What I thought of Falcon and the Winter Soldier

The Marvel Cinematic Universe must be like living in an ongoing hellscape rather than a world of wonders. Mad gods can wipe half the universe out of existence, while enhanced people and super-powered individuals stomp round the planet caring nothing of borders and international treaties, and you don’t know if giant alien craft are going to come crashing upon you. You would literally be living in terror, yet here people live in a mix of normality or an unsettled refugee.

Then there’s the entire character of Sam Wilson who we first see acting on behalf of the US armed forces, and I assume the US government, in doing slightly dodgy things in the Middle East, but by the end of the series he’s rewriting what it means to be Captain America while being a tool of that nation’s colonialism. He’s no more a hero than John Walker who for much of the series is painted as a villain but in reality, this is a normal human being asked to fight people with superhuman abilities, and his unpreparedness costs the life of his partner who is Fridged as soon as the show can.

On top of this there’s the shonky pacing and plotting of the series. This series feels like a film expanded to nearly six hours so there’s so much padding with characters literally just standing there spouting exposition in flatly shot scenes which reminded me of how soap operas look To be fair some of this horrible disjointed feel can be put down to the break in production because of Covid 19. That said, it could have lost a couple of episodes and been better for it.

It is enjoyable junk fun if you don’t think about the horrible contradictions it throws up, or how the writers struggle to see the world without an American lens on, but like WandaVision before it this was a way to get Sam into being Captain America while pushing the MCU plot along a bit. Unlike WandaVision it was not as good and less cohesive as a work in its own right. Next up is the Loki series which does at least promise a break from the norm of the MCU.

One last thing, vast chunks of this series, including dialogue, was lifted from the works of people like Mark Guenwald and Ed Brubaker, but beyond a small credit hidden away these people, or their surviving families, get nothing even though Disney/Marvel make millions from these things. I’d assumed Disney were paying creators but it appears not to be the case. I wish MCU fans were as passionate about creator rights as they are about how cool Sam’s new costume is…

What I thought of Zack Snyder’s Justice League

The whole reason this film exists isn’t just down to a fan campaign like no other since they cancelled Star Trek in the 60’s, but the launch of HBO Max and the cinema closedown thanks to Covid meant that Warner Brothers were looking for a quick hit, and this with a readymade fanbase would be just that hopefully. The 2017 version completed by Joss Whedon is an odd beast that doesn’t work but does have some good scenes, but as a whole it was a mess. Snyder’s departure from the film is part tragedy because of the death of his daughter, and partly business as WB realised a 4 hour epic would not work in most cinemas with a film that came off the poor Batman V Superman.

Which brings us to the 4 hour epic streaming on HBO Max in the US, and Sky/Now TV over here in the UK. It’s a film I’ll probably never watch again, at least in the full version but this is probably the best of Snyder’s three DC films but it is a mess. There is literally no way this would work in cinemas to bring in the numbers Warners want as few casual cinema goers would sit through a film of this length unless it was coming off a massive success which it wasn’t.

Snyder’s JL starts at the end of Batman V Superman with Superman’s death cry ringing out around the world which is a bold opening sequence, however the 4:3 ratio takes some getting used to (after all, this is 2021 and we’re not used to films in this ratio) but it sets a grim, grey funeral tone for the film which I can understand with Snyder’s tragedy being exorcised onscreen. For much of the running time this tone doesn’t relent and with the film having very little intential humour (more on this in a minute) much of the first two hours is set-up and exposition which makes it often a chore to get through. It does give all the League a good backstory or introduction but scenes go on far too long or the construction is so poor that the scene becomes bloated and pompous. In the case of The Flash, it goes over old ground the TV show has done, and done better than this.

There’s two scenes in particular which highlight the problem. One is Aquaman’s walk along the pier during a storm, which just goes on and on and on. It also brought to mind this bit of classic comedy from The Comic Strip Presents.

Then there’s the Wonder Woman scene in London where she saves a class of schoolkids from terrorists which was a short, to the point scene in 2017 and is now a bloated mess with bad CGI terrorists being smeared across walls before Wonder Woman spouts the most inane form of feminism (‘you can be anything’) to one of the survivors. It’s a scene supposedly weighty but it’s a nonsense. It’s the sort of scene a teenaged boy who spends too much time online would find ‘badass’ but it just makes one of the few female characters just another violent killer. And here’s the issue with superheroes. You can make them ‘real’ but you can’t ever make them authentic because the nature of what a superhero is reduces characters to 2D models of what a real person should be.

As for the second half this is when all the set-up pays off, and with Snyder being a fan of Chekov’s gun, there’s a lot of things paying off from Cyborg’s relationship with his father and acceptance of who he is, through to The Flash accepting who he is, or Aquaman accepting who he is and so on. The villian Steppenwolf is a badly designed generic baddie who is fighting for the main baddie Darkseid, who is also poorly designed with poor CG. Both had good and great Jack Kirby designs respectively but this film was born out of DC’s disastrous New 52 reboot, and suffers because it takes so much from that mess. Ben Affleck’s Batman is probably the highlight of the film, though Henry Cavill’s Superman is essentially an extended cameo which is a pity as the best thing which came out of the 2017 version was giving Cavill a chance to actualy play Superman instead of some Emo version of the character via Kid Marvelman.

Anyhow, eventually the Justice League come together after a pointless McGuffin chase, fight the baddie, defeat him in a way which sets up a sequel which won’t happen and then we get a load of epilogues that would make Peter Jackson call time. These scenes set up films which have happened, will happen but not as intended here or just won’t happen like Affleck’s Batman solo film.

Is it the ‘masterpiece’ fans are saying it is? Fuck, no. There is no need for this film to be four hours long. A good producer would trim at least an hour, then there’s the 4:3 ratio which is the Imax ratio which is fine, but why not save that for when cinemas reopen and it can be seen in that ratio? Also the script is awful at times as Snyder is trying to create this great mythic thing (which at times he nearly does) but wooden, empty cliched dialogue does not an epic make then Snyder has never been anything but a visual filmaker. Visually at times Justice League looks extraordinary which makes me wish I could see it on a big screen with great sound as the action scenes are great. I especially like the scenes of Darkseid’s first attempted invasion of Earth which is so over the top that the film, finally becomes fun before it crawls back into brooding exposition. Snyder’s overall vision is to be applauded though, even if much of it is ponderous nonsense. There’s nothing like this directorial vision out there in regards to superheroes, and he takes the fascistic nature of superheroes head on, even if it comes over as ripped from Ayn Rand’s notebook. Marvel try to deal with some of the themes Synder engages but either runs away from the consequences of it or just tries to ignore the logical inconsistancies of superheroes. Snyder doesn’t care so we get the full vision.

As a film Justice League is a real director’s cut. Sometimes it works, sometimes it’s appalling sometimes it has an overinflated view of itself but as an experiment it’s an oddity while being one those things that may well end up changing how films are made in a post-Covid world and its vocal, and sometimes aggresively so group of fans did the near impossible in getting a film studio to cough up the millions to make this film happen in a perfect storm. Whether it could happen again is debatable though the film’s early success may not last the week, I’m glad such a thing exists only to push others to do better.

Basically watch this if you’re a superhero fan, or maybe a student of cinema but otherwise this sometimes entertaining, often infuriating, sometimes dreadful film will be four hours you’ll never get back. Be aware of that going into this and commiting to the full experience.

What I thought of WandaVision

Marvel’s first Disney+ series had a lot of heavy lifting to do with there not being anything released from Marvel in over a year thanks to Covid, plus it had to prove Marvel’s TV output could match the film output. WandaVison succeeds when it tries to venture off from the Marvel formula and fails when it slides back into the Marvel formula.

The story is essentially about Wanda’s grief after having to kill her lover, The Vision, in Infinity War in order to save the universe from Thanos. In the small ton of Westfield she’s formed her own reality based round old American sitcoms in which she’s recreated The Vision, as well as forming her two children. The hundreds of people living there are being controlled by Wanda as characters in her sitcom. At the same time the US government are trying to find out what’s going on so we get a mix of old and new characters with a gron up Monica Rambeau from Captain Marvel being the most notable.

As a set up it’s interesting, and the first half of the series is superb. Using the sitcom format renders an odd surrealism into the series as the viewer tries to work out what’s going on with what are entertaining pastiches of each era of sitcom featured from the 1960s to the 2010s. In terms of storytelling it is brave as the Marvel formula is by now a well oiled machine, and the films don’t verge too far into anything too different to that which they’ve set out so far. WandaVision deliberately challenges the viewer and in doing so allows Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany to flex their acting chops. The first half of this series is wonderful and bold. Then they play their cards too early and the series falls into traditional storytelling techniques which is a shame. Part of the problem is that WandaVision is there to push along the unstoppable plot which is the Marvel Cinematic Universe so this has to set up half a dozen things which follow it which makes for a less than satisfying end where we kick a Big Fight Scene or two masked in some good lines to give the idea this is something more than what it is which is well done superheroics.

I do hope though that Marvel decide to become more adventurous off the back of this rather than just sitting in their formula and endlessly repeating itself.Also sacrificing chunks of storytelling to cram in the relentless MCU plot is tiresome when it leaves so many dangling ends which may well take years to complete.

WandaVision though is overall a triumph of the superhero genre. It tries to break free of Marvel’s sometimes static direction by using less green screen unless needed, which makes it feel more organic.Having characters developed for longer was good to see, even if it still is firminly lodged in two dimensions. True it does swerve some of the bigger questions, like for example Wanda basically mind-raped the people of Westfield, while Monica’s glib dismissal of the population’s fear and hatred of Wanda continues my belief that the MCU isn’t a universe full of wonders but a cold, dark dystopia where literal gods walk the Earth without challenge. Civil War touched on this, but they pulled back on how awful it’d be to be there.

Marvel are in a good place as people have been so starved for their films that any possible exhaustion has been postponed thanks to Covid, but if it tries more like WandaVision while working hard to avoid the obvious, then it’ll have a strong future creatively. Though in future I wish they’d credit comics creators higher up the credits as this series quite literally took chunks of dialogue from various comics creators with the most minimal amount of credit they couold give.

When Harlan Ellison and Bruce Willis collided

There was a point back in the 1980’s when Bruce Willis was a struggling actor before getting his break with Moonlighting. Though for a number of people the first thing people like myself who are massive SF fans noticed him for the first time on the Twilight Zone adaptation of Harlan Ellison’s short story, Shatterday.

It’s an episode where Willis is basically performing by himself in a dual role, and it has dated quite well because it’s such a simple story, plus Willis flexes some acting talents he doesn’t often display. It also happens to be one of the best TV/film adaptation of one of Ellison’ work out there.

And oh, it’s also directed by Wes Craven. So enjoy this lost gem of SF television…

Superhero film fans get annoyed by Martin Scorsese, again.

Martin Scorsese is along with Steven Spielberg, the greatest living American film director of his, not to mention, subsequent generations. He’s made some of the best films ever made. Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Mean Streets, Goodfellas, The King of Comedy, Wolf of Wall Street; all films which are the very best of cinema so when he talks its because he knows what he’s talking about and he loves cinema. His recent comments about reducing all film to ‘content’ is so spot on it hurts.

Scorsese wrote, in his opinion, that content is now a “business term for all moving images: a David Lean movie, a cat video, a Super Bowl commercial, a superhero sequel, a series episode.”

To Netflix or any other streaming service, Avengers: Endgame and Raging Bull are equals. They’re content to be consumed depending on how the algorithm works for you so potentially, depending on what you ‘consume’, your entire view of what makes up film can include only say, superhero and SF films, sorry, ‘content’. Now I enjoy much of Marvel’s films, while DC have made the odd decent one, but Marvel’s odd, sexless world of simplified human emotions or Zack Snyder’s weird neo-facism via Ayn Rand are not telling great stories about humanity, though to be fair Snyder is a talented visual director as opposed to Marvel’s functional by the numbers direction.

But they ain’t art or great cinema.

And here’s Scorsese’s point. Flattening everything out to be the same reduces all filmakers into content producers, so the idea of art and artistic craft is eradicated for this mush which tastes fine but eat to much of it ends up killing the taste buds. Mixing in a bit of smoked salmon, or a fine wine in with your mush leads to a balanced diet but if you don’t have the choice you won’t know that you’re being cheated of expanding your love and enjoyment of what is a wonderful medium, so you end up taking it personally because you’ve made this ‘content’ part of your identity instead of calmly listening to the point that we can’t just throw everything in a pot and expect it to be consumed the same way.

Instead fans become sensitive and overreact, close ranks and in doing so prove the point. It’s a depressing circle which eats itself but this is 2021…

About That Scene in WandaVision and spoilers

I’ve got the weekend off which in a world of Covid means I don’t have to log onto a remote server but still have to face the ongoing Lovecraftian horror of an unseen menace and terror. As usual though when I do have time off I forgot to turn off my alarm so I was still awake at the usual time, so as usual I checked Twitter to see what’s going on with the news, and in 10 seconds had episode 5 spoiled rotten for me. This pissed me off a tad because otherwise this would have been a wonderful surprise.

Spoilers after the trailer.

WandaVision is by a massive country mile the most adventurous thing Marvel has done and if far removed from the standard fare of the Marvel movies which are always essentially action films. This has very, very little in the way of action, but it does do an awful lot in terms of developing Wanda Maximoff as a character. Yes, it draws upon other works such as Pleasantville, and bizarrely The Prisoner, not to mention a whole load of comics mainly written by Steve Englehart, John Byrne, and Tom King (none of whom get a major credit which takes the piss somewhat) but it does manage to be its own thing. And that’s a mix of satire, superheroics, SF and horror as the set-up is horrific when the series starts to explore what’s actually happening.

It’s also clearly a bridge between Phase 3 and 4 so it will have to do some heavy lifting to push this juggernaut which is the MCU on, and episode 5 is the episode where this comes to a head when the Evan Peter Quicksilver from the X-Men films pops up at the end to announce the arrival of the previously owned by 20th Century Fox characters into the MCU. Seen without knowing this would be brilliant instead of spoiled, but this is the state of the 21st century. Spoilers now don’t even last days or hours, they litteral happen as something is being watched, and the people spoiling the fun don’t give a single fuck of the enjoyment of others. They just want the likes.

I’ll do a review of WandaVision when the series ends, but this annoyed me a tad. It won’t change now so I guess in future it’ll be about muting certain things til I’ve managed to see it for myself.

Sutcliffe! The musical.

Peter Sutcliffe is dead which is a good thing, but during all the talk of his and the women he murdered abanned sketch from Brass Eye came to mind. Brass Eye was a TV series produced by Chris Morris and a team of exceptionally talented team of writers and actors for Channel 4 in 1997. It is by far one of the great bits of TV satire/comedy ever produced in the UK, but during the first broadcast it suffered heavily from censorship, especially in Episode 6 which saw whole sketches lost including one about Peter Sutcliffe starring in his own West End musical.

At the time a Jack the Ripper musical was proposed, plus ‘Ripper tours’ of the murder sites were pulling in the money in the East End of London, which back then hadn’t gentrified to the state it has now so it wasn’t ironic hispters being mocked, but working class women. There was also a glamourisation of old gangsters, some of which commited crimes as bad as Sutcliffe. The idea this sketch was supporting Sutcliffe was a joke, but it was one pushed by the usual suspects.

However judge for yourself…

What I thought of Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm

Sacha Baron Cohen has come a long way from being the only actually funny person on Channel 4’s mostly long-forgotten The 11’O Clock Show in the late 1990’s. Here’s one of the better examples of that programme and a reminder why much of it remains forgotten.

Baron Cohen’s skill became to take on the powerful and not just try to get famous people to wonder what was going on, which made Ali G so much fun til that character got out of control, hence why Borat worked so well in the first film as folk in the West didn’t have a clue about Kazakhstan, so a sense of western ignorance mixed with racism meant he could get away with a lot in his uncovering of the darker side of American society and culture. This film isn’t as random as the first film this time choosing to focus on Donald Trump, the hard right Americans who follow him and that entire culture just that this time he brings a trump card as it were.

Maria Bakalova has been unknown to people til now but after this amazing, fearless performance there’s talk of her winning awards, and even though this is a fallow year for film, she should be nominated because I doubt they’ll be anything better in terms of performance this year. With Baron Cohen they make a formidable couple and seeing them take on the bigotry, and lunacy, of the Trump supporting hard right is a joy, and a nightmare as one realises this is real and happening right now in America.

What the film does is dissect modern American life in a way you’ll rarely see in news programming let alone comedy and in doing so lays open the open sores of the USA that won’t just be healed when/if Donald Trump is voted out of office next month. For me this is Baron Cohen’s best work so far as there’s a real purpose mixed with fury at the state of things as democracy itself is threatened in a way we’ve not seen in our lifetimes. If it takes Borat and his daughter to make things better then so be it.

The return of Runaround

Saturday morning used to be the preserve of kids television but these days it’s cooking programmes left, right and centre, which is the same with weekdays. Children’s TV is now relegated to designated channels but back in what feels like the distant past Back in the 1970s especially, children’s TV was an essential part of BBC and ITV’s programming and in some cases, ended up raising people. Many of those programmes though as lost to the modern world but sometimes they come back.

One of those is Runaround. Hosted by cheeky cockernee chappee MIke Reid it was an odd mix of raucous game show and pop bands of the day.

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Broadcast between 1975 and 1981 and this is an example of an average show.

Even though there was some attempts in later series to put in some educational content in the programme but nobody watched it for that. We watched it for the chaos and Mike Reid’s banter with the kids who he sometimes clearly despised in some episodes where he was probably hungover. As you can imagine, there’s no way this sort of programme would be allowed in 2020, but this is a product of the time and back then things were a tad rougher round the edges, and if anyone could work out the rules (which seemed to change weekly) then it’d make it even better.

Thought lost to time it has now returned on the splendid retro channel Talking Pictures each Saturday morning at 9am. For those of a certain age please jump on for some fun nostalgia, and for those too young for that make sure you see this amazing artifact of pop culture.

 

What I thought of Star Trek: Deep Space 9

One of the good things about barely leaving my flat since March is I’ve done a few things I wanted to do; one of which is rewatching Deep Space 9. When it was on I did, and didn’t watch it. I did watch most of the last couple of seasons on its first broadcast, but overall I couldn’t be bothered with it. It was the 90’s and catching up with programmes were a lot harder if you failed to set your video recorder.

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I loved The Next Generation. It started badly but became a firm favourite after a year or so of it being broadcast in the UK, but DS9 was another matter. It was broadcast at the time on Sky which meant if you didn’t have a subscription you missed it, so for most of the first season, I only caught the odd episode which I generally didn’t like. This is supposed to be Star Trek yet they’re sat around a space station talking about prophets with a load of dull characters.

Even when I did start watching it every week I wasn’t especially taken with it, so when it finished I filed it away but over the years the series has come in for serious praise, and friends have asked if I’ve ever sat down and watched the lot. I never really had the time til Covid made the time so back in March I started watching DS9 from the first episode. The first season is a slog as it tries hard not to be TNG, but at the same time it is restricted by the station setting however by the second season everything starts to settle down, and the bigger picture begins to unravel. Also the characters start to become interesting, especially Sisko who til then has been bland but becomes something else as this man still struggling with trauma, but starting to realise there’s something in the religion of Bajor, the planet at the heart of the series.

Then there’s Major Kira. There’s no way in modern American TV would you have a terrorist as a leading heroic character, but here’s DS9 doing just that while struggling with some of the things she did in her past. While the others started to round out, even O’Brian who’d been a minor role in TNG turned into a solid leading character and showed that there’s a class hierarchy in Starfleet.  By the time Worf comes on board in season 4 the series is in full flow and has become something more than just another Trek spin-off.

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But although it is ‘dark’, it also protects the optimism for a future where the human race is just better, so much so that they fight a long, two year way which costs the lives of millions to protect it.

In fact DS9 is one of the best bits of television drama made. Even though the idea of binge TV wasn’t around in the 90s, it’s a show made for it by accident at a time when episodic TV in America at least, still ruled. It’s a complex show that doesn’t overplay the dark as Discovery did or was just a rambling mess as Picard was, but it’s also clearly the show which influences modern TV Trek the most, yet the producers of these shows don’t understand that preserving that positive vision is Star Trek. Without it, it just becomes a space adventure series which you’ll flick past on Netflix.

DS9 showed you can find hope in the dark and Gene Roddenberry’s vision was more or less preserved and even developed as DS9 showed how ordinary people lived their lives in a society where science and culture have advanced beyond what we could ever expect today. By the end of binging on it, I felt as if I’d missed out on something great at the time, but if there’s anything good about Covid is it gives folk like me a chance to reassess things and in this case, discover something wonderful.