Film, Reviews, Top Gun

TOP GUN: MAVERICK is heartfelt, old-fashioned, joyous blockbuster filmmaking (Film Review)

Though one of the staple examples of 1980s blockbuster filmmaking, nobody truly expected Top Gun to either have or need a sequel, especially not approaching forty years on.

The so-called ‘legacyquel’, coined to describe sequels to existing properties that arrive long after the original picture or films, has been in vogue over the last 5-10 years in everything from Terminator: Dark Fate to Bill and Ted Face the Music. The results have been frequently a mixed bag with some franchises unable to recapture the magic or flair of the original movies. One of the reasons Top Gun: Maverick—which at 36 years after its predecessor stands as one of the more distant examples of the form—works so well is that it doesn’t have a masterpiece to try and emulate.

You’ll be hard pressed to find someone who watched Top Gun and actively hated it or at least believed it was poor filmmaking. Aside from permeating popular culture to a degree only 80s pictures such as Back to the Future or Indiana Jones managed, Tony Scott’s original movie balanced kitsch 80s action, plenty of testosterone-fuelled coded homoeroticism, sun-kissed American landscapes and a brace of exuberant rock to deliver a picture built largely on Tom Cruise’s nascent charisma and a gung-ho celebration of American exceptionalism. While a staple of its era, Top Gun is not a great piece of cinema.

This leaves Top Gun: Maverick plenty of leg room to both evoke the beloved film before it and craft something contemporary. The fact it does this, and does it so well, is a testament to everyone involved. It is, easily, the finest ‘legacyquel’ to date ever made.

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Star Trek: Lower Decks, TV, Writing

First Impressions: STAR TREK: LOWER DECKS – ‘Second Contact’

As Star Trek: Lower Decks finally premieres in the UK on Amazon Prime Video, A. J. Black takes a look at the first animated Star Trek series in almost half a century…

Ever since the end of The Animated Series in 1974, Star Trek’s only previous foray into the sphere of animation, the franchise has toyed with another ‘cartoon’ version of the series, but has perhaps steered clear by dint of being defined as such. Star Trek: Lower Decks is not easily characterised, simply, as a cartoon.

Lower Decks, created by Mike McMahan, exists thanks to the proliferation over the last twenty-five years or more of adult-centred animated television series. McMahan himself wrote a chunk of Rick & Morty, the good natured, wacky Netflix animated series—Back to the Future on acid, basically—and that itself arrives in the slipstream of the even more renowned series—South Park, Family Guy etc—that took the nominal concept of animation as kids territory, cartoons established decades past with Tom & Jerry through to Wacky Races and The Flintstones, and deliberately tailored them for older audiences. Cinema has proven adults respond just as well, if not even better, to intelligent animation as children do, with the Pixar stable lighting up the box office while cementing themselves in the minds of ages the world over, as have to a lesser degree Japan’s Studio Ghibli.

McMahan’s series—certainly on the evidence of the pilot episode Second Contact—lacks the whimsy of Ghibli, and certainly the cosiness of Pixar, but rather contains the self-effacing, self-knowing confidence of a Bojack Horseman. Lower Decks seems to understand the position it holds in relation to the broader Star Trek universe and the world of animation itself and, consequently, does not try and reinvent the wheel. It is, in many ways, exactly the kind of show you probably thought it would be, based on McMahan’s previous work, based on the promotional material and trailers, and based on what those involved have been talking up for a solid year. The only surprise in Second Contact is how unsurprising it actually is.

This isn’t meant as a slight, either. Lower Decks is huge fun. It just isn’t, at least yet, anything more.
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Film, Reviews

READY PLAYER ONE is a nostalgic yet prophetic futuristic vision

Ready Player One really does feel like the pop-culture culmination of modern entertainment since the advent of Star Wars. Festooned with references, characters and trademarks from dozens of well-known properties from everything cinematic through to the video game world, Steven Spielberg delivers the ultimate expression of why we digest media, and possibly a glimpse into a world we could all be heading towards.

Ernest Cline delivered a remarkable confection of a novel back in 2011, certainly in pop-culture terms. Ready Player One crammed almost every single reference point since the late 1970’s across half a dozen mediums into a novel which, ultimately, told a fairly relatable David vs Goliath story set in a near-futuristic dystopia. It was a piece of work which seemed to operate like Marmite; for everyone taken in by its wide-eyed engagement with particularly 1980’s geek and nerd culture, someone else would respond that Cline’s prose was awful and the novel was a mess of winks, references and incohesive plotting which worked more like a gimmick than a piece of fiction. Wherever you stood on the spectrum, Ready Player One seems to have always been a polarising experience.

Which made the idea of a film adaptation even more intriguing, especially given Cline’s novel swiftly arrived in the hands of Spielberg. In many respects, this brought Cline’s work full circle, as Spielberg alongside filmmakers such as George Lucas and Robert Zemeckis, essentially created not just the cinematic blockbuster but the combination of pop-culture escapism and mainstream entertainment that drove the core of Cline’s novel. 

Films such as Star Wars or Raiders of the Lost Ark, not to mention Back to the Future, which especially factors into Ready Player One on several levels, all remain the key cultural touchstones for Western audiences thirty or forty years on. Spielberg has arguably been the most successful purveyor of family escapism in cinema, blending skilled craft and an innate understanding of what audiences will connect to. And connections, ultimately, are what drive his adaptation of Ready Player One.

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Essays, Film

THE LAST JEDI: from Space Fantasy to Space Equality

Only a week old and Star Wars: The Last Jedi already feels like it’s been dripped dry of critique and analysis. The much-anticipated follow up to The Force Awakens, 2015’s bombastic revival of the Star Wars saga, has been polarising to say the least. For every fan who loved it, you’ll find another two who feel it has destroyed, in one picture, the entire legacy of the tale long long ago, in a galaxy far, far away.

As well as my initial analysis of the film, I wrote about the toxicity of this level of fandom who seek to target The Last Jedi for daring to experiment with the established tropes and concepts that have existed for forty years, and have made Star Wars what it is. Whether you liked or disliked The Last Jedi no longer seems to be the point – it’s the consequences of Rian Johnson’s film that have stoked the most controversy. Star Wars, surely, will never be quite the same after this movie? That’s the ultimate question cascading across Star Wars fandom as The Last Jedi settles in their mind. Too much has changed. Yet few seem to be talking about what this change directly is, or ultimately what it means.

If someone asked you, ‘what is Star Wars?’, think about how you might answer that question. Many would say it’s a science-fiction movie, given it takes place in outer space in a distant galaxy, involves a world of strange alien creatures, sentient androids and spaceships firing laser weapons at each other. Some, perhaps with a deeper level of knowledge about George Lucas’ initial creation of the saga, may venture its a ‘space fantasy’; the Princess (Leia), locked in the tower (Death Star), by the evil King (Vader), only to be rescued by the dashing heroes (Luke & Han) with the help of a wise old man (Obi-Wan).

A New Hope‘s original story was born out of Joseph Campbell, of mythical archetypal narrative ‘synthesising all religions’ as Lucas put it at the time. A heroic fantasy with elements of science-fiction, shot through with the adventure stylistics of the 1930’s & 1940’s that Lucas and cinematic contemporaries like Steven Spielberg grew up watching, adventures which massively influenced their work.

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Film, Reviews

Film Retrospective: ROMANCING THE STONE (1984)

You don’t hear many people talk about Romancing the Stone very much anymore, which feels surprising.

It was, after all, a powerful surprise hit in 1984 which launched the career of none other than director Robert Zemeckis who, just one year later, would go on and develop not just the signature film of the 80’s but one of the most iconic of the 20th century – Back to the Future. Nobody expected this romantic action adventure caper to work, least of all 20th Century Fox, the studio who made it, who, so convinced Zemeckis had delivered a dud, fired him from the Cocoon directing gig in anticipation. Nobody predicted it would romp home at the box office, cement Zemeckis as a major new talent following in the footsteps of his contemporaries Spielberg, Lucas etc… and establish Michael Douglas as a rugged action hero in Hollywood terms.

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What’s strange is why the studio, and most people involved, believed this would be dead on arrival. What gave them that impression? It could be an endemic level of sexism given the fact Romancing the Stone is very much angled from the perspective of Kathleen Turner’s heroine, Joan Wilder. Did they believe such a female entry point into the film would alienate a core male audience? Bear in mind how Zemeckis’ film followed in the wake of the hugely successful Raiders of the Lost Ark, which in Indiana Jones and Marion Ravenwood helped re-cement the Golden Age of Hollywood idea of the couple with antagonistic, sparky repartee, only wrapped around an adventure movie style. The Empire Strikes Back, with Han Solo & Princess Leia’s biting barbs courtesy of Golden Age scribe Leigh Brackett, did the same thing.

The difference, perhaps, is that Spielberg and Lucas (by way of Irvin Kershner) approached their movies in this context from much more of a male perspective, certainly in terms of how the studio may have experienced these films during production and test screenings. Unlike Raiders with Indy or even Empire with Luke Skywalker, Romancing the Stone’s central protagonist is unquestionably Joan – it is her journey of fantasy wish fulfilment we follow across the picture, not that of Douglas’ Jack Colton, the Indy proxy of the story, who we don’t even meet until almost thirty minutes into Joan’s story. Douglas may have been a producer on the film but he’s not showy, despite having top billing – he’s aware this is Turner and Joan’s showcase.

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Essays, Film

Cinematic Universes: the divisive wave of cinema’s future

With the advent of Justice League, many fans and commentators are once again discussing the concept of the ‘Cinematic Universe’, given the formative attempts by DC Comics over the last several years to emulate the rampant success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the first truly successful and revolutionary cinematic model of an overarching mythological world of characters and narratives informing one another.

Inevitably with the internet, it’s leading to a war of trolls – Marvelita haters and DC sceptics waging a pointless conflict over territorial ownership and trying the answer the utterly subjective question – ‘which is better?’. For every critic who tells you the MCU is technically stronger as a tapestry, you’ll easily find more than enough ‘DCEU’ defenders to race in with their Amazonian swords and claim everything Marvel has done is powerfully overrated.

There can be no victor in such a battle.

In truth, discussion of the Cinematic Universe has never gone away. Hollywood and the blockbuster movie system has been utterly consumed and dominated by the power of a connected storytelling model, following the template Marvel Studios laid down. It has arguably changed the very fabric of the cinematic franchise. Following the essential advent of the ‘blockbuster’ in the mid-1970’s with Jaws and of course Star Wars, it took Hollywood a while to truly embrace the idea of creating what we accept as a ‘franchise’.

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