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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Film, Writing

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.
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Film, Gemini Man, Reviews

GEMINI MAN is an uncanny 90s action thriller that fell through a time vortex (Film Review)

Somebody on Twitter suggested the tagline for Gemini Man should have been “where there’s a Will, there’s a Will” which not only made me laugh but also could aptly describe Ang Lee’s rather uncanny picture.

Gemini Man infamously resided in Hollywood’s so-called ‘development hell’ for two decades, with Darren Lemke’s idea snapped up by producer Jerry Bruckheimer as far back as 1997. It filtered through multiple directors over the years such as Curtis Hanson and Joe Carnahan, not to mention a galaxy of Hollywood megastars including Arnold Schwarzenegger, Harrison Ford, Tom Cruise, Clint Eastwood, Mel Gibson, even at one time, err, Chris O’Donnell. The list goes on. It even cycled through half a dozen writers – Billy Ray, Andrew Niccol, Brian Helgeland. Gemini Man, in other words, has been through the wringer across twenty years in which mainstream cinema has significantly changed, not being made principally because studios didn’t believe the technology to duplicate a younger version of their headline star was quite there.

Fast forward to the late 2010’s, a world of VR headsets, advanced home computer devices and CG technology which can paint a picture like Avengers: Endgame, in which a legion of superheroes go to war against a super-villain and his space army. If ever there was a time to make Gemini Man, it was now, yet who two decades ago would have imagined Ang Lee—principally a darling of thoughtful character-driven deconstruction—as the director to develop such a high concept as international assassin Will Smith doing battle with his younger, cloned self, all part of an insidious conspiracy within the Defence Intelligence Agency to develop the next generation of soldier hardware. This might have ended up in the hands of a Tony Scott or Roger Spottiswoode had it been made earlier.

The answer lies in the fact Gemini Man, for all it’s action thriller trappings, secretly wants to be a philosophical family drama. It just spends much of the running time trying to convince you otherwise.

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Alias, Episode Reviews, TV

ALIAS 1×12: ‘The Box – Pt 1’ (TV Review)

If The Confession was the point of no return, The Box is the tale which catapults Alias into what is, barring one or two exceptions, a season and a half of dynamic, top drawer storytelling.

Alias was a high concept TV series from the outset. The ‘high concept’ in Hollywood vernacular defines an idea which can be distilled into a pure, accessible, often blockbuster form. ‘What if we could clone dinosaurs?’ for example with Jurassic Park, or to use another Michael Crichton example, ‘What if theme park robots became sentient and took control?’. Alias itself flaunts the high concept in its DNA, pitched essentially as ‘What if a spy found out she was working for the enemy?’. Even from Truth Be Told, Alias perhaps throws a few extras caveats into that pitch but in basic terms, that’s the point JJ Abrams’ show starts from. The Box, however, is the first episode to truly deliver on a high concept idea.

If you look at Alias across the first half of its first season, we haven’t seen an episode anything like The Box. Right from the get go, Alias engaged in a level of serialised storytelling through which it broke the 90’s mould of stand-alone, easy to syndicate episodes of television to depict a compelling, ongoing narrative journey for Sydney Bristow as she becomes more embroiled in her double-agent life with SD-6 and the CIA. Each episode, even those which carried heavily over to each other such as Reckoning and Color-Blind, tells an espionage tale on a scale which never overwhelms the broader character and narrative arcs in play: Syd & Jack’s relationship, Syd & Vaughn’s relationship, the Rambaldi mythology etc… Thus far, the spy stories have been fairly incidental and the weekly bad guys relatively disposable.

All of that changes, immediately, with The Box. The first genuine two-part story in Alias’ lifespan, labelled indeed as such, it delivers on the high concept idea with the pitch: ‘What if terrorists seize control of SD-6?’. Alias does Die Hard, basically, and without a shred of embarrassment. Writers John Eisendrath and Jesse Alexander immediately understand their reference point and the fact they are riffing, broadly, off one of the greatest examples of a high concept in Hollywood history. It only adds to the joy of The Box which exemplifies the remarkable level of confidence Alias had in its storytelling from the very beginning.

Many other series wouldn’t have the balls to make The Box until maybe its third, even fourth, seasons. Alias gets it out the way as a midpoint to its debut year.

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Essays, TV

A Slayer Reborn: BUFFY and the Reboot Question

Every July weekend at San Diego Comic Con, the biggest geek showcase on the planet where all the major studios and productions roll up to drop exclusives and surprises, you always get one announcement which courts a level of controversy and/or deep analysis.

This year it wasn’t even the debut of a trailer for the Jodie Whittaker-fronted, Chris Chibnall-era new series of Doctor Who—which is going to almost certainly lead to a Star Wars-esque online tirade from grown man children at the idea of a woman playing the Doctor. 2018 had another major female figure from popular culture waiting in the wings get people talking: Buffy, she of the vampire slaying.

More specifically, the fact that Joss Whedon is overseeing, though likely not directly show running, a modern reboot of his legendary 20th Century Fox series which remains one of the bastions of 90’s pop culture, female empowerment, and genre storytelling. Note the word here that is crucial: reboot.

Not revival. Not continuation. A reboot.

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Essays, TV

Nostalgia & STAR TREK: PICARD, DISCOVERY and the Future

Nostalgia seems to be a double edged sword right now in Hollywood. What on the surface appears to be a comforting guaranteed winner in terms of audience satisfaction and cinematic box office is becoming something of a poisoned creative chalice.

The lacklustre critical (if not box-office) responses to pictures such as Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom or Ocean’s Eight, sequels to long-standing, well-regarded franchises; or Lucasfilm’s decision to put a hold on more A Star Wars Story anthology movies after the tepid box office (by Star Wars terms) of Solo, seemingly putting immediately paid to rumoured Boba Fett & Obi-Wan Kenobi-centric films. There is a nostalgia blowback in progress, the ripple effect of which we are only beginning to understand. Is this a ripple effect that, like the Nexus in Generations, threatens to engulf the future of the Star Trek franchise?

In a year soaked with controversy when it comes to working practices in American television, Star Trek has unfortunately not escaped the taint of disappointing choices. Star Trek: Discovery showrunners Gretchen Berg & Aaron Harberts were dismissed from the series due to reputed abusive behaviour toward their staff, a move which coincided with their temporary replacement Alex Kurtzman inking a massive deal with CBS Television Studios to produce movie and TV projects under his production banner, Secret Hideout, which includes taking over showrunning duties for the remainder of Discovery’s Season 2 (currently filming) and developing brand new Star Trek projects for CBS All Access’ pay-per-view service. Kurtzman has been involved with Discovery since the beginning, since Bryan Fuller’s brief establishment of Trek’s long-awaited return to TV, so his appointment as the new man in charge makes, on paper, a world of sense.

Interest has nonetheless turned towards what ‘new’ Star Trek projects Kurtzman might oversee, with fans enormously curious about reports that Kurtzman may be working with Sir Patrick Stewart on bringing back The Next Generation’s Captain Jean-Luc Picard to front one of these forthcoming series. This follows in the wake of Stewart, in recent months, making noises that he would be interested in reprising the role of Picard, which he last played in 2003’s underwhelming Next Generation cinematic send off Star Trek: Nemesis. While at this stage largely industry and tabloid rumour, one that almost seems too good to be true for many Trek fans, it nonetheless opens up a big topic for debate.

If Kurtzman really is thinking of reviving the character of Picard, and bringing Stewart back into the fold, is Trek looking back as a means of moving forward?

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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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