Season Reviews, TV

THE BOOK OF BOBA FETT should have stayed in the Sarlacc Pit

Set to go down in television history as one of the most bizarre misfires in the streaming era, The Book of Boba Fett is both simultaneously absolutely fascinating and profoundly dull.

That is quite some trick from the creative forces within the Disney Star Wars family, who since LucasFilm was bought out in 2012 and the biggest science-fiction franchise in history was revived as one of the dominant multimedia IP’s, have presided over a distinctly mixed bag of content. For every The Force Awakens, you end up with what previously might have been termed a Rise of Skywalker, and from now on could well be designated as a Book of Boba Fett.

Quite how they managed to so staggeringly get this wrong is perhaps the biggest mystery about the whole project. It was steered by Jon Favreau, the primary mastermind behind The Mandalorian which, despite the flaws that show does have, is probably outside of The Last Jedi the most broadly critically acclaimed piece of modern Star Wars that we’ve seen produced, which has managed to seep into popular geek culture relatively swiftly. Star Wars stalwarts such as Dave Filoni are involved. Seasoned directors such as Robert Rodriguez. All of the creative building blocks are in place.

This is without even mentioning that the show is about Boba Fett. Is there, outside of Darth Vader, a masked character in pop culture history, certainly in the Star Wars universe, who has been so mythologised in the last 40+ years? So how, exactly, has his first significant dramatic storyline been so utterly, completely botched?

Continue reading “THE BOOK OF BOBA FETT should have stayed in the Sarlacc Pit”
TV, Writing

TV Review: COBRA KAI (Season 3)

Dangerously close to rampant melodrama, Cobra Kai’s most anticipated season to date just about keeps its fast-moving feet on the ground.

Who knew that this YouTube originated series would turn out to be such a pop cultural success? Maybe we should have seen it coming, given how popular and beloved The Karate Kid (and to an extent its sequels) remains over 35 years on. Daniel-san and Mr Miyagi permeated the cultural consciousness of the 1980s to the same degree as Indiana Jones or the Terminator or Marty McFly. In a cheesy, all-American way, they extolled the virtue of Eastern philosophy on Western coming of age tropes, with Daniel LaRusso finding the personal balance in his life, and the martial art that developed his confidence, that allowed him to discover his way in the world. The sequels tweaked the formula but, much like the Rocky pictures of the same era, the core idea of The Karate Kid remained the touchstone.

Hence why Cobra Kai used the central conflict of that original movie as part of its concept, yet joyously flipped the script. This wasn’t a show, across the first season, that was directly about the grown-up Daniel LaRusso, the handsome All-Valley champion and wax on-wax off mentee of the sage Miyagi, but rather the teenager he bested in the final – Johnny Lawrence. Cobra Kai’s first principle lay in examining what happened to the loser, the kid who didn’t win the day and win the girl, and pick up The Karate Kid mythos of lost father figures around a broken, angry, disillusioned figure who re-adopts the misguided, first strike mantra of his cruel mentor and tries to use it to regain self-respect. The surprising brilliance of that first season is how we came to understand Cobra Kai as a series that introduced practical shades of grey within the delineated good/bad dichotomies of a simpler time.

While still entertaining, the series has lost a little of that as it expanded the idea, and the ensemble, into what the third season represents: fun, silly but overblown melodrama with only sparks of self-referential awareness that keep it grounded.
Continue reading “TV Review: COBRA KAI (Season 3)”

Star Wars, TV, Writing

TV Review: THE MANDALORIAN (Season 2)

In so many ways, two seasons in, The Mandalorian is such a contradiction.

On the one hand, it represents precisely the kind of fan service that I have railed against the Star Trek franchise for wallowing in. On the other, it retains a sense of identity within the broader Star Wars framework, taking a strong cue from the Japanese samurai films of the 1950s and 1960s such as Yojimbo, Throne of Blood and Seven Samurai, not to mention American westerns of the overlapping period – some of which, such as The Magnificent Seven, took a cue from the pictures of Akira Kurosawa and such; indeed Seven Samurai heavily inspired George Lucas’ original 1977 space fantasy, to the point he even stole the stylistic scene swipe we still find Jon Favreau employing in The Mandalorian today.

Favreau’s show should not be as good as it is, quite frankly.

In one respect, it represents everything we should as a culture be railing against; the monocultural homogenisation of the franchise, in which every last drop is wrung out of a successful IP (something I wrote about fairly recently). In another, it has a confidence, durability, consistency and quality that raises it up beyond the kind of fan pleasing fiction the second season in particular stoops to. Because while the first season, set as it is in the shadow of the Galactic Empire’s fall at the end of 1983’s Return of the Jedi, plays with familiar elements and ideas from Star Wars, it primarily doubles down on the spaghetti western trappings of the galactic underworld the titular Mandalorian exists within. It works, as much as possible, to stand apart and craft a pocket universe within the broader recognisable framework of Star Wars.

Season Two does the exact opposite. It runs heart and soul toward both the Original and Prequel Star Wars trilogies and does a remarkable job in working to stitch together and unify them as never before.
Continue reading “TV Review: THE MANDALORIAN (Season 2)”

2000 in Film, Film, Reviews, Scream

SCREAM 3: An underrated, post-modern deconstruction (2000 in Film #5)

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, I’m looking at Wes Craven’s threequel, Scream 3

Did we all misjudge Scream 3? That was the question on my lips by the end of rewatching Wes Craven’s threequel to Scream, one of the defining horror movies—indeed movies generally—of the 1990’s, taking a post-modern blade to horror tropes and conventions and slicing through them with abandon.

The first Scream was released in 1996, a year after the nadir example of The Curse of Michael Myers, the sixth Halloween film that suggested the slasher, and the horror franchise machine in general, was bloated and tired. Scream, coasting on a wave of self-reflective pop-cultural analysis, balanced fresh scares and incisive comedy to create a new horror movie icon in Ghostface, the costume that disguised the very human killers immersed in the tropes and cinematic beats of horror movies. Scream 2, while less effective, took a knife to the horror sequel, building on the mythology of the Woodsboro murders of the original while observing the repeating narrative ideas in follow-ups. It made sense, given Scream was all about upending the horror origin story, to deconstruct the storytelling symbols of horror sequels. Every Halloween has it’s Halloween II, right?

Scream 3 naturally extends this same deconstruction to the horror trilogy, commenting from a metatextual standpoint about endings. One wonders if there was a self-knowing irony in this statement, certainly when it comes to horror; many of the most successful horror franchises – the aforementioned Halloween, Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm St etc… – all extended beyond three movies, stretching and sprawling out to innumerable sequels designed to extend the menace, often for box office returns. Scream itself would be no different – Scream 4 arrives by 2011, with a TV series a few years later. Scream 3 therefore ends up a moot point, a concluding chapter to a series that will eventually be revived, a property with as much cultural cache as the traditional slasher franchises it lampooned and deconstructed.

Yet we maybe have treated Scream 3 with too much scorn. With distance, though not on a par with its predecessors, it works in context with the films that came before.

Continue reading “SCREAM 3: An underrated, post-modern deconstruction (2000 in Film #5)”
Essays, Film, Star Wars

THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING REY: Star Wars’ Exceptionalism Problem

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.

Continue reading “THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING REY: Star Wars’ Exceptionalism Problem”
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)”
Film, Reviews, X-Men

Franchise Retrospective: X-MEN: APOCALYPSE (2016)

With X-Men: Dark Phoenix on the horizon, a film predicted to signal the end of the original iteration of the X-Men franchise, I’ve decided to go back and revisit this highly influential collection of comic-book movies.

We continue with Bryan Singer’s 2016 sequel, X-Men: Apocalypse

Perhaps the best way to describe X-Men: Apocalypse is as the film X-Men: The Last Stand wanted to be, which is a significant amount of damning with faint praise.

Apocalypse is a clear and visible step down from X-Men: First Class and X-Men: Days of Future Past. It is, easily, the weakest X-Men movie since X-Men: Origins Wolverine. It is also the most cleanly and directly an X-Men film since The Last Stand, and to an extent the more logical sequel that we could have been given after First Class had Bryan Singer, Simon Kinberg, Lauren Shuler Donner and the rest of the team had gone in a different direction. First Class introduced the idea of the X-Men as a functional unit but, in order to facilitate the darker, multi-generational, time-spanning narrative of Days of Future Past, chose to roll back on their development in order to provide an origin story for Charles Xavier as Professor X. First Class placed everyone where the needed to be for Apocalypse to happen but this film benefits from the depth of characterisation given to characters such as Xavier, Erik ‘Magneto’ Lensherr and Raven ‘Mystique’ Darkholme.

Where Apocalypse stumbles is how it attempts to start re-creating the conditions of the first two X-Men movies while lacking their depth of subtlety or clear dramatic through-lines. X-Men had the X/Magneto conflict fully formed at the turn of the millennium whereas, in Apocalypse, X is still building Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters into the functional X-Men team we saw in the 2000 film, and Erik has attempted to abandon the Magneto persona after the events of Days of Future Past instead of becoming the ideological, anti-human uber-villain he was in Singer’s first film. Apocalypse wants to be both a First Class-style groundwork-laying origin story and a functional, standard X-Men film—a counterpoint to how offbeat and format-breaking DOFP was—all in one go, and as a result it ends up a busy, silly, often unfulfilling concoction recalling the heady vacuousness of The Last Stand. The fact it also wants to be meta and subversive at the same time just adds to the cluttered mix.

Apocalypse is a better film than The Last Stand. It is not, however, the sequel that either First Class or especially Days of Future Past deserved.

Continue reading “Franchise Retrospective: X-MEN: APOCALYPSE (2016)”
Film, Reviews, X-Men

Franchise Retrospective: X-MEN: THE LAST STAND (2006)

With X-Men: Dark Phoenix on the horizon, a film predicted to signal the end of the original iteration of the X-Men franchise, I’ve decided to go back and revisit this highly influential collection of comic-book movies.

We continue with Brett Ratner’s third film, 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand

If you ever needed proof of the law of diminishing returns, you could look no further than X-Men: The Last Stand.

Over the years, X3 (as it was never officially known but we will call it for expediency) has developed what could be charitably described as a bad reputation amongst fans of comic-book cinema and indeed fans of Marvel’s X-Men comics themselves. There is no question – The Last Stand is a profound step down from the preceding two films, particularly the strong and layered X2. Brett Ratner’s film is emptier while being crammed with more plot, and more mutants, that you can shake a stick at it. The script is unfocused and at times obnoxious, while Ratner’s direction has none of the poise and subtlety Bryan Singer brought to the previous movies. Several of the key, well-developed characters from X1 and X2 are unceremoniously dumped and numerous key journeys and arcs across those two films are ditched or given short shrift. If X2 was X-Men’s The Empire Strikes Back, this is a poor man’s Return of the Jedi, with 2009’s execrable X-Men Origins: Wolverine probably the Star Wars Holiday Special.

Yet… yet… there is something about The Last Stand which prevents it from being a complete and utter failure. It is perhaps the purest invocation of the kitsch pulp Stan Lee & Jack Kirby gave us in the earliest 1960’s X-Men comics, far more so than the updated, modernised take across Singer’s movies. While churning through at times underwhelming material, key actors such as Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen are comfortable in the skin of their characters and are visibly enjoying playing them. The Last Stand, in how it pits the X-Men against the Brotherhood of Mutants by the climax, is one of the first major comic-book blockbusters to pit a whole team of super-powered heroes and villains against each other, something we would by now come to expect in many Marvel Cinematic Universe films; indeed, The Last Stand introduces the post-credits teaser sequence before Iron Man in 2008 goes on to steal it and make it a staple of the MCU.

Don’t get me wrong: The Last Stand is not a good X-Men film, or indeed a good comic-book movie. We have, however, seen much worse.

Continue reading “Franchise Retrospective: X-MEN: THE LAST STAND (2006)”
Film, Reviews, X-Men

Franchise Retrospective: X2: X-MEN UNITED (2003)

With X-Men: Dark Phoenix on the horizon, a film predicted to signal the end of the original iteration of the X-Men franchise, I’ve decided to go back and revisit this highly influential collection of comic-book movies.

We continue with Bryan Singer’s sequel, 2003’s X2…

Though far more of a muscular and accomplished film than its predecessor, X2: X-Men United would never have worked without it.

X2 is in danger of being overlooked in our era of dominant comic-book movie franchises and behemoth superhero pictures as one of the key, formative pieces of cinema in the genre, something we must work hard to avoid. Bryan Singer’s sequel is a skilled piece of work which does precisely what a follow up is designed to do – build on the foundations of the previous film, add complications and greater depth, and provide a heightened, meaningful experience. X2 does that very successfully. It is The Empire Strikes Back to X-Men’s A New Hope. It even has strong shades come the denouement of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan in how it punches you with an earned sacrifice on one hand, while promising a rebirth on the other. X2 feels like a picture that everyone involved had been constructing in their minds long before it was ever committed to celluloid.

On that basis, X2 feels on some level like the first truly meaningful X-Men movie but one that needed the prologue of the original 2000 film in order to function in the manner it does. When Singer came back to helm the sequel, he combined screenplays by David Hayter—who penned the previous movie—and Zak Penn, brewed up with rewrites from Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris, in order to fuse together a film which develops many of the established character arcs from X-Men, placed the film distinctly in a post-9/11 context, and digs deep into the ideological and existential conflict between Professor X and Magneto – namely whether mutants should believe in humanity or reject and destroy them. It does this while never forgetting the human cost of being different, exploring the difficulty of living with what genetics, evolution, gives you in a less than tolerant society.

X2 does this with a poise and panache that few comic-book movies have equalled since.

Continue reading “Franchise Retrospective: X2: X-MEN UNITED (2003)”
Essays, TV

Plugging Gaps: How backstory is becoming story

Remember the time that backstory was just that? Backstory.

Many of the most successful TV shows and movies are specifically built on a sense of their own mythology and world building. Game of Thrones has a series of vast novels to draw on which detail an incredibly complicated social and political eco-system, for example. Backstory, the details of the universes of these tales and the histories of many characters within the stories, provide the unseen depth and ballast to the tale we are being told, the tale we are invested in.

In recent years, however, the trend of this has begun to shift. Our biggest stories within popular culture are now becoming obsessed with backstory not just being developed to enable the narrative, they are instead becoming the narrative. Storytellers are actively attempting to try and ‘plug gaps’, for want of a better term, in continuity and canon, believing it seems that audiences are as obsessed with these minor details as the writers of these properties appear to be. We are losing the element of ambiguity, surprise and mystery.

We are losing backstory by exploring too much of it.

Continue reading “Plugging Gaps: How backstory is becoming story”