Maximum Sequel

max1Last night I watched the 1979 Mad Max for the first time, probably one of the strangest examples of films I somehow have never seen (I adore Mad Max 2 aka The Road Warrior, have done since watching it on a a pirate VHS copy back in 1982, which naturally got me into a cinema to watch Thunderdome and, later, Fury Road, but I never bothered with the first film until now).

I thought Mad Max was an entertaining and interesting film, but watching it now, having watched the succeeding films, clearly informed my experience. I can’t ever get in the mindset of people back in the day watching it when it first came out. Inevitably its clearly the prototype of what was to come later, and it was evidently limited by its budget (the film I most thought of whilst watching it was George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, a film that seemed to share its exploitation/indie/1970s vibe). I’ll likely write a post regards Mad Max at a later date, but I just wanted to ask- is The Road Warrior the best sequel ever, as regards improving upon its original in scale and ambition and storytelling? Its surely akin to The Empire Strikes Back compared to Star Wars. I know Godfather Part 2 is considered by many to be better than the first Godfather film, but I wouldn’t think its a better-made film as far as quality of film-making is concerned, its just got a deeper and more interesting narrative, whereas I’d argue that Empire is a classier, better-quality Star Wars and The Road Warrior same in respect to Mad Max. Some films benefit from lessons learned from earlier productions and (possibly, but not necessarily) an improved budget, is The Road Warrior the best example?

Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula (2020)

t2bpI fondly remember Train to Busan, it was Die Hard on a Train (with Zombies!), and there was a point early on in this film, in what turned out to be a prologue before the main plot proper, when I thought that this film was going to be Die Hard on a Boat (with Zombies!). I figured that zombies would get loose on the big boat of refugees sailing to freedom and that, trapped on the ocean for three or four days in its race to salvation, it would be a claustrophobic thriller with lots of story breaks/crises (the engines are on fire! We’ve sprung a leak! Zombies in the Lifeboats! etc). In hindsight that might have been construed, possibly rightly so, as a lazy sequel, a very minor twist on established formula as most sequels are. Maybe the film-makers for Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula should be praised for trying something different, for upping the scale and having some ambition – essentially what they have done here is a similar trick to what James Cameron did with Aliens following Ridley Scott’s claustrophobic, more intimate original. Unfortunately though its possibly too much of a departure, because this film has lost most of what made the original so great.

I suppose this is the danger of coming into a film blind having no idea what to expect other than, er, lots of blood and zombies. I just didn’t expect it to be quite so much of a departure from the first film, especially when all of the changes leaves the finished production such a crushing disappointment.

So its not Die Hard on Another Train or Die Hard On A Boat; indeed its not Die Hard at all. This is more Escape From (a Zombie-Infested) New York/a (Zombie) Road Warrior/Fury Road and on that level, of some bizarre self-indulgent genre mash-up, its almost fun. Diminish your expectations and settle for a low-rent John Carpenter-inspired flick and I guess its really quite enjoyable. Well, it would be if it didn’t feel quite so much like watching someone playing a videogame. There is so much CGI in this film, particularly in the Mad Max-inspired chase through a zombie-infested city, that it rather degenerates into a cartoon; Final Fantasy: The Zombies Within maybe. The night before I watched Baby Driver and thrilled to its real-life car chases and stunts, which really put the woeful CGI here into sharp relief and all the worse for that comparison.

Maybe its the sheer scale of the thing, having so much CGI (at some points it looks like a Sin City-style greenscreen movie) and thus the sheer number of shots forcing the quality of it all downwards – it happens all the time, you’d think film producers would have figured by now that Less is More. The best films heavily reliant on CGI effects struggle to maintain credibility, here its quite beyond them, the physics and weight of most of the vehicle shots quickly degenerating into videogame nonsense and the CGI zombie hordes soon quite boring rather than anything threatening. Its a shame; if they’d just left it as an Escape From New York-inspired heist film trying to rob a bank in a zombie-infested/criminal militia-run city, a kind of Apocalypse Now journey into zombie heart of darkness, it could have been intense, thrilling, scary.

This film is everything but scary. Maybe that was largely true of the original, too but that film at least had thrills and tension. Instead this has a crazy grandpa, blubbing kids, a morose wooden hero… and lots of shades of other, better movies. Not a terrible movie but not far from it really: biggest sin of all is how much it looks like one of those FAQ/Walkthoughs of videogames one sees on YouTube. Movies should be more than that.

The Cloverfield Paradox (2018)

clov1Frankly, you’d think we’d have moved on, by now. Moved beyond such silly tedium in sci-fi. Its like we as a species refuse to grow up. Then again, some of the biggest, most successful films in the world have adults dressed in tights in silly power-fantasies/moral dramas that have no relation to any reality any of us are living in. And we love space operas like Star Wars, with sounds and explosions in space and cute aliens and hissy panto villains. I mean, it’s not as if I expected The Cloverfield Paradox to be a 2001 but really, it’s fifty years since Kubrick made that film and people are still making sci-fi films like The Cloverfield Paradox?

At least BR2049 had something to say; it may not have said it very well or well enough to interest the majority of filmgoers who stayed away in droves, but, it said something to those of us who were listening. If The Cloverfield Paradox has anything to say, the message passed me by.

Well, lets be clear- The Cloverfield Paradox has nothing to say. Because it’s stupid.

Not that I expected anything else, from the reviews and comments I’d read on the ‘net. But its is so disheartening, how a script as bad and clunky and nonsensical as this could be written and passed for filming. That a film could be so woefully miscast (Chris O’Dowd, as a space engineer? What?). That a film could be so leadingly directed. That at some point thirty minutes before the end I could turn to my wife and say “I haven’t a bloody clue what’s going on, why these people are doing what they are doing, or how they are doing it, I don’t care about any of it and don’t  believe the people who made this film believed in any of it either.”

Not for the first time writing this blog, I am faced with the enigma about whether anyone ever deliberately makes a bad movie- does every film start with the best of intentions, and just when does it become just another pay cheque? When it does it pass the point at which some producer should just say, “stop everything, everyone, this just isn’t working.” Or, like Brexit and most modern politics, is it simply a case that no-one knows how to stop the ride or just dares call time on the idiocy? Are we, as film fans, simply fools to believe that film-makers know what they are doing?

clov2.pngIts 2028, and the world is suffering from a major energy crisis. The lights are, literally, going out. The oil is running out. Somehow during all this infrastructure and economic crisis we have built the Cloverfield orbiting space station, something that’s clearly more 23rd century Star Trek than 21st Century NASA/ESA. I mean, right from the start, its that stupid. Ten years from now we build something that’s as hi-tech as Star Trek in orbit? While the world is apparently going all Mad Max?  And we can have a bunch of dysfunctional ‘experts’ somehow spending years in space without being replaced or returned to Earth for health reasons or in need of fresh supplies? So they are let loose with a particle accelerator because its isn’t safe or cheaper to do so on Earth, but they cannot get it to work and then after a few years of trying, they get it to work but they fuck something up and ‘lose’ Earth or cross dimensions but can fix everything by running the same fucked-up experiment for a second time but without the shower running this time and wow, yes, they’re back but watch out for the saboteur from the other dimension and whoops now there’s giant monsters roaming the planet. But at least now we can keep all the lights on.

I mean, jeez, give me a break. I haven’t even mentioned the crazy disembodied hand that is actually given a pen and writes an important clue or the bloke who dies with a gyroscope in his stomach or the worms or… stop me now. Just stop.

Let’s all be nice to each other and pretend this film never happened, yes?

 

 

 

Max Goes To Hollywood

thunderdome1Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) (Amazon VOD)

Okay, the title may be a bit misleading, as Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome was made in Australia and is an Australian production, but back in 1985 when I saw this at the pictures it felt like a blatant sellout. I mean, Tina Turner playing Max’s nemesis? Two of Tina Turner’s songs bookending the film? The violence curtailed to make Max more mainstream? All those bloody kids?

Rewatching the film after so many years, I was surprised how much I enjoyed it. It’s a better film than I gave it credit for, although it’s clearly inferior to the two films that precede it. It still feels a bit too calculatedly mainstream for my liking, but the relentless pace of the film and its quirky sense of humour are definite signs of it being a ‘proper’ Mad Max film. Its funny watching it post-Fury Road too;  you can see several similarities in the plot of both films, and both naturally of The Road Warrior too.

Its funny how the success of Thunderdome didn’t immediately lead to further Mad Max films, nowadays they would never let a film like Thunderdome go by without launching a trilogy of films after it. They waited 30 years for the next one? Thats mad.

Terminator Genisys (2015)

2016.1: Terminator Genisys (Blu-ray)

tg1We’re living in a strange time of reboots of the franchises we grew up with. Maybe its a sign of growing old (in fact I’m certain of it) but it’s strange indeed. Hollywood over the last few years has been revisiting all the expired franchises of the last few decades and attempted to put a fresh spin on them, reinvigorate them and  make fresh money off them.

When I say ‘expired franchises’ I count Star Wars among them. We’ve had reboots of Planet of the Apes, Star Trek, Jurassic Park, Mad Max, and most recently Star Wars over the past few years. Yes, there are obvious financial advantages of rebooting established properties- its certainly easier to market a film that has a recognised identity.  Artistically I can see the creative bonuses of revisiting something and giving it the advantage of modern technologies. The best example – and quite possibly the most successful reboot of all of them- is the Planet of the Apes series.  The original Planet of the Apes films were fine, considering the limitations of actors under make-up playing the apes, but it’s evident that there are considerable improvements from motion capture tech and having photorealistic CGI apes onscreen that enable more sophisticated storytelling and heightened drama.

tg3Terminator Genisys received plenty of ire from fans and reviewers in how it revisited events from the first two Terminator entries, but I see little difference in that to how film-makers revisited events from the Jurassic Park movies in Jurassic World or the original Star Wars trilogy in The Force Awakens. Its fine to have a droid holding secret data being hunted by the bad guys or the good guys to blow up another planet-destroying super weapon in Force Awakens, or genetically-built dinosaurs to run amok in yet another Jurassic theme park in Jurassic World, but it’s wrong to have time-travelling terminators hunting Sarah Connor in Terminator Genisys? Of course its hardly original, thats the whole point of reboots- a lack of creative originality. Most of the creativity is in establishing an excuse to go through those old tropes. Whether its fine to expect a fifth Terminator movie to make $500 million worldwide, or to measure its failure to do so as some measure of the quality of the film itself, is something else entirely. Does the fact that The Force Awakens is already  close to $1.4 billion worldwide some measure that it is the best of all the Star Wars films so far? Of course not. It just means that the public were hyped/ready/excited for a new Star Wars film but less so for a new Terminator film. The critical reevaluation of The Force Awakens will come in several months, I’m sure. Maybe Terminator Genisys will get one too.

Whether Terminator Genisys needed to cost some $155 million and therefore needed to be a huge hit to break even (and if that were even possible)  is another matter, and a question for the producers to answer. Some of these bloated budgets these days are quite irresponsible and smaller films would not necessarily be any worse for being more financially viable.

tg2To be clear, I rather enjoyed Terminator Genisys, much to my surprise. From the reviews and word-of-mouth on its release, I gathered it was yet another tired attempt to relaunch the Terminator franchise and so I didn’t bother seeing it at the cinema. Now, lower expectations often give rise to pleasant surprises and this is such a case in point having received the TG blu-ray for Christmas. I thought TG was fun. I thought it was a rather clever attempt to revisit the events of the first film and its sequel using the time-travelling mechanism central to the story. It didn’t feel overly manipulative or cynical- indeed it seemed rather honest and respectful, and it offered a new twist on old events and fresh possibilities for a ‘new’ timeline. Was it perfect? No. There were likely one too many twists and too much thrown into it, including an unnecessary physical embodiment of Skynet/Genisys which would possibly have been best left for a second film. Not all the casting choices worked, but criticising Emilia Clarke for not being Linda Hamilton is like criticising Chris Pine for not being William Shatner. Those original casting choices are like lightning that can never strike twice, and I almost pity the actor who gets to play a young Han Solo in the future Star Wars spin-off.

But I am rather keen to watch TG again. Of course its no patch on the originals but it’s far superior to T3 and Terminator Salvation. It feels rather like a ‘proper’ third Terminator film that honours the first two while spinning off into a new timeline. Perhaps the negative word-of-mouth that TG received has more to do with fan expectation than reality.  Is it even fair to expect any Terminator film to be as good or better than T2? Isn’t that just setting up unrealistic expectations that no film can really measure up to? I didn’t expect The Force Awakens to be as good as The Empire Strikes Back and certainly don’t expect Blade Runner 2 to be as good as the first.

tg4Happily, the fact that Terminator Genisys’  struggle at the box-office seems to have nixed any further film doesn’t really hurt how the central narrative of the film finishes- throughout watching the film, I feared some kind of cliffhanger or lack of proper conclusion (a failing of so many of these intended trilogies that never happen, like The Golden Compass) but TG ends fine. I appreciate the film-makers for managing that. There were obviously fresh adventures ahead, further planned movies we will never see, but that’s ok, a story has been told with a beginning, middle and fairly emphatic end (even a mid-end credits coda doesn’t harm things). The Terminator franchise may eventually get another reboot down the line (it seems one of those properties that Hollywood just can’t let die) but I do think this particular franchise is rather uniquely situated in this- I think all the sequels are separate timelines, parallel universes and all the recasting and twisted logic can be explained by that. As it is, whenever I think of the franchise in future, I’ll think of it as Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgement Day and Terminator Genisys, and pretend the other two don’t exist in my own particular timeline, and be fine with that.

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (2015)

Say what you like about Tom Cruise, he knows how to fashion an audience-friendly blockbuster. Rogue Nation is a great summer movie, delivering everything anybody could possibly want from a Mission Impossible film. Even more remarkably, for a series nearly twenty years old now and into its fifth outing, it all somehow still seems fresh and exciting with some remarkable action sequences and a welcome return to spycraft and espionage. No small part of this is the presence of rising star Rebecca Ferguson as British Intelligence agent Ilsa Faust. Ferguson damn near steals the film from Cruise with a warm and affecting performance with a surprising physicality (I’ve seen her on tv before and this performance is a big surprise). No doubt many viewers will marvel at her performance and wonder where this new female action star has come from (it’s been a great summer for female action roles, with this, Charlize Theron’s Furiosa and Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow). Cruise has hinted at launching a sixth Mission Impossible film as early as next year and I hope thats an indication that it will be a follow-up to this one with Ferguson returning.

A follow-up would also be a welcome opportunity to bring back the Syndicate and its leader Solomon Lane (the name a riff on REH’s Solomon Kane, perhaps, or am I looking too far?) cooly played with real menace by Sean Harris. If Rogue Nation has any possible fault its the nagging feeling of anti-climax that hangs over a final confrontation that dispenses with the high-flying stunts and explosions, but that would be ably solved by it only being, in hindsight, a prelude to the next film. Who knows, as it is the finale might be considered a pleasant change from the usual OTT blockbuster theatrics, but I was left with a feeling there is more to be seen of Solomon Lane, in just the same way as the last few James Bond movies have had a more serial feel than the more individual Bond films of old.

rogue2So a great summer movie then, and one that has demonstrated the viability of its franchise just as much as Fury Road revitalised the Mad Max series (Fury Road is still my favourite film of the summer though). I’m not a great fan of endless sequels but I have to say, looking at the Mission Impossible series as a whole, its a pretty damn fine series of movies that delivers what its audience expects. Certainly it has been far more consistent than the Die Hard series. Tom Cruise seems to know what he’s doing with these Mission Impossible films, and I’m quite excited to see what he comes up with next.

Oh, and while I’m in gushing mode, the score by Joe Kraemer is fantastic action stuff too and no small part of the film’s success. Great film; roll on the blu-ray- that release may be the ideal time to get a Mission Impossible boxset to while away the Winter Blues.

John Wick (2014)

jwickJohn Wick. Hell of an action movie. Don’t know what the body-count in this one is but it’s got to be up there. If you want a high-octane action flick with some astonishingly well-choreographed stunts/fight sequences, this one fits the bell admirably.Its this years Taken (although a better film than Taken, to be sure), John Wick also reminds me a great deal of Payback, Brian Helgeland’s noir thriller that starred Mel Gibson as a bitter criminal seeking revenge on his back-stabbing partners in crime (indeed it shares a similar plot and modern-noir swagger- if you liked Payback you’ll likely love John Wick).

Sure, one could take issues with some of the twists of the plot, and how realistic it is for one guy to take on a Russian crime-bosses army of thugs in a city seemingly bereft of a police force, but that’s not the point with films like this. Its an action romp with a plot that simply serves to pile on the mayhem. And what mayhem it is, a welcome antidote to the toy-town violence of something like The Expendables 3, here its an adult violence, brutal and graphic and with consequences, more like that of The Raid films (indeed it could be said that with The Raid films, Dredd, Mad Max:Fury Road and John Wick the modern action film is enjoying something of a resurgence of late). Thankfully like those films, the film is brisk and doesn’t over-complicate things. Keeping it simple seems to be the modern action film, and it doesn’t hurt to hark back to the golden age of the 1970s in style and sensibility.

Keanu Reeves does well as the titular character. In truth the part suits him well; he doesn’t have to emote very much but he does have a sympathetic streak and shows some vulnerability to his character that helps the audience empathise with what might otherwise have been a heartless one-dimensional cold-bloodied killer. Reeves handles the physicality of the role -its stunts etc- very well indeed, as might be expected from his Matrix films. It took me most of the film to finally recognise Michael Nyqvist from the Girl With The Dragon Tattoo films- you know how it is when you recognise the face but can’t quite place it (although he has aged some to be fair)- well, Nyqvist bugged me for most of the film. He’s very, very good here as the mafia boss whose son has wronged his ex-hitman John Wick, so good he nearly steals the show. Alfie Allen is great as the bad-to-the-bone son Iosef whose over-confidence threatens to bring down his fathers empire, and there are also lovely turns by Willem Dafoe and Lance Reddick (a favourite from the good old Fringe tv-series days)- it’s a great cast.

Beyond all the violence and the blood, there is a lovely mythology to this film, a shared history between the characters, almost as if we are watching film two of a trilogy- sly references and reminiscences between them slipped into the dialogue. Nothing is over-explained, just threads left hanging there- background characters like a cop that knows Wick and turns a blind eye to some bodies,or the leader of a clean-up squad always keen on more business, or Ian McShane’s excellent cameo as the proprietor of a hotel whose guests, assassins all, are strictly under pains to behave (or else). There is a lovely sense of logic to it and humour. I’d prefer the film to be left as it is, but I’m sadly confident that its success will gestate inferior sequels that will dilute it (seems to be how the film industry works these days); I’d prefer to have it left as it is and for the threads to just stay open to the imagination. Why spoil it with more movies?

It is what it is. Leave your brain at the door and enjoy one of the better action films of the last few years. Some people will be horrified by John Wick and question its violence, its politics and gender-roles but that’s not the point of films like this (at least until it is ripped apart by film theorists in twenty years time). Its just a cool action movie. Expect no more and you’ll be pleasantly entertained.

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Louder. Bigger… Better?

max1Fury Road was one of the first times in a long while that I’ve walked out of a cinema totally buzzing about what I’d just seen. It felt akin to the old days of my youth when I walked out of the cinema darkness having just seen The Empire Strikes Back or Blade Runner with my head spinning and a huge stupid smile on my face. In some ways this is fitting- Fury Road is pretty much a throw-back to old school film-making of the pre-cgi days; yes, I guess there is a lot of image manipulation (the blown-out colours for instance) and cgi augmenting the crazy stunts that betrays it as a ‘modern’ film, but it’s definitely old school, the work of a veteran film-maker.

(Question: why wasn’t Ridley Scott’s Prometheus a triumphant return to 1979s Alien in the same way Fury Road is a triumphant return to 1982s The Road Warrior? Because Fury Road really has me wondering at what Prometheus might have been in better circumstances. If I had to offer an answer- Fury Road‘s story is absolute bare-bones; I thought Road Warrior was simple but Fury Road strips it down to the bone and its all the better for it- whereas with Prometheus Scott wanted to stretch and challenge the preconceptions audiences might have had regards an Alien prequel. George Miller wasn’t having any of that with Fury Road; he knows what fans want from a Mad Max movie and he delivers it in spades. That said, I’d certainly hope any sequel has rather more plot and character and is less of a one-note/two-hour car chase (I’m being a little unfair there to be honest). But you know, Fury Road is, at the very least, true to its roots. It’s a Mad Max movie, whereas Prometheus was hardly an Alien film at all).

Beautiful desolation- yes those dots in the sand is the car chase and those skies... well...
Beautiful desolation- yes those dots in the sand is the car chase in progress and that storm, well… the Apocalypse sure is pretty…

It reminds me of the magic of cinema. Why I love movies. God knows as I’ve gotten older, the best movies seem further and further back in the past and all the ‘current’ movies increasingly tired bubblegum amusement rides in the form of reboots, remakes and sequels… and future movies heartless ‘more of the same’ to the point I wonder why I bother (case in point, trailers prior to Fury Road included Jurassic World and San Andreas, each featuring an eye-numbing amount of cgi nonsense). To see a film that shakes the mold and harkens back to the films of my youth is almost a revelation. Sure this thing gets screened primarily in 3D and I had to hunt down a rare 2D screening. Sure it was likely greenlit as some kind of remake/reboot of Mad Max 2. But goodness me its a hand-on-my-heart classic throwback to a cinema of 30 – 40 years ago. Miller must have made this movie in some kind of goddam stealth mode, how else could a modern Hollywood movie turn out like this did?

George MIller is 70 years old. It feels wrong even mentioning it; just because he is 70 doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be making films like this- but it still bears thinking about. This huge, $150 million, mad-ass crazy Apocalyptic action flick, possibly the wildest mainstream spectacle to come out of Hollywood in years, was written/produced/directed by a guy now 70 years old, and reportedly he is (thank God!) willing to make more. Lets hope Warner allow him the freedom he had with Fury Road (and that it gets made a little quicker)- indeed, kudos to Warner for financing this film as it is. Too often I moan at the stupidity/greed/crassness of the big studios but here a studio done good so all credit to the people who made this possible.

Max3

And you know, it actually gets me excited for Blade Runner 2. Its about as unnecessary as a Road Warrior remake/reboot was, but Fury Road shows that it could turn into something worthwhile (and to be honest, early word on the talent behind BR2 is looking very promising indeed). If we can get a great new Mad Max movie after some thirty years, maybe there’s a chance a new film about Replicants could be great too.Yes I realise this is nonsense but thats whats its like with this great buzz after a great movie- for a little while, anything seems possible. Allow me to bask in it a little while longer before I come back to reality with a bump. Lets just hope that that reality-bump isn’t Star Wars 7