some readers of the blog who take a special interest in the views of my good friend Olinka about the films we end up going to see; some of them are not even Olinka herself. So I imagine that Olinka’s verdict of ‘That was terrible… I was cringing all the way through,’ will carry particular weight with them. I should quickly add that it is not Olinka’s view or mine that Booksmart is actually a bad film, just that it brilliantly and vibrantly depicts a teenage world of social embarrassment and self-inflicted disasters. This is, I would suggest, not a film for Granny, for it contains various scenes of drug abuse, heavy drinking, and minority strumpy-pumpy, all held together by a script with an F-bomb total probably heading for four figures.

You might think be thinking this sounds like a spiritual companion piece to Eighth Grade, which came out a few weeks ago – Twelfth Grade, maybe. Well, the two films do obviously have something in common, but whereas Eighth Grade was implicitly critical of modern society and almost felt quite bleak in places, Booksmart turns out to be a joyous, upbeat, very, very funny film. Certainly it does have things to say about modern society, and it does poke fun at some young people’s obsession with identity politics (not to mention nearly every other kind of politics). But these are friendly pokes, not mean-spirited at all; this is not a reactionary film, and it is firmly on the side of its protagonists.

Booksmart certainly belongs to a popular tradition of American high-school comedies, and I suppose it will be hailed as the first entry to the genre to be written and directed by and star women; well, this may be so, but as noted the film does not labour the point and remains notably light-footed throughout. This isn’t to denigrate the quality of the script, which is consistently pacy and clever throughout, and works as well as it does mainly because of the way it’s not afraid to be completely absurd. All of the characters are caricatures to some extent, but they’re written and played to the hilt by the cast, who know when to go big and when to rein it back for a moment of something approaching genuine emotion.

That’s the thing about Booksmart: I turned up expecting another loud, agitprop-y comedy more concerned with ticking the right political boxes than actually serving its story, and an hour in I realised I was watching something consistently funny, frequently over-the-top, highly inventive, and with a central relationship that was totally believeable and that I had somehow become honestly invested in. It’s the warmth and heart of Booksmart that pushes it over the line from good film to great film – it’s not just that you care about Molly and Amy, and feel for them when various social and personal disasters overtake them, although this is the case. This is a rare example of a film where pretty much every character eventually turns out to be a decent, likable human being – again, all credit to a cast which includes Jessica Williams as their class teacher, Skyler Gisondo as the class goon, and Billie Lourd as a drug-crazed free-spirit.

There are not many films I have come out of recently feeling quite as buoyant as I did after Booksmart. The phrase ‘instant classic’ gets tossed around fairly glibly these days, but in this case it does feel justified. It’s interesting that a film that wears its progressive credentials very lightly and simply concentrates on delivering solid laughs ends up feeling much more positive than any number of studiously right-on dramas and documentaries. Funny old world sometimes; but this is a very funny new film.

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