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.

Continue reading “TOP GUN: MAVERICK is heartfelt, old-fashioned, joyous blockbuster filmmaking (Film Review)”
James Bond

All the Time in the World: JAMES BOND in the 2020s

As we bask in the long-awaited glory of No Time to Die, if not the pinnacle of the Daniel Craig era as James Bond then a fitting conclusion, the inevitable question on everyone’s lips is simple: what’s next?

You can totally understand the thinking of Eon Productions head honchos Barbara Broccoli & Michael G. Wilson behind giving themselves space to enjoy Craig’s swan song. No Time to Die has spent a torturous 18 months thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic ready to go and suffered delay after delay as Eon & MGM (now Amazon) waited for the right moment to give audiences the best chance to see it in cinemas. Their patience will pay off given No Time to Die is tracking to be a huge hit, even if it is unlikely to match the box office haul of either Skyfall or Spectre.

Although in decades past the wait between the announcement of Bond actors was shorter, with Roger Moore or Timothy Dalton replacing their predecessors within two years, we will almost certainly not know who the next Bond will be until 2023. We had to wait three years between Die Another Day and Craig’s unveiling and that was 15 years ago. We are unlikely to see Bond 26 until, at the very earliest, 2024 and personally I would wager it will more likely be 2025. Which means, in all likelihood, Bond in the 2020s will reflect the 2000s as a transitory decade giving way to the next Bond’s debut, and his second movie before the decade is out. Anything more is likely to be very optimistic, and this is even without pandemics or other unnatural global events getting in the way.

The future, however, is not just about who plays James Bond as it perhaps was in many previous decades. The future of the Bond franchise now has many broader questions attached. After No Time to Die, is the franchise ever quite the same? What kind of Bond should the character be? How does he figure into a rapidly changing geopolitical and cultural fabric? A fabric in even greater flux than when Craig assumed a harder edged, stripped back version of the role in the wake of 9/11 and the global ructions of the terrorism threat that shaped much of his Bond era. And how exactly does this uniquely produced franchise continue to exist, and more importantly work to evolve, in an entertainment landscape that increasingly threatens to leave the style of how Bond is made behind?

These, for me, are the questions that will define the discourse around James Bond’s future over the next few years.

Continue reading “All the Time in the World: JAMES BOND in the 2020s”

Alias, Episode Reviews, TV

ALIAS 3×22: ‘Resurrection’ (TV Review)

Resurrection is the strangest and least effective season finale Alias ever delivers, existing as a visible consequence of how the latter half of Season Three has been structured.

Ostensibly, it has all of the accoutrements you might expect from a finale of television for a cult, genre network show. In the opening five minutes, the CIA Rotunda—our base for the last two seasons—is attacked and partially destroyed, if not as comprehensively as their future operations centre APO in Reprisal. Our villains hit the nerve centre of our characters world, attacking the very institution they represent, and almost murdering Marshall, a character so beloved and sweet, any kind of violence towards him can only be described as pure evil. The episode then focuses on resolving the central emotional and physical conflict at the heart of the season – Lauren’s betrayal of Vaughn, and where Sydney sits as the woman in the very middle of it.

The reason Resurrection is vastly less successful than either Almost Thirty Years or The Telling is that it fails, unlike those episodes, to balance such personal drama with a broader escalation of the mythology, and simply descends into a rather aimless mire of grim violence and retribution than leans more toward a 1970s Michael Winner revenge fantasy picture than anything Alias would normally produce. Almost Thirty Years brought the burgeoning mythology full circle and provided Syd with the prospect of losing Vaughn. The Telling brought the Rambaldi hunt to a crescendo and then devoted a final act to a deeply satisfying, thrilling and cathartic battle between Syd and the woman who had killed and doubled her best friend. 

Resurrection sees the Rambaldi story peter out, parked for a future season, before the episode dives headfirst into a dark, bitter, aimless climax topped off with a twist that, even before what comes next, makes very little sense.

Continue reading “ALIAS 3×22: ‘Resurrection’ (TV Review)”
Alias, Episode Reviews, TV

ALIAS 3×15: ‘Facade’ (TV Review)

When ABC laid down the edict midway through Alias’ second season that the series needed to become less impenetrable to audiences, Facade in many respects feels the closest the series has yet come to providing the show the network perhaps wanted it to be.

Facade, barring one or two continuing narrative aspects, character beats and story ideas, is perhaps the most truly stand-alone episode of Alias yet. It is also, in many ways, certainly one of the best episodes of the third season, if not the entire series. It links to Season Three’s arch villains the Covenant, and ties directly back to a small dangling thread from Full Disclosure, but Facade is the first experiment with crafting a contained, focused narrative that could be watched independently of understanding the myriad amount of complex mythology and character stories Alias is built upon. In narrative construction, it also owes the biggest debt to date to one of the series’ primary influences: the 1960s iconic spy series Mission: Impossible.

Why now? Why create an episode like this as the show enters the last third of a season?

Though the primary reason is to build an episode around the special guest star of the week, Ricky Gervais, there is also a strange logic to Facade’s placement at this stage in Alias. It would have worked in the fourth season, a year which embraces stand-alone storytelling intentionally in the first half of the season, but Facade also exists within the strange nether-space of Alias between two distinct stages of the series’ mythology: the Prophecy and the Passenger. After Six and Blowback certainly advanced the duality inherent in the dynamics of Syd/Vaughn, Sark/Lauren, but from a narrative perspective they advance nothing of importance. Lauren doesn’t even feature in this episode at all. Alias is in a holding pattern that only starts to shift from Taken, next time, onwards.

In the third season, there is no better place for Facade. It exists almost independently of many of the plot lines and character stories around it. Maybe, in the strangest of ways, that’s a major reason why it works so well.

Continue reading “ALIAS 3×15: ‘Facade’ (TV Review)”
Alias, Episode Reviews, TV

ALIAS 3×02: ‘Succession’ (TV Review)

While in one respect Succession is the unofficial second part of Season Three’s introduction, it works to engage in Alias’ tricky new mission statement of fusing seriality and stand alone storytelling.

The final episode penned by the duo of Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman, both destined for greater cinematic and TV success, Succession’s very teaser balances these two aspects. On the one hand it provides a ‘cold open’, with the two CIA agents in Berlin trapped in a lift that rather plummeting—as we saw last season in A Dark Turn—to the ground is rather inverted, the agents lifted off by helicopter and abducted by air. The episode then plunges us headlong into a follow-up from the climactic moment of The Two, where Syd learned she murdered a man in her missing years, Andrian Lazarey. Her scene with Jack underlines that, once again, the Bristow’s will compartmentalise and keep secrets from the CIA as they search for the truth, by now as much an Alias trope as an IMF mole is to a Mission Impossible film.

Succession works, alongside this, to try and encourage Sydney to return to some level of normalcy. “For now, you deserve to get on with your life” suggests Jack, after making his daughter complicit in cover up of a murder from America’s most powerful intelligence agency, which almost seems like a mixed message. In reality, this is Orci & Kurtzman encouraging the audience to further accept the new status quo for Syd as the dust settles from the events of The Telling, our characters begin working themselves into their new clothes on this shifted chess board of alliances and villains, and Alias suggests it will try and have its cake and eat it: remove Syd from the complexity of working as a double agent while still doubling down on mystery and mythology.

By the end of Succession, however, all of those new pieces have slotted into place, even if it takes until the very final few moments of the episode to do it.

Continue reading “ALIAS 3×02: ‘Succession’ (TV Review)”
Film, James Bond, Writing

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.
Continue reading “SPECTRE suggests James Bond’s ‘team-ethic’ future”

2000 in Film

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE II: slick, empty, sub-James Bond spy action (2000 in Film #21)

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 May 26th, John Woo’s Mission Impossible II

NOTE: this piece is a re-post from a previous film by film breakdown of the Mission Impossible series.

Mission Impossible II is a film that remains eternally fascinating to me, particularly as the demonstrable nadir of, otherwise, one of cinema’s most consistently entertaining blockbuster franchises.

The better entries of the Tom Cruise-led modern adaptation of Bruce Geller’s iconic 1960’s espionage TV series are easier to write about, in many respects. You have the Euro-centric, Hitchcockian suspense and classic retro thrills of Brian De Palma’s first 1996 take on the material, and once JJ Abrams and Bad Robot get their hands on the property from 2006’s Mission Impossible III onwards, the franchise becomes a much slicker fusion of all-American spy thrills, combining modern technology, action spectacle and ‘spy-fi’ theatrics. Abrams’ III is an adaptation of his TV series Alias in all but name. John Woo’s II is the clear, harder to define aberration.

In a way, it also remains the most interesting.

Continue reading “MISSION IMPOSSIBLE II: slick, empty, sub-James Bond spy action (2000 in Film #21)”

2000 in Film

MISSION TO MARS: a sedate, mournful, yet optimistic journey to the stars (2000 in Film #10)

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 10th, Brian de Palma’s Mission to Mars

At the tail end of the 90’s, and before the rise of the dominant multi-picture franchise, every year was marked by films which covered similar blockbuster ground. 

1996 had aliens with Independence Day and soon after through a comedy lens in 1997’s Men in Black or Mars Attacks! That same year brought us the ‘volcano’ movies – Volcano and Dante’s Peak, both front-lined by rugged men of action. 1998 was the ‘asteroid’ year, marked by Michael Bay’s excess in Armageddon and the more philosophical (and far superior) Deep Impact. 2000’s variant on this trend was the Mars mission, with critical misfire Red Planet dropping at the tail end of the year, and before it Brian de Palma’s Mission to Mars, arguably the superior of two films which projected humanity forward deeper into the 21st century and toward the next frontier. We remained hopeful, back then, that humanity might reach for the stars. Twenty years on, the best we can hope for is that Donald Trump’s vaunted ‘Space Force’ ends up with eggs on its vacuumed face.

Mission to Mars, in a quirk of fate, actually takes place in the year 2020. The Mars mission, in an even stranger quirk, launches in the film on my birthday. With significant confidence, I am pretty sure that my 38th birthday this year will not be marked by another giant leap for mankind, which places Mission to Mars even more firmly into the science-fiction territory it already covers. Mars missions are promised or hoped for perhaps in the 2030’s, and now Red Planet’s 2056 looks far more likely (if we even have a habitable planet to launch from by then).

Mission to Mars, as a result, is hopeful and optimistic about our chances as a species, in a similar vein to its tonal bedfellow, 1997’s Contact, from Robert Zemeckis. They are films with different journeys but similar destinations. Both are riding the crest of Western hopes in the 1990’s that we may be about to embark, in the 21st century, on a great new adventure. That makes it all the more disappointing that Mission to Mars, the first significant high-concept blockbuster movie released in 2000–it’s only real challenger on opening weekend being Roman Polanski’s Johnny Depp-starring slow burn horror The Ninth Gate–is an underwhelming, strangely mournful and frequently corny experience. Continue reading “MISSION TO MARS: a sedate, mournful, yet optimistic journey to the stars (2000 in Film #10)”

Film, Reviews, Star Wars

STAR WARS EPISODE IX: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER is the expected, soulless capstone of a four decade saga (Film Review)

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.

Continue reading “STAR WARS EPISODE IX: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER is the expected, soulless capstone of a four decade saga (Film Review)”
Alias, Episode Reviews, TV

ALIAS 2×04: ‘Dead Drop’ (TV Review)

Over the course of last year, I began my first deep-dive TV review series looking at JJ Abrams’ Alias, which ran from 2001-2006. Over the next year, I’ll be looking at Season Two’s 22-episode run in detail…

Dead Drop is far more of a confident, layered episode of Alias than it is perhaps given credit for. While Cipher worked too hard to balance the colour of Season One with the myriad narrative aspects of the second season, Dead Drop contains a similar strong dramatic through line as we saw in Trust Me, only flipped.

Trust Me explored Sydney’s relationship with her mother Irina in light of her surrender to the CIA and how this rippled out to affect the characters around her, bringing Syd from a position of weakened denial to empowered strength. Dead Drop does the inverse through her relationship with her father Jack, taking her from a position of personal security to utter, child-like weakness. Syd is manipulated by both of her parents across the course of Season Two, but while Irina passively infiltrates the heart and mind of her daughter, Jack’s tactics are overt levels of psychological and emotional control. Dead Drop in many respects is Jack at his absolute worst – bitter, angry, completely lacking objectivity, self-destructive and ultimately corrupt, giving into his darkest instincts to sabotage a mission—even technically risk Syd’s life—in order to establish control over his grown up daughter’s life.

This is what makes Dead Drop as an episode so compelling because Jack’s twisted psychology is front and centre. Cipher did much of the leg work on this, establishing Jack’s growing frustration at Syd’s professional relationship with Irina, and Dead Drop dials in particularly on those character points. Jesse Alexander’s first script for the season therefore has a strong spine on which the rest of the narrative hangs, a clear internal arc as Jack’s manipulation affects Syd and the CIA’s dealings with her mother. It continues the second season’s initial trend of the missions no longer being the most important framework on which Alias episodes hang. The show now has enough dramatic meat on the bone, enough going on in terms of character and theme as well as plot, to justify fewer moments of pure action stylistics.

Though not a showy or particularly individually memorable episode of the show, Dead Drop is surprisingly essential to the establishing phase of the season.

Continue reading “ALIAS 2×04: ‘Dead Drop’ (TV Review)”