Maleficent: Mistress of Evil

mal1Twenty minutes into this belated 2019 sequel to the 2014 original I almost gave up on it (the Abort Button already, crikey I’ve had some week) – it was too twee, too sweet, too… well to be honest, it was too much like an animated movie. Nothing was real; the sets/locations/characters, other than Elle Fanning (and God knows she can be wooden enough to be mistaken for a Supermarionation character) everything seemed to be CGI artifice, outtakes from Avatar. Nothing, I mean NOTHING, was real: I swear it was like it was a Pixar movie. Like quite a few of these live-action Disney films, I really wonder if they should be taken to task referring to them as ‘live action’. They even insisted on one of those endless impossible helicopter/virtual camera shots sweeping over vast landscapes and huge distances, low over forests and over waterfalls and all that… ugh I hate those shots. Always pull me out of what I’m watching and put me on edge.

Thankfully we eventually reached a part of the film with real actors and real sets and the plot kicked in, because then I finally had something to latch onto, even if it was a bit weird seeing Citizen Smith (Robert Lindsay) apparently selling out as royalty and, well frankly I still felt a bit lost. Wasn’t King Henry some other actor before, as was Aurora’s boyfriend, Prince Phillip, and was Michelle Pfeiffer the Queen in the first film? Yes, they recast quite a few of the roles, and no, King Henry’s missus didn’t seem to be in the first one, weird that, or maybe I blinked and missed some explanation. Are we supposed to expect continuity problems or internal logic issues between movies?  Are we supposed to care with films such as this?

mal3Actually, it got better as it went on. Nothing too original or clever, I mean the script was fairly routine/predictable but I guess you rather expect that with big blockbusters like this: keep them simple, keep them undemanding. I might suggest that maybe they should spend some of the overblown effects budget on decent writing, but hey, you can never tell these days, maybe they did, scripts like this probably don’t come cheap even if they do sometimes feel cobbled together from DVD collections. It did, unfortunately, come across like some big overblown machine, the structure of the film, the characters, the telegraphing of stuff… I’m sure the kids love it but many of these blockbusters feel like films made by a committee, films without any individuality of vision.

But it worked, eventually working out as a worthy sequel to Maleficent, a film I quite enjoyed but never returned to- maybe I would have enjoyed this even more had I rewatched the first film beforehand (yeah, do your homework stupid), but it certainly looked like a ‘part two’ to a ‘part one’, even if that first film did originally appear to be self-contained. Some of the visuals are astonishing- Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent continues to be a remarkable creation, scary and monstrous and beautiful and somehow sexy… like a female version of Tim Curry’s Darkness from Ridley Scott’s Legend. Legend actually came to mind a few times watching this film- many of these film fantasies continue to appropriate some of that films imagery, and Ridley’s achievement in those pre-CGI days cannot be denied. But yeah, Jolie really does well under all that make-up, that can’t be easy.

And they should probably do a Flash Gordon reboot now, because the winged men of Prince Vultan’s Sky City can be nailed perfectly- the later battle sequences of Maleficent: Mistress of Evil are like a pre-vis for the end of a future Flash Gordon attack on Ming’s Fortress: I couldn’t help it, I kept on thinking “Flash!” having a bit of a geek giggle. I’m reminded of the recent Planet of the Apes films using CGI apes so magnificently; sometimes a films time comes, when the tech can fully realise the vision, you know? Maybe Flash Gordon’s time is now: an odd thing to realise from watching a Maleficent movie.

Life After Flash

life1There is something really quite sad about this documentary; maybe there is something truly life-affirming, too. I’m stuck somewhere in between, really, considering it. On the face of it, it’s a harmless film about the actor Sam Jones who played Flash Gordon in the 1980 movie, and his life before and after the movie. He seems a charming guy who made some terrible mistakes and suffered for his ego, a self-confessed serial adulterer who made some ill choices in his personal life and followed bad advice career-wise, and seems to have eventually gotten his life back on track. He seems to have become quite a role-model for some, quite a change for someone who was such a jerk making the movie, walking away and refusing to go back after the Winter production break.

On the other hand, I think its more than just a little scary seeing how fixated people can be on a film that’s as lousy as Flash Gordon proved to be. Mind, every film has its fans and I have to be careful here- I’m quite self-aware enough of my own fixation on a certain 1982 movie (which is clearly a much better movie, by the way) to know that people do get a bit obsessed about things. When we’re growing up, we tend to latch onto things that make a marked impression on us, whether it be a book, a movie, a music album, a television series- we seem to identify ourselves through it, and over the years we seem to be unable to let it go. Nostalgia and having a tangible link to the past, simpler/happier times, seems to be the main culprit.

I’m old enough to remember when Flash Gordon came out, the film part of a wave of post-Star Wars projects, in film and television that tried to capitalise on the sci-fi/fantasy boom. It was a wave that culminated in 1982 with films like E.T., The Thing, Tron, Blade Runner, Star Trek II, Conan the Barbarian, The Dark Crystal and others, but getting there, we suffered all sorts of misfires, like The Black Hole, Starcrash, Star Trek: TMP, Battlestar Galactica… and Flash Gordon was just one of them. They weren’t all terrible movies, but they all aspired to be the ‘next Star Wars‘ and they all seemed to find the magic of that 1977 movie hard to capture in a celluloid bottle- hell, George Lucas found it tricky enough himself.

I remember when Flash Gordon came out it did so to mixed, if not unfavourable reviews. From the start, its failures in narrative and execution seemed to be excused by its campness, its irreverent attitude, which to me at the time (at the tender age of fourteen) seemed woefully inappropriate. Star Wars was fun, but it took itself seriously. Flash Gordon seemed an unwelcome return to the sensibility of the Adam West Batman tv show of the 1960s. To me, it was almost an affront- sci-fi films had always been the poor-mans film genre, the stuff of tacky b-movies, and at last Star Wars had shown how it could be done, with quality production values and seriousness. People forget but it was such a huge thing back in 1978 when Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie took itself so seriously, treating its subject with some reverence. Flash Gordon seemed to be suggesting that no, this stuff is daft and silly, don’t take it seriously, its just kids stuff, which to my young self took as an affront. Maybe I was wrong, but Flash Gordon was the wrong film at the wrong time, certainly for me.

But I did like the music.

I remember an interesting conversation during my college course in the late 1980s.  We were on a trip down to London to see the galleries, staying in a hotel for a few nights, and we had a party in one of the rooms, and I’ll never forget a semi-drunk conversation when the topic of discussion turned to the Flash Gordon movie. At that point I’d long since moved on and forgotten the film, having dismissed it when it first came out, so I was surprised when one of the lecturers commented on it. “The film was pretty awful, really,” he admitted, “but the atmosphere in there (the cinema) was incredible. It was the music! The young people were going mad. It was like a rock concert more than a movie.”

life2The music saved Flash Gordon. Without that score it would have been another Starcrash, a cheesy and hopeless attempt to do another Star Wars. Well, the Alex Ross paintings did their bit, too. Ross is a huge fan of the movie and his beautiful paintings, used for publicity and DVD covers over the years, have done a big part of keeping the film in the public consciousness. Funnily enough, though, they seem to be paintings of a film that doesn’t exist, promising a film Flash Gordon isn’t. The film that Flash Gordon should have been,  maybe, like the teaser poster by Philip Castle that I recall seeing in an issue of Starlog thinking, ‘wow! That looks cool!’ only to find the film actually looked nothing like it.

life4Films like Star Wars were difficult back then, visual effects companies capable of executing stuff like that would be decades away, frankly, unless you could go to ILM and even then it was possibly beyond them, truly (but would have looked a whole lot better). As Dino would find a few years later with the 1984 Dune, it ain’t easy to execute that stuff convincingly.  Three Star Wars movies burnt Lucas out.

So anyway, I really didn’t ‘get’ Flash Gordon– certainly not in the same way as the many fans featured in Life After Flash did. It does seem a little bizarre, I mean, the film didn’t/doesn’t really deserve all that praise and attention, or does it? I suppose I’m getting back to that thing I wrote earlier, every film has its fans. There’s no accounting for taste, or what strikes a chord in someone at just the right time for it to leave a mark on them for the rest of their lives.

Funny how Avatar doesn’t appear to have had a similar impact upon its generation, isn’t it?

Life After Flash is an interesting documentary film- its surprisingly unfocused, really, neither an in-depth film about Sam Jones’ life after Flash Gordon, nor a film about the making of Flash Gordon and peoples memories of it, instead its really a mix of both, and seems to jump around a bit. Which is fine I guess. It does manage to get a surprising number of actors and production people involved who speak quite candidly at times, although unfortunately I’d suggest it lacks a certain critical perspective, but that’s possibly just me never having fully made my peace with the film. They guys talk about the film as if its a genius piece of art, instead of the camp mess that was saved by a Rock band’s unlikely music score. You either ‘get it’ or you don’t, I suppose, and I imagine Brian Blessed would enjoy bashing some sense into me with Prince Vultan’s hammer. Likewise those sections concerning Same Jones’ personal life is inevitably dominated by his friends and family that love him, so its hardly as candid as it possibly might be, but its not that kind of warts-and-all documentary, and Jones seems to have become a pretty decent guy. This documentary is clearly made by the fans for the fans, and with that caveat considered, its an enjoyable piece of work.

Life After Flash is currently available on Amazon Prime, and will be included on at least one edition of an upcoming 4K home video release of the film as a bonus feature.

 

Star Trek: Discovery (2017)

disc1There certainly seems to be a problem with all these ‘old’ intellectual properties. Star Trek seems to be suffering a similar existential angst as Star Wars. The issue, of course, is that Star Trek dates back to the 1960s, and Star Wars to the 1970s, and here we are in 2018 and they are still trying to be valid and of the times we are living in. It’d be a bit like trying to bring back the 1930s serial Flash Gordon and expecting it still be modern and of our time- you could update it I guess but it wouldn’t have the b&w innocent charm of those serials, in  a similar way to how Snyder’s Man of Steel update of Superman lost so much of what appealed to fans of Donner’s Superman: The Movie (the irony being that Superman Returns tried so hard to replicate the original and got criticised for just that).

My gut thinking is, ‘why bother?’, why not just do something new?  What makes anyone think that Star Wars is really anything more than a trilogy released between 1977-1983? Was the biggest problem for Lucas’ prequels that they were a product of the 1990s-early noughties, and that the whole franchise should have been left behind, a problem doubly compounded for Disney trying to now do it decades later still? Is it possible, for instance, to return to The Matrix now, continue that series as if it could be just as valid now as it was back in 1999-2003?  Like the old adage, ‘you can’t go home again’, if you have to change everything so much that it no longer looks or feels like the original, then why even bother?

Why indeed keep looking at the past, instead of developing something genuinely new and of our time?

So anyway, Star Trek: Discovery is yet another attempt to resurrect that old 1960s series whilst making it new and valid, albeit with the additional noose around its neck of being a prequel set ten years before the adventures of Kirk and Spock of the original show.  It does seem the common perception these days that prequels just don’t work and we haven’t arrived at that perspective by accident. On the one hand, prequels are always handicapped by dramatic consequence- in the recent Solo movie, for instance, we ‘know’ from the outset that Han and Chewie will survive simply because they have to, as they appear in the original Star Wars movie set years later, as does the Millenium Falcon, so any tension we feel during action sequences etc is, er, severely hampered. Also, prequels cannot help but be seduced by unnecessarily fan service- in the case of the Solo movie, how Han met Chewie, how Han won the Falco from Lando, etc. Its like ticking boxes rather than telling a honest dramatic story.

So anyway, Star Trek: Discovery would quite possibly be a great space opera were it not for the fact that its pretending to be Star Trek. I mean, let’s be clear, it’s not Star Trek. It may have the name in its title, and it may have Vulcas and the Federation etc but its not Star Trek. The show’s Klingons are not Klingons. They do not look like Klingons, they have a language that requires subtitles and they don’t really behave like Klingons- certainly not the same Klingons that contested with Kirk back in the original Trek. Likewise all the tech thrown around in Discovery, the ships and the holograms and everything, its amazing and pretty to look at but it’s no way predating Kirk. A hundred years later, maybe, sure.

So my issue watching Discovery is simply this- it’s not a bad show, really, but it should be its own show. Slapping Star Trek on it is just, well, it doesn’t work, because it doesn’t look like a Star Trek show or feel like a Star Trek show, then, indeed, why bother? The writers seem so enamoured with updating everything and making it culturally relevant to ‘now’ that it loses sight of what the simple pleasures of the original were, and frankly if it insists on that, why call it Trek? I kept watching this show and I quite enjoyed it, but it never really felt like Trek and all the way through I kept asking myself why did they bother? What was the point of the show other than making money and appealing to an established fanbase rather than making one of its own?

Another issue is that it feels indebted to Roddenberry’s own revisionism in Star Trek: The Next Generation, in which he laboured the utopian ideal of Star Trek with no-one arguing or falling out or getting paid or having any life beyond Star Fleet and hopping around the galaxy. Its an irony that the characters of the ‘sixties show feel more ‘real’ than those of subsequent series simply because they are living, breathing characters having wild west-adventures in space without idealising how people behave or saddling everything with a Prime Directive that kills any dramatic tension.

But at least they keep the design of the original phasers, I guess we should be thankful for that.

Ted 2 (2015)

ted22016.4: Ted 2 (Blu-ray)

Ted 2 continues the story of America’s foul-mouthed answer to our rather more polite Paddington bear, and benefits from it being really his movie, whereas there was a feeling that he was more a supporting character, or at best co-star, of the first film (the irony of writing this about a cgi character is not lost on me). The story of the first film mainly concerned his owner Johnny’s relationship with his long-term girlfriend Lori, culminating in their marriage. The absence of actress Mila Kunis, who played Lori, is swiftly dealt with at the start of the sequel with it established that the marriage is over, Johnny (Mark Wahlberg in fine comedic form here) is back to single life and Lori is out of the picture in more ways than one. Instead its now Ted who is getting married to his human girlfriend Tami-Lynn (Jessica Barth) and the film focuses on how the marriage fares, their attempts to have a child and Ted’s legal status as an object rather than a person.

But a film like this isn’t really about the story is it? Its about the jokes, and I actually think this film is funnier than the first, certainly in this films unrated edit (I’ve not bothered with the theatrical cut). Focusing mainly on Ted himself is clearly a good move, as its Ted everybody is really interested in- what he does, what he says, how the human cast react to him. The humour is as raunchy and crude and ‘did they really SAY that?’ non-PC as the first film was, and if you are easily offended then this kind of humour is hardly going to impress. Regards theatrical and unrated versions though, as in the case with this film when you get a choice when the disc loads up, does anybody ever bother with the theatrical version when there is an unrated edit included?

Like the first film’s reference to Flash Gordon and its star Sam Jones (who returns in an unfortunately smaller role here), the film has several affectionate nods to geekdom with some nice cameos (you could play a game as the film progresses name-checking them and their geeky credentials), culminating in a climactic set-piece at a New York Comic-Con in which the sky is the limit for geek in-jokes.

ted3I guess this stuff looks deceptively simple, but the voice-acting, the digital character work, the actual jokes and how they are staged and the set-pieces stitched together to become at least some kind of rudimentary plot, are all probably incredibly difficult and its remarkable how well it all comes together. I’m actually of the opinion that this is a better film than the first, and it’s not often you can say that about a sequel.  Seth MacFarlane has done a fine job here and I guess a Ted 3 is inevitable (but if by some miracle you ever read this Seth, I’d much rather you got us a second season of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey...).

Jupiter Ascending (2015)

jup1I rather liked it.

I liked Jupiter Ascending.

There you go, I’ve said it; I did. I liked it. Imagine the 1980 Flash Gordon mixed with Dune and The Fifth Element and you pretty much get Jupiter Ascending. If that combo of movie influences intrigues you, you may very well find that you enjoy Jupiter Ascending too. Its Gordon’s rich, brash comic-strip colours, its Dune’s mind-boggling huge scope and far-future space opera and its Element’s cheeky European tongue-in-cheek humour. Put it all in blender. Throw in the crazy attempt to squeeze a Star Wars trilogy into one two-hour movie (as mad and headache-inducing as that sounds) and you get Jupiter Ascending. Its mad. It doesn’t work, and yet it does. Its daft. Its fun. Its preposterous. Its bloody stupid. Its got an interesting subtext/social commentary about the rich feeding on the poor (in the case of Jupiter, literally feeding on the poor). It has a heroine who does very little, and even less that is actually heroic. It is, yes, stupid beyond belief (have I said that already?). Well, it is. I should hate this movie. But… but…

jup3But did I say its breathtakingly beautiful?

Well it is. It’s a space-opera fan’s wet dream. While no amount of eye-candy will ever substitute for plot or character or drama, there is something rather unrelentingly endearing about Jupiter Ascending. The Wachowskis and their team have created this huge epic movie with gigantic spaceships and bizarre aliens and gorgeous alien worlds and crazy costumes and… well, it has to be seen to be believed. Its as if all the pulp fantasies of Astounding and all those old sci-fi magazines burst into cinematic life. I know I should hate this movie, but its so crazy and daft and beautiful it melted this cynic’s heart, and I suspect it may be a guilty pleasure for many if they ever ignore the reviews and give it a chance, either at the cinema or on Blu-ray someday. I do not imagine it will win many over but… well, I’d much rather have this crazy joyous mess of a movie than Guardians of the Galaxy. 

jup2‘Art’ it isn’t. I’m not going to suggest that this is a cult film that will one day be reappraised as a classic. Its a film that features a character named Jupiter Jones as its heroine, and her love-interest is a hunky bloke gene-spliced with a wolf (she even says “I love dogs” to him during a romantic interlude). Its crazy, utterly bonkers. But that craziness is intriguing somehow. It even leaps off into Brazil territory;a wild frenetic trip into space-opera bureaucracy that actually features that films director in a cameo, yes, Terry Gilliam- yes, thats right, the ode to Brazil features Brazil’s director Terry Gilliam (I was loving the sequence and then saw Gilliam and thought, bloody hell, they’ve got Gilliam! The Wachowski’s ARE crazy!). Seriously, its just that kind of nuts.

No doubt this film is tanking miserably at the box-office, but it was always going to, wasn’t it? The writing was on the wall for this film when it was delayed from July last year until this month. Why anyone making this film actually thought it would find an audience and be a hit is beyond me. Its one of those films that you watch simply incredulous that it even got made. Not that I think it is terrible or any worse than many other so-called blockbusters. Other than Guardians, I’d certainly take this film over Transformers 4 or the last Hobbit film- the fact that those two films have each made over a billion dollars at the box office (well, I think the Hobbit film is a bit shy of the golden billion figure just yet) is certainly no judgement on the comparative artistic value of the films. Jupiter is fun. Jupiter is bonkers. Jupiter has to be seen to be believed.

jup4Can’t wait for the Blu-ray.

(Did I mention the dinosaurs? There’s these hulking walking talking biped dinosaurs…. they reminded me of the Kleggs from the Judge Dredd strip from 2000AD’s 1970s heyday.  Any film with badass talking Dinosaurs can’t be all bad in my book.)