Enola Holmes (2020)

ENOLA HOLMESReady your sedatives, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle fans, because Enola Holmes features the most inappropriate casting of Sherlock Holmes that I can possibly imagine- just how grossly wrong is Henry Cavill as the consulting detective? He’s standing there like he’s still wearing his Superman outfit under all that Victorian garb, ready to leap out of a window or into a telephone booth (good luck with that in Victorian London) at any moment. Its really quite a pity they didn’t have him wearing the deerstalker hat, that would have been absolutely hilarious. I have to confess to feeling some sympathy for Cavill, he’s a good actor (I remember his early days, when he was one of the best things in the ridiculous romp The Tudors, some years ago) but he’s physically such an imposing figure now… I always think he’s too big even as Superman (and his Clark Kent always prompts a titter, the meek unassuming ace reporter sports such a man-mountain physique) so whenever he is cast as an ordinary joe it doesn’t work. I imagine its a casting problem that might haunt him for years to come, until he at least leaves the DC hero behind and maybe bulks down a little. Becomes a little more ordinary. I appreciate Sherlock Holmes is hardly ordinary himself, its an extraordinary character, but he’s surely not such a muscle-bound brute or clean-cut, decent guy as Cavill appears- Holmes is a master of disguise, its just as well Cavill doesn’t have to demonstrate such a talent in this film (“My Goodness, Holmes, I would never have guessed it was you posing as that emaciated tramp in the street!”).

So moving away from that most inappropriate piece of casting, how is Enola Holmes? Its pretty good nonsense, really, for what it is. Based on the first of a series of books, The Enola Holmes Mysteries,  written by Nancy Springer, the film was apparently something of a pet project for actress Millie Bobby Brown who co-produced the film as well as stars in the title role. I thought it was a Netflix original, but I’ve since read that it was a Warner Bros movie intended for theatrical release which was later purchased by Netflix because of release issues caused by the Covid pandemic. I  think this rather saves the film- Netflix seems the perfect home for fluff such as this, and I can imagine a teenage-targeted, family friendly film such as this might certainly get a bigger immediate audience than had this been released in cinemas.

enola1Millie Bobby Brown is quite brilliant as the title character, and her relationship with the camera is at times quite extraordinary, especially when she almost breaks character mid-scene to break the fourth wall and share something with the audience. Its a really endearing performance and lifts the film from its rather formulaic, albeit endearingly escapist, roots. Enola Holmes is fun, albeit one of those typical Hollywood projects that seems to think it deserves an A-list cast that leaves one expecting something more than it is really is, or likely even intends to be.

It will be interesting to see, if this is really successful on Netflix, where the future lies for what is evidently intended to be a franchise. Will they try to take a second film back to cinemas, or will they tone down the budget and scale (this being Netflix of course, they may not need to) and bring any future instalments direct to the streaming giant? Is it, indeed, another indication of the seismic shift away from theatrical distribution and towards home streaming etc?

So anyway, harmless fun. Except for hardcore fans of the consulting detective, who may be horrified by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s characters going all, er, Harry Potter, but hey, that’s Public Domain for you…

In Brief: Brightburn

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“Its either homework or kill someone, whats a kid to do..?”

Brightburn is one of those clever ideas that possibly deserved better realisation. Portraying the dark side of the Superman origin mythology, it postulates that some alien kid crashlands on Earth to be raised by a doting family but instead of the kid growing up to be a champion of truth, justice and all good things American, he, er, turns out to be more of a Lex Luthor kind of guy, or that Zod fella. What are you going to do, some kids turn out bad, its not always the fault of bad parenting. Unfortunately this film  is hampered by both a budget a little too low to really do it justice, and moreover an obvious intention to lead into further movies, that old gripe of mine. Yet again a modern film is blighted by a need to end teasing another movie rather than, well, deliver an actual ending. Perhaps I’m being somewhat unfair, I mean, I quite liked it, but it did prove a little annoying overall, especially when it ended and I felt like I’d been ‘had’ yet again. Anyway, I’m keeping things brief, so yeah, I liked it, but I’d have liked it better with a proper ending. One day film-makers will be more honest, ending films with a text card saying things like “this story actually ends in Brightburn 2! See ya then!”

Superhero movies ain’t easy

supGood superhero movies don’t come easy, it’s hard, really hard, no matter how effortless Marvel makes it look sometimes- in any case, not every Marvel film has been great (although they are always at least ‘good’). But making a superhero movie, and making it good, is supremely difficult. Just look at Justice league. To be fair to DC, there’s all sorts of superhero capers over the decades that have been pretty terrible. Superhero movies ain’t easy.

Inherently, one has to consider that the idea of superhero movies is ridiculous. They are children’s comics that we should all grow out of, wishful power fantasies in universes that are moral playgrounds of plain good and evil, hardly any shades of grey in the four-colour worlds they depict. I am certain that most adults who love superhero films would never dream of ever reading comics, thinking them silly and beneath them.

The fundamental issue for any film is showing a grown adult dressed as a bat without it looking as silly as the Adam West show, a series which at least nailed the absurdity of superhero comics. Someone comes at you dressed as Batman to accost you for littering? You’d either run a mile or call the police. Superheroes transferred to the real-world inherently look like clowns.

spidrBeyond the silly costumes, the superpowers themselves are crazy. When you really think about them, they are plain nuts, no matter how realistically the films portray them. How does someone fly? How does that work? How does someone cling to walls? How does someone shrink to the size of an ant and yet maintain his original mass without falling through the floor? The Flash whizzes around grabbing people stationary and pulls them to safety- if you were standing still and were hit/picked up by someone travelling 1,000 mph, it’d hurt- if he took took you instantly from stationary to 1,000 mph to move you to safety, your brain would be mush, your bones smashed. So some superpowers are more realistic than others, some superheroes easier to translate and suspend disbelief in than others.

I’m a huge fan of Snyder’s Watchmen. I think it was impressively faithful to the original, and most issues with the film are simply that- issues with the original. It’s a dark film with superheroes in the real-world (or at least, a real-world alternate 1980s America), because that’s what the original was- a critique of superhero comics about people who dress up as a bat and asking the question what would it be like to have a superman in the real world? Unfortunately Snyder missed the point regards Watchmen‘s uniqueness and has been asking that same question in all his subsequent movies.

I don’t blame Snyder entirely. Christopher Nolan, coming of his Batman trilogy, was a producer on Man of Steel and his real-world angle from his trilogy constantly impresses on Man of Steel. I’ve no idea how much of this was the studio trying to catch the zeitgeist of Nolan’s trilogy, or Nolan trying to lend the approach to our fave Kryptonian, or if it was just Snyder continuing his approach from Watchmen. But real-world costumed heroes doesn’t always translate across the medium- Marvel may lend some real-world angles to their movies but it’s all superficial, it’s clear their films are not in our world, they are comics brought vividly to life but it’s not Watchmen-style agonising about fitting Captain America in our world or how he impacts on America. It’s a world close to ours, but it isn’t ours. It’s Marvel-world.

Whereas Snyder always seems focused on the DC heroes being in our world, a sense of gritty reality that is constantly at odds with the subject-matter. DC films lose the joy of the Marvel films. It’s fine if you are making Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy (although I’d argue the third film was a crushing disappointment that imploded the trilogy, unable to sustain that real-world/comic mythology balance) but if you’re making a Superman movie like a variant of Watchmen you are entirely missing the point. Worse still, this approach infects every subsequent outing. BvS has some kind of God-complex towards Superman, a grimly semi-religious tone that its Batman bristles at and questions/refutes. Our real-world doubts regards the role of America in the modern world, its values and ethics, our doubts and distrust in our leaders, it all infects the modern Superman, who in 1978 represented “truth, justice, the American Way,” an ideal that no longer seems valid. It’s quite daring really as an intellectual exercise, but it’s also very Watchmen.  In anycase, devoid of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ source pages, Snyder seems lost trying to pull it off. It’s also telling that for all its real-world agonising, Watchmen doesn’t take place in our real world, it’s that 1980s alternate-reality.  Snyder’s trying to manage something even Alan Moore wouldn’t dare, a rabbit-hole even he wouldn’t risk plunging into.

A rabbit-hole, unfortunately, that DC has jumped into and are trying desperately to climb out of.

There ain’t no Justice: Justice League

jl.jpg2017.60: Justice league (2017)

Oh dear. This was terrible. I came out of the cinema feeling how Charlton Heston looked at the end of Planet of the Apes, on his knees, fists clenched, screaming at the heavens about the damned fools who had finally bloody well done it; “You Maniacs! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!”

Yes, they’ve made a superhero film worse than Batman v Superman.

I suppose Justice League never had a chance, doomed at birth by the critical and public response to Batman v Superman, but the terrible waste here is just bewildering. Ben Affleck is possibly the best Batman we’ve ever had, Frank Miller’s Dark Knight brought vividly to life, but he’s now been wasted in three bad films, and Affleck looks as if he’ll kill someone to get out of making a fourth. Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman is possibly the only DC success story, but even she looks tired here; “I’m working with children,” she muses at one point- damn right girl. As for Henry Cavill, I like the guy, I’ve enjoyed him in earlier stuff like The Tudors etc and his Superman should be a great fit, but at this point everyone has to admit it just doesn’t work. I don’t know if it’s the direction he is being given but his Superman just doesn’t work. His Clark isn’t a bumbling alter-ego, it’s a Superman as topless hunk, the same character completely, utterly missing the entire point of the Clark character.

Anyway, Justice League is only just out so I’ll spare any spoilers. But it is terrible. Horrible. Surely a movie based on a comic deserves/needs a story more sophisticated than a children’s comic? The crass stupidity that, what is it, anything north of $200 million has been spent on is just bewildering.  It’s one thing to bring Superman back and explain that ‘miracle’ off to the public, but how does Clark Kent get away with a return from the dead when he turns up for work on Monday at the Daily Planet? This film is so S-T-U-P-I-D. The awful dialogue, the desperate need to give every character their ten/fifteen minutes to shine, the pithy one-liners, the jokes that fall flat, the villain who may yet rank as the worst villain to ever ‘grace’ a superhero movie, some of the shoddiest effects work I have seen in a tentpole blockbuster…. I could go on.

But dear God the abysmal story.  It’s almost part Lord of the Rings in its cartoony backstory/mythology of ancient wars battling ancient evil. I’m not quite sure that didn’t come from some completely different movie altogether, it was so weird. Three glowing rubik’s cubes spell death for humanity.  How long did they spend dreaming that up? It’s so infantile and crude, so many characters come and go for no reason at all, side stories come to the fore then simply disappear. Maybe there is a three-hour cut that will fix everything, there is simply too much movie here for two hours, but a three-hour Justice League sounds right now like a recipe for torture.

Yet this mess will get more bums on seats than BR2049. There is a lesson there. But the DC extended universe is surely in real trouble now. Such a pity, such a waste. Where can it possibly go from here?

The Problem With Superman

Curious having seen Batman Vs Superman: Dawn of Justice, I rewatched Man of Steel.

Confused as BvS may be, I think it’s actually a better film than MoS. Rewatching it again, I have to say MoS is actually worse than I remembered. It’s such a mess of a film, and a lot of what is wrong about it carries over into BvS,  the lessons from it not learned but rather perpetuated with an anti-Superman dominated by over-the-top CGI hysterics.

stm1The problem with Superman is, well, Superman. They don’t know what to do about him, how to handle the character. Which is weird to me, writing this in 2016 because they nailed it, pretty much, in the mid-seventies with Superman: The Movie, way back in 1978. That film seems to be like the elephant in the room: the Kryptonian scenes were cool and majestic, the childhood scenes wonderful Americana, and the Metropolis scenes with our grown-up hero/Clark Kent alter ego just perfect comic-book escapism. With a template like that, it’s hard to imagine going wrong. So why are Snyder and Warner/DC so seemingly hellbent on distancing themselves from the 1978 classic?

Maybe it’s because Warners tried sticking to that Superman: The Movie template with Superman Returns, which got something of a box-office drubbing when it came out; $390 million worldwide on a $270 million budget (makes BvS something of a huge success with its current haul of $810million worldwide). Superman Returns was hardly perfect, the chief problem was it being overblown and badly produced (although how much of that $270 million was spent on earlier aborted Superman films, I wonder?).  I think it was much better than people perhaps appreciated at the time. It did many things right- particularly casting Brandon Routh who looked the part as Superman and was uncannily like Chris Reeve as Clark Kent. Kevin Spacey was a pretty good Lex Luthor too- indeed both actors are better than Henry Cavill or Jesse Eisenberg are in BvS.

The damnedest thing is that what was wrong about Superman Returns is the one thing that they carried over from it to MoS- namely, taking the title character way too seriously. In Superman Returns the character is saddled with unnecessary Messianic, Christ-like allegory and a semi-religious fixation, complicated with a pointless backstory of Lois Lane and a son.  Superman: The Movie had the tagline “You’ll believe a man can fly”. Superman Returns might well have had “You’ll believe a Messianic figure can be dull”. All this anguished soul-searching about Superman’s place in the world and What He Means to us is like a lead weight around Superman Returns and  now MoS and BvS after it.

I really wish they had kept the cast and creative team of Superman Returns for a sequel rather than trying to reboot though. If they had dropped that Christ imagery and just given the character a decent adventure with a bit more action rather than endless dull soul-searching we might have had a cracking movie.

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But they went the way of the reboot, and I can only despair at how they must have scrutinised Superman Returns and tried to analyse what was wrong with it. The main star looks great, let’s drop him. All that moody soul-searching that cripples the story, lets have more of that. But let’s go darker (did they get the notes mixed up, went with the ‘To Drop’ list instead?).

To some extent you have to blame Christopher Nolan and his Dark Knight films. Somehow they have been held up so high in critical regard and audience awareness that they are the established measure of how to handle DC characters. Like no-one figured out that Superman and Batman are polar opposites- you can’t approach them the same, the whole point of them is that they are so different. Trying to treat Superman like Batman with his tortured psyche is pointless and ignorant of the real character. Besides, there are quite a few fans of the Batman comics who will rightly contest that Nolan’s Dark Knight films rather missed the ‘real’ Batman anyway.

Hiring Zack Snyder to direct MoS was another bad move. I’ve nothing against Snyder, visually he has a knack for putting comic-book action panels onscreen, but he should be kept clear of producing or script-writing. He seems to think Watchmen is some kind of bible for showing superheroes on film, when Watchmen should really be considered of a genre quite apart from Superhero films. It’s a commentary on the Superhero genre not a blueprint of what it should be. Suggesting that the Superman or Batman comics should be more like Watchmen is utterly missing the point of them.

Snyder seems to think that Dr Manhattan, for instance, is some kind of blueprint of how to portray Superman. Dr Manhattan isn’t that- he’s a commentary by Alan Moore on the idea of a Superman. His powers make him distant and aloof from humanity- he isn’t a hero, he’s a God-like figure increasingly remote from us, less human by the minute. Trying to treat Superman the same way is just crazy- Superman isn’t a God, he’s a hero. He’s an alien, yes, and one with great powers, but essentially he is one of us, actually becoming more human by the minute. Snyder is forcing Superman into some kind of Dr Manhattan figure and it’s totally missing the real point and crippling him and the movies.

mos1For one thing, look at the suit. The MoS/BvS ‘look’ just isn’t, well, really Superman, is it? Just in the same way as the true comic-book character is gone, so is the look. The bright colours of the comic-book, the rich red and blue, is lost, replaced by some muddy, washed-out look. It almost looks like the armour of Tim Burton’s take on Batman and is as much a miss-step as how the character has been portrayed.

It seems to me you can only go so far imagining superheroes in the Real World. Its something the Marvel films seem to have done quite well so far, although with the Avengers films and the upcoming Civil War I have to wonder if they are straying too far into this territory themselves. Comics aren’t Shakespeare, and directors and audiences shouldn’t really expect comic-book movies to be Oscar-bait dramas. They are escapist entertainment, with odd people with impossible powers wearing daft costumes and if Warner/DC go too far they will just ruin what chance they have of the success they clearly crave. Maybe part of the problem is Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns. It was a solid, brilliant examination of the Batman character in a noir-ish Real World approximation of our world. But it wasn’t really Batman.

Superheroes couldn’t function in our Real World. I guess that was one of the lessons of Watchmen. You can’t really have costumed guys running around outside of the law; how long would that be allowed before the Government brought in the military to neuter the heroes? Before they were outlawed? Frank Miller had Superman acting as an American Super Weapon in TDR because that’s the only way the American government would find Superman acceptable. Its the same kind of thinking that runs through the rather dour X-Men films. It might be realistic but how far down the rabbit-hole do you go before you aren’t making the actual comic-book anymore? People read them because they are mostly escapist fun. Entertainment.

Superman: The Movie had a genius conceit, right from the start. Some kid opens up a comic book and the camera falls into a panel and it comes ‘alive’. But all through the movie, we are still in that comic.  And that’s a central point that Snyder and Warner/DC seems to be missing. We don’t go to see Superhero movies to see what they would be like in our world. We go to see Superhero movies to see what it would be like for us to be in their world. It’s a fundamental difference.

Man of Steel (2013)

mos1Spoilers ahoy folks….

They just don’t know when to stop. Good grief, the amount of cgi in this film, all the huge explosions and collapsing buildings and all manner of fireworks and bang-for-your-buck effects. I trust Man of Steel 2 will be set in a desolate post-apocalypse Metropolis, as most of the city and its inhabitants must have perished in all the chaos of the grand finale. It’ll take decades to rebuild that city. The irony of Superman reluctantly killing General Zod, in order to stop Zod killing an innocent family, when we had surely seen thousands die in the wake of the great battle beforehand, almost made me giggle.

But there’s no room for logic or common-sense here. I could see where we were going early in- indeed, ten minutes in with Russell Crowe’s Jor-El riding on a giant flying insect dodging exploding spaceships/buildings/laser blasts etc, I knew the film was in trouble, as it so quickly veered into the insane cgi excess of George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels. It looked like a cartoon, and all the sincerity of Crowe’s live-action performance on-set couldn’t foster any empathy for the cgi version of him darting through Krypton’s chaotic battle-strewn skies. Will film-makers never learn that beyond the spectacular visuals there is all the emotional power of a car-wash or a kettle boiling in stuff like this? The last 45 minutes of Man of Steel was visually amazing but boring as hell. I’ve never been so bored watching a film prove a man can fly. Matrix Revolutions did all the super-hero fight/flight stuff years ago, and we’ve seen cgi cities fall in Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon and The Avengers. Its been done. We’ve seen it. Film-makers need to find ways of bringing back old-school stuff like drama, emotion and character into these videogame snore-fests.  I’ve honestly never been so bored by a blockbuster movie, and it shocked me, as I thought that title had been confidently snatched by Star Trek into Darkness. Looking at the trailer for The Lone Ranger that ran before Man of Steel, it seems that we are in for another example of mad cgi excess there too. Well count me out.

Personally, I think its evident Warner Bros and the production team simply tried too hard to respond to criticisms of Superman Returns, a film I enjoyed and actually feel is a better film than Man of Steel. I may be in the minority with that but the hell with it. Superman Returns had better acting, better depth, characterisation, an emotional core. It didn’t bore me- indeed it involved me emotionally. I loved its nods to Superman: The Movie and Christopher Reeve, its respect for both that film and the character. Man of Steel? Well, Superman is no Dark Knight, so ‘gifting’ Superman all that Batman angst was the wrong way to go for a start, and with that, and the over-reliance on visual effects, well, it was a recipe for disaster. So, thoroughly disappointed by Man of Steel.  And the less said about Hans Zimmer’s Wall Of Sound/Soundscape Of Noise score the better.

In my opinion, in order of quality, Superman: The Movie is the best Superman film, followed by Superman 2, Superman Returns (those three forming a great trilogy) and then Man of Steel (and even then only because Superman 3 & 4 are truly awful films).

I’ll end this now with one last observation- John Carter was a far, far better movie. Yep, I’ve said it. Its light-years beyond Man of Steel in story, direction, acting, visuals, music- you name it, John Carter did it better.  But as far as box office is concerned, quality is no sure-fire road to success it seems, as John Carter ‘flopped’ and Man of Steel is surely headed towards a billion dollars. Its enough to make me weep…