The Boys: Season One

boys1This was great. An eight-part series based on a comic book that I’d never even heard of written by Garth Ennis, the same guy behind Preacher (a comic book which I read several years ago via the graphic novel reprints, and which was also turned into a tv series on Amazon). The Boys comic book was published between 20o6 and 2012, so as far as comic geeks are concerned, its ancient history already, but it’s interesting to note its ‘age’ because it possibly informs its approach. Basically it’s a superhero book that is consciously the opposite of all the standard comic book tropes of traditional Marvel/DC superheroes. It takes the premise of Alan Moore’s Watchmen, in postulating that superheroes are real and living in our real world, and what they and the world would be like- basically, what would the world be like if Superman was real? In Watchmen, Superman is Dr Manhattan, a scientist of the Cold War transformed into a being with Godlike powers, who grows increasingly withdrawn and distant from human affairs that unravel in his wake during the cold-war 1980s. In The Boys, Superman is Highlander, a complete and utter self-centered dangerous asshole who feels he is above the law- possibly above any authority in the world. Indeed, the superheroes here are as unaccountable as real-life celebrities appear to be in our world, using their power and wealth to manipulate the media in their favour (no, I don’t like celebrity culture).

Basically, in The Boys all the superheroes have gone Corporate, they are celebrities whose brands are used to sell anything from beers to cereals, and whose popularity and powers have generally corrupted them so that they become reckless and self-centered and endanger the safety of the public and the world at large. The title of both comic and tv show refers to “The Boys”, a clandestine group of ordinary people who are at odds with the superheroes, intent on breaking through the lies and abuse of their powers, uncovering the truth about them, revealing their wrongs and hunting them down… and blowing them up if necessary (or putting a power drill to the test).

boys3Even for someone like me who loves the Watchmen graphic novel and movie (and hopefully the HBO spin-off series incoming this Autumn), The Boys is like a breath of fresh air. It deliberately sets out to undermine the traditions of the genre, full of gratuitous violence, sex and swearing and sending up most every standard trope that is celebrated in most any Marvel or DC superhero movie. We like to imagine that most anyone given superpowers would be like Captain America or Spider Man or Ant Man, you know, basically good and decent and set on ‘doing the right thing’ but the truth is, people aren’t inherently noble, are not generally incorruptible- people are usually greedy and selfish and self-centered, and most people given super powers would as likely be jerks abusing those powers as they would becoming noble, selfless heroes.

These guys lie and kill with wild abandon, and with no supervillains to keep them in check or validate their existence they run amok abusing their powers/position and manipulate public opinion through corporate videos and events. We can recognise the manipulation of social media and celebrity culture and it all looks pretty realistic.

The Boys benefits from coming out of nowhere, I think, as it constantly surprises. I gather many things are changed from the original comic book (some characters have changed sex and race, for instance) but part of the fun remains spotting the representations of familiar superheroes like Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman and Aquaman, and how The Boys variants are shown as horrible jerks and twisted shadows of the DC counterparts. It can run fast and loose and isn’t at all weighed down by, say, seventy years of comics mythology that weighs down the traditional superhero characters- and as it deliberately intends to shock and surprise it just gets wilder and funnier and, yes, quite disturbing at times. The wanton gory human collateral of the superheroics is a brutal reminder of what the traditional genre movies rather forget- you cannot destroy skyscrapers or cities etc without killing dozens or hundreds of regular innocents, and watching HIghlander gorily cut apart dozens of ‘terrorists’ because they are not American, or leave a plane of civilians to die because he messed up the rescue, can be very sobering indeed. He could be a hero like Superman, but instead he’s an asshole, because he’s only human, afterall. And the Boys need to take him down.

Yeah, great stuff, and very well done. Its gory and violent and funny and quite a surreal commentary on the celebrity-obsessed, social media culture we are living in. The cast and the production design and scripts are terrific and I really can’t fault it at all. I look forward to season two next year.

Last Week: This Matrix may have a score to settle

matrix1Well, Warners are bringing The Matrix back. Its been rumoured before, but the announcement this week seems more official: Lana Wachowski (one half of the Wachowski, ahem, sisters who brought us the original trilogy) is signed up, as is Keanu Reeves and (somehow) Carrie-Anne Moss. Presumably shooting next year for a 2022 release, who knows, there’s still plenty of time for it to fall apart. Keanu is, as the Hollywood parlance goes,  rather ‘hot’ at the moment, with his John Wick films doing so well, which likely explains why Matrix 4 is finally happening. The Wachowski’s have struggled post-Matrix (although I did really enjoy Cloud Atlas) so in some ways it’s a little surprising that Lana is even attached to the project, but I guess it keeps the fans onboard. Speaking as a fan of all three Matrix movies (I actually have a sneaky adoration of the second one in particular, as freakish as that may seem) I’m intrigued to say the least at seeing what might happen next. At their very worst, the Matrix trilogy is odd and confounding and subversive and full of good (and bad) ideas, and I’ll take that over the generic fodder we seem to get lately. I just hope they bring the Architect back.

It will be in some company, what with future Marvel, DC, Star Wars and Avatar movies in the offing over the next decade- it rather makes me wonder where they’ll all fit in on the release schedules. Where will ‘ordinary’ non-genre movies fit in, I wonder?

Mentioning Star Wars, it has likely not escaped anyones attention that the trailer for The Mandalorian, Disney’s new flagship show headlining its November Disney+ launch, was revealed this week. Of course it’s impossible to judge anything from its trailer, but it at least looks ‘Star Wars’. To be honest, I thought it looked like a neat idea for a proper Star Wars standalone movie, like Rogue One, and that its almost a pity its a mini-series rather than a movie. It could be great, but here in the UK we don’t know when we are getting Disney+ anyway, so it becomes something of a moot point.  Sign o’ the times indeed. People get used to downloading/streaming torrents, they aren’t going to be inclined to subscribe when it eventually arrives, especially if its been seen ‘by other means’, but Disney may have a situation in the UK with Sky having rights to so much Disney content. Actually makes me wonder, if Disney pulls all that content, what on Earth will Sky have to actually air?

Not that Sky are unique in that situation, but they are particularly open to some damage there. Content is king, afterall, and as streaming avenues open up and content becomes tied to particular streaming channels, a whole new world opens up and the old content providers, whether it be Sky or Virgin Media, whoever, could be in trouble.

Funnily enough, I’m reminded of when Battlestar Galactica‘s two-part pilot was edited into a theatrical release over here in the UK,  and wonder if Disney would consider launching The Mandalorian over here in cinemas this Autumn if its first episode/s could work as a standalone item. Afterall, it’s all just digital files on hard drives these days, there’s no expense making prints like back then. Might keep the hype train rolling and divert people from those torrents.

So anyway, this week real-life issues got in the way somewhat regards writing posts here. I did manage to watch some stuff though – other than the execrable mother!, or Hunter Killer and Aquaman (three things that I did manage to post about), I did complete Season Three of Glow (which was fine) and watched a few episodes of The Boys (which is pretty great). Also my copy of the Ghost Story expanded soundtrack from Quartet Records arrived, but I haven’t really had proper opportunity to listen to it yet. Its a big, lush, romantic score, quite complex in orchestration and unlike the scores we get these days (it dates, of course, to 1981).

On the subject of scores, as I didn’t mention it in my Aquaman review, I feel the moment is right to point out that Rupert Gregson-Williams Aquaman score was, like the film itself, all over the place tonally. Sometimes symphonic and grand, sometimes it was all ‘Daft Punk’ channeling Tron Legacy, at others it was all Bear McCreary BSG. I suspect we hear the temp track revealing itself. But the source music used was something else entirely… did I hear the most horrible mutilation of Toto’s Africa that has ever been inflicted upon Western Civilization? I actually looked on Amazon and they even included it on the official soundtrack album. Ye gods. I’ve listened to the track (Oceans to Oceans) on Youtube and still cannot quite believe it exists. Isn’t Donald Trump being President enough of a cross for us to bear?

Aquaman

aqua1Less is  more. Its a lesson that patently escapes most modern filmmakers (and producers/studios) on the evidence of most blockbusters these days. Aquaman is a film that squeezes two or three films into its 2.5-hour running time; when I was watching it I felt oddly divorced from what was going on, almost absently watching it, and it only occured to me afterwards that it was likely because I simply couldn’t keep up with it. Aquaman is really The Aquaman Trilogy in one huge package, and in doing that it repeats the same mistake that blighted Man of Steel, Batman v Superman, and others.

Maybe its my age, and maybe it’s the only way to maintain the ATD-impacted younger generation’s attention and stop them getting bored, but there’s so many relentless plot points and acton scenes it leaves the film all blockbuster without any substance. Case in point: when Aquaman is smuggled into Atlantis and counsellor Vulko (Willem Dafoe?wtf?) issues him with plot exposition triggering another quest the momentary stillness is immediately broken by another attack and another fight sequence incase that three-minute exposition has set the young’uns to sleep.  Indeed, what is the point of Black Mantra in the film? It seems that in any well-conceived project he’d be the nominal ‘bad guy’ for a whole film but here he’s almost an afterthought, appearing and then disappearing until he pops up again for an action sequence and then gone again, resurfacing (sic) for a mid-credits sequence at the end.  I suspect his character could be entirely cut and the film would be largely unaffected.

There’s a good movie in here somewhere, I think, but it’s probably about an hour long, and the other hour could be likely edited into a satisfying Aquaman Pt 2. Chucking it all together just makes it feel insanely aimless and scattershot. Its hardly unusual in this, it just mirrors how so many films are now. Films seem to lack the confidence to take their time, add some weight and space. We used to blame it on the MTV generation, but is that even a thing now? And who watches TV commercials anymore- surely we can’t blame the tight editing of commercials these days now that we skip through them.

It certainly highlights the comparative success (as a movie, if not box office) of Shazam! which I watched a week or so ago and really, really enjoyed. The entire plot of Shazam! would likely have been reduced to 40 minutes in Aquaman. Its a shame, because Aquaman‘s cast is pretty good on the whole, and the production design quite impressive, albeit perhaps mind-bogglingly OTT, but its all for naught, its all overcooked and.. well, you know, if it was a meal you’d be stuffed and chucking it all back up an hour or two later. Pardon the image, but that’s how this film felt. Such a shame. Less is more.

Shazam! 4K UHD

shazam1When I saw the first teaser/trailer for Shazam! some time ago, it certainly looked different- it was either going to be a blast or another Distinguished Calamity (see what I did there? I’ll go get my coat…), it was hard to tell which, but it was clear that this was no typical, formulaic superhero movie. Except of course it was, really.

But, I have to say, and much to my surprise, Shazam! is an absolute blast. Its great. It doesn’t really shake up superhero movies in anything like the same way as Deadpool pretended to (that film’s last third really just falling into standard genre tropes) but it’s genuinely great fun. I thoroughly enjoyed it and its easily the best DC film I’ve yet seen. Indeed, it’s so much better than the lackluster and confused Captain Marvel.

Shaking off the darkness of the Dark Knight films or Man of Steel etc, this nonetheless finds what actually turns out to be a very surprising middle ground – sure, its as light as Spider Man: Homecoming or the Ant Man films, but somehow it also manages to have some genuine darkness in the mix. Its a story of two boys (Billy Baxter and Thaddeus Sivana), one of whom is an orphan, while the other might as well be as he is ridiculed and rejected by his father and elder brother. Both boys are summoned by ancient wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) who has spent years searching for someone pure of heart to take his place and protect the world from the Seven Deadly Sins. Thaddeus, tempted by the Deadly Sins, is deemed unworthy, and by the time Billy is tested years later, the Sins are on the loose (freed by a now-adult Thaddeus, played by Mark Strong) and Shazam, nearing death, is so weakened he has no choice but to pass on his powers and hope Billy will measure up. Billy is no boy pure of heart, living a rough life in and out of foster care whilst vainly searching for the mother who he lost (and actually deliberately deserted him, in another dark twist). Will Billy learn to control and use his powers for Good before Thaddeus, equally empowered by the monstrous Deadly Sins, hunts Billy down and claims the power of Shazam in order for the Sins to wreak havoc on the world?

shazam2Well you can guess how it goes, but the beauty of Shazam! is how it gets there. While young Billy is played very well by (Asher Angel) in a sympathetic and warm performance that grounds the character, his Shazam alter-ego, dressed in an oddly charming retro spandex suit complete with a very strange cape, is played brilliantly by Zachary Levi, who I thought was incredibly good in the tv series Chuck. Levi’s performance is like Tom Hanks in Big, here playing a kid in an adult superhero body and getting great comedy out of it, but genuine pathos too. In many ways he is a vulnerable innocent in just the same way as Tom Holland’s Spider-Man in recent Marvel outings, and perhaps to a lesser extent Christopher Reeve’s 1978 Superman. Shazam spends most of his time with his foster home buddy Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) who, thanks to a fascination with superheroes, acts as Shazam’s advisor. Its two outsider kids against the world, sort of, in a rather intimate and personal superhero film with considerable heart.

Sure its not perfect, but it’s really quite close. It doesn’t degenerate into a huge CGI spectacle, there is a sense of reality to it in spite of its daftness, and all the characters are well-written and defined. There is a warmth and sense of fun to the film which is really refreshing, especially for a DC film. It doesn’t take itself at all too seriously, and yet maintains some real tension and drama. Its a great balancing act.

Better still, in 4K UHD, the film looks and sounds phenomenal. Its surprisingly reference material, with absolutely perfect use of HDR giving a sense of detail and depth that can be astonishing at times. The film mostly takes place near Christmas, with lots of seasonal lights outside and inside of homes that really pop, and a finale that takes place at a Winter Carnival that is just jaw-droppingly gorgeous throughout. This is a great Christmas movie (I didn’t see that coming). The CGI is more restrained than recent superhero ‘epics’ and is really photo-realistic in 4K, really benefiting from the HDR and wider colour gamut.

So yeah, thats me quite shocked, to be honest. I really didn’t think I would enjoy this anywhere near as much as I did. It certainly augurs well for the future direction of DC movies- well, I hope so, anyway. There’s plenty of room, surely, for both light and dark approaches to these costumed capers. After the deplorable Justice League I had absolutely zero interest in watching any further DC films, but this one has me turned around. Maybe I’ll have to get to Aquaman afterall.

Party Like it’s 1989: Batman (4K UHD)

Its difficult for me to seperate the memories of that summer of 1989, and how big an ‘event’ film it was, from Tim Burton’s Batman itself. Its all wrapped up in the same thing- Batdance playing in the charts, Prince’s Batman album, the news reports about its release Stateside, all the marketing/tee-shirts/toys etc. I don’t know what the marketing budget was, but Batmania was huge that summer, with the Bat-logo seemingly everywhere. In some ways the film was a corporate juggernaut, from the casting choices to the use of Prince etc; it’s a testament to Burton’s efforts that the film still feels like it has a singular voice and vision in spite of the demonstrably hands-on studio behind him. 

Batman was the first film I saw in a cineplex, when the Showcase opened up nearby and consigned the old dilapidated ABC cinema in town to history forever (and eventual closure). So Batman remains more a memory of time and place than just a movie that could ever be judged on its own terms- it’s the quintessential ‘event’ movie, in the same way as Star Wars was and Jurassic Park was. Some films are never ‘just’ films.

Its also worthy to note that Batman wasn’t influenced by Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, as later versions were (Miller’s opus cast a long shadow over Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy and Snyder’s Batman v Superman). Instead, it definitely appears more focused on the very first comic books prior to Robin featuring- something evidenced particularly by its oddly 1940s ‘look’ which seems to set the film in some strangely timeless world, a curious mix of period fashions and art deco sets and futuristic gadgets mixed will all sorts of retro stuff. In this respect, it’s a lot more like Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie, which itself had a very dreamy, almost lost-Americana feel in which even the films ‘present day’ had a strong sense of early-1970s kitsch even in 1978. Both films of course are commended for taking the original sources very seriously indeed- thanks to endless re-runs on tv of the camp 1960s show, Tim Burton’s film in particular had a big weight around its neck in this regard which is possibly hard to envisage now, all these years later.

The production budget for the film was $35 million, which in today’s money would equal something around $75 million- not as high as might be expected in this age of $150 – $200 million budgets, perhaps indicating the surprisingly smaller scale of the Burton film compared to the later versions (Batman Begins was budgeted at $150 million in 2005, about $198 million in today’s money). The scale of the film is also impacted by the technology of the time. The CGI of the post-Matrix era has really enabled film-makers to open up the possibilities and trickery in superhero films, leaving Burton’s film rather dated with its matte paintings and model shots.

But of course films are always of their time, and I recall even in 1989 being underwhelmed by some of the visual effects and opticals; Batman was always an old-school, overwhelmingly analogue film even in 1989, with obvious nods to German expressionism in film and Citizen Kane and Vertigo. In this respect it remains a certain achievement and a curiously beautiful artifact.

Indeed, it looks damn gorgeous on this amazing 4k release- I’m really quite astonished at how beautiful this film looks now in 4K. Sure much of the fakery still looks fake, but some of the matte painting extensions of Gotham are just breathtakingly beautiful to look at, with new detail and colour breadth. And the sets. Good grief the sets. The interiors are pretty astonishing in detail and lighting (the HDR really benefiting the shadow detail) and the exteriors are really a wonder (the Gotham streets built on the Pinewood backlot and shot at night really impress here with all the added detail). In some ways this Batman is one of the most impressive catalogue 4K UHD discs I’ve yet seen- the HDR isn’t distracting (you’re not blinded by bright lights etc like you can be in some rather revisionary remasters) but simply increases the sense of depth and detail throughout. Its really tastefully done, clearly retaining the intentions of the original film-makers but looking, frankly, better than it ever has, even during its original theatrical presentation in 1989.

An interesting thing rewatching this film after so many years (I really can’t recall when I last saw it, but it was possibly on DVD) is the casting- after seeing Heath Ledger’s Joker, I expected Jack Nicholson’s version to pale in retrospect, but Nicholson’s Joker still impresses, surprisingly still perhaps the definitive Joker so far. There’s something real and fascinating and gritty about him- of course Nicholson is a great actor with real charisma in front of the camera- it’s almost magical here. Jack Napier is clearly a Bad Guy, a self-centered criminal working his way up the crime-syndicate ladder who becomes distinctly unhinged once he becomes the Joker, with what I assume are Nicholson’s ad-libs elevating the movie in just the same way as Robin Williams Aladdin several years later. His Joker is mean and scary and funny in a really fine performance, and yeah, he actually kills people in this- I was surprised when watching this again to see both Joker and Batman kill people. Its a surprisingly violent film considering it also lacks some of the CGI hysterics/stunts etc that later contemporary superhero films are afforded now. Burton actually wanted to cast Brad Dourif as the Joker- boy would that have been a different movie.

Jack Palance of course is brilliant, the only problem with his Carl Grissom is that he’s not in the film enough, Palance having a huge weighty gravitas in the few minutes of screentime he has. Kim Basinger and Jerry Hall remind us just how old the film is/when it was made, Basinger reduced to just screaming damsel in distress most of the film and Hall simply a trophy moll, it’s clearly all stuff they wouldn’t get away with today (Basinger replacing Sean Young as original choice for Vicki Vale, how weird would that have been for me as a Blade Runner fan). I always liked Robert Wuhl as reporter Alexander Knox, a finely tuned comic performance that is quite measured and successful considering its in the same film as Nicholson’s Joker. Wuhl has always been one of the things I liked most in this movie.

Batman is curiously dated- as I have said, it was dated even in 1989 in some ways, and hasn’t ageed well since, but I did enjoy rewatching it. The saddest thing is that so much was dropped/changed when the sequel was made, and while many seem to think Batman Returns is superior I really don’t like it. I preferred the originals big Pinewood exteriors and interior sets, and really hurt by how much of the cast that we lost (I always thought Batman 2 should have reprised Billy Dee William’s Harvey Dent and featured Two-Face as the villian, it’s such just a lost opportunity). Batman Returns just felt like too different a film, and the title oddly ironic, as it wasn’t the return of the Batman I had so enjoyed in 1989- it actually felt like a reboot.

You will have noticed I haven’t mentioned the biggest issue I always had with this film- Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne and Batman. His Wayne is okay I guess, but his Batman really seems limited. Maybe it was the suit. It looks okay but it was clearly a bitch to shoot, it looks like he can hardly move in the bloody thing. The cape is almost a funny throwback to the 1960s show how it flaps around much of the time, and any fighting sequence is hampered by the suits inability to actually do anything in it without falling over. I always watch the film thinking about Spielberg’s ordeals shooting the mechanical shark Bruce in Jaws and feel that Burton must have had similar sleepless nights with that damn Batsuit. They managed to light it okay in most scenes, with the film’s expressionistic approach and deep shadows helping hide many of its failings, but it’s not the suit a real crime-fighter would employ without being put to death by the first serious super-villain. Its one of the things that dates the film really, but what the hell, it was 1989 I guess.

And of course, even as a big Prince fan, it really does seem weird, his music featuring in this. With it 1940’s looks it always seems funny to see Joker’s goons lumbering around with a 1980’s boombox and Partyman blasting out of its speakers. But yeah, what the hell, it was indeed 1989 afterall. Party on.

 

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

verse1Some have described this as the best Spider-Man film yet. I’m not so sure about that- I suppose that really depends upon your own history with the character, which has been in print now for over fifty years. For myself, well I read the run from 1963 through to the late ‘seventies, from the Ditko years through to the Romita and Andru years and all had their own pros and cons. For myself, the definitive Spider-Man would be one set during the 1960s, like an episode of Mad Men sprinkled with Ditko’s noir-ish sensibilities, full of period songs and stylish fashion and design. Something like the Batman tv show but done all adult and serious. Clearly, thats never likely to happen, and Spider-Man films are made for today’s readers carrying all the baggage of the 1980s run to the present, which I’m utterly ignorant of (hence my rather clueless bemusement of the Venom film and a strange distance from much of what goes on in recent Spider-Man films- a young ‘hot’ Aunt May? Wtf?).

But you never know- if there’s one thing that Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse demonstrates, anything can happen.  Quite a few times while watching the film I had to ask myself if this thing was real, where it had possibly come from. Its an exciting, exhilarating, breathlessly entertaining and imaginative slice of comic-book joy. Its an absolute blast. Back when the film was announced, I wondered what the hell they were thinking of (maybe my thoughts were shadowed by memories of that awful cheesy Spider-Man animated show of the 1960s) but this thing… well, it’s quite gorgeous, and it has a witty script… its great, a real treat. Its a slice of genius really, how it manages to press some kind of ‘reset’ button on everything that’s come before it, and make everything seem so new again- it does make me wonder, infact, where the live-action Spidey movies go without seeming old-fashioned and almost redundant. I’m quite ignorant of the character of Miles Morales having his own comic-book series but I gather he does, no doubt part of all the mythology in the comic I’ve missed since I stopped reading it decades ago. I have the feeling that I had the Spider-Man of my generation, that we deserved back then, and it’s somebody else’s now. I’m fine with that, and while I’d not really be interested in reading the current comics, it’s fun to watch something like this and get a glimpse.

I’d also love to read a Spider-Man Noir book (at last Nicolas Cage is brilliant again, who’d have guessed his true destiny was self-deprecating voice casting? His career could be revitalised for years). This guy deserves a spin-off movie… but then so does Spider-Gwen; it’s part of the genius of this film, how it can appeal to so many different groups of people not naturally ‘into’ the usual Spider-Man.

Did I say it was gorgeous? Its like one of those old Motion Comics (remember them? I tried watching the Watchmen one and retired to the original book in confusion), but on steroids. Its breathtaking really, riddled with all sorts of clever touches, whether it be squiggles or comic panels and lettering, different styles, as if somehow a comic-book drawn by different artists was brought to animated life by some kind of Frankenstein cine-sorcery. I’m sure having only seen it once there’s all sorts of touches/details/geek easter-eggs (I spotted a few) that I’ll pick up on repeated viewings. Its wild and nuts and beautiful.

Its funny, DC could have done something like this with its Batman series- have the old matinee-serial b&w Batman meet up with the Adam West Batman and the Michael Keaton Batman etc. Its a funny thing how even the movie mythologies of these comic-book characters are as convoluted as the original comic ones are. I guess it’s all those years, decades going by.

Into the Spider-Verse almost makes all those reboots and remakes make sense. Maybe it’s making some kind of commentary on the industry and how all these franchises twist and turn in an effort to keep themselves relevant and topical, and, er, make lots of money. I suppose a sequel would be almost an afront, like selling-out almost..

 

The Legend of Tarzan (2016)

legtarazanCaught this on Netflix last night. At least it didn’t cost me anything (Netflix subscription notwithstanding, at least it wasn’t a rental or disc purchase). What a woeful, ill-judged film this was. Ignoring the shambolic script, the actual presentation, with sweeping circular camera moves that always irritate me and excessive use of painterly (unconvincing) CGI landscapes and characters, was really pretty poor. As for that script… well, let’s be fair, it’s hardly a finished script- it feels like a rough draft and it may be a fault of the editing that it seems so bad, or maybe the editing looks bad because it’s trying to fix the script problems in post.

The Legend of Tarzan seems to want it both ways- retelling and retooling the familiar origin story in awkward flashbacks whilst setting itself ten years after Tarzan has returned to England as Lord Greystoke, thus enabling a sort of post-modern revisionism of the story/legend in much the same way as Spielberg tried (and failed) with Peter Pan in his movie Hook. Unfortunately, it makes the film feel as much Marvel as it does Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Its hard to measure the cynicism of the piece, from the casting of Samuel L.Jackson to give the film the uncomfortable feel of a buddy picture while making it also ‘hip’ and trendy,  to the awful waste of Christoph Waltz as the utterly one-dimensional chief bad guy and nemesis for Tarzan. As for Tarzan himself, Alexander Skarsgård acquits himself pretty well but is hamstrung with the stodgy script that fails to serve the character at all. There were a few times that I thought that the guy was a pretty good Tarzan but wasted in the wrong movie- I felt quite embarrassed for him.

legtarazan2The film seems too concious about retooling Tarzan for a modern audience more accustomed to the heroics of Marvel and DC superheroes than the heroics of old, with Tarzan’s swinging through the jungle CGI-hysterics looking too much like Spiderman swinging through the canyons of New York, and some of the one-on-one fighting looking pretty much like any other modern costumed caper. I’m left with the suspicion that the whole project is really a case of it being made simply to be ‘Tarzan for the CGI generation’ as if the film-making techniques (such as the rendering of CGi apes and other animals etc) of today are the sole reason to retell Tarzan’s adventures.

When the film finally closes and the credits start to the accompaniment of a pretty awful ‘pop’ song, the ugly cynicism is complete: this is a film that is all about product, and franchise, and making money. Maybe I’m being naive, I guess all films are about making money, but somehow the film-makers managed to sink $180 million into this – and it looks like all of $80 million managed to get onscreen, an indication of waste perhaps reinforced by the bewildering number of producers credited. Its so terribly knowing and cynical, it doesn’t seem to be anything about a decent story being told as efficiently as possible but rather the usual noise and spectacle that is inevitably ill-judged. By becoming calculatedly epic (the grand finale is a horror of all the usual bad CGI habits, with thousands of digital thespians and dodgy cartoon landscapes serving no good at all) and ignoring the intimate (the chemistry between Tarzan and Jane (a free-spirited Margot Robbie that perhaps feels a little too Lara Croft) never really convinces, despite, or perhaps because of, Skarsgård sulkily mooning over her all the time. When Jane is captured by the dastardly Christoph Waltz and Tarzan stoutly chases after her, it’s all very Last of the Mohicans but without the passion or tension. The predictable ending is inevitable.

 

Initial thoughts on Black Panther (2018)

bp1.pngUnderwhelming. I actually watched this last weekend and have hesitated regards posting a review simply because I thought I would re-watch it again, give it another chance. Unfortunately, I have not had the opportunity to do so due to illness so here I am, writing this post based on initial feelings that might be subject to reappraisal later.

Hype springs eternal. Maybe that’s the problem. I missed this film at the cinema but was well aware of all the praise it was getting and its impressive box-office numbers that likely surprised even Marvel. The film clearly struck a chord with audiences.

But of course you just never know what films audiences will engage with and lots of truly great films get ignored while many bad ones become hugely successful- just look at the perplexing success of the Transformers films. Disney seem to have been unstuck by the response to the recent Solo movie – a film that again, I have not seen, so can’t really comment on, but some people whose opinions I value seem to think it was pretty good and yet oddly ignored by audiences. Well, if a film that grossed $323 million worldwide can be said to have been ignored- I suppose its really a matter of scale and expectancy; a Star Wars movie, albeit one that had a troubled production that cost anything up to $300 million to make, might be expected to reach that magic $1 billion easier than most movies. Instead Solo fell well short of that particular measure of success.

But was Solo any less formulaic or uninspired as Black Panther? Or am I being harsh? Are superhero movies, particularly one with a clearly positive racial message, more in tune with the current social/cultural zeitgeist than a movie based on an ‘old’ franchise from the 1970s (I love the dichotomy of considering Star Wars movies as old and dated when all these Marvel movies are based on comics-trips of the 1960s and 1970s)?

Black Panther grossed something in the region of $1.3 billion, so if box-office is a measure of anything, it was clearly doing something right. But yes, it left me a little underwhelmed, even bored. Playing that utterly meaningless box-office card once more, Thor: Ragnarok, which was for me clearly a much better Marvel movie, grossed $850 million worldwide, so what, that means it was actually a worse movie than Black Panther? Okay, while we’re here lets be naughty and play these box-office charades again- the woefully insipid Justice League movie grossed nearly $700 million, so Thor: Ragnarok wasn’t as great a movie as I thought by that comparison (or maybe the DC fans watched Justice League out of morbid curiosity, like some kind of celluloid car-crash). Anyway. Box-office is meaningless when appraising movies, unless you’re a studio executive.

I don’t know why exactly Black Panther didn’t really engage me. Maybe I thought it would  be more original/daring, more culturally significant, less of a (I hesitate to use the word, but here I go) ordinary or formulaic genre movie. Sure, it was never going to be a Deadpool or a Logan, but all the same, it slipped into that dangerous trap of these superhero movies, of degenerating into too much cgi hysterics and less the drama that I had hoped for. I suppose I shouldn’t criticize a movie for being faithful to the original comic, but I think the film would have been more significant if it had addressed the genuine  plight of poor black people in America and involved a typical black kid with limited social mobility/options and neighborhood issues of poverty and drugs and gun crime. I suppose that is some other movie, some other hero. The Utopian dream of Black Panther may be life-affirming and full of positivity, and maybe that the point of the film, I get that.

Was I maybe expecting Marvel by way of Shaft or Superfly? Well, maybe that was the hype. I don’t know. Its not a bad film (certainly not in the DC realm of misfires) but Marvel seem to find it so easy making these films popular that I wonder if they really need to stretch themselves more- after, what, eighteen movies or whatever it was by the time Black Panther came along, you’d think the Marvel Studios formula would be getting a little tired and disengaging audiences- instead they seem to be just lapping it up, eager for more.

 

 

 

 

Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

thorragWell I expected it to be good (message to self: why on Earth did you miss this at the cinema?) but I really didn’t expect it to be just this good. I mean, it’s crazy how apparently easy and effortless Marvel Studios make it seem- anybody at DC/Warners will tell you how hard it is to pull off such a naturally organic and enjoyable superhero movie. In a way, this film almost creates its own sub-genre of superhero movie, a sort of action/comedy mashup, in effect. Marvel by way of National Lampoon.

Which doesn’t sound such a good thing. I did wonder going in whether Marvel would be able to pull it off, toeing that awfully-shady line between comedy and farce that could have pulled this superhero caper into a terrible mess, but get away with it they did. Thor: Ragnarok is quite unabashedly wonderful fun, a glorious and somewhat affectionate tribute, visually, to the comic book genius that was Jack Kirby, whilst at the same time being full of knowing ‘winks’ to the superhero genre and the Marvel films in general. In some ways its one of the most sophisticated superhero films we’ve yet seen.

I thought Spiderman: Homecoming was pretty good, and pretty clever in how it revitalised Spider Man in the wake of so many recent films and the rather abortive reboot of a few years ago.  Thor: Ragnarok is of a very similar mould. Both films are light-years away from the foreboding and almost self-loathing of the recent DC movies that were so informed by the Watchmen film and its own graphic novel source. Watchmen is one of my favourite films so I’m not at all aversive to that approach, but it cannot be denied that Marvel are on to something with how it is approaching these movies.

My one note of caution- whilst both Homecoming and Ragnarok are great fun and a welcome breath of fresh air (it has to be said, Captain America: Civil War and the last Avengers movie were pretty dark and po-faced in places) Marvel will have to be wary of going too far down this light-hearted vein of comedy in their movies. They still need to maintain a weight of drama, for instance. Humor is a nice way of letting off steam and entertaining but it shouldn’t be the central crux of the superhero genre, and those films that tread too far into comedic territory risk only amplifying the inherent silliness of the whole genre.

I wouldn’t be at all surprised if, for some people, Thor: Ragnarok was their least-favourite Marvel movie, purely because of that humour.

But Thor: Ragnarok is just so much fun. Its nuts. Right from the start. Thor is talking to his jail companion, a skeleton, and the skeleton’s jaw drops, literally, at something that Thor says and… well, that was it, I was sold. Sure it’s daft, Sure there’s a lot of hokum and the usual plot contrivances and not every performance is perfect (I still have a hard time tolerating Jeff Goldblum in just about anything, but hey, at least they didn’t cast Nic Cage) but it’s just a pure joy throughout. It certainly isn’t dull. My God, it’s a Jack Kirby comic brought to vivid glorious blockbuster life. With quite a bit of John Buscema thrown in too, if I’m not mistaken. I mean, for that by itself it deserves to be ranked as one of the very best Marvel films.

Well, at the very least, it’s one of the most fun. I think I said that already, didn’t I?

Okay, if I have to be a sourpuss here, I didn’t like how they handled Odin’s passing- twinkly cgi fairy dust flying off into the sky? Please. It was the one miss step that I think the film made. Didn’t care for it at all. And yeah, Goldblum didn’t work for me, but he doesn’t in anything, for me, so that’s hardly this films fault.

It just looks too easy, too natural. I’m certain that these films are incredibly calculated, but at their very best, these Marvel films certainly don’t feel like it. An achievement in itself, I think, right there. At their very best, they feel loose, not contrived.

Now please, Marvel, bring on Howard the Duck. Please. Living in a world where Trump is president, something that surely even Steve Gerber could never have imagined, a Howard the Duck movie makes the most perfect sense in the world, and the guy who just made Thor: Ragnarok might be a good bet for director.

We don’t need another Watchmen… do we?

watchmenIt seems quite crazy to be even considering this question. As someone who was blown away by the film during its cinema release in 2009 and subsequently brought the film on Blu-ray in its theatrical, directors cut and Ultimate Cut, I simply cannot understand why anyone would ever want to remake/reboot it… especially when only eight years have gone by. It feels like the ink is still wet on the page, the paint still wet on the canvas.

And yet Damon Lindelof (who, okay, I will cut a little slack following The Leftovers) is working for HBO at creating a mini-series of Watchmen, presumably as a big-budget replacement for HBO’s soon to conclude phenomenon Game of Thrones (as if Westworld didn’t already fit the bill).

Watchmen is perhaps the classic, definitive comicbook. It’s like the War and Peace of superhero comics. I know some have had reservations (or downright hatred) of the film version, but far as I am concerned, the damn thing was definitive. It did everything right. It was faithful (to the extreme) to the comic- set in an alternate 1980s America, it had a fantastic cast that was incredibly close visually to the comic. It even portrayed Dr Manhattan naked, pretty amazing for a mainstream Hollywood superhero film. They even did the pirates comic-within-a-comic Tales of the Black Freighter as an animated cartoon and included it in the Ultimate Cut which runs for something approaching four hours. I mean, it may have its faults, but being unfaithful or disrespectful to the original is not one of them (unless you are one of those that criticises the film for just that).

To me, it was bloody amazing and I still pinch myself that it even exists, and that they went to all the trouble of filming that Under the Hood doc and the Pirates animation and all the rest that it did so right. A bit like the Blade Runner sequel we got this year, it just seems too good to be true, even now. When you consider how the DC superhero films have struggled these past few years it’s clear how badly wrong the Watchmen film could have turned out. But it didn’t. It turned out great.

So why even revisit Watchmen, nevermind so soon? It just feels redundant to me, when HBO could be going off and working on all sorts of other intellectual properties. In anycase, the film Watchmen hardly set the world afire so it’s rather tempting fate, like pushing more good money after bad. I don’t know. In a world of remakes and reboots, this feels the most unnecessary one of all.

They’ll be telling me that hack JJ Abrams is involved next, and this special circle of hell will be complete.