Wonder Woman: a review

Film

Sitting in the pub with my partner after having just seen Wonder Woman, we got down to the tricky job of dissecting the latest DC offering in a balanced way, lest we get carried away with the hype. (I say we, I’d better recuse her from this review henceforth – as all these opinions are my own. And she’s die-hard Marvel anyway.)

Because when I say hype, I mean the fact that this is the first* superhero film (from Marvel or DC) to have a female lead (Gal Gadot) and director (Patty Jenkins).

*Captain Marvel will have a female lead, director and two female screenwriters, but it’s not out until 2019.

Which, in 2017, is a somewhat ridiculous state of affairs. I mean, how have studios ONLY NOW become dimly aware that women can create good movies that’ll get you a decent return on investment? They can write them, direct them, act in them and produce them. And audiences want to see them. What a revelation. It’s a crazy world in which we live; this Hollywood sausage fest.

But I digress. I’m a guy so I’m part of the patriarchy and thus part of the problem. And it is still a problem, as the backlash to the women-only screenings of the film have demonstrated.

So it’s clear we needed this film to do well.

Not only from a feminist point of view, but also commercially. Because after the slamming DC took with Batman v Superman and Man of Steel and Suicide Squad they badly needed a hit. Not that we can force this film to be good through sheer willpower, of course. But we can hope.

And happily, it’s decent. There you go, there’s my review. You can all go home now. Oh, you want more? Ok fine.

To bring you up to speed, Wonder Woman, aka Diana Prince, lives on a hidden island inhabited solely by women (Amazonians), which is led by her mother Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen). We meet Diana as a wild child who wants to be a warrior, which is against her mother’s wishes. This is because the land in which they live was created by Zeus to protect them from the God of War, Ares. And Diana, of course, is special.

Then we jump ahead to her all grown up and now the best fighter on the island. She’s ready for a scrap but with no enemy. Luckily, WWI fighter pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) literally crashes into her world; when his plane falls into the sea.

She rescues him and meets her first man. Then learns of the outside world and the fact that it’s engaged in the biggest war in history. Naturally, she suspects Ares is behind it and wants to help. So she joins Steve on his return to civilisation before they take on evil bad guys.

Plot wise, that’s the setup.

And suffice to say, after the relatively damp squib that was Suicide Squad (Margot Robbie aside), this story feels fresher. Perhaps because it’s simpler and the WWI setting helped. Perhaps because it’s got more humour than the last two DC movies. Whatever the case, it’s an exciting ride and fits comfortably in the middle of the DC pack. (Which is no bad thing, sitting behind, in my mind, the likes of The Dark Knight Rises and Watchmen.)

Gal Gadot very much looks the part, too. Lithe, limber, exotic, and immensely beautiful. The one question that hung over her is whether her acting chops were up to it? After all, she’d really just had a few Fast & Furious films to her name. For the most part she’s convincing in the role.

We have to remember she has a lot of screentime and needed to hold the audience throughout. It helped having Chris Pine alongside her and the two worked well together. Trevor as the weary spy, the realist, the pragmatist. Diana as the optimist, full of love and new to the world of man and his murky moralities.

And on the feminist front it has a few nice touches in the script. Such as when Steve and Diana discuss the ‘pleasures of the flesh’ and whether men are needed, other than for procreation. And when Diana is trying on clothes and remarks, ‘How am I meant to fight in this?’

Ultimately, this was a tough gig for both Patty Jenkins (who hadn’t directed since Monster in 2003) and Gal Gadot, to not only deliver a superhero film, but also ensure it was as feminist as it could be, and also got a big return for the studio. No pressure then. Happily it’s smashed the Box Office and seems to have been a reasonable hit with feminists.

I guess the question for DC is, what next? For if they’re clever they’ll introduce more female characters into their movies and, perhaps, it could be their unique selling point over Marvel?

You could argue that female superheroes are nothing new (Catwoman, Aeon Flux, Lara Croft), but this feels like a turning point. In that Hollywood are actually putting some effort, talent and budget into these movies now.

Logan: sad, beautiful and final

Film

James Mangold is a compelling director; in that a lot of his work has real emotional depth and nuance, and often benefits from repeat viewing. And he’s kind of underappreciated. I mean, Girl, Interrupted, 3:10 To Yuma and Walk The Line all had him at the helm.

And yes, granted, he’s also got The Wolverine on his filmography, but we’re all allowed a little stumble now and then, right?

And I have to say, with Logan – almost certainly Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart’s last portrayal of the characters – Mangold has finished with superheroes on a high (assuming he’s not coming back to direct again). Because, simply put, this film is poles apart from almost ALL superhero movies (even Deadpool), in that it’s a melancholy love letter to Logan, aka Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Charles Xavier, aka Professor X (Patrick Stewart), as the two that are heart and soul – and indeed spine – of the X-Men franchise.

Theirs is the father-son dynamic that’s touched on consistently throughout prior films, but is really brought front and centre here. And, structure wise, we’re in somewhat different territory. Because whilst superhero films (these days) are often Westerns half in disguise, Logan wears this badge proudly, with Mangold really playing to his strengths as a director.

In that it’s a muscular, visceral, downtrodden and wistful story. One that’s gritty, painfully real, and lacks any semblance of a Hollywood shine. (I mean, within one scene more F bombs get dropped than the rest of the franchise put together.)

Indeed, Mangold has previously stated his touchpoints were Shane, The Cowboys, Paper Moon, Little Miss Sunshine and The Wrestler. And, for me, the latter two cited really shine through. Whether it’s the road trip structure or the fact Logan shares a lot of common ground with Mickey Rourke’s wrestler, in that he’s a ‘broken down old piece of meat’, you sense these influences keenly.

And, story wise, it also takes its cues from the Old Man Logan series of graphic novels. So within the opening scenes where we meet Logan, he’s a grey-haired, shabby limo driver. He drinks, he’s bleary-eyed, bent, broken and walks with a limp. So he’s oceans away from his body being the temple of earlier films. Now it’s more a urinal. In short, he’s a right mess and borderline suicidal.

Plus the fact he’s got a half-senile Charles to look after; shacked up in a metal bunker in Mexico (described in one scene as a man with the world’s most dangerous brain and a degenerative brain disorder to match. A lethal combination). So gone are the days of the mansion and gone are the days of mutants and the X-Men. Logan and Charles are practically all that’s left. And they’re barely clinging to life as it is.

But… they’re given purpose by the arrival of a young girl, Laura (Dafne Keen), who has certain familiar abilities. And so Logan is tasked – with Charles in tow – to attempt to evade bad guys and get her to the safety of Canada. So we end up with a sort of mismatched family road movie – with Logan as the cantankerous yet caring father, Charles as the doddering yet insightful grandfather, and Laura as the wild, precocious daughter looking for a family and sense of belonging.

And, whilst the whole film has many sweet notes, it’s also immensely sad and surprisingly violent (every Wolverine kill is far bloodier and more gory than ever before).

This is also, without a shadow of a doubt, both Jackman and Stewart’s best performances as these characters. The studio has clearly given Mangold license to do things a bit differently, and it’s really paid off.

The world feels more real. It’s the most emotional ‘superhero’ film yet (in any franchise) and it’s focused in its use of a handful of characters tops, which is really refreshing (the swollen cast of recent X-Men outings was beginning to bore me a bit).

So ultimately, this is a strong contender for the best X-Men movie to date, or at least a firm second place. And you could argue that without all the prior films the weight of emotion wouldn’t ring true here, and that this movie needs to stand fully alone to be considered the best. And that’s valid.

But it’s also worth noting that this movie does FAR more right than it does wrong. Coupled with the fact that more than a handful of scenes are truly heartbreaking.

Now how many X-Men films could you say that about?

Luke Cage: season one review

TV

Take Captain America and add a dash of Superman and thread Harlem throughout his core and what do you get? Luke Cage. A badass bulletproof hero in a hoodie. Originally a character that turns up in Jessica Jones but now has his own show. And one that feels pretty different from others out there, and indeed, different from other Marvel ones too. From the opening yellow-washed, funk-inflected theme song – that’s simultaneously retro and contemporary – you get a sense that a lot of love has gone into its creation and how important the Harlem setting is to its fabric and structure.

For example, music is vitally important. Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Mohammad put it together and said they were influenced by Wu-Tang Clan, Ennio Morricone and Mohammad’s group A Tribe Called Quest. So we’ve got Western meets ’90s hip hop, with an original track by Method Man too (video below). All of which adds to its identity.

And on the character front, our main man Luke is interesting. Not immediately likeable and some may say stoic and unreadable, but there’s a fire under his surface. He’s a quiet hero, fierce, intelligent, troubled. There’s no spandex or cape and he half shuns the limelight for the most part. In reality, he’s an ex-convict trying to lay low and live his life in peace. But he’s too special to do that for long. He’s bulletproof for one thing, but it’s more than that. He has a strong sense of injustice and the people of Harlem need him to step up and protect them. So far so very Western, right?

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And whilst it’s easy enough for him to hurl gangsters about (he’s bulletproof and can heal incredibly fast and has superhuman strength) he does have weaknesses. Namely loved ones, the people that he cares about. Which you’d expect. If you can’t hurt a bulletproof man, hurt those around him. Which is the approach our bad guy Cornell ‘Cottonmouth’ Stokes (Mahershala Ali) takes for the first half of the season.

And I very much think this is a season of two halves. First is set-up and a bit slow burn, then the second gets more gung-ho, with Luke half on the run from the law and the bad guys at the same time. So an educated outlaw and vigilante with the common people on his side? May as well call him Robin Hood.

Whatever we call him, it’s a good first season for a show and gets better as it goes on. And it’s nice to see Marvel trying new things, but all the while building the MCU on the small screen. We’ve had Agents of SHIELD (decent and still going) and Agent Carter (had its moments but cancelled after two seasons), Jessica Jones and Daredevil (heard both fairly good but haven’t caught them) and now we have Luke Cage. It’ll be most interesting to see what happens in season two.

Captain America: Civil War – review

Film

Let’s make something perfectly clear – or at least less muddy. This film is not an Avengers movie, it’s a Captain America one… inasmuch as he’s the focus and both antagonist and protagonist. But then, so is Tony Stark. So maybe it’s a Captain America versus Iron Man movie, with their respective teams in tow?

In any case, it’s all gotten a bit more serious…. more DC maybe, less Marvel. Perhaps this is right in this instance, for here the plot picks up strands from Steve Rodgers’ prior outings, as well as further mining the depths of Tony Stark’s inner torment, following everything he’s been through; including accidently creating Ultron as force for bad rather than good.

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And so we have a bit of playing against type – or role reversal – in that rebellious playboy Stark supports legislation to make our heroes accountable to the U. N., but Rodgers – a man who you’d safely bet would be on the side of the establishment – is firmly in the opposite camp. Mostly because he wants to protect his friend Bucky – the Winter Soldier who keeps getting into trouble – but also because he feels legislation clips the wings of the Avengers, stopping them from doing what they do best without the need for red tape.

So we have some nice, meaty motivation for our two main dudes, pitting them against each other. Each a titan with his own loyal followers, and so with Civil War we get some old names (Black Widow, Hawkeye), some newer but fairly established ones (War Machine, Falcon, Ant-Man, The Vision, Scarlett Witch) and some fresh blood (Spider-Man, Black Panther).

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They fly, they swoop, they shrink, they grow and they scrap their little heart’s out.

And it’s a blast.

Then, on the periphery of all the infighting we have an actual bad guy (Daniel Bruhl) who goes rather unnoticed for the most part. But he’s not the main focus, so it’s ok. He does the job he needs to do at the times upon which he’s called, but it’s Cap v Iron Man we’ve come to see really… that and the interplay between almost all of Marvel’s superheroes (except Thor and Hulk who’ve gone AWOL and the Guardians of the Galaxy lot) in one giant dust-up, plus a few other skirmishes along the way.

To do this and not give the audience a headache is really quite masterful on the part of the Russo brothers; who are really getting into their stride directing these days.

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That said, there’s a point where the movie is in danger of becoming too po-faced and serious for its own good. Thank God that, at that point, Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man and Tom Holland’s Spider-Man turn up to take the edge off most pleasingly.

Lest we forget that Marvel’s strength tends to be in light-hearted banter amid the mayhem, so it’s good that they didn’t go too far down the DC path, past the point of no return at least.

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At the end of the day we all know people in costumes are somewhat ridiculous, so it’s important to burst the bubble at regular intervals – and the final third of the movie moves into much more welcome territory. Overall, it may actually be the best Marvel film yet (I’ve yet to see Ant-Man, but from the scenes in this film it has to be on my ‘to watch’ list in the near future).

And as a final thought, props to the filmmakers for how they’ve portrayed Black Panther. With his cat-like reflexes, sharp claws and black suit he’s got to be up there as one of the coolest superheroes we’ve seen in a while. A solo film following this character would be a pretty savvy choice bet I’d say.

Roll on the next one…

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Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice review

Film

Zap! Crash! Whack! That’s how the old Batman TV show went. And, in 2016, you could say nothing much has changed. At least near the end of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice… but I’m getting ahead of myself.

For those not in the know, this film is a continuation of DC Comics’ universe – in terms of picking up the story following events in Man of Steel in 2013 – where Superman (Henry Cavill) tore Metropolis to pieces fighting General Zod (Michael Shannon). Buildings collapsed and people died, including many of Bruce Wayne’s (Ben Affleck) employees; giving him as good a reason as any to hate Superman, seeing him as an alien who operates without limits or accountability and is capable of wiping out the human race.

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On the flipside, Superman/Clark Kent sees Batman as a dangerous vigilante, as bad and morally corruptible as the criminals he puts away. Add to this a young Lex Luthor (Jessie Eisenberg) stirring up trouble, giving us as many twitches and mad tics as he can muster, and you’ve got an interesting recipe for a compelling plot.

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And plot, in a way, is a daunting place to start, because writers David S. Goyer and Chris Terrio are essentially attempting to tell two and a half, or perhaps three and a half stories in one go. We have: Batman, Superman, Lex Luthor, and Wonderwoman (Gal Gadot), the latter who pops up briefly here and there pursuing her own mysterious motives.

They do, however, do a reasonable job of weaving it all together, but it’s a lot of jumping around and I bet the filmmakers were ruthless in the edit room.

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But that’s all I’ll say plot wise, as it’s best you go see it and see what you think. For me, a slightly simpler story would have nice. That said, if you’ve seen any of the trailers there won’t be too many surprises as most of Wonderwoman’s best bits are there, as are Lex Luthor’s – and you can pretty easily work out where the whole thing will end up.

Complicated plot but simple story. (Not sure I’m making sense but I’m sticking with it. Bit like the film, wahey!)

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What I will say is that the first two thirds are the most interesting. There’s a lot of stuff about whether Superman is a false God or not, and about Batman wanting him to face the consequences of his actions. And with montages of TV talk shows discussing Superman’s place in the world weaved throughout early on, it feels like sections have been lifted straight from Alan Moore’s Watchmen a la Dr Manhattan. Which is no bad thing, if done in a fresh way.

Director Zack Synder also manages to nail the tone fairly well. Gritty and dark, but not completely Christopher Nolan. And some of his stylised shots of Superman hovering over buildings or being touched by many hands in a crowd are really quite sublime. As is his (and Affleck’s) take on Batman. Affleck keeps him stoic and resolute for the most part but conflicted (as all good antiheroes should be), which balances nicely with a quirky, technology-savvy Alfred (something we’ve not seen), played superbly by Jeremy Irons (who knew he had such a touch for comedy).

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The bits where I feel this film falters is more to do with DC’s attempt to follow the Marvel blueprint, particularly with a smashy smashy bad guy final third. I felt it was all going quite well up to that point, but it’s then as if the filmmakers couldn’t resist splurging their budget on some fancy effects to please 14-year old boys. But then, some would argue that director Zack Synder is a bit of a teenage boy at heart anyway, so no big surprise.

Similarly, whilst Synder got the tone more or less right, I think Hans Zimmer let him down a bit on the score, which just felt too overblown and portentous. It all got a bit too much as it went on, droning and banging away with lashings of doom and gloom. But we’ve all seen 300, so what did I expect? Perhaps I just prefer the light-hearted Marvel banter. (Now there’s a thing.)

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And another point upon which to focus on the Marvel versus DC front… it’s quite amusing to watch the way they set up their forthcoming Justice League movie, leaving subtlety very much on the cutting room floor. We get a small shot of Jason Mamoa’s Aquaman and a brief scene between Bruce Wayne and Wonderwoman (despite the fact we don’t even learn her name during the film) and it all feels a little bit tacked-on-at-the-end-before-we-forget. I’d have liked to see a lot more delicate threads and strands of a larger world weaved throughout – unless it was there and so subtle I missed it?

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So whilst this may sound like a big rant, it’s really not at all. It’s quite a good film for the most part and there’s a lot to like. But – here’s the rub – there are still many things that happen which we’ve seen time and again in the last decade of superhero flicks. C’mon DC, be bold, be brave. Change up the format, don’t just copy Marvel.

After all, taking a risk and a leap of faith is what superheroes do.

(Ps I’m still very keen to see Suicide Squad as it may bring something fresh. At the very least an unhinged Margot Robbie should be worth the price of admission alone.)

Dangerous Dave

Poetry

Once there was a guy called Dave who was proper dangerous.
Approaching life’s problems he often came a cropper in a major rush.
Living each moment depraved, then one day he cracked and caved with little fuss.
Decidedly brave, he visited a shamen in the hope he could be saved.
And avoid an ignominious end in a shallow grave.
And there in the dark the shamen sat, fashioning cruel tools from a metal lathe.
Polishing a pile of small jewels wrapped in speckled chains.
Blowing thin smoke rings from a hookah in gentle waves.
Then, like a wretched knave, down sat Dave.
Soaked in sweat like a cheap chav’s aftershave.
Their chemistry was odd to see.
Something akin to master-slave.
Out of all the sorry cases, thought the shamen, Dave’s will be the last to save.
The kind of guy that sees a door closing, knows he won’t make it, but thinks ‘I’m gonna chance the gate.’
The kind of guy that misinterprets self-help books, sadly thinking ‘I’m going to make my mark today.’

Deluded, clueless.
Poor old Dave was as good as useless.
But the shamen sensed emotional bruises.
Mystery man Dave was pure pain and must be helped, no excuses.
So he broke out his tools and pills.
Lit candles for the walls and kicked back and chilled.
Then… in a madman’s wild rave began to slap childish Dave.
Getting all up in his grill.
At first he didn’t react.
He was brave and wanted to be saved.
Yet the darkness started to consume him in a haunted wave.
Sensing danger the shamen saw Dave’s true nature.
Then out the candles gave and his eyes went black and dark.
The shamen began to shake ashamed, thinking of the spells he cast.
He went to break away but Dave’s eyes glittered and held him fast.
Unfazed, he tried to match his gaze, brazen and as bold as brass.
But Dave the sinner became a black mirror, unrelenting and as cold as glass.

As Dave rose from his seat the shamen tried to lie through his teeth.
In an attempt to avoid what was about to pass.
But the magic man’s troubles were mounting fast.
Like a poker player counting cards he was riding his luck until the very last.
Cos here is where the shamen, a proper faker, came to his end and met his maker.
Some say he only tried to help Dave for the sake of it and was blameless.
Others say he was undone by both blindness and kindness.
Or that he failed to control the dark.
He just wasn’t decisive.
Whatever happened that tiring day a legend was born in the fiery fray.
Emerging from the rubble in a wiry way.
An animal no longer caged, but a beast that feasts on danger every day.
A heavenly creature, once a sad sack in pain but now the master and teacher.
Black eyes and twisted heart his least redeeming features.
For those that face him are thought either foolish or fearlessly brave.
Approach if you dare, the heart of darkness, that was once a man called Dangerous Dave.

Deadpool: Never a hero

Film

It’s taken a while but Ryan Reynolds has finally been allowed to do what he wants on screen. More or less. And Deadpool is pretty much the perfect character for him. He IS Ryan Reynolds. Kind of. For his version is complete with pegging, teabagging and masturbation jokes, which all come thick and fast (pun intended) and half of which you’ll probably miss first time round but that’s OK, just see it again.

It’s not just the Reynolds show though, all films are a team effort and the more the filmmakers have pushed the envelope here, the better the results. And it’s clear, from the marketing materials pre-release to Reynolds’ take on the character, everyone was pulling towards the same goal. And, let’s face it, antiheroes are far more fun to watch than straight up heroes anyway. As Deadpool says time and again, he’s no hero and continually resists the call, but that’s kind of the point.

He also pokes fun at the whole superhero concept, regularly breaking the fourth wall to address the audience directly on how absurd everything seems to be. Meta and meta and meta some more.

Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) reacts to Colossus’ (voiced by Stefan Kapicic) threats.

One slight negative to note is that – despite this being very funny for large parts – plot wise it’s thin to say the least. And that’s as good a place as any to start, in terms of a review.

So we kick off with a scene on a freeway (seen in the trailer) where Deadpool lays into a host of bad guys, then flip to his backstory where, as former special forces chap turned mercenary Wade Wilson, he spends his time roughing up puny geeks. Clearly he’s coasting and rather aimless.

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Then he meets Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), falls in (kinky) love and, before he can enjoy it all, gets well and truly floored by cancer. So he opts for an experimental treatment conducted by unhinged (obviously British) evil scientist Ajax (Ed Skrein) who – in an effort to release his mutant genes – tortures and deforms him and leaves him for dead.

It works, giving him extraordinary regenerative powers but leaves him horribly disfigured. And there we have our main character’s motivation: get his grotesque body fixed (only evil Ajax can fix him), win back his girl (somehow) and get revenge. Simples.

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And that’s about it… revenge tale 101. We jump back and forth in time a lot in the first third, mostly so Reynolds can lay on the jokes as if they’re going out of fashion (although most of them do land well), and we also get to meet a couple of lesser X-Men (Collosus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead) who he recruits to help him out, but ultimately there’s not much more to it.

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Plus, as usual – and as is often the case – bad guys in Marvel movies get a rather short shrift and Ajax (Ed Skrein) is no exception. His character is so thin you feel nothing for him (and you should, because all the best baddies make you care; in that you want them to die/lose but you’re having too much fun watching how they go about achieving their evil goals).

It’s probably not Ed’s fault. He gave it a go but had little to work with and ultimately Reynolds’ Deadpool occupied the space of both hero and villain, leaving little room for anyone else of real substance. How Deadpool would fit into a larger ensemble movie is a bigger (more difficult) question, but if they can make it work with the Avengers a la Tony Stark then there’s a way.

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I’m torn on whether Deadpool 2 is a good idea. It feels fresh now and, if anything, they could have pushed the adult nature of it further. But maybe, MAYBE, he’s better in small doses – unless there’s a cracking story to be told. (Although I have heard that a sequel is all but confirmed now.)

In 2010 Kick-Ass shook up the superhero format emphatically and felt needed, then in 2014 Kingsman: The Secret Service did a similar thing for spy-type superhero movies. And now, in 2016, Deadpool has given superheroes yet another kick up the spandex-clad backside. Where the genre goes from now is anyone’s guess, but please Hollywood (another warning), don’t roll out a host of copycats, it won’t work and it’ll bore us all to death.

Birdman: Keaton’s sad sack soars and swoops

Film

In the last fifteen or twenty years, which actor do you go to for deranged and unhinged? Nic Cage? Jack Nicholson maybe? Actors who were wild in their youth tend to mellow with age, or grow old disgracefully. In the case of Michael Keaton it’s been quite some time since he last danced with the devil in the pale moonlight, so it was high time he returned to cinema. Here he’s channelled his talent into creating a character that has to be on a par – in terms of being washed up and on the last roll of the dice career wise – with Mickey Rourke’s character in The Wrestler.

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And whilst the aforementioned film was on the serious and dramatic end of the scale, Birdman comes at things from a quirky yet melancholy point of view. Dark? Yes. Supremely odd? Check. But still a drama, with comedy elements aplenty, taking the time to explore some interesting themes along the way.

In terms of setup we start with Keaton’s Riggan Thomson (great name), a faded movie star, one famous for playing a superhero called Birdman. He yearns for recognition again and, perhaps even more than that, credibility and critical acclaim. In short, he longs to be taken seriously as an actor. And in the theatre he might just achieve that. However this is his last roll of the dice, as his lawyer and friend Jake (Zach Galafianakis) regularly tells him.

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To help his credibility he drafts in a proper theatre actor daaahling, in the form of Mike Shiner (Ed Norton), who then proceeds to steal his limelight on stage and seduce every nearby female he can. This begins to push his buttons – or at least twiddle Riggan’s sanity lever till the dial gets a bit loose.

As a result he is barely holding the play – and himself – together as they approach opening night, and to add to his woes he has: a daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), fresh out of rehab and with whom he is failing as a father; a highly strung actress girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough) using her sexuality as a weapon; another highly strung actress, Lesley (Naomi Watts) who craves a similar level of artistic accomplishment; plus theatre critic (Lindsay Duncan) out for his blood and determined to ruin the play.

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Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is a most interesting director. And a most interesting choice for this film. In the past he’s gives us Amores perros, 21 Grams, Babel and Biutiful. All pretty weighty tales. He tends to get drawn to exploring death and grief and how we deal with it.

With Birdman, whilst this is the first time he has tackled comedy, these morbid elements still get thrown into the mix. And as we know comedy and tragedy are often close bedfellows at the best of times. One treads a fine line alongside the other.

On the evidence of this film perhaps he should stick to this approach for the foreseeable future, as he has a knack for it. He also gives us a great sense of the mad, chaotic world of backstage. Indeed, behind the scenes of the theatre are a claustrophobic place, all cramped tunnels and confusing corridors. His camera often right on the shoulders of his cast, twisting and turning and swirling around them as the fight, argue, flirt and despair.

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You particularly get a sense of this from Riggan. As he moves through the back corridors of the theatre accosted and confronted by his team, we follow him closely. At the same time we’re subjected to a musical score that matches the madness, namely a lunatic on a drumkit. It’s entirely possible this isn’t the film’s score, but the soundtrack to Riggan’s unravelling mind. (Actually, that’s still a score, even if it is internalised to one character. See… the madness is affecting me!)

The way Riggan’s alter ego (or subconscious) is personified and harangues him throughout the film slightly puts you in mind of Tyler Durden in Fight Club. Yet here it’s more of a peripheral presence, as Riggan wrestles with the inviting notion of celebrity and recognition versus the tough and uncompromising road of critical acclaim.

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Whilst this is Keaton’s movie by some distance, the supporting cast steal every scene they get. Simply put, they all looked just plain up for it. Considering Inarritu’s past work it seems he’s been storing a world of mischief up his directorial sleeve. Ed Norton, Andrea Riseborough, Naomi Watts, Emma Stone… They all get to shine in a scene or two and are all an utter delight. It seems Inarritu has been supping from the cup of quirk formerly held by Wes Anderson. So in that respect it’s refreshing to see another director flourish and take up the mantle. (After Grand Budapest Hotel I feel Anderson may have got a little too quirky for his own good.)

I went into this film with no expectation or knowledge of the plot. I’d not seen the trailer. I knew the cast, but not the fact it was this director. Going by the title you might expect some sort of comedy featuring a shabby superhero. You could call it that. You could. But it wouldn’t be accurate.

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You could say this film flies the flag for character driven pieces, whether that’s cinema or theatre, it favours people and emotions over spectacle and explosions. It takes a thinly veiled dig at blockbusters, but also against the rather ridiculous and overblown world of theatre. And it’s all the better for it.

This film is clearly one that critics will love (for those that haven’t reviewed it already) but, without going out on too much of a limb, it should also be one that audiences will love. And it will most likely be a slow burner as word of mouth spreads. This one will last, people will say. And, in that, Riggan (and Keaton) will be remembered.

Top 10 superhero films of the last decade

Best Of lists, Film

We’re living in a time of caped crusaders, masked vigilantes, mutants with god complexes… anyway, you get the idea. Plucking a time period of the last ten years out the air to give this thing some parameters, here are my favourites, along with my reasons why.

10. Thor (2011)
Deciding that you’re going to stick a Norse God on screen and do it in a serious manner must have been a tough meeting. However, this is one that Marvel – and director Ken Branagh – pulled off with skill and dexterity, with Chris Hemsworth bringing the golden-haired chap to life with conviction. This film also introduced us to Tom Hiddleston’s Loki – a character that stole every scene he was in and threatened to steal the entire movie.

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9. Chronicle (2012)
Newcomer director Josh Trank twisted everyone’s melon with this found footage take on the genre. After three lads explore a hole in the ground they end up with a number of special powers. However one of them (the excellent Dane DeHaan) goes a bit mad with inner torment that causes things to quickly go awry. This film is about as far removed from the rest on the list as you can get, which makes it a refreshing change and worth a watch.

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8. X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
Absence makes the heart grow fonder. And in the case of director Bryan Singer that was exactly the case, after he returned to the franchise he’d started all those years ago. To give himself a challenge he opted to go for the most mind bending plot yet, involving time travel and fighting in the past and the future. He also drew out some fine performances from Michael Fassbender as Magneto and Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique.

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7. Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008)
Guillermo del Toro really doesn’t get enough credit for the level of detail that went into some of the sets and scenes for this movie. The troll market, in particular, was astonishly detailed and quite masterful. Then there’s his characters, from Ron Perlman’s Hellboy to Doug Jones’ Abe Sapien, each were so well rounded, interesting and, despite their supernatural looks, human and fallible to the core.

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6. Iron Man (2008)
Robert Downey Jr. aka an insurance nightmare, aka a massive punt by the studio, aka an actor at possibly the last chance saloon. Well, whadda ya know, he pulled it off, with a performance that wowed critics and audience and started a billion dollar franchise. And now, with his rapid fire delivery of lines and nonchalent attitude, you cannot imagine anyone else in the role.

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5. Watchmen (2009)
Another director that has his critics, yet Zack Snyder managed to bring what was widely considered an unfilmable graphic novel to the screen in a manner which emphatically delivered. Visually, it looked stunning, the story was well handled and the performances (particularly Patrick Wilson’s Nite Owl and Jackie Earle Haley’s Rorschach) were outstanding.

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4. Kick Ass (2010)
With everyone’s attention firmly fixed on the big studios for the next superhero film, this one – independently financed – snuck its way onto our screens and made a massive impact. Director Matthew Vaughn managed to rouse Nic Cage from his slumber to deliver a barnstorming performance. He also introduced us to the acting talents of Chloe Grace Moretz.

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3. Batman Begins (2005)
It’s easy to forget that Christopher Nolan’s trilogy had to start somewhere for it to be as wildly successful as it was. And it began with Christian Bale and lots of character building. Indeed it was about 45 minutes of screen time before we actually saw Bale as the Bat. Yet it was worth the wait as Nolan had crafted a believable hero for the modern age and firmly shut the door on past versions of the character.

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2. The Avengers (2012)
Bringing together a bunch of superheroes in an ensemble piece is a big undertaking. If this hadn’t of worked, Marvel would have had to go back to the drawing board for a serious rethink. Luckily they weren’t to worry for they were in safe hands, those of director Joss Whedon. His sparky dialogue and style perfectly suited to a bunch of heroes that spend almost as much time fighting each other as they do their enemies.

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1. The Dark Knight (2008)
What can you say about Heath Ledger’s Joker that hasn’t already been said? Whilst his performance got him a posthumous Oscar, it was not just his film alone (although he stole every scene he was in). Bale – ever the trooper – had to face off against him, and also probably delivered his best performance of the trilogy in what was effectively a triple role as Bruce Wayne the man, the playboy and the vigilante.

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Andrew Chronicle film

Chronicle – the ‘found footage’ superhero film

Film

chronicle film posterI recently saw a film that had been on my watch list for a while, Chronicle. A new twist on the increasingly crowded superhero genre.

When writer Max Landis (son of the legendary Director John Landis) and first-time Director Josh Trank pitched this to the studio, they described it as ‘Blair Witch meets Carrie’, which isn’t too far off the mark. It’s as much about the dynamic between three lads as it is about superpowers.

The setup
The story follows three students: unpopular Andrew, his cousin Matt, and popular Steve, the latter running for high school president. To boost his popularity, Matt suggests Andrew comes to a rave one night. He gets kicked out for trying to film a guy’s girlfriend and, sitting outside the rave, Steve approaches him saying he’s found something in the woods with Matt. They find a hole in the ground and head into it to investigate. Something happens in the hole and all three gain powers of telekenesis. Initially they use their powers for mischief and, later on, to boost Andrew’s popularity. Eventually things begin to spiral out of control as Andrew starts to use his for darker purposes.

I’ve probably provided more detail than is necessary. I was less aware of the story myself. All I knew was that it was about a group of lads that gain powers and use them to mess around and things go awry. Beyond that it was a discovery. Sometimes it’s great to approach a film like that. Sometimes it pays to know a little more about the story.

Andrew Chronicle filmIn this case, for those of you that haven’t seen or heard of the film, a bit of detail might help set the scene and encourage you to go out and get it on DVD. And you should, for it’s well worth it. Particularly Andrew’s character arc, described in an article as ‘chanelling Dicaprio’s character in “The Basketball Diaries“‘. He’s initially timid and shy, yet the most naturally gifted when using his new found powers with finesse.

If this was Star Wars he’d be Anakin. Essentially good, yet suppressing a dark nature. He begins to embrace the dark side, naming himself an ‘apex predator’, with his friends relatively powerless to stop him. The films builds to an epic climax that, in the ‘found footage’ style, is completely gripping and exhilarating. Check out the trailer…

Likely, credible sequel?
This film performed exceptionally well on a small budget, so naturally there’ll be a sequel. Which form it takes is another question. Josh Trank has other films in the pipeline, and it’s not confirmed the three leads will return.

There’s a few ways the story could go, whichever way it does, it will be face a tough test in terms of originality and overcoming expectation. The dreaded ‘second album’ that musicians face is the same problem the writers will have to overcome. Let’s hope they do, because Chronicle was a bit of a revelation.