Season Reviews, The Pentaverate, TV

THE PENTAVERATE is a kind but comically calamitous relic of a bygone age (TV Review)

The funniest thing about The Pentaverate is the timing of its arrival for Netflix, given how under the kosh they currently are in terms of value for money.

Recent reports have seen Netflix’s stock value plummet following news that they have lost a considerable subscriber base as the ‘streaming wars’ heat up with a consolidated Disney and Amazon, a critically rising Apple, and a looming WarnerMedia on the horizon. All media analysis points to one conclusion – Netflix might still be top dog but they can no longer rest on their laurels. Content is not simply enough any longer. Their strategy of throwing as much as they can at the streaming wall and seeing what sticks is not generating them dozens of Stranger Things’ or Bridgerton’s. What they’re ending with up too often is projects like The Pentaverate.

No one is likely to dispute that Mike Myers is funny or certainly has been funny. Wayne’s World has aged well and is now considered by many as a cult comedy classic of the early 90s. Austin Powers, while broader, albeit just as hit and miss, landed squarely inside the ‘Cool Britannia’ fondness for the 1960s that came to bear in the late 1990s, fondly lampooning the James Bond series and 60s cultural norms with great success. Myers is a one-trick pony in many ways but you know what you’ll get – cheeky charm, irreverent asides, teenage boy scatological set pieces and gurning, cod-Spitting Image caricature. You’ll either go in for that or you won’t and The Pentaverate is entirely more of the same.

The difference is that in the age of Netflix, of streaming, Myers’ repertoire of jokes is rapidly wearing thin.

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Comics, TV, Writing

First Impressions: WANDAVISION ‘Filmed Before a Live Studio Audience / Don’t Touch That Dial’

It was never meant to begin this way.

Marvel’s true first foray into expanding their immensely successful cinematic universe beyond the realms of the big screen was not originally designed to start with an MCU take on Pleasantville; a surreal dreamscape inversion of two relatively important but not marquee characters in the Marvel tapestry, yet WandaVision leading the charge thanks to the continued preponderance of Covid-19 could well turn out to be unintentionally inspired. There is a boldness to having audiences tune in to such an unusual and decidedly ambiguous concept as their first salvo of the much-hyped MCU ‘Phase Four’.

The project, from newcomer Jac Schaffer (also boasting a story credit on the upcoming Black Widow movie), directed by Matt Shakman, certainly in the first two episodes at least, is rooted in the kind of pop cultural reference points Marvel have built an entire screen universe around. There will scarcely be an era or artistic style the MCU hasn’t adopted when the day is done, and WandaVision very clearly takes a cue from the classic American sitcom of old – The Dick Van Dyke Show or Bewitched – which encapsulated safe, charisma driven family friendly comedy. In a way, this almost feels like Marvel in on their own joke, having strived to develop a storytelling universe that caters both to hardcore, decades-long comic lore nerds and the common or garden punter.

WandaVision plays up to those accessible reference points with a sense of playful glee, a joy available only to a well-established universe with adaptable rules, an easy going confidence, and an understanding of the tropes it has adopted.
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Film, Star Wars, TV, Writing

Milking the Franchise: STAR WARS, MARVEL & beyond

As Star Wars and Marvel announce their future plans, A. J. Black discusses the phenomenon of milking the biggest franchises in the world for all they’re worth…

Franchise cinema, let’s be honest, can be thrilling. It can transform movie experiences from solitary pursuits to collective endeavours.

In an age of deeply fractured politics and cultural conflicts happening across nation states, there is comfort in how Captain America taking on Thanos only for the entire MCU to ride in and support him galvanised everyone operating in that shared cinematic space to cheer in collective joy, no matter what your political or cultural persuasion. Many felt the same when Rey and Kylo Ren turned the Emperor’s fire back on him (though I’d argue this was a far diminished return than the Marvel example…). Denigrators of franchise filmmaking, of fandoms indulging in shared universes, miss this aspect – the collectivisation of a text which binds fans together.

It is often toxic, but it is equally as often magnetic and joyful.

There is, however, a limit to the reach and scope of such franchise endeavours for those, like me, who skirt the edges of fandom.

Marvel and Star Warsboth of whom Disney just announced a huge slate of projects for over the next few years—are not the worlds I personally am most invested in. My fandom interests lie elsewhere but even then, I am not a consumer who digests only Star Trek or only James Bond. Fandoms are frequently incredible communities filled with people who live and breathe the properties they love, and this is to be—sans the aforementioned toxicity—encouraged. Friendships are born. Partnerships are made. Respect can be mutual. I have seen these things happen. I have, in my own way, experienced them myself.

Yet it feels like we are sailing close to a perihelion of franchise dilution. A point where financial concern and milking a product for all its worth become not just the primary driver, but the only driving principle.
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2000 in Film, Film, Writing

TITAN A.E: a disappointingly vanilla science-fiction adventure (2000 in Film #23)

This year, 20 years on from the year 2000, I’m going to celebrate the first year of cinema in the 21st century by looking back at some of the films across the year at the turn of the millennium which took No #1 at the box office for their opening weekends.

This week, released on the weekend of June 16th, Don Bluth & Gary Goldman’s Titan A.E.

Look, I know I keep cheating with my own rules when it comes to talking about the king of the box office, but the thought of writing lots of words about Gone in 60 Seconds, even watching it again, filled me with dread.

Dominic Sena’s film ruled the roost in the first weekend of June 2000, while Titan A.E. debuted the following weekend, and the Nicolas Cage/Angelina Jolie-starrer went on to a decent global box office take. It no doubt helped get The Fast and the Furious reboot on the road, which arrived in 2001, and given that has emerged to be the unlikeliest of most successful cinematic franchises ever, Gone in 60 Seconds has a lot to answer for with its high-octane nonsense. The F&F films are at least, for the most part, fun to watch. Gone in 60 Seconds presents itself as a fuelled up riot but ends up a hammy, badly projected slog that seeing once, quite some years ago, was more than enough. I am many things but a glutton for punishment? Not so much.

Titan A.E. fell short of John Singleton’s remake of Shaft next week, which this blog will cover, but this felt an interesting picture to cover simply for the fact animation hasn’t exactly been at a premium this year so far, and Don Bluth & Gary Goldman’s film honestly *should* have been quite something. All we’ve really had in 2000 is Dinosaur, an interminably dull picture with a far more intriguing backstory than eventual film, do some box office damage, so Titan A.E. had the space, as an independent animated picture backed by 20th Century Fox, to enrapture children and captive adults. Yet it did neither, collapsing at the box office in the wake of hundreds of animators on the film being fired as Fox Animation Studios collapsed, and the CEO who commissioned it, Bill Mechanic—who just a year or so earlier had Fight Club made—was shown the door.

It could be why you may not even remember Titan A.E., despite a strong cast, enjoyable science-fiction premise, and a wealth of promise. Twenty years on, it’s hard to even argue for it as a lost animated great.

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2000 in Film

THE ROAD TO EL DORADO: fun but erratic animation lost to the ages (2000 In Film #13)

This year, 20 years on from the year 2000, I’m going to celebrate the first year of cinema in the 21st century by looking back at some of the films across the year at the turn of the millennium which took No #1 at the box office for their opening weekends.

This week, released on the weekend of March 31st, DreamWorks’ The Road to El Dorado

Though containing all of the elements you would imagine might make a rip-roaring, animated comedy adventure, The Road to El Dorado was, surprisingly, one of the biggest initial box office failures of the year 2000.

DreamWorks Pictures, founded by Jeffrey Katzenberg, David Geffen and Steven Spielberg, as an arm of his own Amblin studio, had up to this point been on something of an animated roll. Antz did well in the animated battle with the similar A Bug’s Life, from their rivals Pixar. The Prince of Egypt was a prestige animated picture, with a star cast and a blend of animation and musical picture elements in working to recapture the scale of The Ten Commandments for new audience. The Road to El Dorado was very much designed to follow suit in Katzenberg’s eyes – a sizeable rival to Pixar’s almost immediate, revolutionary skill with Toy Story, and part of a challenge to Disney’s long-held animated dominance.

For whatever reason, it didn’t happen, despite the alchemy that one would consider a recipe for success. Kevin Kline and Kenneth Branagh, both talented comedic and dramatic actors, voicing the lead characters; a clear and recognisable legend and setting with the 15th century and the lost city of gold; and even songs from Elton John & Tim Rice, who helped define 90’s Disney animation with their music for The Lion King. A sure-fire hit would almost certainly be a safe bet and while The Road to El Dorado opened fairly well, second on it’s debut weekend ahead of Nick Hornby adaptation High Fidelity while in the slipstream of the rampant Erin Brockovich, it soon plummeted to a worldwide gross twenty million under it’s hefty, near $100 million budget.

This is probably the main reason The Road to El Dorado has ended up forgotten in the annals of recent animated cinema: nobody went to see it.

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Film, Star Wars, Writing

THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING REY: Star Wars’ Exceptionalism Problem

Caution: here be spoilers for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, so I suggest only reading once you have seen the film.

Upon leaving a screening of The Force Awakens in 2015, you would be forgiven for having one question on your mind: who exactly *is* Rey?

Our new heroine for the revived, sequel era of Star Wars launched by JJ Abrams through the Disney-purchased LucasFilm, Rey was deemed by that film to be ‘special’. Abandoned mysteriously on the desert planet Jakku by parents she always expected to return for her, Rey is then cosmically bound to the Skywalker saga she ends up stumbling, with escaped Imperial Stormtrooper Finn, into the middle of. She feels connected to the lightsaber of the missing Luke Skywalker, which even gives her a vision of all kinds of backstory arcanum. By the end, she is tentatively wielding the weapon of a Jedi, without truly understanding the context. The Force Awakens fully establishes Rey as *important* with a capital I.

Then comes along The Last Jedi, written and directed by Rian Johnson, who almost immediately rips all of that away. Luke doesn’t think all that much of the lightsaber Rey reverently holds out to him on Ahch-To island. Arch villain Kylo Ren, the only one of our main new characters to actually *be* a Skywalker by blood, tells her what he believes she already knows – her parents were nobody, that she is no one special. Ren uses that as his basis, in The Last Jedi, to encourage her to join the Dark Side as his queen. If she is nobody special, like all of the fascist goons who joylessly work for the First Order and the Empire before it, Rey will become compliant. Exceptionalism corrupts. Belief that you have cosmic significance can breed dangerous traits. Yet Johnson doesn’t truly believe that. He believes precisely the opposite. You don’t have to be exceptional, to be special, to be significant.

The Rise of Skywalker, the concluding part of the Star Wars sequel saga, challenges that. It definitely proves that Star Wars, and perhaps popular culture, has an exceptionalism problem as we enter a new decade.

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Film, Star Wars, Writing

STAR WARS EPISODE IX: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER: the expected, soulless capstone of a four decade saga

CAUTION: contains some major spoilers so only read on if you’ve seen the film.

If you were looking for the perfect film to put a capstone on the 2010’s, Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker arguably would be it.

Even with the blockbuster heavyweight of Avengers: Endgame concluding the first ten years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, TROS—as we’ll call it for ease—was the most anticipated cinematic event of the year, given it doesn’t just serve as the third part of a trilogy but also the concluding chapter of a nine-part, four decade spanning saga within easily the biggest film franchise in movie history. This is about as epic as franchise filmmaking gets. Though Star Wars, the jewel in Disney’s all-dominating media crown, will of course continue into the 2020’s, this marks the end of the Skywalker Saga with which George Lucas changed the landscape of movie-making more than perhaps any director in the 20th century. The final conclusion to a story we thought had definitively ended twice before.

Going into The Rise of Skywalker, you may experience cautious optimism. Rian Johnson delivered a defiantly auteur-driven, insular examination of the core mystical and philosophical themes within Star Wars with 2017’s trilogy middle-part The Last Jedi, going in brave new directions from 2015’s vibrant trilogy opener The Force Awakens, in which JJ Abrams revived the franchise with a verve that spoke to Lucas’ original, Saturday adventure serial vision. With Abrams back at the helm, following the departure of original director Colin Trevorrow, there was every reason to believe TROS would recapture TFA’s spirit and top off Star Wars with a fulsome flourish. You may leave The Rise of Skywalker somewhat perplexed that that didn’t happen. That, in fact, Abrams has delivered the weakest Star Wars film since, quite possibly, fetid prequel Attack of the Clones.

For a myriad amount of reasons, The Rise of Skywalker feels like an argument, on screen, for why going into the next decade we need to rethink how we approach franchise filmmaking. It doesn’t just feel like a culmination of indulgent cinematic excess but a cautionary bulwark against it.

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Film, Star Wars, Writing

Film Review: STAR WARS EPISODE VIII: THE LAST JEDI (2017)

From 2012 onwards, before developing this blog, I wrote a multitude of reviews on the website Letterboxd. In this irregular series called From the Vault, I’m going to haul these earlier reviews out of mothballs and re-purpose them here.

This one is from December 20th, 2017, as we close in on Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker

“This is not going to go the way you think!”

That line, spouted in pained fashion by Luke Skywalker, stood out in the intriguing trailer for Star Wars: The Last Jedi. It felt like more than a suggestion from Disney aka LucasFilm aka director Rian Johnson that the second film in the newest Star Wars trilogy would not follow a familiar template, as many have accused its predecessor The Force Awakens of doing. Luke’s words would turn out to bear fruit in a film which feels both like the box office shattering ultimate expression of Hollywood blockbuster it no doubt will be, and at the same time something wilfully subversive. Johnson started with small beginnings, with a precise and almost poetic low-budget modern noir, and you can still feel the pull of a director who wants to do things his way.

Doing things your way as a creative force on a series like Star Wars is no mean feat. Despite how Marvel have dominated the cinematic landscape in the last decade, Star Wars has no equal in terms of scope, scale and fan anticipation. When Disney bought the franchise from George Lucas in 2012 with the intention of relaunching the saga, it was the biggest news in filmmaking for many years. Considering it was originally just three space fantasy movies, and subsequently three maligned and ill-judged prequels from Lucas, the fact Star Wars as an entity has never left the public imagination or consciousness speaks to its power. Not everyone loves it, but those who do understand Star Wars has a special alchemy no other franchise can boast.

The Last Jedi is Rian Johnson asserting himself in striking fashion, with a script and story which determine to rip up the Star Wars rule book and potentially set the franchise in a bold new direction, while still honouring what came before. The fact producer Kathleen Kennedy and those at LucasFilm loved Johnson’s take so much that he has now been gifted his own unique Star Wars trilogy to devise—not just film, trilogy—shows they too are keen for Star Wars to spread its wings and embrace the future. The Last Jedi doesn’t entirely detach from the mythological themes and fantasy tropes Lucas’ movies, and indeed The Force Awakens, played with – but it feels like the start of a brave new world.

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Essays, Film, Star Wars

Skywalker Rising: STAR WARS, Abrams and familiar territory

Until this weekend, Star Wars: Episode IX was in serious danger of having its thunder well and truly stolen by the twin pop-culture giants on the immediate horizon – Avengers: Endgame and Game of Thrones’ final season.

As if sensing a disturbance in the Force, Disney—who bear in mind own Marvel so control two of the biggest cultural entertainment events of 2019—released to much fanfare, including an entire live-streamed celebration event, the long-awaited trailer to a film we now know will be subtitled The Rise of Skywalker. The trailer naturally didn’t give all that much away – Rey doing a neat Jedi flip over a tie fighter, a desert barge fight channeling major Return of the Jedi vibes, what looks like a crashed Death Star on a watery world, and a very gleeful old Lando Calrissian back behind the wheel of the Millennium Falcon. Enough to stoke some fan theories for the next few months and keep the wheels of speculation moving.

There was, however, one final part of the trailer which seems to have confirmed a suspicion on many fans minds. Namely that returning director J.J. Abrams is steering the Skywalker saga back into safe, familiar territory for the climactic beat.

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Counterpart, Essays, TV

Starz In Your Eyes: COUNTERPART and the dawn of the Streaming Wars

Raise your hands, who reading this article has seen Counterpart, the recently cancelled science-fiction drama starring JK Simmons? Just as suspected… that’s not very many hands.

Honestly, had you ever even really heard of it in the first place? Counterpart, created by Justin Marks, has spent over a year across two seasons being critically feted by writers yet largely being ignored by audiences. Most people who have found Counterpart have seemed to embrace its ‘Fringe for grown ups’ narrative; Simmons in the dual role of a UN diplomat, Howard Silk, with two very different personas across adjacent parallel universes in danger of edging into conflict with each other. Counterpart is stylish, measured, dramatic and filled with great performances… so why, two seasons in, has it been dumped?

As is often the way with American networks, it all comes down to ratings. Counterpart aired on Starz with just a network average share of 500,000 viewers across its second season. When Netflix are boasting about Gillian Anderson-starring teen dramedy Sex Education netting 40 million viewers, half a million is chump change. Counterpart is filmed in Europe often on location, with actors such as Simmons, Olivia Williams, Harry Lloyd etc… who don’t come dirt cheap, and ultimately the sums simply don’t add up. Not enough people watched to justify the expense. So goes the story of hundreds of other shows a core fan base loved but ended unresolved and sometimes ignominiously.

The difference now is that something like this just should not happen to a show as critically applauded as Counterpart. Not in the streaming era of peak TV.

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