Best things I’ve read recently (the Last Jedi edition)

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Spoilers for pretty much everything in the Last Jedi and the films that preceded it

How the last Jedi lands so many big twists by Spencer Kornhaber (the Atlantic)

“What about Finn and Rose’s big moment? As the former stormtrooper goes to make like Russell in Independence Day and destroy the First Order’s big blaster in an act of self-sacrifice, he’s knocked to safety by Rose. It’s a classic, shmaltzy deus ex machina, and it allows Rose to deliver a lovely thesis statement for the Rebellion and plant this trilogy’s first romantic kiss. But I can’t think of any precedent in the Star Wars movies for this particular kind of sacrifice to prevent sacrifice, with individual love nobly winning out over the collective mission.

Which speaks to the yet-grander innovation of The Last Jedi: finding ways to complicate and deepen the good vs. evil dichotomy. We see well-intentioned missions end in failure and catastrophe (Finn’s arc). We see sharp and consequential disagreements between people on the same side (Poe vs. Holdo). We see intense explorations of what it means for light and dark to flirt (Rey and Ren). And the long-troubling notion that a person’s significance is simply a product of heredity is vaporized with the reveal about Ray’s junktrading parents, cemented by a coda that sees a force-wielding slave kid dreaming of rebellion.”

Star Wars: the Last Jedi – a spoiler-filled exploration by Ryan Lamble (Den of Geek)

“All of this serves to create a sense of shrinking rather than growing threat – a brave and slightly odd move for the middle chapter in a trilogy. The Last Jedi has unexpectedly sewn all kinds of plot threads up: Snoke’s gone, Luke nobly sacrificed himself, Rey has confronted her past. Yes, the Resistance’s numbers have been decimated, but the First Order has been dealt an even greater blow: its grand puppet master is dead, and in his place we have an aggressive hot-head and a military general so hapless that he could get his own sitcom (co-starring Adrian Edmondson, obviously). This raises the question: will the Resistance destroy the First Order, or will the First Order simply implode through mania and sheer incompetence?”

Toxic Masculinity Is the True Villain of Star Wars: The Last Jedi by Katyi Burt (Den of Geek)

“In the Original Trilogy, Han is presented as the ultimate dude. In heteronormative terms, he is the character every man should want to be and every woman should want to be with. In The Last Jedi, Poe is presented as a character who needs to stop with the mansplaining and learn from the more seasoned female leaders in his life.

That’s not to say that Poe isn’t likeable. Both the film itself and the characters within the cinematic world admire Poe’s character, but, and here’s the kicker, not as a leader. At least not yet.

Instead, the film supports General Leia and Admiral Holdo and their measured maturity over Poe’s machismo-driven exuberance. “She cared more about protecting the light than seeming like a hero,” Leia tells Poe about Holdo’s sacrifice, subverting the tired narrative trend of the alpha male hero as the only viable or best leadership choice. “Not every problem can be solved by jumping in an X-Wing and blowing stuff up,” Leia tells Poe before demoting him. Skilled X-Wing piloting is a solution to some problems, sure, but for Poe to think his is a skillset that solves allproblems is pure hubris.”

[MM: on a related note ‘Emo Kylo Ren‘ has redubbed himself as a Ren’s Right Activist]

Videos

Podcast

The Weekly Planet‘s discussion of the film is both funny and insightful. It also made me feel better about the ‘why didn’t Holdo just tell Poe problem’.

On Soundtracking, Edith Bowman interviews director Rian Johnson about what it’s like to work with John Williams. Short answer: very cool!

Tweets

https://twitter.com/rianjohnson/status/942651288570884096?s=17

Without Charles Dickens there probably wouldn’t be a galaxy far far away

Star Wars and the pleasure of serials

As I strategise how to see the Last Jedi on the day it’s released, as well as going to Bible Study and…ya know…work, now seems a good time to ponder the appeal of serials.

They are so ubiqitous that it is easy to forget that they not only constitute a genre in their own right, but a genre that had to be created. Amongst the people who did that, this video from Nerdwriter argues that Charles Dickens was pre-eminent:

I must confess a love for serials. Far from being the cheap art form snobs sometimes suppose, they are precisely a case in which investment and deep engagement with material is rewarded. Serials give the audience an expansive world and lots of space for characters and plots to develop. One positively has to spend time with and pay attention to a serial to appreciate it properly.

That’s to say nothing of the fact that  there is the added bonus of the pleasurable anticipation of awaiting the next instalment!

 

Also worth reading:

Vulture’s account of the choreographing of the Phantom Menace‘s climatic lightsaber fight AKA the only good part of the movie. Unsurprisingly, it appears that a prerequisite for its success was George Lucas’ benign neglect.

Nerds are thinking about a Disney/Fox deal the wrong way

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The possibility that Disney may buy part of Fox – including crucially in this context its movie studio 20th Century Fox – has excited the attention of the geekier parts of the internet for one specific reason:

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For those of you who are not familiar with the landscape of superhero movies, let me recap quickly. Both the X-Men and the Avengers were characters that originated in Marvel comics. However, you do not see them on the big screen together because in the 1990s, Marvel was losing money and to stay afloat it sold the movie rights to its most popular characters. Fox bought the X-Men and the Fantastic Four, and has been making movies featuring those characters ever since. Then in the 2000s, Marvel began producing its own movies based on the characters it hadn’t sold the rights to. Against the odds these second-tier hereos like Iron Man, Captain America and Black Widow proved to be the basis for the most profitable franchise in movie history. Then Disney bought Marvel. The result was that the movie versions Avengers and the Fantastic Four wound up owned by two different companies, each making its own movies, set in its own fictional universe. If one company attempted to use the other’s characters in its movies it would be sued for breach of copyright.

However, this would all change if 20th Century Fox became part of Disney. The problem is – as Scott Mendelssohn of Forbes – notes is that it would also change a lot of other things and not necessarily for the better:

Last year, Walt Disney had a jaw-dropping 26% of the domestic box office while Fox had 13%. With Fox and Disney combined into one entity, it’s plausible to see Walt Disney’s theatrical output controlling close to 40% of the theatrical business. With that kind of hold, the Mouse House could essentially rewrite the rules for how its movies are seen in theaters (higher ticket prices, higher percentages back to the studios, exclusive auditorium control, etc.) in a way that wouldn’t remotely help the likes of Universal or Warner Bros.

Disney has already gotten heat this year for somewhat more draconian terms for domestic theaters planning to show Star Wars: The Last Jedi (because it knows that much of the money isn’t going to come from the overseas business). It justifiably got torn to shreds for blacklisting Los Angeles Times journalists from Thor: Ragnarok press screenings after the paper reported unfavorably on Disneyland’s tax-related relationship with Anaheim. While Disney relented quickly, arguably because Coco needed the critical buzz more than Thor, such a move could well be solidified with that much control of the market.

And while Walt Disney is a publicly traded company and not a charity, this wouldn’t necessarily be good for the overall industry. Fewer major studios mean fewer places for artists to pitch their work, and thus potentially a less diverse slate of movies and television shows. Less competition could also drive down compensation for said artists, and Disney would be powerful enough to (if it chose to) essentially set the status quo for compensation for the next round of union negotiations. But at least we’d get a decent Fantastic Four movie, right, guys?

To this list of worries, I would add a concern that a larger Disney would have more political power. Given the company’s role in, first, turning American copyright law from a useful system for incentivising creators into a means for large companies like Disney to monopolise the use of valuable characters for generations, and then, lobbying for trade treaties that globalise this perversion of the system, that’d probably be a malign development.

Besides all this, I’m not even sure the massive superhero team-up fans want is really desirable. The MCU seems to be going along fine. Fitting the X-men and mutants in would require a lot of – probably detrimental – crowbarring. Better to let Fox try and make its properties work in isolation. Logan showed that can lead to interesting results.

Justice is served lukewarm

I suppose I should post something about Justice League. I mean, I write a blog of which commentary on superheroes films is a staple. It would seem like a missed opportunity not to, but dear reader I struggle to muster the enthusiasm. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the film. I did. Indeed I can’t improve on Scott Mendelson’s summation that it’s “a bad movie but a great time at the movies.”

The problem is that anything that requires me to think about Justice League more, leads to me liking it less. Even passing contemplation makes it apparent that it should have been more impressive than passing fun. Even judged simply as a simple diversion, the very act of judging shows it, reveals what a flimsy edifice it really is. Everything from the VFX, to the plotting, to the soundtrack feels rushed and unfinished. It does a good job of matching cast to characters, but then takes these potentially interesting depictions nowhere. Ponderously set-up story points – from both Justice League and its predecessors – are paid off with a whimper. It all seems like a rote recitation of the Marvel formula, only without that studio’s flair or willingness to experiment with that formula. The result is that it feels more like a generic Marvel movie than any actual Marvel movie. With a $300 million budget, decades of backstory, and some of the most iconic characters in the world as inputs, Justice League is a truly meagre output.

In the rear-view mirror

That it is so generic is especially galling because when this franchise began it did have a distinct vision. In Man of Steel, director Zack Snyder and his collaborators were trying to create a version of Superman with credibility, much as the Nolan brothers had done with the Dark Knight trilogy. In Batman v Superman, this was allowed to congeal into sullenness that was so self-conscious it became absurd. But for the first instalment of the DCEU that meant telling Superman’s story not as the tale of a superhero, but as a piece of science fiction about an alien raised as a human, who must choose whether to save his original or his adoptive people. When superpowered aliens do battle in Man of Steel it doesn’t seem like two actors in spandex having a punch-up, but a horrific conflict that leaves behind rubble and collateral damage. That was a lot for some people to take. Many never forgave Man of Steel for not being an updating of the Richard Donner/Christopher Reeve films. But we’ve already seen that film – it was called Superman Returns – and frankly it was boring. It was a good call on DC’s part to aim for something more interesting than a retread.

It didn’t quite work. Problematically for a film aspiring to a naturalistic note, the cast seemed stiff and uncomfortable in their roles. The story was also a tad convoluted and reliant on co-incidences. And once the full destruction of third act was unleashed, Snyder never really found a way to modulate the sound and fury. But these were all problems with execution not with the fundamental vision.

Indeed, one of the advantages of making films as part of a franchise with an in-built audience is that there is an opportunity to fix errors. If the first instalment of a franchise doesn’t quite work out, future outings for the same characters can serve as something of a do-over. The MCU emphatically does this and as a result improves over time. There was no inherent reason Warner Brothers could not do the same with the DCEU, taking Man of Steel and improving on the formula it provided until they had something special.

Done right

In fact, if you look around the Superhero genre, you will see a number of movies that succeeded where Man of Steel failed. Using superhero franchises as a framework in which to deliver genre movies has become the norm. The MCU has now has comedies (Guardians and Ragnarok), a political thriller (the Winter Soldier) and a high-school coming of age story (Homecoming) that happen to have protagonists with superpowers. Fox is – if anything – more reliant on this strategy. Logan is essentially a pastiche western, whilst Deadpool is a frat comedy living inside a parody of the superhero genre.

Perhaps even more saliently, Warner Brothers proved themselves capable of making a film that realised Man of Steel’s potential. It was called Wonder Woman. It also told the story of a non-human with incredible powers living amongst humans, discovering our species’ good and bad sides, and ultimately deciding to save us despite our flaws. Despite the story beginning on a mythical island, once it moves to WWI era Europe, we see a serious attempt to show us – somewhat realistically – a character raised in a harmonious society contending with a world riven by the direst conflict. And in so doing, it moves into a particular genre: the war film. It is not a film like Captain America: the First Avenger, that happens to take place during a war. It is about war. Armed conflict defines each character’s struggle, embodies its themes and drives the plot. The most pivotal moments happen on battlefields. Apart from Themyscira, virtually every set looks more like something out of a war film than a superhero film. It seems to consciously eschew not only anything futuristic but also any steam punk. That serves to keep out any element that is not true to either the WWI or Ancient Greek setting. Myriad aspects of the film from its pacing to its colour palette are more like a war film than the Avengers. Heck, the antagonist is actually war himself (AKA Aries AKA Mars)!

Back to the beginning but worse

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Sadly, the kind of rich, interesting yet entertaining filmmaking that Man of Steel hinted at and Wonder Woman exemplified have largely been missing from the rest of the DCEU. Warner Brothers response to the underwhelming reaction to the franchise, was to heavy handidly correct a series of very specific mistakes, while leaving the broader issues untouched. Audiences complained about civilians being killed in Man of Steel’s violent finale. Therefore, Batman v Superman belaboured the point that its fight scenes were happening in deserted areas. Audiences complained that Batman v Superman was morose. Therefore, Suicide Squad was packed with pop music and jazzy graphics. Audiences complained all of these films were too dark. Therefore, Justice League looks like someone has stuck a colourful Instagram filter over it. Notably absent from these efforts was any sense on Warner Bros part that they needed to slow down, consider carefully the story they were trying to tell, the kind of films they wanted to make and the director they were relying on to set the tone.

Instead, they waited for Zack Snyder to step aside of his own volition after a personal tragedy. And began trying to force his version of Justice League to become the Avengers. Even going as far as hiring the director of the Avengers to finish the project after Snyder’s enforced departure. But whereas you could really feel the love and care that went into the MCU’s first big team-up, Justice League feels rushed, shoddy and above all unimaginative. I really struggle to think of anything that feels fresh or novel in the whole film. Its most blatant borrowing is from the Avengers, from which it takes its premise, structure, style of humour and – let’s not mince words – its plot from the Avengers. However, you spot elements of other films along the way too: ‘oh, that shot is a reference to the Burton Batman films, that one the Nolan ones, that battle sequence comes from Wonder Woman, that reminds me of Watchmen and it’s slow-mo like Days of Future Past’. These elements pilfered from other superhero films are thrown together to form a creation that rather ugly and hard to love, but does still lurch forward rather effectively.

In one sense, this takes the DCEU back to where it started. We’ve passed the low of Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad and the high of Wonder Woman, and returned to the kind of serviceable 6.5/10 movie-making we got from Man of Steel. But while in and of themselves, the first and the most recent instalments may be of about equal quality, Man of Steel hinted at future potential, which Justice League lacks. My concern is that now Warner Bros have a template for making serviceable entertainment that avoids Suicide Squad-esque disasters, it’s will become what the DCEU will be like from here on in. Justice League there by represents the franchise finding its voice only to have it say “honestly…we also wish this was a Marvel movie.

Would I recommend Justice League?

If you were walking around thinking ‘I’m bored and have nothing to do for the next two hours’ and at that moment the breeze blew a ticket into your hand, then I’d say go for it. It’s kinda fun. If you have to sacrifice actual money and time you could be doing something else to see it, it’s probably not worth bothering with.

6 Ragnarok reactions

N.B: Unless you’re REALLY spoiler-phobic this post should be ok for you!

1 – I liked it a lot. It’s funny, exuberant and inventive. It’s the MCU turned up to 11.

2 – It is by far the best Thor film to date. A large scale purge of the supporting characters pays off. While obviously very accomplished as actors, the likes of Natalie Portman, Anthony Hopkins and Stellan Skarsgard always seemed uncomfortable being in these films. Their replacements punch their way into Ragnarok already embracing their OTT camp glory. Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie feels ready to join the main Avenger’s line-up from the get-go. And if we can see Taika Waititi’s Korg or Jeff Goldblum’s grandmaster again that would be great. Obviously that could be in another Thor sequel, but they both seem like they’d fit-in well in a GOTG adventure.

3 – Casting Cate Blanchett as the villain serves to illustrate the difference between a good actor and a great one. Marvel villains have generally been uninspiring. Even capable actors struggle to do much with their generic objectives and motivations, modest screentime and clunky dialogue. Blanchett doesn’t so much overcome those hurdles as devour them. The likes of Lee Pace and even Mads Mikkelsen struggle when their characters get into full flow: they need to deliver dire declamations with conviction, without seeming silly. Blanchett needn’t worry. Her performance is hammed up to a level beyond the pantomime, but even at Hela’s most overwrought, Blachett inhabits her, such that you never wind up questioning, a character who on even cursory examination is totally ludicrous. This video illustrates the point rather well.

https://www.instagram.com/p/BauEj6-HVRQ/?hl=en&taken-by=marvel

4 – Ragnarok has a decidedly antipodean flavour. It was filmed in Australia, its director is a Kiwi, and much of the cast is from that part of the world. That helps make it feel distinct from the rest of the MCU. I felt that was reflected in a humour that’s a bit looser and more than the hyperverbal Whedony quipping you get in most Marvel movies. Not that I mind hyperverbal Whedony quipping, but some variety is pleasant. [Edit: put it this way. Marvel dialogue is generally very coffee. Ragnarok is more larger]

5 – The synth heavy score is exactly what this movie needs.

6 – If I had to find fault with Ragnarok, I would be point-out that:

  • he action scenes look cool but nothing more. I never really became invested in what was happening in them. Instead I’d enjoy the spectacle whilst waiting to return to the characters interacting entertainingly.
  • It takes about 20 mins to really click into gear. Doctor Strange’s inclusion felt unearned.
  • Idris Elba remains chronically underused, and Hiddleston feels sidelined to an extent that is suprising given the popularity of his character.

But honestly, I was having a riot, so none of this really bothered me.

7 – I am conflicted about the trailers. They stepped on many of the best moments, but were also really entertaining in their own right.

Blade Runner 2049: seven observations of mine

1.

It’s good. Really good. Better than the original, in fact. It has the same haunting, unsettling quality. The same feeling of a universe that is lived in. The same ability to provoke uncomfortable questions. And visuals that are if anything even more stunning. Yet it also improves on it. The narrative has a clearer direction, the pacing is tighter and more even, and there are shorter gaps between action scenes. That adds to the excitement without detracting from anything else.

2.

Notwithstanding point 1, I don’t think Blade Runner 2049 will become an icon in the same way as its predecessor. That is partly an inevitable result of the fact that Blade Runner’s influence is now baked into popular culture. Blade Runner 2049 was never going to be able to execute a similar paradigm shift, because the very fact it is a sequel means it operates within an existing paradigm. Therefore, it cannot become the same kind of landmark in film history.

That said I think 2049 lacks something else that made the first one a classic, and it’s something it – at least in theory – could have delivered. The reason why one film becomes an icon and another doesn’t is generally not their totality. We cannot remember a whole film. Instead what stays with us is usually their most compelling moments. So, an icon status often stems from particular scenes. The kind that get seared in your brain if you’ve seen them and feel familiar even if you haven’t. It also helps if they have dialogue you can quote. The first Blade Runner absolutely had that in the final rooftop confrontation between Deckard and Roy Batty. I don’t think 2049 does. That said, this is one of those things where we have to wait for time to tell, before saying for certain. After all, Blade Runner initially appeared to have fallen flat, and only came to be viewed as a classic later. Maybe on reflection, one moment of 2049 will come to sum up the brilliance of the whole film. I’m not sure though.

3.

Denis Villeneuve seems a lot like the new Christopher Nolan. That’s partly because their films look similar and have similar tones. More importantly, however, they both make smart, complicated, thought provoking pieces of art that work for a mass audience.

I also sense that we’ve yet to see Villeneuve’s Dark Knight or Dunkirk. I await that masterpiece with barely contained excitement.

4.

I regret that Jóhann Jóhannsson didn’t get to score it. Hans Zimmer does perfectly good work but it is very much what we’ve come to expect from him and his imitators. Villeneuve and Jóhannsson seem to have a Spielberg/Williams (and indeed Nolan/Zimmer) style synergy and I suspect that them working together again might have produced something more memorable.

5.

This is a rare film that uses the ‘born sexy yesterday’ trope without indulging it. It is not only conscious of the fact that the idea is creepy but consciously uses it.

6.

2049’s being released just months after the very Blade Runnery live action remake of Ghost in the Shell does underline how much of a failure that film was. Mr Sunday Movies accurately described it as ‘the poor man’s Blade Runner, and also the poor man’s Ghost in the Shell.

7.

Blade Runner 2049 and Westworld (TV series) would make great companion pieces. They have similar themes and a shared ambition, but a different approach and feel.

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The MCU ranked from best to worst

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*Warning contains mild spoilers and copious anorakiness*

As I have now seen Spider-Man: Homecoming, now seems like an apt time to update my ranking of the films and TV shows in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).

I fear that this will be the last time I am able to do something like this and have it still be comprehensive. The number of TV projects is escalating and I doubt I will be able to keep up.

So, for possibly the final time, let’s take this from worst to best:

#27 Iron Fist (2017)

Although the superhero genre is often criticised as homogenous and unimaginative, virtually all the films and shows on this list bring at least something distinctive to the table. Iron Fist is a sorry exception. It shows you nothing new. It could still have been ok if it was executed well, but it isn’t. The lead is miscast, the plot is diffuse and aimless, and for a series supposedly about martial arts it seems weirdly uninterested in them.

[Check out: Is Iron Fist as Bad as Everyone says?]

#26 The Incredible Hulk (2008)

About as dull as Iron Fist but since it is a film rather than a TV series, it mercifully feels far less interminable.

#25 Iron Man II (2010)

It’s all set up and no pay off. The filmmakers seem to have purposefully avoided anything too interesting lest that prevent them being able to use it later. Perhaps because of this, the story and script are a mess. It wastes Sam Rockwell (a serious crime) but gives us plenty of Gwyneth Paltrow (an even worse crime).

That said, it is the first time that the ambition of what Marvel was doing began to seem real, and the energy of Downey Jnr’s performance pushes along even this misjudged entry in the saga.

#24 Thor: The Dark World (2013)

This exemplifies a lot of the weakness of the MCU: generic villains, theoretically high-stakes that never feel real, a plot driven by MacGuffins, and CGI heavy battles that look like nothing. That said it does have the substantial redeeming feature of lots of scenes that involve Tom Hiddleston delivering dialogue written by Joss Whedon, which is a combination that really works!

#23 Thor (2011)

It has more plot and character development than the Dark World. Otherwise, the problems are similar.

#22 Agents of Shield [series 1] (2013)

For a long time, this series fell very flat: too much TV budget CGI, characters lacking in depth, an arc that seemed to go nowhere, and a tone that was too childish for the material. Sometimes it worked as dumb fun. More often it was just dumb.

Then two-thirds into its run, a development in the films forced the show to reconfigure itself for the better. It gained focus, became darker and ditched most of its dafter habits.

Still that poor two-thirds of a series ways it down a lot.

[Check out: Agents of Shield hits the ground strolling and My agents of shield wish list]

#21 Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

This was the first film to hint that Marvel could do smarter things with the MCU. The by no means straightforward evolution of Steve Rodgers into Captain America is well played with nice twists, like how the military’s first instinct is to use him for propaganda. The best part, however, is Hayley Atwell managing to elevate Peggy Carter from a generic supporting role to the core of the film. However it gets the basics wrong and largely falls flat as a result. The actions scenes are bland beyond words. As a result, the film actually tails off as it reaches its climax.

#20 Iron Man (2008)

Ignoring what it started, this is an efficiently done but mostly generic sci-fi action film. While Downey Jnr is very good as an anti-hero morphing into a hero – and Bridges is a decent villain – it is apparent with hindsight that the Iron Man films have the weakest supporting characters of any strand of the MCU.

#19 Jessica Jones [season 1] (2015)

This should have been way higher than it is. So many individual elements are superlative. Ritter is an engaging lead. Tennant is an even better villain, arguably the best Marvel has ever produced. The show is also thematically ambitious and insightful. Yet it doesn’t work. There are too many duff supporting characters, and the structure is a mess. A fairly simple story did not really stretch to the length of its run, so the screenwriters kept having to derail the plot’s progression.

[Check out: The Tragic Failure of Jessica Jones]

#18 Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

This had exactly the opposite problem to Jessica Jones. It tries to pack too much material into too little time. The result is still entertaining but also rather frustrating.

[Check out: Avengers: Age of Ultron (review)]

#17 Luke Cage [season 1] (2016)

I went with this series more than with Jessica Jones even though it has a lot of the same structural issues (and a pants big bad). The (often slapstick) action scenes are superior, the selection of supporting characters is better, and its stylistic choices are very apt. A lot of fun even though the final episodes are Iron Fist level bad.

[Check out: Magic and Mean Streets]

#16 Agents of Shield [season 2] (2014)

As we’ve already mentioned, this show’s first season varied wildly in quality. Fortunately, the second retained the quality of the superior latter episodes. It also added some genuinely entertaining supporting characters to its ensemble.

#15 Daredevil [season 2] (2016)

It begins with Matt Murdoch taking on the Punisher – perfectly played by Jon Bernthal – and it’s brutal and compelling. But six episodes in, he’s taken into custody, and the season moves onto some far less compelling nonsense about magical ninjas. If those early episodes had been on their own, then it would have been near the very top. As it is they are still quite enough to carry this series to a place above almost all the Marvel/Netflix collaborations.

#14 Doctor Strange (2016)

The plot, jokes and acting provide plenty to enjoy. However, it’s the strange – geddit! – and spectacular visuals that win this film a place high up the pecking order.

#13 Agent Carter [season 2] (2016)

It doesn’t really do much to develop its titular character, nor does it have its focus, clarity or thematic depth of the first season. It does, however, retain its appealing ensemble, period style and effervescent lead. The plot also remains compelling, just not quite as compelling.

#12 Iron Man 3 (2013)

Not only the best of the Iron Man films but also the first demonstration that the Avengers was not a fluke. A lot of people dislike both the twist and separating Tony Stark from the suits for a substantial portion of the runtime. However, I found both of them to be pleasant surprises that kept this instalment from feeling like a re-tread.

#11 Ant Man (2015)

Many of us will mourn the Edgar Wright version of this film that might have existed. Nonetheless, what we got is still a joy. It’s Marvel’s funniest project this side of Guardians. That a lot of that humour depends on visual flair suggests that the film retains at least some of Wright’s spirit.

#10 Agents of Shield [season 3] (2015)

AKA the point that fans of the show got to stop feeling a little embarrassed for liking it. It kicked the quality up a gear for a second time largely because of the acting. Up to this point the central cast had seemed only competent (and sometimes not even that). For much of the second season, they were outshone by supporting characters. However, at this point they really showed they could deliver stellar performances. The best showcase for this is 4722 hours, which sees Elizabeth Henstridge (AKA Simmons) carry a fantastic genre shifting episode almost single-handedly.

#9 Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

It’s still funny, it’s still charming, and it still makes you care deeply about a racoon and a tree. It actually improves on its predecessor in several ways. It makes fuller use of Michael Rooker and gives Dave Bautista more chances at scene stealing. Most importantly however, is that in Kurt Russel it gets a substantial villain upgrade. But inevitably it cannot recreate the surprise of the first one.

#8 Spider Man: Homecoming (2017)

Homecoming has been out in the world for barely a week, yet it already seems like the natural way to tell a Spiderman story. The relationship between it and the Raimi and Webb directed outings, now looks like that between Sherlock Holmes and Murders in the Rue Morgue, you can see what they were going for, but it gets there. It will henceforth seem wholly obvious that Peter Parker should seem like an actual high schooler, that quipping should be a key part of his repertoire, that his adventures should connect up to the rest of Marvel’s heroes, and that the Vulture will now be in the starting lineup of Spiderman villains and that he should be depicted like Michael Keaton plays him in Homecoming.

The only thing that keeps it out of the very top tier of the MCU is that the action sequences are a bit ho-hum. Other than that, everything else is nit picking.

#7 The Avengers (2012)

It is big yet it is also clever. It required staggering craftmanship to have this many moving parts click into place and create an elaborate tapestry of superhero awesomeness. Also made Bruce Banner/the Hulk work on screen for the first time.

#6 Daredevil [season 1] (2015)

Marvel could reasonably be accused – from time to time – of cheesiness. That’s not a danger for Daredevil however. It is a bracing blast of bleakness and brutality. Zack Snyder has given gloominess a bad name, but here it is serving a purpose. We get rich themes from Catholicism to the nature of violence via gentrification. That and spectacularly choreographed fight scenes and Vincent D’Onofrio bringing us the MCU’s best villain.

[Check out: The Lord said run to the devil]

#5 Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

The strange thing about Guardians is that it presents itself as the most cynical of the films in the MCU, yet at the same time, it is – apart from its own sequel – also the most sentimental. That contradiction would undermine most films, but it is the making of Guardians. It has so much humour and brio that it manages to sell you on the idea its core characters are at once both heroes and anti-heroes, who have the most likable qualities of both.

[Check out: Hooked on a feeling]

[Please don’t check out my initial reaction to the first trailer which is rather embarrassing in hindsight.]

#4 Agents of Shield [season 4] (2016)

I’m not kidding. It really is better than the Avengers! It is far more ambitious than it has any right to be. It starts out delivering its own version of Ghost Rider into the MCU and then riffs on Age of Ultron, Blade Runner, Westworld, the Matrix, and the Man in the High Castle. Even more remarkably all of them are executed with aplomb.

#3 Captain America: Civil War (2016)

The Avengers series – of which this is an instalment in all but name – has always been in danger of being crushed by the weight of characters and plots it carries. The scaffolding that holds it up is the dynamic between Evans, Downey jr and Johansson; foregrounding that makes for an excellent story.

#2 Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

The most tightly structured and plotted of the films. It benefits from keeping the scale relatively contained. At least for its first two acts, the Winter Soldier is admirably earthbound, light on CGI and relatively naturalistic in its tone. That is perhaps best embodied in the emphasis on hand-to-hand fights that feel much more real than ones with spaceships, robots and lasers.

#1 Agent Carter [season 1] (2015)

It is a shame that the best part of the MCU is also probably the least viewed.

The most obvious reason for this is Hayley Atwell as the titular hero. She manages to make a character with one foot in the ‘Golden Age’ of Hollywood and another in Whedonesque TV dramas, seem very natural and completely real.

However, the show as a whole is equally excellent. The 1940s spy story is an entertaining genre to play with, and Agent Carter uses it conventions to full effect: it is full of fedoras, poorly lit alleyways, sinister contraptions, and even more sinister Eastern Europeans. However, it also manages to transcend those same conventions. Most obviously by putting a woman at its heart, and rather starkly depicting the injustice of the sexism she faces. It also subtly and effectively depicts a society living in the shadow of a devastating war, as virtually every character is wrestling with some kind of trauma arising from WWII.

Lest that make it sound like a gloomy affair, I should also point out how funny it is. A particular comic treat is the double act of Dominic Cooper as Howard Stark and James D’Arcy as the original human Jarvis, who between them deliver an impressive Jeeves and Wooster pastiche.

If you have not seen it – and given the low viewership figures that led to its untimely cancellation you probably haven’t – then I would urge you to seek it out. It is only a short season – just eight episodes – so it is not a big commitment but it is one that will be repaid many times over.

[Check out: Agent Carter (review)]

 

 

 

Baywatch suffers an especially brutal snark attack

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If you like reading film reviews that means you are either a fan of films or harsh put downs. As an example of the later may I commend Kyle Smith’s review of Baywatch for National Review. My favourite section is the following:

At one point, Zac Efron’s character lay in a morgue drawer while fluids from a cadaver dripped into his mouth and I wondered why he didn’t turn his head or at least cover his face. Then I thought: Who am I to judge? I’m still here watching, after all.
Disclaimer: Haven’t seen the film. I come not to bury it but to praise Smith’s bitchiness.

The strangest story ever told

The ‘Anne Hathaway monster movie’ is as ridiculous as it sounds, but Colossal uses its weirdness to devastating effect.

*Spoilers for all of Colossal ahead*

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Making inconsistency into a virtue

Conventionally, a review needs to tell you what it is that’s actually being reviewed. This is an unusually taxing task for Colossal. Short hand doesn’t’ really work for it. It involves giant kaiju flattening parts of Seoul but it’s not a monster movie. It is mostly styled like a comedy but its purpose is not really to be funny. It’s about an abusive relationship but it’s not like most films that deal with that theme. It is almost ludicrously inconsistent when it comes to genre.

That is a strength rather than a weakness.

At the start, we appear to be watching one kind of film. Anne Hathaway is a lovable screw-up. She’s clearly has a problem with alcohol. Perhaps as a result, she’s been fired from her writing job in New York and dumped by her boyfriend. Lacking money and a place to stay she moves back to the small town where she grew up. These reversals are presented as misfortunes rather than tragedies. Her struggles with an airbed in the empty house she has inherited from her parents are played for physical comedy. When she meets an old friend from school (Jason Sudeikis) and his drinking buddies, it’s clearly not healthy for her to be hanging out with them. Nonetheless, they seem amiable enough. The set up for a mild comedy appears to have been established, albeit one with the misfitting element of Hathaway’s character inadvertently summoning and controlling a giant monster that appears over Seoul.

Then around the midway point things turn scary. It transpires that Sudeikis’ character can also summon a monster. Initially it appears that, like our heroine, he finds this experience to be both exciting and concerning. But soon, he recognises it as a source of power with which he can bolster his fragile ego. We see that he’s wanted to possess Hathaway’s character since they were teenagers. Under normal circumstances, if he pushed this agenda she would simply shun him, but now he can make carnage in a city of millions the price of her ‘disobedience’.

At this point the audience starts looking back and wondering why they didn’t spot this much earlier. Sure, he seemed nice but there were plenty of signs that he was bitter and jealous. His story about why his wife left him was not only vague but also conveyed an undefined resentment. Plus, all his actions towards our lead, served to inveigle himself into her life and build her dependency on him. She even joked about him acting like her stalker!

However, we did not see what was in plain sight because the film’s tone obscured it. Had we been primed for it, we would have quickly understood the danger he posed. If he’d been played by Christian Bale, Ethan Hawke or someone else we associate with dark roles that would have been one thing, but instead the filmmakers cast Floyd from 30 Rock.

Paradoxically, Colossal’s bizarre collage of styles and themes creates a form of realism. Our actual lives do not have a defined genre. There is not a team of professionals using everything from the light level to the music to tell us how to interpret events. We don’t know what kind of story we’re participating in until we can look back on it. That is especially true for those who are ensnared by abusive relationships. What ends as a tragedy or even a horror story, begins as a romance.

By disdaining the boundaries and conventions of any one genre, Colossal effectively and unsettlingly recreates that ambiguity.

Monstrous whiteness

In a review of the film for Elle, Estelle Tang accuses it of “an insensitive racial dynamic”

“Gloria and Oscar’s psychodrama plays out in a small American town that could be pretty much anywhere. But the people their monster-counterparts end up hurting are in Seoul. There doesn’t seem to be any specific reason why that city’s the target…there’s a kind of heedless racism to the terror Gloria and Oscar inflict. When Gloria tries to prove to her friends that she’s the one controlling neo-Godzilla, she drunkenly falls over and accidentally kills, it’s implied, many people. It’s hard to imagine a white character being so careless if, say, Austin, Texas, was where her monster-self appeared. I mean, someone’s aunt probably lives in Austin!

At least Gloria’s upset by her thoughtless actions …Oscar doesn’t seem to care at all who gets hurt as long as he’s in control. Their friends do nothing to stop the bloodshed. Watching interpersonal strife play out between white people, with generic crowds of Asian people at risk, is disturbing, to say the least. In the film’s ending, when the monsters finally leave, the people of Seoul applaud, not knowing that a drunk white woman and an abusive white man were to blame for what they’ve suffered.”

I suspect that at the point the film was made this critique was wholly justified. However, I feel that events have conspired to make this oversight seem profound. It was made before Trump was elected and tensions on the Korean peninsula ramped up again. If Godzilla was a metaphor for Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the monsters in Colossal have become inadvertent symbols for the nuclear threat Seoul and the rest of the Korean peninsula face. And that danger has been substantially increased by an ill-informed and impulsive president, elected in large part by resentful white men in small town America, who are at best indifferent to people in places like Seoul. Whether this dynamic came about because the film makers were good or (as I suspect) lucky, it only adds weight to an already powerful film.

A Hollow Shell

The lead character in Ghost in the Shell is a cyborg haunted by glimmers of her human past. Likewise, Ghost in the Shell is an efficient if rather robotic piece of franchise filmaking, that occasionally gives you a sense of the genuinely interesting project it might have been (1).

The things to like still outweight the things to dislike, but that doesn’t take it all that far. For example, it has rich, layered visuals that could have been really used to make a story truly compelling. But instead they are grafted onto the plot of Robocop (2). And the artistry of individual shots becomes rather Snydery, in that the price of creating impressive individual moments, is that the scences you get when you add them together feel pretty antiseptic.

The cast are well matched to a set of characters, who are drawn interestingly enough that I would have liked to have discovered more about them (3)(4). But I never did and they were given ledden dialogue to say.

Worst of all, it repeatedly announces its intention to tackle important themes without ever actually doing it. Indeed, at times it seems to be positively mocking the screenwriting dictum to ‘show don’t tell’. At one point Major, Johansson’s character, complains about lacking a connection to anything but she’s shown having deep and meangingful connections to her creater, her boss and her teamates. Similarly, characters repeatedly say that “it’s your actions not your memories that define you” but Major’s quest to redefine herself is both provided impetus by and manifests itself in her attempts to recover her memories. Ghost in the Shell’s philosophising thereby winds up seeming less like profundity than posing.

Given the multiplicity of potential themes that the film notices but never really engages with, I can’t help wondering if it wouldn’t have been better as a TV series. With the extra space, the number of different themes could become an asset rather than a liability. That would have come at a price. The visuals would have to have been toned back and a less expensive lead than Johansson found. But it is not just themes that could have done with filling in. As I’ve already intimated the characters, concepts and world all could be explored further. Sadly, what might have been fascinating over ten hours is forgettable over two.

 

 

(1)I fully accept that the more interesting project might be the Japanese animes it’s based on.

(2) It really is more or less exactly the same. Right down to the bit at the end where the hero has to fight a walking tank.

(3) Well except for the obvious

(4) For a Borgen fan it’s quite startling to see Pilou Asbæk go from spin doctor to cybernetically enhanced special forces solider. He seems to have roughly doubled in size for this role.

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