Film, Politics

Okay, let’s talk about Black Panther…

As insidious as it is that Disney seem to be buying pretty much everything at the moment, it’s hard to argue with the quality of their recent output. Thor Ragnarok was an offbeat comedy that tackled colonialism head-on, The Last Jedi was one of the deepest blockbusters in recent memory (easily the best Star Wars film since Empire), and now we have Black Panther.

Anyone who thought that Black Panther was going to be breezy and turn a blind eye to its cultural relevance just because it was part of the MCU were in for a shock – Black Panther is an incredibly political film. Wakanda is a kingdom unaffected by colonialism, T’Challa is a king who struggles with both his own and the kingdom’s conservative views on isolationism, and Killmonger, the movie’s antagonist, wants to use their advanced weaponry to liberate people against systemic oppression.

I’ve seen Black Panther twice now and it’s clear this is a movie begging to be dissected and discussed for years to come. And yes, I know what you’re all thinking, ‘Yay, the hot take we’ve been waiting for – what does the white guy think?’

Fear not, I don’t plan to spend long giving my ‘verdict’ on the film. In short, I really like it but I don’t quite love it. I love the characters (Shuri is now my favourite MCU character), I love the soundtrack and I love the sheer weight of its political themes, but there were one or two plot points which clunked for me.

But you know what, that really doesn’t matter because I’m not the film’s primary audience. By that I don’t mean I can’t enjoy it – as I say, I really did – I just mean that the most visceral reactions are going to be from the people seeing themselves represented in a way they haven’t before. As a white geek, the last decade or so of blockbuster cinema has been almost entirely aimed at me. That’s starting to change. Slowly. And I can’t wait.

With a different primary audience we get different stories, different beats and different issues to explore. From a purely selfish point of view, that’s surely more interesting than watching the same western white male experience play out in every single form it possibly can.

It’ll raise questions, and that’s great. It’ll challenge the fundamentally flawed idea that the default character is a white guy, and it’ll challenge the image that the default setting is Western (or else be deemed ‘tokenistic’.)

Black Panther gives those of us who are white the chance to engage with art in a deeper way than logical nit-picks, Cinema Sins-style bullshit, and arbitrary star ratings – for once we can just shut up and listen.

For many black viewers, it’s clear that Black Panther means something very special. Representation matters and everyone deserves to feel empowered by what they see on screen. Black Panther is crushing it at the box office because people have wanted this shit for so long, and to read the writing of both black critics and general black moviegoers permits us an insight into the responses of those who this film is truly for.

It’s also important to remember that the black response to this is not homogeneous, people have reacted in different ways. After all, no white film maker has ever had to carry the burden of capturing all differing white perspectives so we shouldn’t expect the same from Ryan Coogler.

For example, Christopher Lebron, Associate Professor at John Hopkins university, has described the film’s central arguments as racist.

He warned on Twitter that ‘black folks should always be a little suspicious when white #liberalmedia crowns a work of black art as revolutionary, because that usually means they think all the work has been accomplished by the art and their part is over, when it’s just supposed to be starting.’

Can a film with a predominantly black cast, made by a black director, be racist? I guess if you see it only as an extension of the Disney machine then yes, even if you’d have to cynically see Ryan Coogler as selling out or ungenerously presume he’s too stupid to see what he’s doing. Yet there’s undeniably something instinctively gross about a white CIA agent shooting down the tools of liberation for the oppressed as the film’s victory moment – especially if divorced from the larger context of the movie.

Whilst I certainly prefer Film Crit Hulk’s interpretation that the movie is much more of a dialogue than that, and actually about the duality of the black experience, it’s important to recognise the many reactions to this movie in the black community (whilst acknowledging, of course, that it is overwhelmingly positive).

I also found Stephen Bush’s article in the New Stateman to be a really interesting perspective. He’s much more interested in seeing a black hero who is incidentally black than a hero who is defined by it, but he goes on to concede ‘for a young child whose blackness is more important to them than mine was to me, Black Panther will be a seminal moment not because of what it might portend, but because of what it is.’

There are plenty of issues to be worked through, and it’s almost a relief that the white perspective on them is irrelevant. It’s the perfect antidote to today’s ‘everyone has to have an opinion on EVERYTHING’ mentality – not because we should be passive zombies, but because we need to recognise people have unique worldviews, experiences and backgrounds which make their opinions on certain topics better informed and more vital.

I think Black Panther as a movie is itself a dialogue and has gone on to create a healthy discussion. It’s on us to learn from what is being shared.

To be clear, it’s important to point out I do not mean to appropriate a cultural landmark and make it about what white people can learn from it. The representation provided and debates about said representation in the black community are absolutely the fundamental good from Black Panther. Only as a secondary good, from the periphery, do we talk about what we can learn from this.

So let’s hear differing perspectives with empathy so we can begin to understand experiences beyond our own. There are so many good pieces on this movie out there – go and read them! Yes, let’s talk about Black Panther, but let’s also listen.

That’s part of what makes Black Panther so awesome. That’s why it’s incredible a film like this has been released as a tentpole movie. Wakanda forever!

Film, Musicals

The Greatest Showman review – Very far from the greatest!

Ughh, I really wanted to like this movie.

When it comes to musicals, I’m a pretty easy lay. Give me half-decent showtunes and a bit of choreography and I’ll usually enjoy myself. Heck, if it’s a good musical I’ll probably declare it my film of the year.

So it’s quite damning that The Greatest Showman doesn’t even clear my low hurdles. Despite an insanely talented cast bringing their a-game, they can’t compensate for a film that is misjudged in nearly every way, and from beginning to end feels fake and emotionally hollow. I’m sure Michael Gracey had the best of intentions, but it all falls flat (this is his directorial debut, and it shows!)

Perhaps the biggest misjudgement, but the one that’s strangely easiest to overcome, is a film about PT Barnum being the saviour of the downtrodden is slightly distasteful. I’m sure there’s plenty of nuance to be discussed, but the real Barnum was a con-man who did exploit ‘freaks’ to make his fortune, and was also responsible for introducing animal performers to the circus (a cruel trade we’re still trying to bring to an end.) That being said, this isn’t a biopic and I’d be happy to have switched my mind off and just embrace this starry-eyed rags-to-riches version if the film was any good…but it isn’t.

Firstly, there’s the hideous CGI. Look, I’m not one of those guys who hates on all forms of CGI, it’s often a necessary part of modern filmmaking and vital to many blockbusters, but here it’s overused and utterly ugly. If you’re expecting the audience to feel a sense of awe when you first show the circus, you’re really undercutting yourself when it’s plainly visible most of what we’re seeing only exists on a hard-drive. Perhaps if the film had some strong stylistic choices it would make it more forgivable (Baz Luhrmann regularly uses CGI to make hyper-stylised settings and it often works to great effect), but The Greatest Showman lacks any such vision.

And then there’s the music…oh God, the music. I won’t deny that there are two or three catchy tunes in the pack, but it’s all been over-produced in a studio somewhere, and the use of autotune is all too obvious. The moment I can tell Hugh Jackson is merely miming to a backing-track, my suspension of disbelief is dispelled. And, again, there’s no real consistent style for the music choices, it all just feels like generic pop music you would hear in the charts. You could literally insert Katy Perry’s ‘Firework’ into the movie and it would fit perfectly (not that there’s anything wrong with that song, per se, it’s just hardly the stuff of high art!) Whereas Luhrmann used anachronistic music choices in Moulin Rouge and The Great Gatsby to shocking affect (like two creepy old men singing ‘Like a virgin’), the decision to use generic sounding modern fluff just feels uninspired here. In fact, the whole movie feels like a Baz Luhrmann picture if he had just had his balls cut off the day before.

Finally there’s the script, which is less a story and more a bunch of half-gestated clichés glued together. Loads of stuff happens (in fact the film piles on problem after problem for our characters), but none of it matters because we’re never remotely emotionally invested. The ‘freaks’ really are just freaks, with only Keala Settle as the Bearded Lady coming close to having anything to actually do (although she’s as bereft of character as everybody else.) When she starts her big speech about how Barnum gave her a family it just feels so unearned, a classic case of telling not showing.

In fact, the film doesn’t put the legwork into setting anything up at all. Characters fall in love, face social pressure and make up again in about five minutes of screen time – conflict really only works if we actually get time to feel it. A number of times characters break into acapella song reprises to remind us how bad everything is, but it feels mawkish and cheesy because it’s so fake. I’ll say it again, it’s dramatically unearned. It feels like watching Emma Stone’s audition song in La La Land, but if the character had only been introduced a few minutes ago and had just suffered her first failed audition. Say what you want about High School Musical, at least it had a solid grasp of investment, conflict and pay-off – The Greatest Showman is dramatically inept.

It really should be emphasised that everyone involved is fantastic though. As someone who couldn’t put one foot in front of the other on the dance floor, any criticism of this movie has to be couched in the acknowledgement that the talent is out of this world. Hugh Jackman is giving a great post-Wolverine performance which shows his incredible range, Zac Efron is always a good screen presence and Zendaya is a mega-star in the making. The choreography is also, at times, very impressive. In particular, there’s a sequence in a bar where, for a rare moment in the film, everything comes together, let down only by the lingering artificial feeling that can’t be shook-off.

In the end, The Greatest Showman is all climax and no foreplay. The movie knows what it wants you to feel, but has no idea how to make you feel it. There’s not even any levity, the film’s earnest to a fault. It’s like watching a two-hour long X-Factor singer intro, where they manipulatively play sad music over contrived editing. It’s way too sanitised and over-produced.

Before the movie started, a trailer for Mamma Mia 2 played. All the way through I kept wishing I was watching that – whatever you think of Mamma Mia, at least it bothers to make sure the audience is having fun.


My top 5 movies of 2017

Another year is nearly over (the ever increasing passage of time isn’t scary…no, not at all…), and what a great year it’s been for film. From big blockbusters to weirder more subversive films, I can’t remember the last time so many great movies came out in one year.

So, I’ve decided to pick my top 5 movies of 2017 (beware a few spoilers), just because I love every single one of them!

5) Okja

Bong Joon-Ho’s Netflix movie is a slightly off-beat play on the usual Disney-sounding set-up of a girl and her pig. But Okja is NOT a Disney movie. As wonderful as it is to see the cute CGI creation running through the forest playing with her friend, it’s a disarming moment before the film takes a descent into hell for its final act and we get to see the absolute horrors of the slaughterhouse. To watch a cute super-pig who looks exactly like Okja take a bolt gun to the head is really quite affecting – there’s something so off-balancing about a Disney-like creation going through real life trauma.

Okja isn’t perfect but it’s a movie with balls. The horrors that happen to these poor creatures isn’t done by evil entities, but by big corporations looking to satisfy our desires. In that way, all us meat-eaters are complicit and, really, responsible for the horrendous mistreatment of such beautiful animals. Don’t be surprised if you feel a tinge of guilt when you next tuck into a sausage.

But the movie isn’t preachy (not that I think there would be anything particularly wrong with preaching on this topic.) The animal rights activists are portrayed as weird at best, prone to strange and violent tendencies. And the ending is less an optimistic statement about saving the world, and more a simple personal victory, as the lead goes back to live happily with her pig. It’s almost as if we can live with animals and treat them like family members, and yet be indifferent to the suffering of thousands of other creatures equally deserving of our protection…


4) Guardians Of The Galaxy 2

What a year it’s been for Marvel. Three out of three for 2017, with each movie largely achieving what it set out to do. Some may say that Thor Ragnorok was the standout, with director Taika Waititi’s distinct brand of irreverent humour giving the weakest Marvel property one of the best Marvel movies.

But for me, Guardians Of The Galaxy 2 is still my favourite. In fact, I stand by my post earlier this year that it’s my favourite Marvel movie so far. It brings everything I loved from the first one back, the wacky sense of humour, the awesome soundtrack and sincere emotion, but tells a deeper story. There’s a surprisingly effective exploration of familial abuse, and how Nebula blames her favoured sister for her childhood suffering before realising it is her father, the abuser, who should be at the end of her wrath.

Sure, Ragnarok might be the better flowing movie, but Guardians 2 is the first Marvel movie to truly make me feel (well, beyond a vague sense of ‘this is awesome.’) As Rocket, a frickin’ CGI racoon, has an emotional coming of age story, realising he can be, and is in fact, loved, his watery eyes stare out at fireworks for a Ravager’s funeral, all to the soundtrack of Cat Stevens ‘Father and Son.’ I’m not gonna lie…I cried.


3) Mother!

If the recent Star Wars film has been somewhat divisive, it ain’t got shit on Mother! It’s one of the few films to get the F Cinemascore, the worst audience reaction a movie can have. And yeah, let’s be honest, no-one’s gonna ‘like’ this film – you’re either going to totally dig what it’s doing, or you’re going to hate it. I happen to be one of the people who love it.

If you’re familiar with any of Aronovsky’s previous work, you know you’re going to get something a bit weird, but even by his standards this is pretty bat-shit. Advertised as a home-invasion movie, Mother! is actually much stranger. People catch on at different times but slowly you’ll realise that it’s a retelling of the opening chapters of Genesis (and, perhaps, a little beyond).

As a Philosophy/Theology graduate, this is clearly of immediate interest to me, but such obvious symbolism could just end up as pretentious posturing (I mean there’s literally a scene where two brothers fight, for no discernible reason, before one kills the other. Obvious symbolism is obvious!) But what gives it power is the film feels like a primal scream, an existential cry, about the destructive nature of humanity. This isn’t the ‘humans can be bad’ cliché, it’s a full acknowledgment of how we’re a consuming, destructive disease, incapable of much more than destroying. There’s a scene where Javier Bardem (representing God) tells Jennifer Lawrence (Mother Earth) that the people need saving, and she’s like ‘Are you fucking crazy?!’ Mother! suggests we may not be worthy of forgiveness.

But the way Bardem’s character is so indifferent towards his wife’s suffering is also deeply disturbing. No matter how much pain she is caused, he always makes excuses for everybody. He seems not to care for her at all. And, in perhaps the film’s most disturbing moment, he finally takes her baby and hands it to the mob who do what humans always do…they consume it. Why does he care so much about the people? Well they’re in utter awe of him. They worship him.

Shit man, this movie is blasphemous as hell…and I adore it!


2) Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Well this was a very nice surprise! I’m a huge Star Wars fan, in fact it’s the reason I fell in love with cinema, so I have a special kind of emotional attachment to the franchise. But when 2015’s The Force Awakens came out, I was a little dubious of the franchise’s future. Sure, TFA was a charming enough reminder of why we enjoyed Star Wars in the first place but it was so insular looking that I really wasn’t sure that Star Wars was relevant to modern cinema-goers.

So it’s my pleasure to report that The Last Jedi isn’t good, it isn’t great…it’s a fucking masterpiece! It’s a deep, thematically-rich, progressive and often subversive film made by a genuinely talented auteur. Remixing moments from the original trilogy to, at times, genuinely shocking affect, it marks a distinct break from simply worshiping the movies of the past.

It’s also the most human of all Star Wars movies. You really believe in the characters, their relationships, their struggles and their inner-demons. No-one in The Last Jedi is perfect, everybody can make a mistake…but that’s okay, the movie reassures us. We learn most from our failures. Mark Hamill kills it as an older guilt-ridden Luke Skywalker, but the standout has to be Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren. If everybody else is giving it exactly what they need to, Driver is going above and beyond. He’s utterly captivating in every scene, totally believable both as a terrifying monster and as a vulnerable young boy who has simply lost his way. The very fact he has done so much terrible stuff yet remains bizarrely sympathetic is a real testament to Driver’s performance.

And the film is packed with interesting themes about life, about storytelling and the meta-narrative of Star Wars itself. It argues that Star Wars and the characters within need to move on from the past. The history of the Jedi, Luke reminds us, is a history of failure. Should it all be burnt down then? No, that’s Kylo’s way. But to be a Jedi has to come to mean something different. It can’t be simply falling back into arrogance and hubris (there’s so much meat here that’s begging for a full dissection in relation to its exploration of progressive religion.)

And that’s just one of the themes. The movie also explores what it means to be a hero, the dangers of becoming a legend and even has time to throw some shade at the 1% who actually benefit from the continuing cycle of war.

Sure, some fans have reacted with disdain to this new direction (not surprising, really, when the movie’s message is basically ‘all that shit you obsess over, it needs to change to survive’), but I have no doubt this movie will eventually be viewed as one of the greatest of the series, and just a great work in its own right. Don’t get me wrong, the decisions it makes are risky – even Hamill himself has admitted he didn’t agree with the direction they took Luke, especially at first. But great art is birthed from this creative tussling. This is a Disney tentpole movie taking big storytelling risks…can we just celebrate that for a moment?!

Some of the fan complaints seem the result of a generation raised on Cinema Sins, as if that kind of plot nit-picking is actual film criticism, as opposed to stupid, misinformed garbage that totally overlooks character, theme and story for the first quick dig it can get in. If they did one for ‘Goldilocks and The Three Bears’, you know they’d be like “Bears have a house. Ding!”

But when the movie itself has bore out such thoughtful think pieces, like the way the movie refocuses Star Wars, the necessary disappointment of epilogues and how it has created one of the most compelling villains in modern cinema, I’m happy to ignore the initial fan whining.

It is precisely because of the risk taking and the thematic depth Rian Johnson brings to the movie that it significantly transcends everything Marvel has done so far, and is at least the best Star Wars film since Empire…if not the best one ever.

It’s everything I could have wanted a Star Wars movie to be, and it’s a genuinely fantastic shock to see a Star Wars movie representing the best of populist blockbuster movies again.


1. La La Land

This didn’t arrive in the UK until January 2017, which is why this beautiful film makes this list’s top spot. Those who read my review know I adore this movie – if it’s possible to be in love with a film, I am. Ryan Gosling’s charm and Emma Stone’s…everything, make this movie an absolute pleasure and one of the best cinema experiences of all time.

The tunes are catchy, the direction and cinematography gorgeous, the acting sublime – this movie really is joy encapsulated. There’s not a moment of shame for being a good old-fashioned musical, and nor should there be!

But what makes La La Land really special is it goes beyond simply telling a love story.  In fact, one of the comments about the new Star Wars movies is they go beyond the happy ending, to the inevitable struggles that continue to be faced after the credits have rolled. In much the same way, La La Land has a moment in the middle where you could stop it and you’d have had a fantastic romantic story.

But the second half of the film goes beyond that happy ending and explores the real strains put upon, what looks like initially, a fairy-tale romance. And, in the end, they don’t end up together. There’s a brutal melancholic sadness that these two people’s lives aren’t destined to be aligned forever, but it also brings home a relatable truth. Just because something doesn’t last forever, doesn’t mean it wasn’t real or important. For a moment, they really were the centre of each other’s worlds.



And so that’s my list, folks. What a great year for movies it has been. I also think it’s interesting that in times of uncertainly and anxiety (Brexit and the awful Trump administration), art seems to become that bit more impactful. This might simply be because it has greater meaning or it could well be the art itself is reacting. There’s something more powerful about fighting space fascists when real-life Nazis are beginning to become a new norm, inspired by inflammatory remarks from the US President.

And it’s not just in the darker movies this reaction can be seen. It’s been noted that musicals are often at their most popular at times of hardship. The escapism they offer becomes invaluable. Just an interesting observation.

Thankyou for reading, and I hope you all have a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!


Blade Runner 2049 review – Is it okay not to love Blade Runner?

Well, Blade Runner 2049 is certainly something. At nearly three hours long, the film finds its own pace, happy to slowly gaze across a grim futuristic vista whilst a fantastically unconventional Hans Zimmer score roars in the background. Its capacity to generate mood is beyond question. More comfortable pontificating about the human condition than in portraying action set pieces, this isn’t your average blockbuster. It’s a bold, risky piece of art that provides a truly unique cinema experience. They really don’t make them like this anymore.

So, I ask myself, why twenty-four hours later do I feel so indifferent towards it?

I’ve got to preface this review with a guilty admission. I don’t love the original Blade Runner. Sure, I get why people do – just look at it, it’s gorgeous! – but it always left me a bit cold. In many ways this is probably a product of watching something thirty plus years after it was originally released. There’s no denying that Blade Runner had a huge influence on a lot of the science fiction that came after it, both aesthetically and intellectually, but perhaps that’s the problem. When you’ve consumed so much of the inspired media, the inspiration can feel slightly underwhelming. Everything that once felt so original and exciting had been picked clean.

Yet I was fairly optimistic that Blade Runner 2049 would deliver something fresh and new…and it kind of does, in a skin deep way. This isn’t a hokey sequel shat out for a few bucks, it’s very much the work of a visionary, keen to evoke your memories of the original movie while also offering up a new experience with fresh characters.

But let’s get to the crux of my disenchantment. Blade Runner 2049 thinks it’s ever so clever, positively dripping in pretension, to the point that Jarod Leto’s pseudo-intellectual ramblings about angels entering Eden never feel out of place (gee, do you think he, a creator, has some kind of…God complex? Deep, right!)

Okay, I’m admittedly being facetious and slightly overstating the point. Blade Runner 2049 certainly does have a lot more on its mind than your average blockbuster, but it seems, to me anyway, lacking in its ability to say anything all that interesting. The key questions, ‘What does it mean to be human?’ and ‘To what extent do our memories define us?’ are great age old thought provokers, but I never felt the movie had much in the way of an answer or even a unique perspective.

For all intents and purposes, replicants are so human that any differences between the two species is negligible. Whether a character is replicant or not virtually doesn’t matter – I guess that’s kind of the whole point. The only real difference is how they came into being; one is born, the other created (the film’s whole plot hinges on this). These concepts might have been challenging to a religious generation who believed in a soul, but in an increasingly secular world ‘the soul’ has come to mean something entirely metaphorical to most people. Post-Darwin, mankind has had to re-evaluate itself. We’re no-longer the divine worker’s greatest creation, but another animal, just a biological machine. Fretting about our ‘uniqueness’ feels rather antiquated.

Similarly, the concept of memory is explored but again to not much effect. As a child I used to wonder how I could be sure I wasn’t created that day, with all my memories just implanted. Once you’ve experienced that existential worry, I don’t think there’s much more Blade Runner 2049 has left to say.

It’s not that these questions have lost their probing power, it’s more the film just tosses around all these big thoughts without either answer or thematic culmination. This wouldn’t be a problem if there was more left to offer than its beautiful visuals but there isn’t, at least not beyond further narrative questions that are only as interesting as the world that is portrayed. Because all the characters are so fundamentally unengaging and thinly written, the big questions blow around in the breeze and we, the audience, simply observe, detached from any real meaning, wondering what it’s all about.

There are two films I’ve seen this year that have done a much better job of asking big questions by anchoring them in character and theme. The first is Mother!, a fantastic horror by Aronofsky, and one of my favourite films of the year. The biblical symbolism of Mother! may be pretentious, but it’s so on the nose that it almost eventually ceases to be symbolism, dissolving to give way to Aronofsky’s true focus; the relationship between God, man and nature (there are other readings, of course, but there is surely no doubt this is the primary intent.)

On paper, exploring how God and man act indifferently towards nature is the exact kind of empty posturing I accuse Blade Runner 2049 of, an interesting question that has been thoroughly exhausted. And yet where Mother! succeeds is it’s not dispassionate at all. Far from it. As the horror grows, Aronofsky posits that humanity (you and me!) are the evil and any redemption we may have isn’t just difficult but unjustified. This isn’t some glib ‘humans are the real monsters’ though, Aronofsky means it. Far from sitting back and posturing on some abstract ideas, this is full blown rage, and it’s magnificent and unsettling all at once.

The second film that handles the relationship of creator and creation really well is Alien Covenant, from none other than the original Blade Runner director, Ridley Scott. Yes, I know, we’re all meant to say it sucked because it fucked up the Xenomorph’s origin story (I agree with that point, by the way) but Alien Covenant really isn’t about the Alien at all, at least not directly. The film constantly gravitates to and eventually orbits the character of David, an android who finds himself utterly disappointed with his creator. From his anger comes his own act of creations, arising themselves from destruction. He sees humanity as a failed species and indifferently orchestrates their removal as if they were nothing more than bacteria.

Covenant doesn’t really answer the questions it poses any more than Blade Runner 2049, but it locates them in character. Even if most of the other characters are two-dimensional at best, David really stands out as a fascinating fictional creation. The questions aren’t merely posed as hypotheticals but contextualised in David’s motivations, and you can feel the existential questioning of Scott, the film’s creator, pulling the strings. Covenant works because it is an artist grappling with their own thoughts about creation.

As Film Crit Hulk puts it (the best film critic out there, for my money):

‘I first harped on Prometheus because it seemed equally obsessed with answering an unanswerable question, failing to realize the simplest truth that knows that God, whether you believe or not, is unknowable. And in Alien: Covenant we finally get the believer’s reaction to that answer. It’s an angry screed of vengeance.’

The difference between Bladerunner 2049 on the one hand, and Mother! and Alien Covenant on the other, is the difference between an armchair philosopher asking abstract metaphysical questions, and an artist truly wrestling with their existence. Perhaps it’s just me, but I don’t want a filmmaker to ask me to engage with their dry questions, but instead I want to be right in the middle of the director’s existential nightmare. That, to me, makes better art.

After all, most of the best dystopian stories are those that capture the real fears of the author. By the time you’re in Room 101, I think it’s clear that Nineteen Eighty-Four isn’t just a hypothetical musing on human society, but a reflection of some of Orwell’s greatest fears about the future. Much the same, The Handmaid’s Tale seems born out of genuine concerns with the inherent patriarchy and self-destructive purity systems within American Christianity and the very real threat they pose to a civilised society.

Perhaps it’s just me, but I didn’t for one moment believe that Denis Villeneuve, 2049’s director, is truly struggling with the questions he’s raising. Maybe that’s why there’s so little thematic coherence. When push comes to shove, there’s not much in the way of closure, emotionally or intellectually.

Yet Villeneuve has shown how capable he is of making a good, thoughtful sci-fi movie in the practically perfect Arrival. Perhaps thanks to fantastic (and unspoilt) source material, he not only is able to highlight an interesting question (to what extent does our language determine the way we think?), but brings it forward into the plot (spoilers!) enabling Amy Adams to see into the future using an alien language. This then has thematic and emotional pay-off by letting her character freely choose to pursue a family, fully knowing it will end in grief and heartache. That says more about what it means to be human than anything Blade Runner 2049 musters in its near three hour running time.

This is not to say I don’t admire the film, because I really do. The cinematography is staggeringly beautiful, the lingering sense of despair tangible. The fact it’s performing pretty poorly at the box office is a terrible shame, because cinema needs more risk-taking pieces of art that don’t follow the Hollywood cookie cutter approach to blockbusters.

But when it comes to the questions raised, I find the film unsatisfying. And yes, it’s probably personal preference. I’m sure many enjoy dreamy sci-fi, awash with big detached questions, the way one may observe a magnificent painting. But when wrestling with the big issues, Villeneuve is merely asking questions and, frankly, we can ask the questions ourselves. I want a filmmaker’s unique perspective, I want to feel their despair and get lost in their own existential turmoil. That, to me, is what gives a piece of art a soul. That’s when a movie is more than a movie.

Film, religion, TV

Shocking similarities between geek culture and religious fundamentalism

What do Superman and God have in common?

Well, I’m sure many have written a dissertation on such a question, but one obvious answer is they both have obsessive fans – geeks and fundamentalists.

As someone who grew up in a pretty fundamentalist Christian background and then went on to become a massive geek, I’ve noticed some pretty startling similarities between the two groups.

Here are a just a few…


Bizarre obsession with continuity

Christian fundamentalists often speak of ‘The Bible’ as if it’s one homogeneous text – something can be ‘biblical’ or ‘un-biblical’ depending on ‘what The Bible says.’

Of course, one is likely to think such a thing when you believe all scripture was inspired by God himself, but as we learn more about the context of the many texts of both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, we understand an obvious truth – each one was written in a specific time and place, with specific intentions.

It’s believed a lot of the Old Testament was written during the Jewish Exile to Babylon, and so the narrative focus on the Israelites being God’s chosen people is understood to be a wonderful story providing a strong image for the Jewish people struggling with a national identity.

Equally, each of the gospels were written at different times for different audiences which explains the varying portrayals of Jesus in each. It is really quite startling to contrast the differences between the human Jesus of Mark who dies on the cross asking ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?’, to the God-man striding across the Earth in the Gospel of John.

Indeed, a better way to understand the Bible is not as one book written by one author with one intention, but instead put together (over a much greater period) a bit like Doctor Who. The classic sci-fi TV show began in 1963 in black and white, with a grumpy old Doctor who tried to cave the head of a caveman in during the second episode. But it changed radically across the course of its history, The Doctor becoming a recorder-playing clown, then a suave aikido-practicing gentleman who was trapped on Earth. And all this was before he became the iconic Tom Baker!

Importantly, the mythology kept on evolving. Initially The Doctor was just a wandering alien, perhaps the last of his kind, but then it was revealed he had a species. His first regeneration was explicitly linked to the powers of the TARDIS, but the second regeneration was down to the Time Lords. The Daleks were initially creepy lone survivors on a near-dead planet, before they became all powerful conquerors.

Trying to suggest there’s one consistent mythology to Doctor Who is a fool’s errand – it was written by different writers, for a changing audience over more than 50 years. But this doesn’t stop fans trying, pointing out ‘X contradicts an episode from over 30 years ago.’ In much the same way, it would do the fundamentalist good to acknowledge that contradictions within their Holy Scripture (which can be found not just across books, but also a mere few passages apart, such as how many animals God instructed to be taken on the ark) shouldn’t be explained away, but accepted as the inevitable outcome of an ever-evolving mythology across a library of fascinating texts.


Missing the spirit of the text

It is quite amazing how many racist and/or sexist Twitter users have the face of a superhero as their bio pic.  Aren’t superheroes about human decency? It’s extraordinary that any Star Trek fan could complain about a black lead. Isn’t the whole point of Star Trek an absolute egalitarian society? And recently, isn’t it crazy how Doctor Who fans have complained that from Christmas the next Doctor will be played by a woman? Doctor Who, as well as being about compassion and doing the right thing, so often preaches the necessity of change and the dangers of not letting go of the past.

It often seems fans completely miss the point of the characters and shows they idolise.

In much the same way, it is absolutely bizarre than any Christian could support Trump, who aims to make it harder for the poorest in the United States to have access to basic rights like healthcare and education. Wasn’t Jesus’ whole point that we should be reaching out to the poor and outcast in our society, and that the Kingdom of God will be the inversion of today’s reality? Yet Trump had a huge amount of support from Evangelical Christians.

It appears both fundamentalists and geeks could do well to look at the spirit of the texts, shows and characters they dedicate so much time to.


Problematic views on women

It’s sad but true that geek culture has some real issues with women. Of course this was shown clearly with the man-babies crying about the casting of a female Doctor (which I have talked about at some length here), but it’s equally manifested in the way fans reacted to the last two Star Wars movies having a female lead.

I remember reading lots of commentators responding to the Rogue One trailer saying ‘ANOTHER female lead.’ I know right, two out of eight movies – CRAZY!

Gaming culture is also particularly bad, with ‘bros’ talking about ‘girl gamers’ not being ‘real gamers’.

Again, this parallels fundamentalists across all the Abrahamic religions, who are often uncomfortable with female leadership. It is absolutely ridiculous that the Church of England is still arguing over female bishops. Why on Earth would a God (who, if he/she exists at all, would almost certainly be genderless) care about what genitals you have? That seems a far more human concern.

The lesson from this one is simple, geeks and fundamentalists both need to grow the fuck up and stop being so sexist.


The Golden Age

One of the defining traits of fundamentalism is ‘The Golden Age’ of the religion. This tends to extend both backwards and forwards in time. Once there was a golden age where the religion was practiced perfectly and, soon, there will be a future where the religion is once again practiced perfectly. Only now, at this specific moment, are the hard times.

This thinking is rife across all kinds of geek fandom. Star Wars might seem a slightly unfair example because the originals really were ground-breaking and hugely influential cinema, but the response to the prequels (and, in some circles, the newer movies) was always a bit blinkered, as if the originals were flawless with Shakespearean dialogue and unrivaled acting (they weren’t!)

Clearer still is Doctor Who fans who constantly hate on current showrunner Steven Moffat. They’ll complain endlessly that the Russell T. Davies era was the golden age of the show and it’s never been as good since, often forgetting the times when the Davies era wasn’t all that great (I mean no-one really liked that Daleks in Manhattan two-parter did they?) And, in perfect parallel to the fundamentalists, they project all their hopes on the upcoming showrunner, Chris Chibnall, for a new golden age of Doctor Who. It is inevitable that, within the first two or three weeks of the next series, they’ll be pining for the golden days of Moffat.


Silly differences

It’s amazing how religious followers can have so many beliefs in common but still see each other as ‘opposed’. You see it in Catholics and Protestants most obviously, but I’ve been in Evangelical churches who are quick to question whether some other set of Christians are ‘real Christians’ and ask if they are ‘really saved’.

This again is reflected in geek culture.

‘If you like the Star Wars prequels, you’re not a REAL Star Wars fan.’

‘They only liked Doctor Who because they fancied David Tennant.’

Guys, can’t we see what unites us rather than pick up on the smallest of differences?


Both geeks and fundamentalists spend too much time thinking about imaginary characters

As both a geek and someone slightly theistic leaning, this one is just me being facetious.


Most are nice people

For all the negative similarities, I think it’s worth pointing out the most obvious similarity – both are given a bad reputation by the vocal minority of dumb followers/fans.

Most religious people, even fundamentalists, want to practice their religion in peace without imposing it on the lives of others.

Similarly, most geeks watch these shows and films because they enjoy them, and don’t log-in to internet forums to complain that it’s the ‘worst one ever’ or to vent their anger at the latest bit of casting.

Both groups could benefit from some of their most vocal members just….shutting up…


Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 – the best MCU movie so far? (spoiler free)

I’m not ashamed to say I, along with many others, wept at the end of Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2. Yep, I cried during a Marvel movie…the one about talking raccoons and baby trees no less. The general tone of a Marvel movie isn’t hard to predict, largely a lot of laughs and a little bit of ‘that’s awesome’ thrown in, but tear-jerking…I wasn’t expecting that!

Truthfully I’m not really sure what I was expecting. The first Guardians movie is my favourite of the MCU movies largely because it strays a delicate line of irreverent humour and absolute emotional sincerity perfectly, with a tonal dexterity that other Marvels tend not to have. Equipped with a killer retro soundtrack on top of that (which informs the emotion of the film as well as simply being great fun), the original flew its way straight into my heart.

The trouble is, a sequel to a movie that was essentially lightening in a bottle was always going to be difficult. On the one hand, if the sequel simply doubles down on the elements that work well in the original it’ll almost always be met with the accusation of diminishing returns. On the other, doing something completely different might risk losing the charm of the original and alienating the existing fanbase.

James Gunn, however, finds a steady compromise between the two approaches. Vol. 2 certainly does bring back everything people loved from the original (namely the humour, tone and retro soundtrack) bigger and better than ever before. As Baby Groot dances around to ELO’s ‘Mr Blue Sky’ during the opening as the Guardians fight a big tentacled monster, it’s pretty clear we’re in familiar territory (and, quite possibly, operates as a simple metaphor for the film’s focus throughout.)

Yet Vol. 2 does offer new experiences as well. This time around the team are broken up into smaller groups to pursue their own individual stories, which gives everything a slightly different flavour. It’s also a deeper and more personal movie than the first, with clearer and more thoroughly explored themes. It’s not quite The Empire Strikes Back or The Godfather Part II of sequels, but it’s certainly not a simple re-tread either.

It’s helped by different characters taking centre stage. Certainly Peter Quill is still the main character and it’s ultimately his story, but it does feel even more of an ensemble piece this time. Yondu, in particular, is given a lot more to do than in the first movie and I imagine he may well end up being many people’s favourite Guardian after this. New character Mantis is also an adorable addition to the team, forming a genuinely moving relationship with Drax – despite being the complete opposite in many ways.

Speaking of adorable, Baby Groot is insanely fucking cute. He really does steal the movie and just a tiny change in his expression can (and will) break your heart. As Guardians Of The Galaxy does best, Baby Groot isn’t just an opportunity for laughs (and merchandise), but actually works really well with the film’s focus on family and parenting.

The plot could be accused of being a little on the slight side. In fact it’s very much like an early series Star Trek story played out over two hours, but to say much more would be to enter into spoiler territory. I do think this gives us one of Marvel’s better villains, which is admittedly faint praise. It’s not quite Loki standard, but it’s a bit better than a lot of the other disposable villains Marvel has gotten through (Malekith, Ronan, Whiplash etc. )

There’s also mercifully little connection to the MCU at large, in fact I think this might be the most standalone Marvel movie yet. Whereas even the first Guardians movie was burdened with The Collector and explaining the infinity stones, Vol. 2 is given free-reign to tell the story it desires free of interference. Even the five (yes, five!) post-credit sequences don’t really inform on the MCU at large. Ironically, however, the little we do learn of Thanos (the MCU’s ‘big bad’) in a brief but powerful conversation between Gamora and Nebula actually does more to build him up as a horrific villain than all the hints and appearances of Thanos in the entire MCU to date. But this mention isn’t forced, it’s entirely organic to the story and very much important to the theme of family that Vol. 2 orbits.

The film also looks gorgeous. It’s an explosion of vibrant colours, psychedelic and vivid. For those who sometimes think Marvel movies look a bit bland (I mean I enjoyed Civil War, but did it have to be SO grey?!), then Vol. 2’s delightfully garish colour palette will be welcome (and it looks like we’ll be getting more of this beauty in the third Thor outing!)

Vol. 2 certainly isn’t perfect. By breaking up the team and focusing on the individual storylines it loses some of that leanness and simplicity which gave the first outing such a wonderful source of momentum. Equally, a cynical viewer might say some of the scenes exist to serve the soundtrack, rather than the other way around (parts come close to feeling like a music video). I also think a little more could be done with the sci-fi action aesthetic. I know the movie always has its tongue firmly in cheek (there’s an alien race who fly spaceships as if they’re arcade machines) and that’s all part of the fun, but I did sometimes wish for a little more weight to the space battles just so the action set-pieces don’t feel so disposable.

But the reason this isn’t a deal-breaker is no-matter how weightless the action may seem, James Gunn realises this and always keeps the characters front and centre – their journeys are what give weight throughout. And I really have to applaud this movie for ending in such an emotional and kind of downbeat way (yes, back to the weeping). When you think about it, nearly every MCU movie (with very few exceptions) ends in a way which could be summed up as ‘the hero’s ready to kick ass in the next movie’. That isn’t the case in Vol. 2, which instead ends on a moment of entirely earned emotional poignancy.

It’ll be interesting to see what the status of Marvel movies will be once the MCU reaches its inevitable end. Whilst most of the movies are good (some, indeed, are excellent), they are a bizarre blend of film and product, the likes of which cinema hadn’t really seen before. Marvel movies can virtually act as advertisements for future installments (Iron Man 2 and Age of Ultron being notable culprits for this.) When there is no future, so to speak, will these films stand up as something that can be watched at any time (something I’d feel comfortable replying positively for in the case of The Dark Knight and the first two Raimi Spider-Man movies) or are they so of the moment that they will eventually fade into obscurity, like filler episodes of a TV show?

It’s hard to say, but I do believe that if any of the series are going to standout then it’s going to be the Guardians movies (based on the first two, at least.) They transcend the MCU in many ways, and operate on a total different level of quality. Largely free from the shackles of being an advertisement or having to reference events of earlier movies, they are able to be their own thing and do genuinely feel like the work of a visionary director as opposed to a studio committee. The ending of Vol. 2 really reaffirms my faith that this series has the maturity and freedom to tell its story with absolute integrity to the plot and characters, rather than service a franchise.

The next time we see the Guardians it will be in the eagerly anticipated Infinity Wars, teaming up with the Avengers. Whilst it’ll certainly be a treat to see them there, it doesn’t feel necessary – if the Guardians never crossed-over it wouldn’t matter a bit and that’s why these movies work so well, the continuity connection is an added bonus, not a pivotal part of their appeal.

With James Gunn having just confirmed he’s signed up for Vol. 3, we know these wacky bunch of space misfits are in good hands. I, for one, can’t wait to see what they get up to next.


Why the prospect of Star Wars putting an end to the Jedi is so damn exciting

“I only know one truth, it’s time for the Jedi to end” says a much older looking Luke at the end of yesterday’s exciting teaser for Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. For all the beautiful shots of Rey’s training, and the compulsory whizz-bang final shots of the trailer, it’s Luke’s line about the Jedi which is actually the most exciting.

Why? Well, the idea of the Jedi having to end or at least significantly reform would be a really organic, thematic culmination to the entire saga. One of the criticisms people have of the prequels is that the Jedi aren’t very likable, they’re not exactly the peaceful monks hinted at by Obi Wan in the original movie. But I’ve always thought, ‘yeah, that’s the whole point.’

From the moment we meet the Jedi Council in Episode One, their arrogance is on display. Mace Windu, one of the highest ranking Jedi, immediately doubts Qui-Gon’s assertion that he had battled a Sith Lord on the basis that if the Sith had returned, the Jedi would definitely have known (in this case, he was completely wrong!) Obi Wan is met with similar resistance in Episode 2 when he asks the librarian in the Jedi Temple about a planet he can’t find in their records. ‘If it does not exist in our records’ she says, ‘then it does not exist.’  Again, if people want to doubt this was Lucas’ intention, he writes a scene in Episode II where Yoda himself explicitly calls out the Jedi for being too sure of themselves, even the ‘older, more experienced ones.’

It seems like quite a statement Lucas is making that Qui-Gon Jinn, the Jedi most sceptical and rebellious of the Jedi Council’s authoritarian stance, is the first to learn the path to immortality.

Another troubling element of the Jedi in the prequel trilogy is their entanglement with the political structure of the time. From the moment we find them they seem a lot less like ‘the guardians of peace and justice’ which exist independently from the state for the good of the state, and instead much more like galactic police enforcing the laws of the Republic. I mean why on Earth are the Jedi sent as negotiators to the Trade Federation in Episode I, if not for the purpose of intimidating their opponents? It’s this entanglement with the political structure that makes them so ripe for Palpatine’s manipulation – by manufacturing a war between the Republic and Separatists, of course the Jedi are going to get dragged into the war itself, becoming generals and soldiers.

Further still, Palpatine suggests to Anakin in Episode III that the Jedi actually don’t trust democracy and are ultimately planning to take over the Republic. It’s not something we, as viewers, really see much of but there is one troubling scene in Episode III which gives this point a slight legitimacy. Some top ranking members of the Jedi Council are discussing what happens if they need to remove Chancellor Palpatine from power by force. It’s then Mace Windu suggests that the Jedi would have to take over for a short time to ensure a smooth transition…a line of thought Yoda immediately calls out as being dangerous. What’s so rich about all of this, and why I think the prequels are extremely underrated, is that this is really grey stuff. Of course the Jedi aren’t planning on a state takeover, but it’s certainly possible that a well-intentioned seizure of power could be hugely corrupting for the Jedi.

And when Mace Windu does finally go to arrest Palpatine after finding out he’s a Sith Lord, he makes the call at the end of the fight that the Chancellor is too dangerous to be left alive. Windu is prepared to kill Palpatine in cold blood because he simply doesn’t believe the Senate is sufficient to deal with him itself – this is really chilling stuff. This also goes someway in explaining why Anakin ultimately comes to view the Jedi as evil – after hearing concerns from his father figure, Palpatine, that the Jedi are plotting a takeover, he sees a respected Jedi master about to abandon the Jedi code and the rules of the Senate to kill the leader.

All these issues paint the Jedi as flawed and, perhaps, terminally so. But their single biggest weakness, and the flaw that runs across both trilogies, is their absolute belief in asceticism – no romantic involvement and no acceptance of grief. In the prequel trilogy Anakin’s biggest flaw is he’s highly emotional (and highly reactive). He feels love, anger and grief in the way most humans do. But, having been largely raised by the Jedi, he is given no healthy way of dealing with those emotions – he’s simply told not to have them.

His romantic involvement with Padme is entirely innocent, by all accounts it’s entirely right for these two to be together. But, knowing the Jedi council will never allow it, it becomes a cancerous barrier between him and the Jedi, even between him and his best friend Obi Wan. There’s then that haunting scene after Anakin’s mum dies at the hand of Tusken Raiders and he, in a burst of rage, slaughters them all. Padme says to him ‘To be angry is to be human’ to which he replies ‘I’m a Jedi, I know I’m better than this.’ I mean, geez, how emotionally repressed must you be to believe that grief is wrong!

This ultimately paves the way for his fall to the dark side because of his premonitions of Padme’s death. Not only is he unable to confide in anyone because the strict rules of the Jedi prohibit his attachment in the first place, when he asks Yoda about the premonitions he’s simply told he must ‘let go of everything he fears to lose.’ And so, in some perverse way, Anakin’s turn to the dark side is partly him just embracing and accepting his humanity and emotions. Of course it’s the wrong answer, but the Jedi offer absolutely no healthy alternative.

These themes continue (start? Stupid Star Wars timeline!) in the Original Trilogy. Luke finding out Darth Vader is his dad is an absolute game-changer – everything becomes more personal for him. Yet Yoda and Obi Wan are disappointed that he found out, precisely because they believe Luke having any form of emotional attachment will be his weakness (yes, they’re still spouting that bullshit 20 years after it cost them everything!) Obi Wan even says that if Luke can’t kill his father then the Empire has already won.

Yet Luke refuses to kill his father or to give up hope that there is any good left in him. And we see, bit-by-bit, the harder Luke outreaches to Vader, tiny moments of Vader’s humanity are revealed. When Vader is lying helpless at Luke’s mercy, the Emperor is urging Luke to kill him and take his place. What’s interesting is that had Luke kept an emotional detachment as the Jedi wanted him too, this could actually have made his turn to the dark side easier. Instead, Luke throws away his lightsaber (in contract to Windu’s actions in Episode III) and sticks by the Jedi code. As Vader sees his son being tortured, still crying out for help, still believing in his father’s capacity for good, he finally gives in and saves his son, destroying the Emperor in the process. It’s through Luke’s humanity, not his dedication to Jedi traditions, that Vader is redeemed and Luke survives.

That’s why I always find it funny when people say there’s ‘no grey areas’ in Star Wars. I completely disagree. Star Wars certainly believes in right and wrong as absolutes, but it is far less clear (particularly in the prequels) who actually is operating under those labels.

And, back to the original title, why is the idea of getting rid of the Jedi so exciting? Well, up until now, I’ve enjoyed Episode VII just enough, and I really liked Rogue One, but they ultimately felt like unnecessary add-ons. Episode VII in particular just looked to be putting all the same pieces into play as the original Star Wars but to diminishing returns. But, if they do look to reform the Jedi (and that teaser line isn’t just a really early ‘refusal to the call’) then it would make this next trilogy an organic extension and, indeed, the necessary modern thematic climax to the proceeding two trilogies. Character’s following their humanity and allowing for that ‘grey path’ that isn’t polarised by ‘light’ and ‘dark’ could be really exciting.

For example, as interesting as Kylo Ren is, I always thought it was a bit much that ANOTHER member of the Skywalker dynasty (the second in three generations) has turned into a dangerous psychopath. Yet if that turns out to be the whole point, (namely that repressive Jedi training leads to a disproportionately high number of dangerous, emotional, angry young men – Siths – in the same way the Catholic Priesthood has lead to a disproportionately high number of sex offenders), that would make Ren’s story an organic and important addition to the Star Wars universe.

Needless to say, this has all got me hyped for the next instalment of that story that took place a long time ago, in a galaxy far far away…only have to wait until Christmas now!