Features

Santa’s Clause: Imagination & Belief in Christmas Fiction

Craig McKenzie takes a look at various depictions of Santa Claus in cinema and considers the power of belief and imagination in Christmas fiction…

Christmas time is almost upon us and that means many things to different people. For kids it means that an overweight man in a red suit will be due to do his rounds and provide them with every gift they could possibly desire. It could be the case for adults as well.

The myth of Santa Claus is told to children from a very young age to make Christmas appear to be a magical time full of possibilities. There’s a lot of iconography attached to the myth such as the North Pole workshop staffed by Elves; the sleigh dragged by reindeer; Santa coming down the chimney to deliver the presents. It’s a great harmless fiction that fuels the imaginations of children excited about Christmas as they buy into the magic. The older they get the more logical questions start to creep in such as “how does he fit down the chimney?”, “what about people who don’t have a chimney?” and “how does he get around every house in the world in one night?”

Even without being a parent, these are natural questions that often stump parents, many of whom will have their own explanation designed to appease their little ones in order to maintain the magic a little longer. This is something that often crops up in films where Santa is a character. In The Santa Clause Tim Allen’s Scott Calvin tells his son that believing in something sometimes means that you just believe in it. In this case he was using it to fob his son off so he would get to sleep earlier but the statement resonates because a great deal of films that feature Santa as a character promote variations on that message.

How powerful is imagination where Christmas is concerned, in fiction? There is an endearing innocence attached to the unquestioning belief in the impossible around this time of year.

Nobody Did It Better: Losing SEAN CONNERY

Following the sad loss of Sean Connery at the age of 90, A. J. Black talks about what the legendary Scottish actor meant to him…

We all have them. They’re all different. They all mean something unique. The childhood hero, the person in the public eye who inspires you, is a special and personal thing for us all.

I was never one to have too many heroes to the extent of extreme fan worship. Many years ago, I worked with a chap who was obsessed with two lesser known American character actors (Adam Baldwin and Brad Greenquist, who weirdly will be popping up again on my next Alias review…) to the degree he would follow them around and collect any and all memorabilia. Fair play, it made him happy. But I have never been that obsessed with any one person. TV shows and movies? Sure. Anyone reading this knows I have spent more time in my 38 years thinking about and watching The X-Files, Star Trek and James Bond than is probably healthy. Yet it didn’t always extend to the people involved in those properties.

Sean Connery was rare, for me, in being the kind of actor and persona who did serve as something of a formative icon in my younger years. His loss, at the princely age of 90 years old (having not long celebrated his birthday), is not one to mourn as a tragedy of the like we saw with Chadwick Boseman this summer. Yet in my piece talking about how his death had affected me, I mentioned my dread at the day we lost Connery, because like Roger Moore—whose death I also vividly remember as another childhood hero—this one means something to me. It does feel like losing a part of your own life and, as my friend Zach Moore recently commented to me, it’s “hard to believe we now live in a world without him”.

It is indeed. He was a unique breed in many ways. We will never see his like again.

Spider-Men… Spider-Men: The Tangled Web of the Multiverse

Craig McKenzie discusses the concept of the ‘Multiverse’ in comic book entertainment and how it might develop in the near future…

Multiverses are swiftly becoming all the rage in genre film and TV.

For those who aren’t immediately clear on what constitutes a multiverse, it can best be summed up as when a property holds multiple continuities that aren’t connected. A good recent high profile example of this is the Star Trek franchise. The 2009 J.J. Abrams movie started a continuity that splintered off from the main one with stories happening in both that don’t connect to one another.

This isn’t a new idea as alternate realities have been a mainstay of science fiction for a long time. Star Trek famously popularised this with the landmark episode Mirror, Mirror where an alternate universe was introduced in which most of the characters were evil. Doctor Who would later put its own spin on alternate realities. Over the years many TV shows and movies would use this concept to explore “what if?” scenarios that place the characters in alternate situations that they wouldn’t normally face.

Writers enjoy these stories as it means they can do whatever they want without impacting the core continuity of the property they are playing with.

The multiverse concept received a lot of recent attention through the rumours that the next Spider-Man movie may include the previous two live action cinematic Peter Parker actors, Andrew Garfield and Tobey Maguire, reprising their roles to swing into action alongside current incumbent of the spider suit, Tom Holland. Nothing has been explicitly confirmed yet but there is a conspicuous lack of denial on Sony’s part. Without a doubt this is a response to the immense success of the 2018 animated movie Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which saw different iterations of the character teaming up. It was sharply written, beautifully animated and caught on in a really big way, so it makes complete sense that Sony would want to capitalise on this success as much as possible.

In my view this is a great idea at least on paper as I really like the previous two iterations of Spider-Man so the prospect of seeing them share the screen is something I find personally exciting. Andrew Garfield is my favourite live action Peter Parker, even if the films he appeared in have significant flaws, though as always whether it proves worthwhile depends on the execution. The film will also feature Doctor Stephen Strange, who likely acts as the vehicle to bring these three versions of the character together, so hopefully the writing will be sharp enough to unite these alt-universe Spider-Men in a meaningful way and deliver an immensely fun viewing experience.

One of the questions around this is whether general cinema audiences are ready to accept the multiverse concept, and whether they will find it easy enough to follow.

The answer to that is complicated but it’s worth noting that audiences have been primed for this for quite some time. In terms of the Marvel Cinematic Universe the word “multiverse” was first mentioned in Doctor Strange in 2016, though at that point it was only in the context of it being a power source rather than something that could be explored and introduce alternate versions of the characters. Avengers: Endgame in 2019 would go onto tell what amounted to a multiverse story without actually using the term, with characters visiting past events in the MCU and creating alternate realities as they went. In essence their arrival would create a reality disconnected from the one they were trying to save, suggesting that what they did in the past wouldn’t impact the present. It was a bit of a cheat but audiences got along with it just fine.

An upcoming MCU film is called Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness so that strongly suggests the idea will be further developed in that film to further prime audiences for the third Tom Holland Spider-Man movie. Of course Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse was popular and went to great lengths to ensure that viewers understood what was happening and why it was significant. Based solely on the Marvel Cinematic Universe I’m confident in my assumption that audiences will easily accept this.

Other properties have been using the multiverse for quite some time. Season 2 of The Flash introduced the multiverse and slowly developed the concept over the course of the season until it became a fundamental part of the show as well as the shared universe that it inhabits before culminating in the TV crossover event Crisis on Infinite Earths. In this case the producers of The Flash were introducing a concept that had been a big part of the comics for decades and using it as a way to have fun with different possibilities. Crisis on Infinite Earths featured cameos from both current and previous DC live action properties such as Burt Ward from the ’60s Batman series, Tom Welling’s Clark Kent from Smallville and Brandon Routh’s Superman last seen in Superman Returns. Current cameos included Ezra Miller’s version of Barry Allen aka The Flash seen in the recent DC movies.

Speaking of the DC movies, the massive DC fan event, Fandome, provided some long awaited information on the upcoming Flash movie, Flashpoint.

It had been confirmed prior to this event that Michael Keaton would be returning as his version of Batman and shortly after the event it was confirmed that Ben Affleck would be doing the same as his take on the Caped Crusader. These developments, combined with Robert Pattinson’s upcoming version of the character in The Batman, means that there are three active cinematic versions of Batman existing at once. Much of the Flashpoint panel along with a separate multiverse one was discussing the mindset of the current creative team working on DC film and TV properties.

In the past, restrictions were placed on projects because they didn’t want multiple versions of the same character existing in case fans got confused. Arrow was told to stop using Deadshot because Will Smith was taking on the role, for instance, and there are some hilarious details around how certain characters were forbidden from appearing on Smallville which meant the writers found creative ways to include them that fit within those restrictions.

The present mindset is that multiple versions of the same character allows for greater storytelling potential and the audience is now trusted to understand that different versions can co-exist without being connected. To me this shows an awareness of what is happening in other properties and a respect for the audience. It also leaves the production teams untethered by what has come before while providing them with a near infinite sandbox to create their own continuity.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that nearly everyone watching the next Spider-Man film is fine with accepting the idea of multiple universes and goes along with the trinity of Spider-Men working together to face down a common threat. There still exists the question of why those types of stories are being told and whether they are just a gimmick. Bringing together different versions of the same character is inherently gimmicky but that isn’t always a bad thing. I find comfort in the knowledge that a reboot doesn’t mean the end of the road for a version of a character I like. Henry Cavill’s Superman doesn’t negate the Christopher Reeve/Brandon Routh version of the character. Michael Keaton’s celebrated Batman will be seen again in a few years and might take on new life through a modern lens.

Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse was as much about what unites the different interpretations of the character as it was what makes them different which worked brilliantly as part of the origin for that version of Miles Morales as he settled into being Spider-Man. Most adaptations of a particular character share common ground so having them interact to explore the fundamentals of that character and how they can be tweaked to create a new version of them is endlessly fascinating to me. It’s certainly something the Arrowverse has proven time and time again can make for fascinating storytelling so there’s no reason to not apply variations of this model to other comic book properties.

The upcoming Spider-Man movie runs the risk of following the same thematic beats the animated movie did, and there is always a risk of it becoming a crutch for storytellers to ignore continuity by simply dismissing anything that didn’t work as belonging to a different universe, but the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks as far as I’m concerned.

After all, who among us hasn’t wondered how things would have turned out if different choices had been made in our own lives? I know I have.

New BRWC Article: There is only one bad actor in Cineworld’s closure

New BRWC article!

It’s my intention to start writing a little more for other websites alongside the blog here, and I penned a piece last year for Battle Royale With Cheese, who were kind enough to publish an opinion piece on the disappointing news that Cineworld are closing all of their U.K. cinemas for the foreseeable future and laying off staff.

Click beyond the jump for a sample of the piece and a link to the article…

Bill, Ted & the Dark Fate of the Legacyquel

With the arrival of Bill & Ted Face the Music, we find ourselves facing down the latest example of what has become known as the ‘legacyquel’.

First coined in late 2015 by Matt Singer in a piece for ScreenCrush, in advance of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the legacyquel operates from different principles than a traditional, standard follow up. The standard sequel continues the established story introduced in the original narrative – The Godfather Part II, for example. A legacyquel revives a property and the characters we came to know, years after the fact, often once they have been immortalised in popular culture – The Godfather Part III, for example, which gave us the final part of Michael Corleone’s tragic story sixteen years after we last saw him. Such immense gaps of time are common in sequels which are expressly designed to recapture, in the audience, a sense of reconnection with worlds and characters, and indeed the actors who play them, who mean a great deal to us.

This is certainly the case with Bill & Ted Face the Music, which expressly delivers another key aspect of the legacyquel – familiarity. Most legacyquels do not rock the creative boat and if they do, it is for a specific reason; a good example that bucks the trend is Star Trek 2009, which J. J. Abrams uses as both a legacyquel (allowing us to reconnect with Leonard Nimoy) and canonical reboot in which we rediscover Kirk & Spock while experiencing their origin stories. Star Trek in that sense is an aberration, with most legacyquels operating to the Bill & Ted principle: more of the same, with a much longer gap. This is the appeal of the legacyquel. Reboots offer nostalgia while exploring new ideas. Sequels or continuing franchises build on what has come before. Legacyquels are all about bringing you ‘home’ again.

This was, in many respects, the intention behind Terminator: Dark Fate. What saddens me is that it didn’t really work.

THE SOCIAL DILEMMA should be everyone’s dilemma

You will almost certainly find many viewers decry Netflix’s eye-opening documentary The Social Dilemma as hysterical polemic; an over the top rebuke of our Information Age. Like everything else around us right now, the content will polarise.

It is an extension of arguments that thinkers and writers such as Shoshana Zuboff (who appears here as a marvellously coiffured talking head) have been making for some time about the perils of surveillance capitalism. That our dominant, all-pervasive big tech platforms—Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, Reddit etc…—deal in, as Zuboff describes it, “human futures”. Rather than we as a society using social media as a tool to communicate, learn and principally buy, we rather are the tool of almost artificially intelligent algorithms that understand more about our psychology and habits than anyone in our lives, and even we as individuals could possibly understand. We are the commodity. And the result is that our entire fabric of society is being controlled and fundamentally broken by this machine-led, money-driven system.

The Social Dilemma packages up ideas that you may well have heard before into an effective, streamlined docu-drama, one that plays as much like a horror movie at times in how it pushes our buttons to be afraid, very afraid, of Big Tech and their manipulation of human existence. Some, therefore, will find it hyperbolic and perhaps even simplistic. It is a film with a clear agenda, one designed to influence us in the manner the networks it decries itself does. Netflix is, technically, no better. After watching the movie, I automatically pressed the thumbs up button and rated it. I therefore sent data off to Netflix’s servers which will influence what their algorithm shows me on the “you might also like…” screen. There is an irony about that that the makers of The Social Dilemma might not have appreciated.

Yet it speaks to how I, as much as you reading most likely, remain a willing cog in the manipulation machine. How do I use social media? And could I detach from it completely? These are the questions I’ve been asking since I finished The Social Dilemma.

What’s Your Pleasure? Experiencing the HELLRAISER franchise

You might be surprised at the amount of legendary horror franchises I have not yet seen. Hellraiser, until the past week, was one of them.

Halloween, for example, I have only watched digested in its entirety over the past year. Franchises such as Friday the 13th or A Nightmare on Elm St still elude me. As much as I do enjoy horror, being married to someone who abjectly refuses to watch the majority of the genre means, frequently, I end up in another cinematic space. This isn’t to blame my wife entirely – horror has never been my number one genre. Yet, I remain committed to working my way through the entire canon of these long-running, fear-providing staples, as they are key texts in understanding horror as an overarching genre. Hellraiser, if not perhaps the most critically lauded of these examples, has been a pivotal part of the horror experience since the late 1980s.

Pinhead always scared me, even despite not watching the films. The looming visage of Doug Bradley’s sadomasochistic demon appears on the cover of every Hellraiser movie, bar the final two he didn’t take part in, and I remember as a teenager browsing in the ‘90s Blockbuster near home wondering what sights Pinhead might show me. The VHS cover was unsettling enough. As a child with an overactive imagination, I chose rarely to indulge in horror; besides I would no doubt have had to watch in secret from my parents. This was pre-internet and the days anything could be watched at a click of a button. Hellraiser, and Pinhead’s terrifying, come hither dark glare, has fascinated me since. Action movies were mainly my pleasure then but I always suspected Pinhead would catch up with me one day.

Last week, it happened. I opened the box (or in this case the PLEX server) and he came. And what I found was, I’ll admit, at times unexpected…

Chadwick Boseman and the Mourning of Personal Icons

Rik Mayall died on my birthday.

Not the day I was born, of course. On June 9th, 1982, he was about to appear in The Young Ones as his career began a steady incline to becoming one of the irreverent, post-modern Comic Strip crowd of anarchic, anti-establishment comedians of the ‘80s. It was rather my 32nd birthday back in 2014, a day marred by the passing of someone I genuinely considered a celebrity icon. Not simply for the fact, by some cosmic coincidence, he suddenly passed away at just 56 years old on a day I normally celebrate, Mayall’s death meant something to me, as a fan of the man and his work. It hurt.

Fast forward to May of 2017. I’m at work on a normal day (remember when we all went to work as normal?), checking my phone, and up it pops: Roger Moore has passed away at 89 years old. A lump formed in my throat. Moore was a childhood hero for me. Pierce Brosnan was my generation’s Bond, but Moore was my Bond, the one I grew up watching as an impressionable young boy in the ’80s. The man himself seemed charming and kind, and I had even seen him live on stage in Wolverhampton, no less, around six months before his death. He was aged but no less the engaging raconteur. Like Mayall, I imagined Roger would live forever and when he died, so did a little of my childhood. For similar reasons, I dread the day we lose the other great 007, Sean Connery.

These examples illustrate the strange moments when we lose people we never met, never would have met, but whose passing cuts deep. This weekend, many of us had that same feeling once again with the passing of Chadwick Boseman.

SPECTRE suggests James Bond’s ‘team-ethic’ future

Looking back at Spectre, 2015’s unfairly maligned James Bond film, it becomes apparent just how much of 007’s future may lie around a team ethic.

Historically, Bond was, of course, a lone wolf, certainly in Ian Fleming’s source novels and particularly in the film adaptations produced by Eon from 1962 onwards. Fleming describes Bond’s general routine, in Moonraker, as “evenings spent playing cards in the company of a few close friends, or at Crockford’s; or making love, with rather cold passion, to one of three similarly disposed married women; weekends playing golf for high stakes at one of the clubs near London.” Bond’s life is distant, remote and detached from the world around him, aside from gambling or disposable sex. His cinematic adventures bore this out. If ever we did see his personal life, which we seldom do across any of his incarnations, it almost always revolves around women as opposed to family or friends.

Spectre, building on character introductions and developments introduced in Skyfall, begins to change that. Bond only wins the day with the help of the MI6 team around him back home, and sometimes in the field. Q covers for him, later joining him in Austria to help him reach Madeleine. Moneypenny is no longer the sweet, desk bound, lovelorn secretary who he flirts with and leaves behind, she actively aids him in terms of intelligence, and aides him in the field in Skyfall. M, or Mallory, is the most narratively involved head of MI6 in the series’ history, working to expose Max Denbigh aka ‘C’s connection to villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld, and gets his own (admittedly rather anaemic) action tussle with the man toward the end. Blofeld’s plans are only foiled thanks to the entire MI6 squad backing up Bond’s determined action.

This marks a sea change in the Daniel Craig era that could well stick through the upcoming No Time to Die, and into the uncertain waters for 007 beyond, as the franchise adapts to a vastly changing cinematic landscape.

First Impressions and Here Be Monsters – LOVECRAFT COUNTRY

Some are already declaring Lovecraft Country as ‘this years Watchmen‘, but this feels hyperbolic to a degree. Watchmen was an immediate shock to the system. Lovecraft Country will, hopefully, slow build its way to a piece of cathartic theatre.

Based on a 2016 pulp novel by Matt Ruff, the show adapted by Misha Green begins with a statement of intent – here be monsters. This differs from the novel, which introduces us to our protagonist Atticus Freeman (played here by Jonathan Majors) as he ventures back home to Chicago after the disappearance of his father, Montrose. All this will follow in Green’s show, as the first episode Sundown is particularly slavish to Ruff’s first fifty pages or so, but the opening moment indulges by landing Atticus in the wildest of dreams involving Lovecraftian monsters, UFO’s, beautiful women from space and cosmic wars. Pure blood pulp science-fiction which front loads, thematically, what Lovecraft Country concerns – black legacy and heroism within a nation populated by the worst of monsters. The shoggoths and weird places inside H. P. Lovecraft’s fiction are just to whet the appetite. The meal itself stands to be far chewier.

The pedigree behind Lovecraft Country is, of course, pretty damn impressive, and speaks to the confluence of black and white voices who have united to bring Ruff’s vivid yet recognisable world to life. Green, as showrunner, was lauded for her previous work Underground, an apt title given it didn’t break out into the mainstream as Lovecraft Country stands a chance of doing. Jordan Peele, as an executive producer, lends his satirical, ironic horror perspective (indeed the next episode, if it stays close to the novel, could feel very Get Out). J. J. Abrams, super producer du jour, is likely the man who got this on its feet with the prestigious HBO, who are consistently looking for both their next Game of Thrones and now Watchmen, given that show is unlikely to get a second series (immediately – it’ll reappear eventually). HBO have certainly thrown enough money at Lovecraft Country to suggest they have lofty ambitions for it, and it could well be a series that has fallen at precisely the right time.

The difference is that Watchmen felt almost prophetic at the end of 2019 with hindsight, as focused on police brutality and corruption in racial terms as it was, whereas Lovecraft Country simply serves to externalise and metamorphose the hate coursing right now through America into literal, unknowable horror.