Monday, 31 December 2018

Why Mission Impossible is Important (no, really)

There’s a moment in Mission Impossible: Fallout where the franchise seemed to have completely gone off the rails. Ethan Hunt, after saving his teammate, loses three balls of plutonium. Fade into a hospital scene, and Hunt stares dramatically into the middle distance as Wolf Blitzer soberly announces that Rome, Jerusalem and Mecca have been nuked on the TV screen. This is of course all an elaborate set up to get information from the first of three bad guys in the film, but the effect was jarring. Had they lost their minds? Had the filmmakers completely and utterly destroyed any and all tension for the remaining two hours of screen time? Would any of the car chases, foot chases, helicopter chases and sundry other chases be worth a damn?

It’s a clever moment with a fun reveal, but it did get me thinking – why did that work so well? What's the appeal of Mission Impossible?

I don’t think it needs to be left as just subtext – these films are just insane to look at. Tom Cruise has carved himself a place in the Hollywood Pantheon as The Guy Who Does The Stunts, and they look incredible. A huge part of the fun are the stories around the production. He jumped off a plane – for real! He flew a helicopter through mountain ranges – for real! He broke his foot leaping off a building – and kept it in the film!

There’s a lot to be said for how they’re shot as well. Filmed on 50 mm, Fallout looks intentionally like a documentary, the camera acting as much as it can like a real human eye, watching the action. Think back on the sky dive – the grain of the light, the patient camerawork (no smash cuts or zooms), the constant focus on Cruise which, even though you can only see his face at the beginning and end of the scene, you have all the information you need to know that, yup, that’s him in there.

There’s a reason why the finale of the first Mission Impossible isn’t as well remembered as the vault scene; it’s not real. Now, of course a helicopter in a tunnel attached to a train going 150 miles per hour isn’t going to be real, but there’s no denying that it’s aged poorly. What’s great about Rogue Nation and Fallout is that the stunt pieces are designed to match the limits of physical stunt work within that environment. These films will continue to look incredible long after other, more CGI heavy fare, begin to look creaky.

Image result for mission impossible vault sceneImage result for mission impossible train tunnel

One of these is iconic – one is kind of goofy now. Prizes for which is which!

Though it’s a hugely important part, I don’t think it’s the entirety of the appeal. Otherwise, Tom Cruise Has a Normal Day for Tom Cruise Standards would be a constant box office hit and no other films need be made.

But I also don’t think it’s the plots. In fact, I don’t think anyone goes to one of these films for the bits where Alec Baldwin pulls the strings with the CIA so The Syndicate doesn’t find out about the NOC list or whatever-else-can-be-made-into-an-acronym macguffin is this time around. ‘We need the thing so the other guys don’t get the thing so here’s Tom Cruise in a water tank’ is just about enough logic to pull the story together.

Not to say that they should be incoherent. Fallout finds a balance with this by refusing to mention the political landscape of central Asia and simple focuses on the human cost of exploding a nuke there. Yes, India, Pakistan, China and NATO would vigorously explode the entire world if that happened in real life for horrifying, point scoring reasons. Nope, it’s not important to know that for this film. What’s important is that a third of the world’s population would suddenly be drinking radioactive water, which is obviously a very bad thing to happen. This is explained once and, since world starvation is an easy enough idea to grasp on to, only once. No acronyms, no explaining the further reach of world starvation, just good ol’ fashioned high stakes with a terrifyingly imaginable human cost.

But it’s not the appeal. Avengers Infinity War gleefully exploded half the universe to an ‘ah shucks’. Turns out half the universe exploding in a movie with quantum leaps and time travel isn’t such a big stake after all. So what is it about Mission Impossible that makes the stakes so high?

It’s simple really. Ethan Hunt has a soul, and we don’t want him to lose it.

Fallout toys with a darker, grittier Ethan Hunt. A scene has him, undercover, imagine what would happen in a raid on a police van to catch bad guy number 2. It’s carnage. Police die, henchmen die, it’s high octane nonsense until Ethan Hunt has to pull a gun on a downed police officer, then something changes. You as a viewer really, really don’t want to see Ethan Hunt kill an unarmed, innocent man. But you also don’t want him to blow his cover, nor sweet talk his way out of the situation. The film shows you a complete dead end, only pulling the rug from under your feet at the very last second. It confronts you; what do you want to see Ethan become? The kind of person who kills for his government for loftier goals?

Alec Baldwin states at the beginning (basically to camera) that the reason why Ethan Hunt as so super great and special is because he refuses to lose one life for the many. This has been said many a time in many a film where the hero nods, winks, then throws a monster into a building.

Image result for tom cruise running
Not pictured: London in literal flames
The collateral damage of an Avengers is such that, even when they try to spend entire movies unpacking it, it’s sort of forgotten about, the remnants being Captain America and Iron Man no longer being on speaking terms. Ethan Hunt even considering destroying a building is not what we paid for, nor is Hunt torturing a person (like Jack Bauer), straight up murdering henchmen (like Jason Bourne) or even being callous and a bit of a cad (Bond, obviously). Hunt doesn’t quip or make one-liners, he doesn’t shoot through cars, he doesn’t level a city to take out one guy. He grunted ‘no body count!’ in 1996 and, though, he hasn’t quite managed that (henchmen are gonna hench, after all) he’s done a damn sight more than most to stop countless others falling in his path.

We need Mission Impossible because we need to remember that high stakes don’t mean thousands must die on the way. The dream sequence shows what a mission in these films gone horribly wrong would look like, and oooh, about thirty people die? That’s enough for Ethan to blanch and work out another way to get the job done.

We need Ethan Hunt’s soul, whole and intact. Long may it remain so.

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Toxic Love

When I was 11, I fell deeply and irreversibly in love with the Lord of the Rings. It actually changed my life. I adored every last second of it and honestly? Though the fires of passion have faded through the mists of time, I still firmly believe that it's the best studio trilogy ever  and the main reason why I’ve just dropped a significant wad of cash to tour New Zealand this summer. The Lord of the Rings is excellent.

It also made me utterly unbearable. I could just about go five sentences into a conversation before turning it back to Rings. I wore t shirts until they stank and then threw a mard when I was ordered to change into something else. I spent far too much time alone online, rereading the same few websites and the worst, most terribly written fanfiction I could get my hands on. Most importantly though, I couldn’t handle any criticism about the films because I took it as a personal insult against me, the world’s most important person. I remember some catastrophic sense of humour fails which left me crying and my poor, beleaguered family exhausted.

I’d transplanted a personality for a fandom. I used to look back fondly on how much of a nerd I was, but now…?

The Guardian, 05/06/2018
The Guardian. 09/10/2017

BBC, 06/06/2018

Guys, we need to talk about toxic fandoms.

Liking stuff is great. Handmade merchandise is neat. Listening to niche, cool podcasts is fun. Memes are awesome, this one being my favourite:

Stuff like this is why I still have a Tumblr.

As fans become closer to the creators of their beloved objects of desire through Twitter, Instagram and still somehow Facebook, great stuff can come from it too. However, for every cute story about The Rock throwing a high schooler a cinema day, there are about ten more for a celebrity who’s had to just leave to stop the abuse hurled at them. Ed Sheeran quit Twitter. Justin Beiber privatised his Instagram. Adele, Rihanna, Leslie Jones, Daisy Ridley and Emma Stone all had to quit following trollish, abusive comments. And then there are the hordes of Youtubers who receive vitriolic hatred for their opinions on a daily basis. All of this from fans.

I’m not going to say ‘so called fans’, because these are people who like stuff, same as me. Ed Sheeran left following his appearance on Game of Thrones, Justin Beiber closed down his Instagram because people were harassing his girlfriend. Leslie Jones left because of eye wateringly racist abuse when she was cast in Ghostbusters. Game of Thrones fans. Justin Beiber fans. Ghostbusters fans. TV. Music. Films. Is it beginning to sound ridiculous yet? Does it sound insane?

To an entitled fan (of which I very much was one when I was 11) it’s perfectly reasonable. To someone who replaced a personality for a fandom, to see something even slightly out of step of what they envisioned their chosen life to be is a personal, scathing insult. I think Ed Sheeran ruined Game of Thrones! It doesn’t matter that it was a short cameo and mainly for the benefit of a young actress on the show, it destroyed the realism of my dragon story! To Twitter, for I must call him a hateful slur to the online equivalent of his face! Twenty people liked that hateful slur, I shall hurriedly create another, more elaborate hateful slur! Forty people liked it! I’m winning the hateful slur game, hurrah! If I’m lucky, my hateful slur will end up on Celebrity’s Read Mean Tweets, then I shall be the God of the internet for the day!

And oh my God have entitled fans turned Star Wars into a hellscape. The conspiracy theories, the abuse, the endless, endless videos about why The Last Jedi was awful and horrible and the worst thing since the Black Death. And entitled Star Wars fans, who believed they owned a film created for children but it had the audacity, the sheer nerve to cater to audiences beyond aging men and branch out into further, better representation for groups of people who are different from them, chose to lash out at actors, the director, the producer, anyone they could get their hands on. Kelly Marie Tran is gone from Instagram and I’d bet my cat on people being smugly triumphalist over it. They proved they were right to themselves when the stories hit and the other side of the Star Wars divide cried shame, just much too late. The trolls were allowed to fester like an infection, and it feels like they’ve killed any joy left in being a Star Wars superfan.

When I was a Lord of the Rings fan, it was fun. So was being a Harry Potter fan, a Discworld fan, a Game of Thrones fan, a Marvel fan, a jazz fan, a Hamilton fan, an Assassin's Creed fan, a Rick and Morty fan and yes, a Star Wars fan. I was also a Sherlock fan, until it turned rubbish and utterly untethered from any known reality. I tweet at creators so I too can have a shot at a retweet, a like or maybe even a reply and be God of the internet for the day. But should I have leapt on Twitter and called Mark Gatiss a hateful slur because I didn’t like what he’d done with his show? Which, because I’d been a fan, I felt entitled to call my show too. That would have got more attention, I could have got my reply I desperately crave.

When I was 11, I felt like I owned Lord of the Rings. It was mine, and I was unnerved when anyone else I knew said they also liked it, because they couldn’t possibly like it as much as me. They weren’t real fans, not like me (I didn’t read the books until I was 23 by the way, I was a pretty lousy Lord of the Rings superfan). These Star Wars fans probably feel the same way. These comer-ins with their feminist takes and intersectional diversity, they don’t know Star Wars, not properly. They didn’t spend their lives reading subpar novels and going to poorly attended conventions and sticking up for the prequels and becoming so overbearing about this one thing that it consumed their life so the only people they can have a proper conversation with are other people with their exact same experience. The director and cast, they’re not proper fans either, or they would have made the film thrashed out on Reddit two years previously, not whatever it was they threw out to the cinema. They don’t care, not like the real fans. Kelly Marie Tran needed to know exactly how much she didn’t care and how she personally ruined their Star Wars.

Yes, it was fun being a fan.

Until entitled fans ruined it.  

Sunday, 31 December 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Let’s talk about Star Wars.

BLAAAAAA blablablaaaaaaa blablablabla blaBLAblablabla blaBLAblablabla blaBLAblablablaaaaaaa 

For a sandbox a galaxy wide, there has been little in the way of actual world building since Empire Strikes Back. For six films in a row, the Star Wars universe has been content to replay its greatest hits of Jedi, Death Stars and ultimate evils. From Return of the Jedi to Rouge One, despite what you think of the films themselves, they have traded on and amped up the icons of the first two. Any new addition (from Ewoks to Jar Jar) have been met with either scorn or derision. Common wisdom would dictate that a new Star Wars franchise would be wise to look back, enlarge the icons and play it safe.

This worked for Force Awakens. Disney and JJ Abrams held your hand, soothingly patted your head and gave you Han in the Falcon, a Jedi prodigy on a desert planet, X Wings on a Death Star, stormtroopers in the snow, a baddy in a mask and a bigger baddy behind him. You know this, they said as they produced a very good film, you like this.

Look. you like three things in this already! This is a film you'd like a lot!

This didn’t work (at least for me) in Rogue One. Dreary and loud, they gave you Peter Cushing’s CGI face, Tie Fighters, Death Stars and a very creakily voiced Darth Vader. My own views (too long, too dour, too reliant on your affection for the above) were not shared by the masses who enjoyed it. Doubling down on the glory days of A New Hope and Empire prove still to the be the key to box office gold. By all wisdom, The Last Jedi should have deified Luke, brought back Lando Calrissian, made Snoke that Sith Lord mentioned in the prequels and leaned into the iconography, hard.

Thank God Rian Johnson isn’t very wise.

We still get X Wings and Jedi and lightsabers and the Falcon, but let’s be crystal fox clear about this; this is not a rerun of Empire. Or Hope, Return, or the prequels. This is a breath of fresh air in a stuffy room. This is a glass of champagne in a desert. This is a bloody good film that tells you, calmly but firmly, to kill your heroes and make your own.

Rose is a maintenance worker, Finn a caretaker. Already, these aren’t the cool guys in the X Wings, they’re the background players brought forward by chance and luck. Ray is, literally, no one from nowhere. Kylo Ren is less a Vader, more a lost child wounded by his mentor’s distrust. Admiral Holdo is a beautiful, seemingly aloof leader who doesn’t take kindly to hot-headed flyboys. Poe himself is the handsome fighter pilot we’ve seen many times before, but his early heroics do not result in a gold star from Leia, but a prompt demotion and a scathing exchange about the value of dead heroes. General Hux is an easily and delightfully mocked lackey. Snoke doesn’t matter. Leia grows from snipping at Han in Force Awakens into a leader who inspires the women behind her (which in turn leads to the greatest twenty seconds of screen time in a blockbuster… ever? Ever, yeah, that fits).

I need three more films starring Laura Dern getting it done, five minutes ago

And Luke? Luke is a broken man. From his very first action (angrily tossing aside the icon of Star Wars) to his admittance of his greatest failure, he is snarky, sarcastic, belligerent and closed. He quickly loses the flowing white and grey robes from Force Awakens (Luke has always had style) for the much more practical Hermit Man Ensemble #3. He doesn’t show Ray how to swing a lightsaber or lift rocks, but about the actual nature of the Force; mostly that the Jedi choked on their own hubris and tried to control what does not belong to them. There should be no more gatekeepers to the magic of this world, and, one flash of Force power later, there aren’t. Mark Hamill is a tour de force in this, bringing his all to an unforgiving and harsh character shift. There is a moment when the wide eyed, happy-to-part-of-the-team-guys Luke is on show, and the transformation is astonishing. He is not Kenobi, or Yoda, or (God forbid) Qui Gon Jinn; Luke is a disappointment. It’s utterly intentional and astonishing to see something quite so daring.

My boy Skywalker is calling shenanigans on new Death Stars

The Last Jedi is a very daring film overall. It dares you to look closer at the antics of it’s characters and the world it perceives. It dares you to question its heroes again and again, Poe and Luke in particular. On the fun side quest to Kanto Byte, we see the rich get richer, the poor more destitute and yet hope remain in the fight for justice. The film dares you to resist the pull of nostalgia and dares you to look beyond the small parameters of what a Star Wars film can be. For a company and brand reliant on the very nostalgia it’s asking you to question, it’s one hell of a power move.

It’s still a Star Wars film; the delightful swipe edits, soaring John Williams score, cute critters and corny sense of humour are all present and correct. But where Force Awakens carefully held up a beautifully rose tinted mirror to what you love about Star Wars, The Last Jedi gleefully smashes it to bits.

But oh, do the pieces glitter brightly in the moonlight.

Friday, 25 August 2017

Jet Propelled Ravens: Travel in Game of Thrones

Six episodes into Game of Thrones Season Seven, this is my main take away so far:



However, I was stunned (stunned I tell you, stunned) to find the vast majority of online chatter concerns not the glory of the ice dragon, the sweetness of Dany and Jon making gooey eyes at each other and the satisfaction of Cersei still pulling strong despite pre-season dismissal, but how long it takes for ravens to get from A to B. Have they all ingested some sort of jet fuel? Did the lesser known Tony of House Stark create tiny propellers for them? Is there a Westerosi Amazon Prime that we don’t know of? Because Season 7 is rattling along at a breakneck pace and, unfortunately, it’s shed some of its magnetism along the way.

Let’s look at how Game of Thrones used to show travelling. In the first season, Ned and Robert take the Kings Road from Winterfell to Kings Landing. Characters were carefully developed (this is the first time Joffrey is shown to be absolute oike of the first order) and relationships were established an enhanced. It took a hefty chunk of screen time, but by the time the party got to King’s Landing, not only had the scale of continent been established, but so had the characters.

This took about 3 episodes

Moving further on, one of my favourite parts of Season 5 was Verys and Tyrion cooped up together in a carriage winding its way across Essos towards Daenerys. Along the way, they wax philosophical, crack jokes and become such good company that, when they all separated, fear of death for the characters was outweighed by the knowledge that they wouldn’t share any more screen time together. 

This took the best part of Season 5

On a much smaller scale, take Cersei’s walk of shame from the Sept of Baelor to the Red Keep. Two major landmarks in the city are connected and the viewer was given a sense of scale of King’s Landing. There is the Sept, here is the castle, in between are the commoners. It showed that a person could walk the distance easily (in terms of distance that is, that walk was brutal) and also established the two power houses in King’s Landing, more so than the funerals and weddings in the Sept had before.

Seems less horrifying from this angle, too!
Taking time to travel, using these scenes as character and setting development, made Game of Thrones was it is. The world was shown to be big, gritty and populated. It showed that Westeros is not an easy land to travel. Shortcuts could not be found and, when characters went travelling, you knew that there was a very good chance they wouldn’t make it back. Basically, it added to the realism and jeopardy and it’s a vital part of the show’s DNA.

Now let’s look at travel in Season 7. Ayra Stark starts in the Riverlands (bumping into Ed Sheeran along the way), stops at Hot Pie’s gaff, meets her dire wolf in the snow and ends at Winterfell. The important difference from previous Ayra travels is that she is doing this alone. Where before she had Gendry and later on, the Hound, now she has no one to talk to, missing out on developing key development. When she gets to Winterfell, her go getting, ‘slay the enemies of my family’, can-do attitude hasn’t moved on from the end of Season 6.

However, she is now psychotically mistrustful of Sansa, terrorising her with faces and daggers and creepy, creepy games – how did this switch happen? Wasn’t she supposed to be all for family? The show has Petyr Baelish plant an incriminating letter as a catalyst, but it would have been much more successful for a travelling companion to change Ayra’s steadfast opinion on her family, as it would have done in previous episodes quite naturally. As it is, the viewer is expected to accept a massive character shift from Ayra with very little to work with.

And the ships! Euron Greyjoy goes from King’s Landing to Casterley Rock in what seems to be an afternoon. What previously took episodes worth of time is now covered in a single hour. The scale of the continent and the jeopardy of crossing it are sacrificed in order to get to the action quickly; this is not the Game of Thrones of old.
One episode. One. Episode. 

Which brings us to episode 6 of Season 7. Ooft. Let’s break it down. In the time Jon Snow and his Merry Men are stuck in a stand-off against the Night King (with no obvious supplies and the chill of winter literally surrounding them): Gendry runs back to the Wall; a raven is sent to Dragonstone; Daenerys argues with Tyrion; she flies beyond the Wall to save their frozen behinds.

How long were they there for? It was at least one night, as Thoros of Myr dies in his sleep. By that point, Gendry has reached the Wall, but after that, a raven needs to be found, sent and dragons need to come back. Was it another day? Exposed, with no food and no water? Characters weren’t shown to sleep, eat or drink, things which, again, would have been shown in earlier series. The realism of being trapped on a frozen lake is lost, and without the realism, there was no real tension.

It's been remarked upon by Alan Taylor (the director) that, whilst fans will happily eat up White Walkers, dragons and faces in bags, we’ve become quite the sticklers for time keeping. And though it is fun to nitpick, it means an important facet of the show has been lost. No longer do hero characters sleep, eat, or travel. They land where they need to be, do their thing and go home again. The glory days of Tywin Lannister needing the loo seem to be behind us. They don’t act like human beings anymore.

It’s not a deal breaker though. We’ve have years of these people travelling, talking, eating and sleeping. We’ve (well, myself at any rate) have come to know them like our own families. I trust the showrunners to stick the landing, tie the loose ends and have someone finally tell Jon Snow what his parent situation is.

Hopefully though, not by jet propelled raven.

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Hamilton and Me


Goddamn, Hamilton.

First time I heard about Hamilton – and I mean, literally the first time the name Alexander Hamilton crossed into my sphere of knowledge – was a funny bit on the Daily Show in 2009. President Obama had responded to criticism that he was an elitist by hosting a Spoken Word and Poetry Slam at the White House, to which Jon Stewart railed against in a segment called ‘Old Man Stewart Shakes His Fist at the White House Poetry Slam’. In it, edited clips of the Slam were met with an artfully timed raised eyebrow and an incredulous ‘You’re rapping about Alexander Hamilton? This is kinda ridiculous’ from Stewart. I watched, laughed and promptly forgot about it.

Years later, rumblings across the sea were occurring. There was a big new thing on Broadway, bigger than Book of Mormon, the previous Big New Thing on Broadway. The name Lin Manuel Miranda kept cropping up on Colbert and Conan O’Brien and elsewhere on my Youtube playlist. Miranda charmingly rapped on How I Met Your Mother. Miranda was on board for the new Clements and Musker Disney musical. Miranda wrote the song for The Force Awakens cantina scene. Miranda was a new hotness for Hollywood.

Then the album dropped, and the world turned upside down. Cast members flooded late night TV and therefore Youtube. Miranda rapped about Button Quinett on Colbert. He spoke about Puerto Rico at Congress and then rapped about it on John Oliver. The Grammys and Tonys and the Pulitzer came and all anyone seemed to talk about was Hamilton.

Come July 2016. In a queue for Cursed Child tickets (which I got, natch) I thought as I was going to be online for an extended length of time, I may as well check out this soundtrack that was blowing us all away.

So I listened. Then, two and a half hours later, I listened again.

Hillary Clinton had quoted Hamilton at the DNC. The Hamilton Mixtape with Usher and Busta Rhymes was well underway. The Clements and Musker Disney film was leaning heavily on Miranda’s name in its marketing. ‘He never gon’ be President now’ was quoted after every Trump scandal. It was, not to put to too fine a point on it, effing huge by the time I’d got round to it.

When I find something new I like, I have a tendency to let it consume my waking days. I went in hard and I’m only just really coming out of the other side of it. I bought the Ron Chernow book. I saw In The Heights. I wrote my own version of the opening number about Skara Brae for my class. I’ve tried (unsuccessfully) to get my nearest and dearest hooked. And tomorrow, tickets are available for the London show for those who signed up for the queue before October. There is a real chance that I will see this monster of a show in the near future and that’s so earth-shatteringly exciting that I had to write about it.

So there it is. The story of Hamilton and me. Some say that it’s too anti-British to play here, that it’s too Americanised and it has undertones of American Exceptionalism that go unchecked in a way that is uncouth and not to our sensitive British tastes. The theatre is elitist anyway, right? Who can afford to pay to go to London and see a musical?

All this is, quite frankly, bum. Tickets are paperless and can only be bought four at a time, so price gouging will not happen. London is so well connected to the barren wastelands of the North that anyone from anywhere in the country can get there. And the American Exceptionalism? Listen to the soundtrack and then we can talk.

Please God someone talk to me about Hamilton. 

Monday, 26 September 2016

What's New?

So I’m sure you’ve seen this around:

Yup, Beauty and the Beast is getting a remake. And it’s hard to get excited for it.

It is not because Beauty and the Beast is the latest in a long, long line of remakes, reboots, sequels, sequels-that-are-remakes, sequels-that-are-soft-reboots and cinematic universes that have dominated the blockbuster scene in recent years. Nor is it because this year’s box office could be the first sign that the general population is growing tired of the practice.

Neither is it because Beauty and the Beast is a sacred text for which any other iteration is folly; there were adaptions before, there’ll be adaptations in the future.

And it is certainly not because it’ll ruin childhoods the world over – the original is still omnipresent, Disney aren’t snatching your Blu Rays away in the middle of the night, your childhood is fine.

And it’s no question of ‘why’ either; as a significant part of Disney’s infrastructure and image, the idea of letting such a powerful potential cash-printing machine go unused would be a poor choice. Following the money in this instance does not lead to a huge Disney conspiracy; it’s simply very good business practice to make this film.

The only question I have for Beauty and the Beast is this: what’s new?

Take the first Disney live action remake, 1996’s 101 Dalmatians. The 1961 original was a bright and breezy romp which had a song and not much else. Puppies are born, Cruella wants an impractical dog hair coat, gentle hijinks ensue, they sing Roger’s one hit wonder around a piano.

The 1996 version succeeded by juicing up and modernising Cruella, going full throttle with Glenn Close’s barnstorming performance. Her hold over Anita as an insane, Anna Wintore type boss introduces a fresh dynamic to these character’s relationship and the remake simply glories in her every swish of her coat and every flick of her cigarette holder. She nails every snarky, snippy, lip curling moment, the ‘what’s new?’ question silenced when an early mystery of a disappearing Bengal is solved by a shot of her casually glancing over her new white tiger rug. The animatronic puppies fall to the wayside as she stomps about the place – the reason for this film existing is her and a world without this Cruella would be an emptier one indeed.

There was also much to be championed about the remake of Cinderella. The original was Walt Disney’s favourite film, but again it’s slight on story. The Prince doesn’t even get a line and the mice take centre stage. In Kenneth Branagh’s version, not only is The Prince given plenty to say, he takes an active role in wooing and searching for his Cinderella and he’s given a real, sweet relationship with his father. All this was missing from the original and by giving the Prince, the Stepmother and Cinderella more to do, there’s new depths to be mined in the characters, the charm of the original given a boost by a relatable cast of characters.

What was new for these two remakes were fleshed out, interesting characters. They also helped themselves by steering clear of the musical legacies of their originals; Cruella DeVille and Bippity Bobbity Boo are iconic but stand apart from the musical flavour of their host films and were wisely glossed over in the remakes. Even The Jungle Book managed this (just) by giving Bare Necessities and I Wanna Be Like You to Bill Murray and Christopher Walken, neither actor (as Honest Trailers pointed out) renowned for their singing prowess. By hiding the songs, the story and technical whizzpoppery of The Jungle Book could come forward, something which had been lacking in the original.

All this is a roundabout way of wondering just what was missing from Beauty and the Beast? The story is epic. The main characters are relatable with full arcs and completed stories. The songs are the film. It is the best version of this story Disney could hope to make.

What’s new? Details are Spartan right now, but Emma Watson’s starring. That seems to be it so far. An actress famous for playing a bookish but brave character will play a bookish but brave character – she’s hardly breaking new ground. 

As a contrast, take the live action remake of The Little Mermaid. Again, details are thin, but Lin Manuel Miranda is writing the music, which is enough to justify anything’s existence. What’s new about The Little Mermaid is him and his enormous energy for anything Mermaid related. I mean, just look at this glorious nerd having the time of his life and tell me you're not a little bit excited for what he's going to do when he gets his own hands on a piano: 

Beauty and the Beast could be great. It could be wonderful. It could even be magical. It doesn’t look like it will be anything new.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

The Martian

The Martian, 2015, 20th Century Fox. Directed by Ridley Scott. Starring Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sean Bean, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie and Chiwetel Ejiofor

I walk into the dank meeting room below the community centre, the florescent strip lights highlighting the faded patch work carpet under my feet. I nervously clutch my Costa latte – it’s too damn late to be drinking it at this hour, but alcohol isn’t allowed at these meetings and my nerves need something stronger than tea. I glance toward my peers as I take a seat in a hard plastic chair, sat in a circle across from the one friendly face in the room. Brian, our community outreach officer, nods and smiles in acknowledgement of my arrival, but I can’t find the words to say hello, and instead grimace and nod in return. 

As the final few people shuffle through the plywood door and take their seats, Brian claps his hands together. I just know he’ll start with me – I was warned outside by an anonymous smoking companion that he always begins with the newest member. “Some rubbish about ‘drawing you out’ or something,” he’d said, as he dragged on his Marlboro. Brian looks everyone square in the eye and I catch my smoker friend roll his eyes. He’s already utterly jaded to this; some people just can’t be changed, no matter how often they talk about their feelings.

“So welcome back everyone, and since we’re a little late, let’s just jump in with introducing our newest friend. So,” he says, gesturing to me, “Tell us a little about yourself, why are you here?” He looks at me, pleasantly and expectantly; he’s the only one who does. I lick my lips, take a deep breath – and begin.

“So, er… hi everyone, I’m Elspeth-”

“Hello, Elspeth,” they drone in response.

“Right, yeah, hi. Well, I’m Elspeth and I hate Ridley Scott films,” I breathe a sigh of relief as Brian smiles encouragingly. I look to the slightly askew banner above his head – Ridley Scott Haters Anonymous it reads in Comic Sans. I suppress a sneer as I note the faux jauntiness of the font.

“Tell us more, Elspeth,” Brian says, soothingly.

“Well, I guess it started when I saw Alien for the first time – I’d been told it was this masterwork of sci-fi and horror, but it did absolutely nothing for me. Same with Blade Runner; I knew I was supposed to be a cornerstone of dystopian cinema, but I couldn’t help myself comparing it to the book, and it bugged me that, if humanity was on the brink of extinction, how come they could fill out a cityscape of that size? It seems like a nitpick, but it stopped me from enjoying Harrison Ford, and that’s old school Ford up on the screen – it made me think I’d lost my mind, but I couldn’t get behind him or the story.” I take a swig of my now freezing cold coffee and carry on, finding that getting this off my chest at long last was empowering.

“I tried one last time with Gladiator – I thought that surely this’d be the one I understood the hype for. It had such a pedigree, but still, there was something missing. Maximus is such a noble character, he becomes impossible to relate too. I found him lacking in any faults and though I get that’s probably the point, it’s about a good man in an impossible situation, I get that, it still doesn’t make him particularly knowable or even likable. So yeah, I sort of gave up on Ridley Scott with that.”

Brian, who had been nodding like a wobble dog the entire time I had been talking, looks at me with friendly concern. “So why have you come tonight then? I’ve been asking you for a while to head down to these sessions, why now?”

“Because… I saw The Martian this week.” My smoker friend groans, and a woman to my left scoffs. Brian’s eyes widen in suppressed shock.

“You paid money for a Scott film? That’s against step one of our twelve step programme, did you not read the pamphlet I sent you?”

“I know that, but it looked fun and like Gravity, but on Mars and with Matt Damon - and I love Gravity and Matt Damon!” The woman to my left tosses her hands up in despair as the rest of the group shift uncomfortably. Brian holds his hand up and they settle again, but this time they each throw me a filthy look.

“So you had a relapse, that’s fine, that’s what this support group is for, right guys? That’s when we need each other the most!” He says, cheerfully. He snaps back to concern as he looks again to me. “Do you want to talk about it? Was it a very terrible experience?”

I wish I had more coffee. “Well, it was about twenty minutes too long and there were probably too many characters; there’s one romantic subplot that could have had more time or maybe even jettisoned entirely.” My smoker friend mutters ‘Typical Scott…’ under his breath. I steal myself for what I say next.

“But apart from that, it’s probably the finest science fiction film I’ve seen in a long time.” The room stills. I have their attention.

“Matt Damon is at the height of his charm in it – when the film is on Mars and focuses on the problems he faces, you really get behind him and what’s more, you like the crew who leave him for dead when they have to abort their mission. And this makes sense; they all have to be smart because they’re astronauts on the debut NASA Mars mission, and they have to be likable and light-hearted because they’re spending nearly two years together; it makes sense for them to be making light of their situation and ribbing each other, and what’s more the screenwriter Drew Goddard takes full advantage of this and there are some truly enjoyable interactions within this group.

“But where the film really works is where you get to see smart people work out impossible problems, and what’s more, it’s not effortless for them. A huge part of the gentle humour that runs throughout the film comes from the long suffering Development team as they stare in horror at their encroaching deadline, and from how Jeff Daniels and Kristen Wiig work out a way to keep the press at bay, whilst still courting all the good PR they can. Sean Bean and Chiwetel Ejiofor only have their astronauts’ safety in mind and the dynamic this creates is fascinating and very fun to watch. They make mistakes on Mars and Earth and the film builds to a truly gripping climax as the margin for error gapes like a canyon before them and you do wonder if they’ll actually get their spaceman back in one piece.

“I guess it’s got all the human reality of a workplace drama, but it has all the scope and excitement of a massive sci-fi epic. Some shots are just a wonder to behold and the editing gives a beautiful flow to the entire piece. But more important than any of this, and what can sometimes be missing from other Ridley Scott films, is that it has a sense of humour about itself. Though Matt Damon isn’t quite as full on as Chris Pratt, the disco soundtrack keeps the tone light, which is probably a lesson well learned from Guardians of the Galaxy. It really is remarkably good.”

Brian stares at me, all friendliness abandoned, his face a blank mask. “You… you actually like it? Really like it?” I stand and pick up my bag; I feel ten feet tall.

“Sorry Brian, you’ve been asking me to come for ages and I really did mean what I said before – I don’t like Ridley Scott. But the thing is, not every Scott project is the same, and the problems I found in his other big works are just not present in The Martian. You should all check it out, even if you do hate Ridley Scott like I did.” I turn and, throwing my coffee cup in the bin, leave them to their support meeting. No, I think, I will probably never get on with Alien, Blade Runner or Gladiator, but I think, if Scott carries on making films like The Martian, even I may call myself a fan one day.