Blood is Thicker than Water (and as Thick as Two Short Planks)

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (James Gunn, 2017)

I confess I had a sneaking liking for Guardians of the Galaxy, in part because I went in with no baggage and low expectations — although clearly that’s a contradiction. I quite liked the ironising, which under cut the macho posturing, but I was left with the sense of the displacement of ethnicity onto different coloured aliens and a near absence of women (a green heroine and her blue sister, who apparently was Amy Pond).

Vol. 2 comes with the baggage of the original and the risk of a joke being dragged too thin. It begins mid-caper, with the Guardians protecting batteries for a alien species called the Sovereigns in return for the return of Amy Pond who had previously tried to steal them. Unfortunately Rocket Racoon steals some himself, and they are chased across the galaxy by the Sovereigns, who seem rather weaponised for people who employ mercenaries. The Sovereigns then employ Yondu Udonta, who brought Peter Quill up, to go after them. Quill, meanwhile, is rescued by his father Ego, who turns out to be somewhat of a God and who has created a paradise. Perhaps.

By now, the pattern is established — witty banter between the central heroes punctuated by fights and capers, synchronised to a seventies soundtrack. We reach the diminishing returns pretty early on with the fights, but be reassured that no one will really die that you care for. There is the Unspoken Sexual Tension between Peter and Gamora, and Drax gets a few more lines, and Groot is cute, as baby Groot. A new character is brought in — Mantis, an empath with feelers, oddly Sino-French, but apparently German-Vietnamese in the original comic appearance — and adds a little to the cringe factor.

The casting of as Kurt Russell as Ego is genius — bringing with him the baggage of cult director John Carpenter such as Snake Plissken in Escape from New York and Escape from L.A., The Thing from Another World and Big Trouble in Little China, heroic but seedy, not entirely trustworthy. If you can’t afford Jeff Bridges, Russell’s your man. I could totally believe in him as love ’em and leave ’em immortal, but I definitely didn’t buy the plot gimmick as to why he needed his son. Ah well.

But it is, to some extent, a film about family and the coming together of estranged families, whether or not there is a blood tie. Yondu and Amy, recurring villains from the first film, are, after all, family, and family is family. They can be forgiven remarkably quickly and given a shot of redemption. Perhaps that’s what makes it comedy.

Meanwhile, as the Marvel Universe expands, the cameos and the injokes expand, with seemingly never ending closing credits, more Howard the Duck, too much Stan Lee — who has hardly improved as an actor since Mallrats — and Easter Eggs for future movies.

I can see how if you like this kind of thing you’d love it. I’d even go back for a third dose, but Ego is not the only thing to be indulged.

Waiting for Gadot

Wonder Woman (Patty Jenkins, 2017)

Of course, this is an important film — women directors are pretty rare and women directors given a big budget are even rarer. Whilst I am hardly disciplined in seeing DC and Marvel superhero movies, my experience is that women are mostly there to be rescued, with the few female superheroes rather sidelined. This is, I understand, the first female superhero movie (Supergirl aside or presumably Catwoman). I confess I’ve yet to have the pleasure of Batman vs Superman, a film seemingly so long in the making that I suspect they wanted us to forget about it. So this is my first meeting with Diana, Princess of the Amazons (Gal Gadot), at some point to be called Wonder Woman.

She is brave and headstrong and heroic, and refuses to be put in her place, with a string duty of care and a sense of ethics. As action figure, she fits in that line that started with Buffy and went through Catnip Evergreen to Rey and the ex-Emma Grundy née Carter. We need strong women. We need strong role modes for women.

Note the plural.

And we need a world in which $149 million can be wasted on tosh starring a woman as well as on tosh starring a man.

Because, it is, don’t get me wrong, tosh.

There is something that makes me feel awfully uncomfortable about a superhero movie set so firmly in the real world that the First World War features and which has the superhero also living in present day Paris. Paris. Of all cities. And obviously it raises questions about the Second World War, as well as more recent tragedies, and where the hell she was.

So little Diana, princess, has grown up on the island of Mascara, ok the island of Themyscira, passing through a series of different accents until she comes of age. After being forbidden to train as a warrior, she gets her way and is beefed up just in time for American spy Stephen Trevor to literally crash into her life, with boatloads of Evil Germans on his tail. These are soon seen off — although the battleship seems to be conveniently forgotten about — and Diana decides she wants to go to the Front, to find and defeat Ares, the God of War.

It is at this point that the idiot gear is engaged. She sails with Trevor, apparently overnight to London, waking up for Tower Bridge, which is closer to St Paul’s than you think and even closer to Selfridge’s, where they get her some clothes, with the aid of the former Hayley from The Archers aka Dawn from The Office as Etta Crumb, perhaps the most interesting figure in the film, who can more than hold her own, even when they are mugged in the surprisingly close by Sicilian Avenue.

Meanwhile, a mission is afoot: to stop the evil Dr Moreau (who spells it Maru) from developing a nerve gas even worse than the Mustard Gas used by the Germans in Ypres and elsewhere and indeed by the Allies in 1917 when they found some and started developing their own. This will also get Diana closer to Ares. And so Trevor recruits his team, Sameer and Charlie in London and Chief, a Native American, in Belgium, to go after the bad guys.

Of course, it is hard to think of Spud from Trainspotting as a sharpshooter, indeed he is not as good at it as you’d think, and when he raises his kilt to warm his, er, sporran over a fire, he clearly turns out not to be a true Scotsman. And there are unexpected twists that make absolutely no sense and an embarrassing and hideous mass killing, albeit of Evil Germans, by Dr Moreau and Herr General Evil German, who cackle with laughter in a callousness that feels poorly judged. Especially in a 12A. And the Evil Germans keep shooting at Diana, but unaccountably aim for her wrists or her shield, rather than, I don’t know, her ankles. But there’s hugs all round by the end. The surviving Evil Germans aren’t so evil after all.

Of course, I was under the impression that Trevor was Rogers and was going to turn into Captain America, but that was Chris Evans rather than Chris Pratt, an entirely different universe. Silly me. Too many Steves and Chrises.

Of course, Trevor is given a wonderful speech in which he explains that evil is inherent in humanity and there isn’t really one Big Bad, and you wonder (sorry) whether it’ll turn out that Diana was deluded after all. But he has to go off and buy the farm, whilst she gets to kick Ares after all. Of course, this is her brother, whom she is able to Stop, in the Name of Love, as she gets extra powers when she’s mourning.

The box office success of the film no doubt means a second episode is forthcoming, although whether this will be present day stopping evil in Paris or we have another flashback to her, I don’t know, fighting Ares in a Berlin bunker, having stopped…. no, just, no.

Perhaps less of the stupid next time?

Look On My Prequels, Matey, and Despair

Alien: Covenant (Ridley Scott, 2017)

It really does worry me that with this and Prometheus I was looking at my phone at the fifty minute mark and was wondering when someone, anyone, was going to die. By now, the Alien template should be established — a small crew, who you’ll never quite be able to distinguish, stumble upon something nasty and are killed one by one until the final girl survives. In the case of the Alien franchise we know there are going to be aliens, but unfortunately they seem to want to delay gratification as long as possible.

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Or, the Modern Frankenstein

Prometheus (Ridley Scott, 2012)

By design or accident, the Alien Tetralogy became interesting because each film had its own auteur or its own genre — Alien offered haunted house in space (and an uncanny double of the slasher), Aliens was a ‘Nam movie, Alien3 was a prison movie and Alien: Resurrection was. It simply was. So Ridley Scott decides he wants to go back and produce a new film in the Alien universe and make it a prequel — except for some reason it leaves the A-word off the title.

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But Not As We Know It

Life (Daniel Espinosa, 2017)

A year, maybe two years, ago there was viral footage of an octopus sliding around the deck of a ship and eventually escaping through a teeny weeny hole. Cute.

That wasn’t the only moment of déjà vu that I had watching this sf-horror hybrid — most obviously its DNA is infused with Ridley Didley’s Alien, with an alien inadvertantly being brought back on board a spaceship and killing the crew one by one until we’re left with the final girl. On a purely CGI level, you might well be able to make the case that the effects have improved in forty years and I do confess that the tension is satisfactorarily cranked up in the final third, but we will forget about this film before the next Star Wars release.

What was I writing about?

There is also no denying that there is an impressive single continuous take at the opening as we are introduced to a pleasingly international crew on the International Space Station, moving in and out of space and connecting corridors and so forth in a seeming cry of fuck you, Gravity, I can do this too. But this is presumably relatively easy in the motion capture and digital era — imagine what Hitchcock could do with Rope now.

So there’s a probe which has a soil sample (sans potatoes) from Mars that is going to be analysed on the ISS what with quaranteen and all, only it’s approaching too fast and is likely to collide with the ship or the astronaut playing catch. For the sake of the plot, the probe is snagged and, for the sake of no nausea, continuity editing is reestablished.

Ship’s biologist Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) locates a cute little monocell critter, apparently dormant, so he plays around with the atmosphere in the lab vitrine and gives it some ECT and it yawns and says hello daddy. Before you can say that’s not a bleeding obvious subtext, school children have decided that the alien will be christened Alien McAlienface — sorry, no, Calvin. I mean, it’s not as if the crew is going to be divided into the damned and the elect, is it? I may have hallucinated a character saying “I have a bad feeling about this”, but Calvin is pissed at the electronic probing and fights back and escapes. It can squeeze through the tiniest spaces.

And so, eventually, we get a body count and the kind of random disaster plotting that has been played with most recently in The Martian and Passengers — being knocked out of stable orbit, using up too much fuel, losing radio contact with Earth… And having carefully established that each cell can do the same thing as all the other cells, it rapidly becomes apparent that there is more than one Calvin. And fewer crew.

There are further attempts at the Deep and Meaningful — one character is reading The Interpretation of Dreams (“Can you say, ‘Monster from the Id’*”) and a copy of Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd’s Goodnight Moon is produced as a present for an astronaut who has just become a father (and that presumably has significance if you’ve read it).l

But the film cannot really recover from the sense that the characters are so shallow and lack sufficient back story to really make you care. There are some pretty deaths, and you do kind of root for the characters, but not with any enthusiasm. And even the almost obligatory genre ending can’t really redeem it.

* Anachronistic joke, obviously, as Interpretation is 1899, 1900, and The Ego and the Id (1923).

Free Fall

Free Fire (Ben Wheatley, 2016)

This isn’t a postmodern movie like Reservoir Dogs, the academic introducing this movie reassured us, as Wheatley draws on Michael Mann rather than Quentin Tarantino.

Okay…

I’ve only seen two of Wheatley’s previous films (and his Doctor Who episodes) and I suspect I like one of them more than others and one of them less. One switched genre gears pleasingly into Wicker Man territory, the other was a Kevin Brownlow movie directed by Ken Russell. There was a camp if violent tone to both.

Free Fire cranks up the claustrophobia on both — after a couple of road scenes and a factory exterior in Toronto, we’re then stuck in single space in Brighton, although you could read it as Massachusetts and some point in the 1970s if you want to. On the one hand, there are Irish men looking for machine guns, presumably as part of the terror campaign, on the other hand there is a South African and an ex-Black Panther looking to sell. The inbetweeners are a bearded giant and almost the only woman in the film.

Of course, you know it’s going to go wrong and, whilst the film is a taut ninety minutes, it drags a little until the wrongness starts. One of them asks the woman if she is an FBI plant — just like Mr Orange, you’ll think, or in his mould, but that hasn’t been filmed yet. Later we’re told how long it takes to bleed to death — just as we find out in Reservoir Dogs. One faction will, you know, attempt to rip the other group off — or they’ll rip each other off.

There’s a very heavy handed flagging of a gun over a fireplace, although we’re never told what the gun is and … well, as far as I can tell this is a tease and perhaps the only real nod to originality in the film.

As the bullets fly, you rather quickly lose track of who is dead or dying, or perhaps merely dying, or perhaps they’re stunned… beautiful plumage… You can’t help but feel that as the shot, blown up and penetrated crawl over glass, syringes and rubble that they’d be a little more stunned. For all Wheatley’s plotting out of the action in Minecraft, the spaces don’t feel consistent.

There are some laughs. The guys behind me (I think there was only one woman in the auditorium) found shooting a gun hilarious. They found guns jamming hilarious. They found the need to reload hilarious. I think I missed the joke. Cillian Murphy, Michael Riley and even Sam Riley had good lines. Armie Hammer looks good in a beard, perhaps his one character note and a means of telling him apart from the others. Brie Larson has her moments, and I’d like to see her in Concrete Island if Wheatley fancies more Ballard. And Sharlton Copley has the same comic schtick he brought to District 9 and CHAPPiE, minus the CGI. Rather like Life it’s an endurance test for the audience as much as the characters, and I cared marginally more for them.

But solid back story, motivation and something like an actual plot have been carefully eliminated in the name of … well it used to be postmodern and ironic and it used to make a difference from Merchant-Ivory confection but it’s twenty years since Michael Mann in Heat remade his own LA Takedown from a decade before that. Do we have more than a feature-length sitcom with a body count? It is slick, but too slick.

When googling around on Wheatley, I read the comment that he’s the new Noel Clarke. This may have been a compliment.

To be honest, I’m not sure who should be more insulted.

Why This is El Ay, Nor Are We Out of It

La La Land (Damien Chazelle, 2016)

Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) are both in suspended animation on board a spaceship on a century long voyage, dreaming of wish fulfilment. I apologise for the spoiler, but I haven’t seen a film this obvious since is-it-meant-be-a-surprise-he’s-dead-what-with-having-been-shot-in-the-chest.

The clue is a traffic jam on an LA freeway, when everyone gets out of their cars and starts a song and dance routine, and no one seems bothered, no one seems angry, no one gets shot and no cops turn up to beat anyone up. This is all the more remarkable given that the drivers are so ethnically diverse and it will be over an hour if not ninety minutes until another person of colour gets to speak.

Mia and Sebastian’s dreams intersect at this point, with one giving the other the finger, although if this is going to be a romantic comedy this is a sign of impending union. She is a wannabe actor, working shifts at a Warner Bros lot coffee shop in hopes of being noticed, going to a hundred pointless auditions in search of a big break. She tries for agency and to set up a one woman show to get herself noticed, and indeed she is picked up for a film that will be based around her.

Can we say, “solipsism”?

But then we are at the centre of our dreams.

Occasionally she breaks into song and she does not seem to find this strange, nor is she that bothered when she finds herself floating around a planetarium — I assume that the gravity has failed on the spaceship. On several occasions she walks across LA in the middle of the night, alone, with not a single sign of a mugger. LA is surely the city where nobody walks. It is the hyperreal.

Meanwhile, Sebastian dreams about being a jazz pianist, wanting to save jazz by creating a club where he can play. In the meantime he refuses to play the set list in restaurants and plays keyboards in covers bands. It shouldn’t be a surprise that when he breaks into song, but there is something delusional about a white person saving jazz, although we can repeatedly point to white singers (Elvis? Slim Shady?) who have become the popular avatars of music of black origin. In perhaps the most offensive scene he becomes the white counterpart to the magical negro who teaches an African American couple to dance.

Sebastian tells us about jazz as a conversation between musicians, a competition of ideas, but when we see him play it is pretty well always alone (aside from the awful bands) on the keyboard. It is playing as self expression.

Can we say, “solipsism”?

But then we are at the centre of our dreams.

In one version of the dream, there is no romcom reconciliation — indeed one of them seems to have started a family within days of their parting. Of course. Their dreams are so self-centred that they cannot find a unified space. In another version of the dream, there is the happily ever after. I give it six months.

Of course, in the process of the film, Hollywood is able to satirise itself, although as is so often the case, it is toothless, because we are seduced by the studio and the inevitable Academy Awards.

And no one seems to wonder why Keith (John Legend) is the only person of colour with substantial dialogue (there’s a casting agent in one scene, too). The dreams both involve an ethnic apocalypse.

During the closing credits, an elderly woman tapped me on the shoulder and said “You must be a jazz fan.”

I think this was an observation rather than an order. And, alas, I don’t think I am beyond the blindingly obvious Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and Bix Beiderbecke. So I might be wrong when I suspect there was actually very little jazz in this film.

And then I woke up and it was all a dream…