Fan Entitlement & Game of Thrones Season Eight

Back when I was fourteen, three years felt like an awful long time, much longer than it seems these days when the weeks, months, years seem to slip by in a hurried rush leaving me wondering what happened. So back then, having seen The Empire Strikes Back in 1980 with its tease for whatever would happen next with the various threads it left in place, it seemed I had a long, long time to daydream and fantasize about what would happen in the next Star Wars film- especially when its original title Revenge of the Jedi leaked out. I would imagine such grand events.  I imagined an opening scene in which Darth Vader stormed into the Emperor’s throne room, killed him and became Emperor himself. Vader was still a terrible Dark Lord to us back then, quite irredeemable- the idea he’d turn back to good and save Luke would have been laughable. Back then Star Wars was Luke’s story, far as we were concerned, and certainly not Anakin Skywalkers. It was also a 9-part saga, and the idea that the next film would see the Empire defeated and no Vader or Emperor alive, and all finally well and done, well, that was preposterous. How little we knew.

At this point no-one had any idea who or what Jabba the Hutt was, except that he was a big bad crime lord and Han Solo was in big, bad trouble. I imagined Boba Fett was as mean and tough as anyone we’d met in Star Wars so far, and that he and those other bounty hunters working for Jabba would be a big handful for Luke and his friends. I imagined a whole movie spent searching for and rescuing Han Solo, while Vader resumed his search for Luke… or maybe the ‘other’ that Ben had remarked upon. Back then it was such a big canvas, and Star Wars seemed to be getting just bigger and bigger, such a wealth of possibilities with Episodes 6 – 9 ahead of us (Episode 7 in 1985, Episode 8 in 1988 etc… I and so many other fans had it all mapped out). We thought Vader and the Empire would be around for many years of movies. How little we knew.

When Revenge eventually arrived in the guise of Return of the Jedi, well, I really did feel let down by it. Vader was suddenly a bit of a stooge, the Emperor a cackling crazy old wizard who talked and boasted too much, Jabba a giant slug easily thwarted in what was reduced to almost a prologue, and as for those bloody teddy bears… This wasn’t the ‘even darker’ sequel to TESB that I had dreamed up over the years in between. I felt let-down. With TESB, Star Wars seemed to have grown up with me, become a more serious and teen-adult Star Wars and I’d expected it to carry on as I became 17. I’d forgotten that Star Wars was a kids film, really, and I wasn’t actually its intended audience afterall. Lucas, although I didn’t know it at the time, was already leaving Star Wars behind as he suffered a divorce and his real life became more pressing than a saga in a galaxy far, far away…

Back then of course, my negative view was left for me to stew over with my friends. I had no Internet or social media  to rage on, to share my indignant wrath and sense of betrayal by George Lucas. We lived in much smaller worlds, little bubbles of geekdom. There were no petitions  to get George Lucas to reshoot Return of the Jedi as a darker film with Wookies instead of Ewoks and leave the door open for the  Episodes 7 – 9 that we fans had dreamed of and felt entitled to.

Naturally the world is so very different now. Those old Star Wars films that only existed in my teenage dreams, though, have returned to mind over the past few weeks as I have watched season eight of Game of Thrones and witnessed the almost hysterical drama being enacted online  and in social media. Dedicated fans have been outraged by a perceived lack of thought, originality and care that is evident within the final eight episodes of this huge saga. Characters acting completely out of character, logistics of geography and time and distance, such a big part of the show in earlier seasons, now being ignored, awkward plot holes just being left there for fans to rage upon.

The brutal truth is that most of the fans complaining would struggle to organise a six-year olds birthday party, nevermind a tv show costing anything up to $100 million to make, being made across continents, a scale of production the details and difficulties of which we cannot imagine. Game of Thrones is a remarkable achievement, an event we rarely see. I appreciate the old term ‘tv show’ hardly means what it used to, years ago, but watching some of the scenes in Episode 5, The Bells, and its huge scale… well, I had to keep telling myself, this isn’t a movie, its a bloody tv show. We forget what has been done here when we become so accustomed  to tv of such scale. This stuff isn’t easy, and I think we ridicule it to our peril. Its too easy to sit in our armchairs and sofas and pretend we are experts and believe our opinions carry any weight with the behemoth that is HBO or anyone making millions from Game of Thrones.We are consumers, on the sidelines.

Yes, there are obvious issues with season Eight. Could it ever match the hopes, fears and expectations of fans, especially with the lengthy delay between seasons seven and eight? So many theories have rampaged across the internet for the past two years, some crazy, some profound. If there was a perfect season eight or ending for the show, we’ll never see it, but I think we got near enough.

I’m well aware that I sound too much of an apologist when I simply offer my own opinion that it could have been worse. But it could have. I honestly am totally thankful that it is as good as it is.  It would have been intolerable for it to have led to a total let-down after so many years and such promise and ambition. But of course, some fans really do feel it was a total let down, and I feel for them- it’s probably awful to feel so angry about something so dear to them. God knows I felt pretty angry about The Last Jedi and very disappointed by Avengers: Endgame. It is so easy when you’re passionate about something to feel so personally affronted by something.

But fans are not entitled to their dreams being given form. Those dreams that take flight in film and tv and books, they are the result of hard work and craft, and unless its us doing that hard work, well, how entitled should we really feel? We do not own these tv series or movies.  I did not deserve as if by some God-given right to have that huge dark Return of the Jedi of my dreams, nor those episodes that should have followed on in the rest of that decade. Its great of course when a film or tv show or book lives up to hopes and expectations (praise be BR2049) but we should always contain those hopes and expectations- hope for the best, fear the worst, something like that. Babylon 5 didn’t manage a saga across five perfect seasons, it rather stumbled after four but I’m glad we got what we did. Its sadly a fact that many shows get cancelled before their time. In the real world, it’s awfully difficult to make a perfect movie, and God knows Lucasfilm has been trying to better TESB since 1980 to no success, Sometimes it’s simply getting lightning in a bottle- get it once, like in Game of Throne‘s Red Wedding episode, and it’s magic, but it’s a deal with the Devil to get it twice or thrice.Eight perfect episodes is treat enough, but eight perfect seasons?

At least the show got made and finished. Its anybody’s guess if ever the books will get written and published. I wonder sometimes if George RR Martin’s (apparent) lack of activity at the typewriter is simply caution, letting the tv show forge ahead and test the waters so to speak, and that he’ll tweak his original intentions per the fan base reactions. That’s rather the long game that Littlefinger might have taken. Evil clever bastard, then.

 

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Isle of Dogs (2018)

I’m not really at all familiar with Wes Anderson’s work- I haven’t seen a single one of his films prior to this. I gather he’s an auteur who makes quirky self-aware films that appeal to the arthouse crowd- not that there’s anything wrong with that, but none of his previous films have really appealed to me. A film about dogs, though?  That’s just impossible to resist.

Isle of Dogs is a stop-motion animated film, and a surprisingly dark one. In that sense, it’s quite subversive, as its form would suggest a childrens simple light-hearted adventure, akin perhaps to such vehicles as the CG-animated The Secret Life of Pets or Bolt, but in reality it has this dark sense of humor, a toughness to it. Its also as much an ecological story as it is a canine adventure, functioning on several levels really. There are murders, political conspiracy and lies, an unlikely partnership and fight for survival on a rotting dump of an island in which medical experiments were made on dogs in hidden labs, and behind it all, all sorts of Japanese culture references that likely flew right past me.

Its one of those rare cases where you watch a film not quite believing it even exists- it’s too strange, too perfect, too confounding. Some films are oddities, and it’s very true that such films seem rarer all the time. Love them or hate them, we should just be thankful they simply are. I really quite liked this film- to suggest I actually loved it might be a stretch really, as somehow I felt more intellectually stimulated by it than emotionally. I suspect this might be a trend in Wes Anderson’s work, glancing at his filmography. Isle of Dogs is beautifully animated and really quite imaginative, and I’m certain it rewards future viewings, so I’m glad I jumped on the Blu-ray price-drop Amazon just gave it. But Bolt, for all its safe and familiar comforting charms, just might be a better movie, whatever the intellectual arthouse crowd might say as they sneer on the more typically family-orientated animated films.

 

Avengers: Endgame (2019)

end1A crushing disappointment. I’ll get that out of the way right now. While I didn’t believe Avengers: Infinity War was the slam dunk classic that some, or even the majority of, fans did, I did have hopes that my reservations with that film would be addressed by the second film, that things that troubled me would make sense in hindsight. Alas, the simple truth of Endgame is that it doesn’t – indeed, it just throws more wood into the fire and causes even more consternation.

One caveat here- while I have read loads of Marvel comics from the 1960s/early 1970s era, I know nothing about the original Thanos material in the comics that, presumably, led to an Infinity War saga that crossed over several of the Marvel comics lines. So I have no way of knowing if my issues with it all stems chiefly from the comics themselves and the films being faithful to them. I suppose the film-makers are caught in no-mans land, somewhat, if they are beholden to those comics and keeping faith with them.

But if so, then oh boy, I wish they had gone the other way and trod some other path. Time travel? Alternate timelines, ignoring time paradoxes with some kind of casual “nah, that’s just movies” remark and just doing whatever they please?

Let’s get this right: at the end, for some unfathomable reason they just don’t make clear, while they have dismissed the inherent paradoxes of time travel as nonsense. they maintain that somebody has to go back and return the Power Stones to where they came from in the several desperate time-zones and locations. So Captain America elects to do this, and they send him back – presumably he has some kind of Time Machine Wristwatch so that once he delivers one Power Stone he can then dial up another location/time and deliver the next one and so on, which suggests that perhaps they should have done this in the first place when they originally went back for them- all the heroes together to each Power Stone and then move on to the next, etc. But anyway, conveniently bypassing that particular plot hole, Captain America goes back and delivers each Power Stone, presumably fixing any temporal issues we were earlier told were not an issue. Then he decides to go back to 1940s America and his lost love Peggy Carter and spends his life with her, presumably spending his life in some alternate timeline thus created- and yet ends up on the park bench in the current (?) timeline as an old man. Surely he should be in some other universe/timeline in which he stayed with Peggy, not the one in which he fought in the various Avengers/Captain America movies and Peggy married someone else and…

Its just noise. I know that all it is. Its all nonsense, trying to make sense of it and it’s only a comic book superhero caper, its grown men (and women) dressed up in silly costumes with silly powers that defeat all laws of physics. But surely it could do without all that noise of plot holes and paradoxes and sensical conflicts and fan service?  That first section of Endgame, in which our heroes traumatised by the finale of Infinity Wars unite to track down Thanos and undo the Snap that took out 50% of all life in the universe- surely that should have just been the entire Endgame movie? Just spread it out into some huge interplanetary adventure figuring out where Thanos is and figuring out a way to defeat him and use the Gauntlet to fix everything? I mean, ultimately, it would do without all the Time Travel theatrics, which don’t ultimately really fix everything (we don’t get Gamora back, or the Vision etc) and just give me headaches every time I think about it.

end2.jpgTime travel is real: okay, so we go back and kill Thanos before the events of Infinity War. We’ve established it won’t create any Time Paradox because Back to the Future is just, hey, a movie. We go back, nuke Thanos or flush him out an airlock or decapitate him and presto, everybody’s back, because Thanos didn’t live to get all the Power Stones. Or, let’s go back to every previous Marvel movie that featured a Power Stone and steal it and destroy it before Thanos could get it. Presto, everyone’s back, and there’s no Power Stones or Gauntlet that could ever snap them away. No, instead, let’s go back, steal those Power Stones, then use it to do our own snap (without the Gauntlet?)… er..

Yeah, only the Gauntlet can harness and control the powers of those Power Stones, I think that was established earlier, so what the frak does Iron Man do at the end of Endgame? When he and Thanos are having that wrestling contest, Iron Man somehow comes out of it with the Power Stones without Thanos sussing what he’s done in a split second of wrestling masterclass brilliance, and no, I don’t remember if he’s actually wearing the Gauntlet having somehow undressed Thanos of it like some kind of party trick Paul Daniels would be proud of, he’s just in his Iron Man suit and somehow he performs a Counter-Snap anyway? WTF? The grand conclusion of the saga has me scratching my head about what the hell actually happened- a clever twist or terrible storytelling?

I realise they filmed both Infinity War and Endgame together, back to back, but it really feels as though they shot and released Infinity War, and then had to figure some way out of it with Endgame, to fix it all back. “How do you fix the problem of Infinity War?” seems to be a question they didn’t already have an answer to, which for me feels weird, because presumably they had all this mapped out before they even started shooting any of Infinity War, nevermind what Endgame became. I mean, they did, obviously, because this is how they made the two films but it doesn’t feel like it, it doesn’t feel inherently sound or whole. Which is what disturbed me the most about Endgame.

Repeat viewings may answer some of my concerns and may make more sense of it all, but I rather doubt it. I think Endgame (and it’s a bit of a shame, but that also includes Infinity War before it), is rather a miss-step for Marvel. The box-office seems to be beyond spectacular so I’m likely in the minority as usual, but hey, box-office billions in no way reflects upon actual quality. It just possibly reflects upon the gullibility of fan-boys and a general public clamoring for the next big Event Movie. From my one current viewing, I’m of the opinion that Endgame was pretty poor and a crushing disappointment.

And next week I’m watching the grand conclusion of season eight of Game of Thrones, another saga that threatens to collapse under the weight of fan expectations and several years of build up and hype and popular-culture hysterics. I sense a pattern emerging and its not particularly pretty…

John Wick Ch.3: Parabellum (2019)

wick3This third entry in the John Wick franchise knows what it is doing from the start- pleasing John Wick fans and lovers of action movies. In that sense, the film is some kind of relentless machine, delivering elaborate fights, bloody headshots and pretty breathtaking stunts in spades, right from the opening. When I exited the cinema I wondered how long it’s going to be until somebody does a bodycount and reveals just how many dead bodies Wick and his freinds leave in their wake (I’m guessing something like two hundred, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were actually higher).

There is something almost cathartic in that cartoon violence, a ballet of death that is almost glorious- this series of films remains an action-movie fan’s wet dream, stripping down all plot and characterisation to something like a videogame level. I remember there was a game several years ago, I forget the name, but it put the player in several first-person levels/scenarios of killing and rewarded the player by scoring for headshots/stringing deaths together etc – this is that videogame as a movie.  The problem is, it gets a little wearing at times, the endless action, the relentless death and destruction lacking any depth or perspective that, say, a proper script with proper characters would have. I may be missing something, but towards the end of the film a group of bad guys in a busy concourse of the train station are suddenly wiped out through some surprise intervention (that makes little sense really when I think about it, except that the big bad guy doesn’t want the other bad guys spoiling his fun- that’s about as complex as this stuff gets) and none of the public commuters react – I even looked for the bodies in the background as the camera started to move away and I couldn’t see any. Did I blink and miss the corpses getting ‘cleaned up’? Shouldn’t hundreds of panicked commuters have been fleeing the scene?

Should I really be enjoying this silly movie so much?

Its hard to believe that it was back in 2014 that the first John Wick came out of nowhere like a breath of fresh air. Stripping the usual action movie tropes to the barest minimum, its retired assassin John Wick (Keanu Reeves) was a mystery, barely a character outline- described as ‘Baba Yaga’ , a shadowy legend whispered about by fearing criminals, he was suddenly unleashed like a bloody force of nature when the grieving mans car was stolen and his dog killed. It was simple, and the bad guys deserved everything they got (never mess with a mans car or his dog). As action films go, the brevity of the plot and characterisation makes the film pretty much perfect.

John Wick 2 delved deeper into the mysterious mythology only hinted at in the original, and Parabellum (its funny how sophisticated/complex a title it is for a film so simple) opens things much further, actually breaking out of the city and into the outside world, as far as the deserts of Africa (in a sequence which is, ironically, the weakest of the movie, which may be telling).  Each John Wick film has added more characters in the supporting cast, more back-story, ever more elaborate myth-building. At this point with the third film, we’re pretty much at the level of the first Matrix film, the defined world having its own weird logic – assassins everywhere, a payment system of unique gold coins/tokens, administrative clerks, adjudicators, sacred codes of conduct, John Wick even practically holding status of ‘the One,’ the status of unkillable, with all the other assassins trying to prove themselves by doing the impossible. Oh, and if the moral of the first film was ‘never mess with a man and his dog’, this one offers the adage ‘never mess with a woman and her dogs’ – Halle Berry and her deadly dogs being one of the highpoints of the film (although I maintain that this section of the film away from the city is its weakest section) and it’s pretty damn certain she’ll be joining Wick in Chapter Four’s carnage.

At this point it’s pretty clear that there is a danger these films will collapse in on themselves by adding too many layers to its mythology, becoming too complex to support the inherent daftness and joy of its fairly chaotic cartoon violence. Fans always want more, and will gleefully greet John Wick 4 or even John Wick 5 (probably as inevitable as Thanos, at this point). I have to wonder though when the inevitable happens and all that violence, and Wick’s own increasingly hilarious invincibility,  just becomes wearisome. I’d much prefer the Wick films to go out on a high and not become too diluted by too many sequels or its stunts etc just get too insane in the pursuit of being better than before.

Parabellum is still a pretty damn cool action movie and cements the reputation of the series as whole, although it’s clear that there are worrying indications of the point of diminishing returns rearing its head before long. Roll on Chapter Four anyway.

Creed II (2018)

creed2There’s a really engaging story in this film, and the trouble is, its not whats happening with Adonis “Donnie” Creed (Michael B. Jordan)- instead I was really interested in the silent giant Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), living a tough existence in Eastern Europe under the rough guidance of his father,  former Russian champion boxer Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren, reprising his role from Rocky IV). Their relationship is one of silences and some considerable tensions and was, to me, far more interesting. Munteanu, who I believe is a professional boxer, does a lot with his stares and frowns and while he’s built like a frightening man mountain he exhibits considerable warmth and fragility in his silences, no mean feat for a guy who’s not, I suspect, a professional actor. Had the studio behind this series had the nerve and boldness to follow the first Creed by a film titled Drago which dwelt on Viktor’s rise to success in Eastern Europe thanks to, or in spite of, his father and his father’s own ghosts, and perhaps that led to the inevitable Creed II that we have here, I would have been very happy.  But the cynic in me thinks that likely smells too much like franchise building, so hey ho maybe it’s a good thing after all.

Nonetheless, the biggest weakness of Creed II is that it feels like a by-the-numbers Rocky franchise movie, lacking any of the depth, sensitivity, emotion or sense of meta-reality that the original film did. We know that Adonis Creed will have a crisis of faith, will have personal problems and doubts, and that he’ll somehow turn defeat into victory thanks to Rocky guiding him and a really cool training montage. There’s really not enough surprises here, and Viktor’s story remains the more interesting.

There is, though,  a really great drinking game here- have a shot everytime you see Adonis’ girlfriend Bianca (Tessa Thompson) with a new hairstyle. You’ll be under the table before you reach the climactic fight (and consequently might be more surprised by the outcome). I usually like Tessa Thompson but something here just irritated me- likely its really the writing of her character; here she’s no longer a ‘real’ or normal person, she’s too perfect, too beautiful, a singing celebrity in her own right and far too comfortable with the millionaire lifestyle. When she’s singing some maddeningly bombastic song as she leads Adonis down to the ring for the final bout I suddenly realised that this is the one thing the ‘legend’ that is Beckham never dared- imagine Posh serenading him down the tunnel out to the wembley faithful for his last England game there. Would have brought the house down (or emptied the stadium, I’m not sure).

So anyway, Creed II was definitely a disappointment having enjoyed the first film when I finally caught up with it a little while ago. Here’s hoping any eventual Creed III turns its back on the Rocky tropes/mythology and strikes out for something new. Or failing that, lets see that Drago film.

The Terror of the Tongs (1961)

terror2I’ve finally gotten around to what is, as expected, the weakest link in an otherwise surprisingly high-quality set of movies in Indicator’s third Hammer collection, Blood & Terror (the three other entries being The Camp on Blood Island, Yesterday’s Enemy and The Stranglers of Bombay). While the film is at heart an old-fashioned potboiler of hidden menace in the Far East in the vein of Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu yarns, it’s a pretty mediocre and predictable story, further tarnished by the unfortunate casting of a mostly English cast of Hammer thespians playing Chinese characters, wearing dodgy ‘slitty-eyed’ makeup that looks decidedly un-PC in our enlightened age and also limits the actor’s attempts to emote, instead making them look like wooden actors playing aliens in ‘sixties-era Doctor Who. That being said, Christopher Lee chews up the scenery in his role as the leader of the Red Dragon Tong, as if he’s auditioning for Macbeth or something. I guess he was doing something right, as he’d later be promoted to the role of Fu Manchu in some genuine Sax Rohmer-based flicks later on.

Its also a sign of the times in which it was made, that even though the film seems pretty tame nowadays, it was pretty brutally trimmed by the censors of the time and the cuts, which are really jarring, have never been restored. One death is not so much blink and you’d miss it as much as, well, the character is alive one moment and dead the next- it’s almost quite bewildering and almost breaks the scene its in entirely (surprised they never bothered to try reshoot a censor-acceptable version, but that’s possibly just an indication of how casual the Hammer chiefs were rushing these flicks out as cheaply and efficiently as possible).

terrorPositives, few as they are, are the colourful cinematography and the beautiful Yvonne Monlaur in one of her two Hammer roles, probably the highlight of the film for me- she’s a much better actress than this hokey script, and Hammer in general, deserves, and I think it’s rather odd she didn’t have a more successful career in film. Even in a poor film with a poorly written character, she has a connection with the camera and a presence that really resonates. If ever I decide to rewatch this film again, it’ll be largely just to see her performance (and that of Christopher Lee, of course, chewing up the scenery as only he could- like Peter Cushing, he had a way of elevating Hammer to some kind of Shakespearean tragedy, as if he’s making a film no-one else can see).

Adrift (2018)

Adrift, based on a true story of a woman in 1983 surviving being set adrift at sea following a disastrous encounter with a hurricane, is competently made but suffers from being all too familiar. Which is odd enough, thinking about it, as it’s a remarkable enough story but it does seem like we’ve seen it before- most recently in films like All Is Lost or older films such as Castaway. Certainly in many ways this film is no worse than them, or other similar survival at sea thrillers. Its well made with a decent cast, great cinematography and effects. Its just a little unfortunate that it feels, well, so familiar.

Funny, though, when watching films like this- I keep thinking about Jaws, about how difficult that film was to get made, the logistical and technical challenges of filming out at sea, and how well films manage it now. I wouldn’t suggest it was anything easy, I guess it can still prove to be a nightmare, and at least in something like this they weren’t contending with a giant mechanical shark. All the same though, the underwater photography is particularly fine here and the effects work involved in the wide expanses of sea and the storm sequences is all very impressive.

Its a shame the film doesn’t fully engage. Its effective enough, but not really enthralling or as tense as it might have been. Perhaps it is the films structure that undermines it, the post-storm wreck and ensuing crisis being broken up into flashbacks that establish the characters and their past. A more conventional chronological set-up might have been better; might have encouraged our empathy more, but I suppose the way its done is an attempt to encourage a sense of mystery and interest and ensure the central ‘twist’ works (although I guessed it before it came).