Saturday, 20 May 2017

ALIEN COVENANT: Full-Tilt Review.

"One wrong note eventually ruins the entire symphony."
Walther


Probably not a good sign...



Synopsis:

The Covenant is an interstellar shuttle on a mission to colonise a far-off planet. However, after a freak accident causes the Covenant structural damage and fatalities, the remaining crew are reluctant to re-enter hyper-sleep for the remaining 7 years of their voyage. Their prayers are seemingly answered however, after they intercept a transmission of apparent human origin from a nearby planet. Closer inspection reveals an almost Earth-like ecosystem easily capable of supporting human life, but is this new utopia all that it first appears, or is something sinister at work?




Script: 1/2

Moments of inventiveness never quite compensate for the loose-ends and flaws in logic.


Pace: 1/2

The characters are never given time to properly develop, while the ending feels tacked-on.

 
Acting: 2/2

Some power-house performances and great supporting work.

 
Aesthetic: 1/2

Beautifully shot and much closer to Alien in style, undermined by some atrocious CGI.

 
Intention: 1/2

It's certainly distanced itself from Promethius, but also feels like a re-hash of better films.


Final Word: 6/10


Before we begin, here's a little context. The first Alien film was essentially a 'slasher' in space, and if you can forgive the paradox, a state-of-the-art B-movie, a 'creature-feature'. Rather than a world draped in the usual kitsch of the era's popular science fiction (Star Wars and Doctor Who being among Alien's contemporaries), novice director Ridley Scott instead presented a believable world populated with believable technology and believable characters ala 2001, but unlike 2001 Scott's films coup-de-gras was the reveal of a monster so terrifying, so nightmarish, so other, that it would leave an impression on audiences spanning decades... This was over 40 years ago, so it would seem unfair to expect the same levels of surprise and awe when audiences are much more familiar with the titular beast, but what we lack in shock-value you'd expect an accomplished director (one with over 40 years experience) to be able to compensate for with flair and ability. That's exactly what audiences thought as they flocked to see Prometheus in their droves. We all know how that turned out; an over-ambitious, hackneyed and unrealistic disaster which didn't deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Alien.

As the scores on the door reveal, Covenant is a superior film to Prometheus, although that's damning with faint praise. Covenant is still far from a perfect film, although it's issues are somewhat harder to define.

If Alien was Scott's 'slasher' story, then Covenant represents his take on the 'mad scientist' trope. And therein lies some of the problem. Scott is less interested in telling a story about aliens than he is in waxing lyrical about the themes of creation, and to do this he uses the character David as the lynch-pin of the film: it is David, not the alien, that takes role of chief protagonist. While the other alien films may have flirted with other forms of villainy, the better films in the franchise have always positioned the overriding threat as the beast itself. Not the case here. David is ruthless, manipulative and physically imposing, and it's clear that Scott is telling a David-driven. His fascination with the character may even explain his recent return to the Bladrunner franchise, which would probably be a more natural fit for the themes he's clearly determined to explore (as well as both being about artificial slaves rebelling against their creators). The nail worn by Covenant's heroine Daniels, to remember her late husband, as well as the line “that's the spirit” reference Bladrunner directly, this being the exact line Roy utters to Deckard during the conflict of that film. Having said all this, the idea of a David-heavy story isn't the worse idea in the world, he's a very interesting foil and one of the only good things to come out of Prometheus, but to this extent it undermines the actual danger posed by the aliens themselves.

Alien Covenant isn't without it's merits. The film, as you'd expect from Ridley Scott, looks beautiful, and the opening credits call to mind, in no way accidentally, Richard Greenberg's iconic work on the first Alien. And, for what I believe to be the very first time in an Alien film, we hear the soundtrack from previous installments of the franchise- paying service to both Alien and Prometheus. The technology in Covenant looks austere and functional, a definite step towards Alien in terms of design, and similarly a step away from Prometheus' body-hugging space suits and slick Apple aesthetic. Scott has also taken the time to rework the chestburster creature, making the most of (on the whole) better special effects. Now, rather than the worm-on-a-stick first seen in Alien, this little monster is now quite the vicious little bastard. However, it needs to be said, some of the CGI sequences look cheap; some of the (what should have been impressive) shots of the Covenant drifting through space had the feel of a Sy-Fy Channel special, as did the mysterious 'electrical pulse' that damages the ship in Act 1. The airborne virus, swirling around like a dot-to-dot squid also failed to convince, but all these problems pale into insignificance compared to the effects used to realise the films menagerie of rabid beasts. I remember being impressed with the CGI for the 2 promotional shots leading up to the films release; that of the more traditional alien atop the ship (the “money shot” from the trailer) and that of the newer creature (a 'Neomorph'? Whatever) perched over the body of a dead woman (see above). They looked like they had heft, which is rare for CGI. Sadly, the majority of the films other alien scenes fall far from the mark, comparing unfavorably to some of the more heavy-handed CGI from Alien Resurrection. And finally, while we're on the subject, I'm not sure what the idea was with all the odd posturing the aliens seem to be doing, almost as if they've taken up some form of extraterrestrial yoga class since we last saw them. Either that, or they're standing ram-rod upright like scarecrows, also a bizarre look...

Back onto better things; the crew are all played excellently, gone are the stock-characters of Prometheus, the Covenant's crew all talk and behave like actual people, they don't talk purely in exposition or high-minded theoretical rhetoric. Katherine Waterson makes a plucky lead playing Daniels, while Billy Crudup plays Oram, the ships new captain, and turns what could have easily been a simple 'idiot in charge' role into someone who isn't entirely dis-likeable. Danny McBride, better known for his comedy, plays the rowdy Tennessee, and despite little screen-time will probably become a firm favourite in the minds of the audience (I expect to see him in more serious roles as a result). Demian Bichir, Carmen Ejogo et-al all impress. However, it's Michael Fassbender's show, and he steals every single scene he's in, which is most of them. Here he returns as the sinister David, as well as playing Walther, who is the next model up from David. Both are fascinating characters, and Fassbender has mastered a style of efficiency-in-movement and mannerism that perfectly encapsulates the characterises- almost human but not quite. However, it seems for every one thing Covenant gets right it makes a mistake somewhere else. Yes, the crew this time round feel much more real, but despite what feels like a long lead-in to the actual running-around-screaming section of the film, we find out very little about these characters- putting us (unforgivably) back into “I don't care what happens to these people” territory. That's not the case all over, some characters manage to shine despite a lack of attention, but for the most part we accept these people are just fodder. This is lessened to some extent if you watched the Last Supper promotional clip, which defines some of the characters and their relationship to each other, but this clip didn't make the cut of the final film. I'd not watched that clip since it first came out, so I struggled to remember much about it, to the extent that when two of the characters are killed in the shower (hey, you saw that bit in the trailer, don't complain!) I hadn't registered they were actually a couple before we see them about to 'get jiggy', and the same can be said about the other pairings- especially the much-hyped gay couple, Demian Bichir is totally wasted. You begin to relaise who-loves-who only after the deaths start piling up and the newly widowed begin to sob. Interesting dynamics that have previously been hinted at, such as Daniels' relationships with Omar and Walther, never come to a satisfying fruition. But, and this is an important distinction to make, this is not the fault of the cast! This is the writer and the director (especially the director, Ridley Scott always gets the final word)! This is not acceptable film making, and if you think that sounds harsh, this past year Ridley Scott, a director with (let's remember) 40 years experience, made $75 million. I don't know about you, but with that in mind I expect a fucking good film! The dialogue, while well delivered, is also a little flat- you won't find any memorable lines on par with “the corn bread ain't that bad” or “get away from her you bitch”. All I could remember was the line “sugar tits” and (for all the wrong reasons) “I'll do the fingering”.

But like I said, Covenant isn't without merits. The film is arguably at it's best when the crew are marooned on the planet. For a franchise previously about navigating claustrophobic metal environments, it was good to see some nature- and it's not like big empty forests aren't menacing in their own unique way. This shift called to mind moments of Predator and Jurassic Park, especially in one scene where the Neomorphs are leaping velociraptor-style at the crew from out of the long grass. Shame then that the film abandons this novel twist in favour of a climax taking place aboard the Covenant itself, but hey-ho. While the film does at least try something new with the old formula (setting the biggest part of the film on the ground, aliens bursting from different parts of the body, the Neomorphs), this is all hindered by the poor handling. Scott now seems to think that a shaky camera is the same thing as immersing, and the shots are either too dark to pass as 'exciting action' or too energized to qualify as 'horror', yet another thing the film has in common with Alien Resurrection. The set-piece atop a moving space ship (again, seen in the trailer) felt like the sort of realism-defying thrills you'd expect to see in one of the later Die Hard films. In fact, the entire final climax of the film came off as weak. Not only was the inclusion of the alien-on-the-ship scenario totally unnecessary (the film would have ultimately ended the same way regardless) but it felt like the most hollow half-arsed form of lip service. It felt like the same thin-skinned director declaring “fine, you want more of the same? Here, have it! More of the fucking same!”. I mean, it felt like the director was intentionally dicking me about, even down to how the alien is finally dispatched (yep, you guessed it, flushed into space- and I can't even consider that a spoiler). Which brings us to the ending... I won't give too much away, but while previous Alien films have always ended on a hopeful note (even Alien 3, while bleak, ended with Ripley preventing the bad guys from possessing the new-born queen), Covenant is out-and-out despairing. I have no issue with bleak endings, and in a lot of horror it seems rightly fitting, but in an Alien film I wasn't sold. It was pretty morbid (and why, exactly, is the Covenant traveling through space with hundreds of human embryos? How exactly does that help anybody colonise a world?).

There are also a number of little plot holes and the like that I'll refrain from going into right now because I don't want to spoil anything (another post down the line might be in order)- but if you're reading this thinking “too late for that”, you clearly didn't watch the trailer, friend. If you have, the bad news is you've pretty much seen the entire film already (thanks for that, modern marketers!).

Much has been made of, what the Americans call, a “hard R rating” (our equivalent of a 15/18 rated film), with everyone saying how gory the film is. I went into Covenant a little perturbed by this. Whatever the first 4 Alien films may or may not be, they're far from full-on gory. Part of what made them work was that you'd always felt like you'd seen more than you ever had; death was, for the most part, implied. Sure, they all have a gory birthing scene, but after that, almost nothing. In Alien most of the character's deaths are cut-away- one of the most chilling moments is hearing Lambert scream over the tannoy system- as a viewer your imagination was probably far worse than anything the film could show you. In Aliens, again, characters are killed off-screen, only Bishop is eviscerated in full view, and he hardly counts because he's an android. Alien 3, a little bloodier, sure, but death is always edited fast or kept at a distance. However, I can safely say that initial reports of Covenants gore are mostly exaggerated. What it does do, however, is dispatch it's characters with unflinching cruelty. A case and point; one female character accidentally kills herself by causing a mass explosion. Not only do we see this fireball, but so too do some of the remaining crew, and together we also witness her fire engulfed form staggering from the debris before finally collapsing. A touch excessive (as well as unrealistic, I'd have expected her to be blown to pieces), it felt once again like a director taking issue with criticism; “fine, if Prometheus wasn't vicious enough for you, watch this- I'm going to kill-off people's loved ones right in front of their eyes- is that edgy enough for you?” And speaking of unflinching cruelty, I always quite liked Elizabeth Shaw, one of the few developed characters of Prometheus. Without wanting to give too much away, Scott has evoked a sense of Alien 3 in terms of the brutal killing-off of pre-established characters. It felt a very cynical and very cruel send-off, almost as if a certain thin-skinned director was saying to his audience “fine, you didn't like my last film, I'll wipe the slate clean and the blood is on your hands!”


Final, Final Word

Alien Covenant is hit-and-miss, a step forward in some ways and a step back in others. Tonally, the film is an unsatisfying patchwork, and the end result is a film that's simply not scary. Bloody, sure, and brutal, but considering Ridley Scott's recently been quoted as saying of Alien Covenant “I wanted to scare the shit out of people”, then he can chalk this up as a fail. Covenant may have provided him a chance to salvage some of his work from Prometheus, but it's at the cost. In a word, “fatigue”; I'm not sure I want to sit through another alien film, and for the hard-core fan that I am that's not an easy thing to say. I say that as a man who firmly believes there are still amazing stories left to be told involving the aliens, I just know now that I'm never going to see them. In many ways a full-on reboot would have been better, at least it would have left the original films with whatever dignity they still had. Alien Covenant is a trashy B-movie in the mould of Relic and Anaconda, with delusions of A-movie importance- too nasty and too self-aggrandising to allow for (in the abstinence of a better film) any of the cheap fun that could otherwise have been had by watching people being eaten by space monsters...
Scott is clearly a gifted visionary, but he's developed over the years into a director far more interested in themes and subtext than he is in character or coherent story, and that's always going to sit jarringly with everything Alien represents. Scott doesn't seem to understand this, he's sadly only as good as the script he's given, and this isn't the best script.





Possible spoiler; You have to ask yourself, at a point, why you need to cast Fassbender twice in the same film? Throughout the franchise the different androids ("I prefer the term artificial person") have been played by different actors, which isn't entirely unrealistic. 2 Fassbenders presents you with an expensive effects challenge you needn't have. This might lead you consider that having 2 Fassbenders running around might become a later plot device, and anyone familiar with 'Chekhov's Gun' will surely begin to suspect something when David starts cutting his hair to look like Walther. But I told myself "Ridley Scott's got over 40 years of experience, surely he isn't planning on that old 'swapping twins' cliche." I tried not to worry. And then, as the film reached its climax, Walther and David go head-to-head, and then there's a pause- will Walther deliver the fatal blow, or will David reach for the knife. Guess what? We CUT AWAY! Why bother Ridley? Why bother? By not showing what's happened you've already told us. If Walther had won you'd have shown it, by cutting away and leaving us in doubt you've clearly set up David to take Walther's place- otherwise there's no point. Not only is it one of the oldest tricks in the book, Ridley's pulled it off with all the grace and sophistication of a Nickelodeon cartoon! Wow, a new low in direction even for you Ridley Scott, you fucking tool. I actually felt genuinely insulted, did he think I wouldn't know what was going on? So then I sat through the last part of the film (which was unnecessary anyway, it was the film Alien crammed into 5 minutes) waiting to see if anybody would find out about David's disguise. Then I thought "oh, that nail Daniels stabbed David with under the chin when they had that fight must have left a wound, she'll probably notice that, that's clever at least" (because, like the 'switch', the nail had been set up with all the subtly of a Jim Davidson gag, and we had yet to see the pay-off). But guess what? Didn't happen... Ridley Scott, you sir are a hack.



Monday, 1 May 2017

"BIG THINGS HAVE SMALL BEGININGS..."

David (Prometheus).


The "money shot".



Why do I keep doing this to myself?

Growing up Alien and Aliens were two of my favourite films, a love that has followed me into adulthood.

Alien 3, after initial disappointment as a teenager, I've grown to appreciate as a beautiful disaster. Alien Resurrection, however, I believe is total and indefensible garbage, for which all those involved should be totally ashamed of themselves. That film marked the absolute low-point for the franchise till Aliens vs Predator and the subsequent sequel. It's not that I took offense to the notion of a cross-over, simply that the films were as life affirming and enjoyable as a one-way trip to a Swiss clinic.

By that point I couldn't see how things could get any worse and hoped (Christ, how I hoped) that would be an end to it.

Then, news surfaced that no other than Ridley Scott was returning to the franchise, for a prequel to his first Alien. That got me curious, and as the release date grew closer and closer, my expectations ran higher and higher.

Long story short: Prometheus was shit. Poorly defined relationships, and a smorgasbord of forgettable one-dimensional characters who only serve to drive the story into a number of contrived hoops- and for what? Some hackneyed space-Jesus plot! Hardly an original idea. And to top it off, the crowning turd in the water-pipe (something you'd not even credit for a film in the Alien franchise) no fucking alien!

Anyway, Mr Scott is returning to the series for this next installment and has decided to back-track on his “I-know-best” NO-ALIEN policy.

We've had a number of little teasers so far, including two trailers (one much more subtle than the other), a closer look at the new stock-android (it seems most crews feature one, even though this was a major surprise to those on board the Nostromo first time round), and a “bloody-hell-it's-in-broad-daylight” view of the new 'Xenomorph' design- although I need to add at this point, I personally hate it when people call the aliens Xenomorphs like that's their official genus, it's a term used by the Colonial Marines to describe a generic 'bug' before they even meet their first monster...


One of H.R. Giger's early designs- look familiar?

I wasn't entirely sure about that 'money shot' at first, but given how everyone and their dog knows how the alien looks these days (Scott once famously said he spotted the alien in Disney Land), maybe it's better to tackle that head-on. Looks like much of the bio-mechanical styling have been dropped in favour of a more naturalistic and 'butch' design- the alien till this point had always been predominantly slender and feminine. In truth, it sticks quite accurately to Giger's original sketches from the first film, and I feel like that's a bold move on Scott's part.

Other 'tools' in the marketing campaign for Alien Covenant are the release of a number of clips. One of these is entitled Last Supper and provides a look at the new soon-to-be-doomed crew, while another shows Shaw (Prometheus' only human survivor) repairing David the android's destroyed body. Given how one of the things I loathed about Prometheus was the lack of group dynamics and believable characters, I was relieved watching Last Supper to see a little more of the 'old magic' at play; the scene felt believable and intimate. Obviously this is just a small window into a feature length film, but it's reassuring. A final clip revealed a now-repaired David essentially laying waste to what appears to be the Engineer's homeworld with their own weaponised black toxin (which truth be told felt a little like a spoiler).

However, for everything Alien Covenant might be doing right, it may be making further errors. News is now circulating which throws the whole premise of the current Alien saga in a different direction... Apparently David, the android who just barely survived the events of Prometheus, is responsible for engineering the particular strain of alien we've so far seen in the franchise, thus entirely decoding the subtext of the film cannon. What had once been a case of 'man is inferior to nature / man is not on top of the natural order of things' is now 'man sows the seeds to his own destruction': man created A.I, A.I creates the alien, alien destroys man.' Scott is quite pleased with this little gimmick, pointing out that while the 'man vs nature' trope has been played out quite often, this particular little avenue of creativity is fertile ground... Aside from my own reservations (personally I actually really like the 'man vs nature' trope) what the blinding-fuck is Ridley Scot actually talking about? 'man sows the seeds etc' is a trope as old as the hills! I mean, Christ alive, that's the entire through-line for the Terminator franchise for a start! Man creates A.I ' Skynet, Skynet creates terminators, terminators destroys man', not familiar at all? Ridley! This is James Cameron's shtick, you've probably heard of the guy, he got the job of doing a sequel to your first Alien film! Off the back of his first Terminator film! I despair, I really do...

Am I the only one who thinks Ridley Scott as actually suffered some sort of stroke?

Anyway, long story short, I'm off to see Alien Covenant when it comes out. Here's hoping it's good.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

“DON'T BE WHAT THEY'VE MADE YOU...”

Logan (Logan).

Isn't this how most Gillette adverts start?

I mentioned I had a few gripes with Logan as well as feeling it had a few plot problems. Don't read if you're sensitive to spoilers....


SPOLIERS! SPOILERS EVERYWHERE!

1. Laura is one of many mutants grown in a laboratory and designed as weapons, this being an extension of the Weapon-X Program that first created Wolverine. Laura and some of the other children were smuggled out of this lab by a sympathetic nurse, after Dr Rice decided to have the children murdered (choosing instead to work on the mysterious 'third villain')... With that in mind, why do the villains during the climax of the film only try to apprehend the remaining mutant children instead of killing them? Worst of all, it's a needless mishap! If the script had simply stated that Dr Rice still intended to weaponize the children you could argue they'd want to take them alive. You can still show how ruthless the villains are by having them exterminating any children who refuse to act subserviently.

2. In fact, come to mention it, the battle in the climax lacks the intensity and much of the explicitness of the earlier skirmishes (in particular the stand-out opening car-jack), instead opting for the fast editing of more traditional superhero films- save for a few notably gory moments. After all the prior “realism” it feels like the film finally backs down in the final moments because, well, you know, you can't go round gunning-down children (although we are treated to security footage of Pierce dragging around a dead child). Consider what you're witnessing- Logan running through the forest slashing his way through the Reapers, all the while under heavy gunfire, yet when he pauses to catch his breath his injuries are pretty insubstantial; a few cuts and a bloodied vest. Then Logan finally confronts his clone and the two go hammer-and-nail at each other with razor sharp claws for several minutes. Both Wolverines should have been criss-crossed in gaping splits, but both were still in pretty good shape come the ending (before the impaling, that is).

3. During the close of Act 1 Pierce confronts Logan at is desert hideaway, making a final demand that he hands over Laura. Low and behold, Laura strikes from the shadows and clubs Pierce round the back of the head with a lead pipe. This never struck me as odd at the time (although Logan's decision to have Caliban dump his body in the desert did seem bizarre when you consider he was bound to wake up again at some point), but it soon becomes clear this little mutant thinks nothing of slicing and dicing trough her enemies, including innocent shop keepers, so why the Hell did she not gut Pierce given this chance? After all, this was the man responsible for killing many of her friends back in the labs, as well as the nurse who helped get them to safety! And, given just how dangerous the girl is, a near indestructible killing machine in the Wolverine-mould of clawed mutants, why did he think it such a wise idea to confront Logan alone in the first place?

4. Final issue. So the film takes great pains to stress that mutants simply aren't being born anymore. That's fine, I was happy to accept that, I wasn't sitting there in the audience thinking “well, I better get a damn good explanation for this!”. I was aware Logan wasn't a story about world-changing events, the lens was much more intimate, the scale smaller... So imagine my surprise when during the climax Dr Rice casually drops the explanation; he'd perfected a formula to suppress the mutant gene during pregnancy and had secretly administered this to the world at large through foods and drinks. I have 2 issues with this. First- what the Hell happened to my small-scale story? The ramifications of this are huge! It barely gets any explanation at all, just a passing comparison to the Polio vaccine. Why even bother, the story didn't demand it? Secondly, how does an illegal and comparatively small operation on the Mexican border manage to somehow go about secretly administrating this 'mutant antidote' to the world's entire population? Even America alone would defy any belief. How- somebody tell me!?!? A blunt and self-defeating blunder...

Nag over.

Friday, 3 March 2017

LOGAN; Full-Tilt Review

"Logan, you still have time."
Charles Xavier 


While it may be true that "the apple never falls too far from the tree", heads can role pretty far.


Synopsis:
Logan, formally the hero known as Wolverine, is now pushing 60, struggling with his eyesight and working a dead-end job as a limo driver, hoping one day to afford a boat so he can escape from a society from which he feels detached- a world where the X-Men are no more and mutants are no longer being born . But that's the least of his worries. His healing factor is now ebbing away, and his now pain-wracked body is slowly being poisoned by the rare metal grafted to his bones (see earlier films). He's also now the retainer to Professor Charles Xavier, himself once the proud and dignified leader of the X-men, but his once powerful mind is now blighted with dementia and his psychic powers rage unchecked... However, Logan's life, such as it is, will be turned upside down with the arrival of a mute young girl pursued by a shadowy organisation from his own past.

 
Script: 1/2
A solid and well-told story marred by two serious plot flaws and some clumsy moments.

Pace: 2/2
At a modest (for superhero films) 2 hours, Logan is an exercise in lean storytelling.

Acting: 2/2
Possibly the most believably raw performances of any so-called 'superhero' film.

Aesthetic: 2/2
The sets and costumes are suitably grungy, the landscapes are beautify framed, and the effects are both sparingly used and brutally unglamorous.

Intention: 2/2
A superhero film devoid of the usual world-saving CGI-laden plots, where character is at the heart of action. Logan's time has truly come.

Final Word: 9/10
Hugh Jackman gives the performance of his career here as the disgruntled and reluctant title character. While the notion of him scowling and limping his way through the film might sound corny (an authentic limp is actually a very hard thing to fake) it's actually truly heartbreaking to behold- he behaves like he is in very real pain, both inside and out. Jackman's performance is that of a man literally breaking under the weight of his tragic past (everyone he has ever loved has met a violent death) and his obligation to his last remaining companion, Charles Xavier- an obligation that comes at a terrible price, seeing how Charles' dementia not only causes the old man to swing between utter confusion and cantankerous bitterness, but also means his powers could run dangerously wild at any moment. As an audience, you will completely understand Logan's resentment and reluctance, even when he's at his most scathingly blunt to the ones closest to him. To be very clear, Logan isn't a likeable character, but we cannot hold this against him. What we do know though is that underneath all that angst and thunderous rage, Logan will always step-up and be counted, he is never beyond redemption. However, if you're expecting him to suddenly have that 'ta-da' moment where the grumpy old cynic suddenly 'grows' as a person, you may be in for a shock; the film continually sucker-punches you by setting up these cues but instead turning them on their head, with Logan continually spurning any such connection in truly frank style... Admittedly, that moment does arrive, but it's later in the day than you'd think, and all the more bitter-sweet for it. Whether Jackman holds true to this being his final portrayal as the character of Wolverine, this will certainly be his defining moment.
It also comes as no surprise that Patrick Stewart has also decided to step away from the X-Men franchise, using this film as his character's swan-song. Apparently he came to realise that there could be no better film to go out on than this, and in all likelihood, the X-men being the patchy collection of films that it is, he's most likely right on the money. He too also brings new depth to a well loved character, by turns tragic and humorous, Charles Xavier's role in the story is a complex one; he is Logan's father-figure and his conscience, but he's also Logan's encumbrance, and while it's clear the two need, and indeed love one and other, they begrudge their dependency on the other and often lash out. As someone who's spent almost 15 years caring for people suffering with similar conditions, I admire the honesty of this relationship- no punches are pulled here, people in these situations do turn against each other, and it's heartbreaking.
First timer Dafne Keen, as the hunted girl who falls under Logan's protection, who most people by now have realised is the comic character X-23 (a clone of Logan's DNA) is amazingly able to hold her own in the presence of Jackman and Stewart. More over, she even manages to steal a few scenes, and while she's by turns precocious and unhinged (there are no Saints in this world), she's not without empathy: like a feral cat that's been kicked around once too often and has now decided to scratch back. I have no doubt she will fast become a fan-favourite, although what with her only existing in the future I'm unsure on just how, if at all, future X-Men films will best utilise her- a spin-off perhaps?
Oh, and (the curiously cast) Stephen Merchant makes for a very likeable Calaban- a put-upon mutant living with Logan on the Mexican boarder, helping to care for the ailing Professor- although allusions to his past with the film's villains, the Reavers, is both confusing and unnecessary.

And so, on that note, we now turn to the villains of the film- an area where most superhero films fall flat. The X-men films in particular have always suffered from dull villains, always overshadowed by the inclusion of the charismatic Magneto. Even the Marvel Cinematic Universe has wrestled with producing worthwhile protagonists. It seems only Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy has totally succeeded in providing us with truly memorable opponents. However, that said, Boyd Holbrook comes pretty damn close to giving us a truly hate-worthy foe in Pierce; an obnoxious, leering and vicious little bastard. He's at the head of a cyborg posse of bounty hunters tasked with hunting down Laura. It's a shame that all that stood between this scum and glorious infamy was his limited screen time, Pierce has to share the screen with less inspiring villains, among them Richard E Grant's 'stock mad scientist' Dr Rice. It's not that Grant can't deliver the goods when given the chance (like Stewart, Grant is a capable thesp), but how does one make such a clich├ęd character memorable or unique when his dialogue is mostly exposition? He's probably only on the screen for a total time of approximately four minutes, which hardly helps. The film may have been better served cutting him entirely and concentrating on Pierce, but "C'est la vie". In fact, Dr Rice's presence, and that of the mysterious 'third villain' are possibly the film's only concession to the format of superhero films: the hero needs to beat the lead villain, Rice in this instance (a henchman simply won't cut it) and your also needs to have a spectacular battle with a 'superior enemy', and for a character like Wolverine, who can really give him a run for his money? I'm reluctant to say more than this at this point, although I felt that particular void could have been filled by other means- but that's a personal preference and not necessarily a flaw of the film.
Another inspired, if risky, decision of the film is it's total disregard to staying 'true' to the tangled web of characters and plot situations set up in previous films. In fact, in one rather sly scene (whereby the characters are discussing an X-Men comic) Logan even casts doubt on the authenticity of these previous films, as though they could have been overblown stories told within the world we're now watching- it's not for nothing that these exploits go unmentioned, save for a passing comment to the Statue of Liberty. Free of the mythology and the constraints of setting up new stories, or of cramming-in unnecessary characters, the film Logan is able to concentrate on its own narrative. It's that freedom and disregard to prior commitments that allows this story to really flourish.
Logan is a film intentionally rough-edged. There is no polish, no glamour, no poetry in its violence. Its less an 'action film' and more of a thriller. While many reviews by now have been quick to point out the use of western troupes (the film itself even directly references the movie Shane), comparisons to films such as Children of Men and A History of Violence are also justifiable, and indeed it has more in common with these than anything from the actual X-Men cannon. Just as certainly as the villains will eventually meet a bloody demise, terrible things also happen to decent people. While there's a certain guilty satisfaction to be had when Logan rages against his enemies (and believe me, the guy really lets rip), the film also possibly makes for the most coherent and heartbreaking case for the Mutant Registration Act of the previous films; when powers such as these are uncontrolled they can only be a danger to all those close by. Ironically, one such incident may have even led to the death of the X-Men, those most responsible for ensuring the act never succeeded... It's a film that poses difficult questions and answers very few, but that was always the intention- there are no 'neat endings'. While Logan may not be a 'fun' film, it's certainly a well made one; brutal and bleak, but also by turns surprisingly tender and restrained. It's certain to change the face of the superhero genre forever more, and the Wolverine couldn't have asked for a better send-off.
Extra kudos for that incredible closing shot...


Saturday, 21 January 2017

ROUGE ONE, A STAR WARS STORY; Full-Tilt Review

“Be careful not to choke on your aspirations, Director...”
Darth Vader

Possibly the most ethnically diverse crew ever assembled in a Star wars film.


Well, this will make a change- 
I'm reviewing a film that's actually still out at the cinema! 
Check me out.
 
Synopsis:
Felicity Jones stars as Jyn; a renegade haunted by the murder of her mother and the abduction of her father during her childhood. Having become disenchanted with the rebellion, they come seeking her help on their latest mission. Jyn's reluctance fades however when she discovers the nature of their task- to find Galen Erso, the architect of the Empires newest weapon, who also happens to by her father.

 
Script: 1/2
An inspired idea let down by insipid storytelling. 

Pace: 1/2

After a jarringly disjointed start it moves along nicely.


Acting: 1/2

Mostly good, although some of the cast are taking things more seriously than others.


Aesthetic: 2/2

The distinctive retro aesthetics of the classic trilogy remain, bolstered by some cutting-edge effects, although some of the CGI characters never quite convince.


Intention: 1/2

A bold if flawed entry into the Star Wars cannon.



Final Word: 6/10
Jyn, Rouge One's heroine, heads up a team comprising of; Diego Luna's conflicted rebel assassin Cassian, martial arts legend Donnie Yen and Wen Jiang as two Force-worshipping priests (the later having lost his faith while the other is still very much a devout believer) Chrrut and Baze, Riz Ahmed's reformed Empire pilot, and Alan Tudyk's K-2SO, a droid with a good line in dead-pan wise-cracks, a sort of C3P0 meets John McClain. With the exception of Felicity Jones, every one of the above plays their roles brilliantly, and their approach is pitched perfectly, offering character and drama while never at the cost of light entertainment (this is Star Wars after all, not Citizen Cain). Special recognition for Donnie Yen who, despite his impressive real-world bulk and history of playing phenomenal arse-kickers, here plays a surprisingly charming and gentle character. They're a dynamic group, these principal heroes, it just feels like such a shame that the film takes up about half it's run-time bringing them together (especially how, even after all that time, I'm still not entirely sure why they all stick together when the chance comes up for them to part ways). Forest Whitaker also chews the scenery playing unhinged rebel leader Saw Gerrera.

Sadly, Felicity Jones never quite convinces as Rouge One's lead. Her attempts to pull off ‘icy and hardened’ come across as impertinent, and while a flawed character is all well and good, Jones is a total vacuum; no presence, no charisma, and despite her rough orphan-esque upbringing Jyn somehow retains the prim English accent usually reserved for the upper ranks of the Empire (a point that never sits right in the ear). But the biggest stumbling block with Jyn is not so much Jones herself, although she hardly helps matters, but rather how the character of Jyn is written; the latest in a now long line of 'Mary Sue' characters to plague mainstream action cinema. She can brawl like the monk, she can shoot and sneak like the rebel assassin, and she can hack computers like the droid, and despite being 'a nobody' (not even really a rebel for that matter) she attends the high-ranking rebel meeting to discuss the most important decision of the war, and as if that's not enough, the rebel leaders actually hear her out! This contrivance undermines all those around her, their talents no longer so unique or necessary. Why not allow Cassian be the gunfighter and the spokesman at the rebel meetings (he is a Captain after all), let the blind monk be the close-combat specialist, let the droid do his thing- don't take that away from them! But that's a post for another day... Jyn's only real ‘flaw’ is an easily forgotten reluctance to join the rebellion, and that's it. Oh, and we never see her fly a ship, although I assume she's a fucking ace at that as well.

Mads Mikkelsen shoulders the bulk of the drama in Rouge One as the tortured engineer Galen Erso, Jyn's father and the architect of the first Death Star, but as you'd expect from someone of his caliber he convinces utterly and commands every scene he's in. Aside from Felicity Jones, who really isn't up to the task of sharing screen time with Mikkelsen (although she hardly convinces anywhere) the unenviable task of 'thesbing-off' against Mikkelsen falls on Ben Mendelsohn, here playing the villain Krennic. However, Mendelshon holds his own while pomping and sneering his way convincingly, bringing a surprising depth to a rather one-note villain. In fact, the relationship between Galen and Krennic is one of the more intriguing; while no longer fiends, there's still something present that suggests more than the simple hostage / captor scenario. It's not written, but that's just how the characters are played; while the majority of the cast of Rouge One are playing 'parts', here Mikkelsen and Mendelshom are playing 'characters', and while that's commendable and demonstrates considerable talent, here it seems, well, somehow amiss.

And on that note, it's here, among the shades of grey, the compromised characters and the blurred lines that Rouge One somehow becomes more, and so much less, than a Star Wars film. Cassian is a rebel who thinks nothing of shooting an unarmed ally in the back so he cannot be captured, while Gerrara's methods are so extreme they include the torture of prisoners (who have yet to be proved guilty). Galen may have quit building the Deathstar, but that doesn't change the fact he was initially on the side of the Empire of his own free will before a moral crisis, and Bodhi is yet another reformed storm-trooper, which begs the question “how many other poor people in the employ of the Empire are being killed out there, who are probably decent enough people caught up on the wrong side of a war?”. Moral ambiguity doesn’t sit well in the Star wars universe. The first Star Wars trilogy, and I feel this was always part of the charm, was a fairy tale. Good meant good and bad meant bad, and that’s as complicated as it got. Even smuggling rouges like Han Solo and the underhand Lando, while self-serving, were still clearly “good”. That's probably one of the reasons the inclusion of Commander Tarkin worked so well here; Krennic may have been ruthless but his behavior was born of ambition, not evil. Tarkin, however, was cruel, calculating and an utter bastard, and he shines more greatly here than he ever had a chance to in A New Hope. He was bad through and through, no ambiguity there. Elsewhere in Rouge One, the rebel alliance have seemingly got serious, and are as fractal and dangerously unhinged as any Middle Eastern uprising; 'the cause’ is all that matters. It’s easy to see why many have deemed the film as ‘political’. I came to watch Star Wars; if I’d wanted to see a rabble of religious desert fighters defending their holy lands from an invading military force bent on plundering their natural resources I’d have stayed at home and switched on the news. It’s a very uncomfortable comparison, especially seeing how my instinctive reaction is to cheer for al-Qaida, sorry, no, the rebellion (my mistake- I definitely mean the rebellion) and one that seems bizarrely intentional. I mean, narratively speaking, these scenes could have played out anywhere, and in a film series already heavily populated with desert locations, it would seem odd to favour such a well used troupe rather than go for something new (a snow-town could have been a nice addition?). Instead, the film-makers have gone full-on desert and turban chic. When you invoke a sense of realism you also invite (encourage) a greater critical thought. For this reason your story, if you’re going for realism (all be it a realism in the established ‘world’) needs to hold up under close scrutiny. Broad strokes and plot holes are far more noticeable here than when encountered in something more innocent like, say, a fairy tale...


Final, final word:
And that single sentiment comes to the core of how I feel about Rouge One; it may look like a Star Wars film, and sound like a Star Wars film, but it doesn’t feel like a Star Wars film. Guillermo del Toro astutely observed that, if you want to reinvent a fairy tale, you can only askew the characters OR the story, not both, or what you're left with is not a fairy tale. Rouge One, for better or worse, is not a fairy tale. It’s an interesting experiment, bringing maturity and politics to a child-like universe, but I hope that’s all it is- an experiment. A one time thing. I’d hate to see subsequent Star Wars films following the same suit. Present fashion seems to favor ‘dark and brooding’ (even the new bloody Power Rangers film is trying laughably for ‘edgy’); Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy certainly has a lot to answer for! While it would be easy (and probably correct) to call the theory of 'A Star Wars Story' a shameless cash-in, kudos for at least trying something different, ditching the Jedis and the Skywalker legacy to tell what is essentially The Dirty Doezen in space. Would it be anywhere near as enjoyable if you stripped away the Star Wars setting? Most likely not, but hey, it is what it is; certainly not the worst Star Wars film, but still a crushing disappointment given how all the right ingredients were present for a true classic. However, the explanation of  a plot-hole that has long been a point of contention in the original Star Wars film (why build a space base with such an obvious flaw) is finally laid to rest in what has to be Rouge One's defining and most inspired achievement.

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

"I WANTED TO PORTRAY VERY, VERY DARK SUBJECT MATTER..."

I wanted to portray very, very dark subject matter and a deceptively complex story in the brightest colours and simplest lines possible to leave the readers reeling.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/m/mark_millar.html
Cont'd "...and a deceptively complex story in the brightest colors and simplest 
lines possible to leave the readers reeling"
Mark Milar
I wanted to portray very, very dark subject matter and a deceptively complex story in the brightest colours and simplest lines possible to leave the readers reeling. Mark Millar
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/m/markmillar248660.html
I wanted to portray very, very dark subject matter and a deceptively complex story in the brightest colours and simplest lines possible to leave the readers reeling.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/m/markmillar248660.html
I wanted to portray very, very dark subject matter and a deceptively complex story in the brightest colours and simplest lines possible to leave the readers reeling.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/m/mark_millar.html

I wanted to portray very, very dark subject matter and a deceptively complex story in the brightest colours and simplest lines possible to leave the readers reeling. Mark Millar
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/m/markmillar248660.html
Again, I'm hardly on the cutting edge of culture, but since when as that ever stopped me having my say?

Don't worry, this is only a short article.

The man himself, Mark Millar.

Recently, off the back of us talking about the Captain America film of the same name, a good friend lent me the Marvel Civil War graphic novel. I read it, and as much as I enjoyed it (and I did enjoy it) something about it I found troubling. Not that it cost me any sleep, but in some way that's hard to explain I felt like there was something unpleasant starting me in the face. It got me to thinking about the book's writer, Mark Millar, whose work has had astounding influence over the modern comic industry, and whose works have inspired a number of blockbuster superhero films- including the soon to be released Logan, Kickass, Kingsman, and Wanted.

So here's the thing. While many writers and artists may have had a hand in bringing realistic sensibilities into mainstream comics (and I stress the distinction of mainstream), including the divisive Frank Miller and Alan Moore, it is Millar whose bought in the unease of contemporary American politics. That in itself isn't a problem, but unlike his peers, Millar seems less interested in exploring the issues he pulls into frame, or offering any sort of insight, than he is simply dredging some serious real-world issues, simply for the thrill of bringing his characters into conflict. 


I hear the make-up sex is fantastic.


Take Civil War as the prime example; it's a story born from the still glowing ashes of 9/11, yet it offers no real condemnation, it simply acts as a means for bringing heroes against heroes. It feels wrong to invoke something real like 9/11 simply as a plot device, and on top of that it paints it's major cast (with perhaps the exception of Spiderman) as pretty unsympathetic- everybody makes their own personal 'deal with the devil'. And, if indeed that was the point Millar was making, which I doubt, at best it's nihilistic and at its worse, ignorant. Hell, it's saying pretty much the same thing as Team America, except without anywhere near the satire or self-awareness.
I won't deny Millar has his finger on the pulse of what sells comics, and there can be no denying his writing is solid, but he reminds me of Quentin Tarantino's more recent output, in as much as I feel like he's simply serving up the darker underbelly of the world simply for the sake of giving it a damn good leer, rather than to expose any uncomfortable truths (watching the Hateful Eight is akin to watching a bucket filled with scorpions, waiting to see which order they sting each other in- there may be death, but you won't learn anything from it). Compare that to, say, Paul Verhovan, whose work is often hideously violent, but while Verhovan flirts with the notions of evil, and our society's obsession with sex and violence, you feel like he's always making a valid point. Tarantino (and Millar in same fashion) feel less like flirting with the insidious, and much more like a back street blowjob with it; and by way of that analogy, it left me feeling sordid. Sure, I'd had my fun reading Civil War, but afterwards I felt hollow, and after it was done I realised how much simply wasn't there; cheap thrills had taken the place of anything deeper or more rewarding.


Grisly, but is it more than its surface brutality?

There's an argument to be made that, if I'd followed the entire Civil War arc and spin-off comics, then perhaps I'd have been rewarded with some epiphany, that the greater subtext would make itself apparent, but I doubt it. I've read Kickass, and that was similarly grimy, while Kickass 2 was so leery and spiteful I sold both that and Kickass because I'd done with it. Sure, Maillar's bang-on with his dissection of a warped media-obsessed society, and the malicious under-culture of desensitized modern youths, but ever rape and child murder felt like a Daily Mail headline that offered no reward beyond the grim details, and it sat very jarringly with what I guessed was an attempt at humour. Conversely, both the Kickass and Civil War films offered far more than their comic source material. And, as if to solidify my every point, when asked if Mark Millar enjoyed Kickass on it's release, he answered flippantly “yeah, but they turned my comic into a chick-flick”.

In short; I'm glad Millar is out there somewhere writing comics. Without him, better writers would be less inspired. Millar's influential legacy will, in the fullness of time, be far greater than his own work, because what started with him will be taken on by people with far more to say about the world around them, than those who simply thrive on it's unpleasantness like crows on the dung heap.

Because that's what every comedic story needs; a rape scene.