The Marvel Cinematic Universe: Phase Two and Its Issues

Picture a parabola. It starts off at the top of the graph, dips quite significantly, only for it to rise back up towards the end of the line. As anyone who follows my Instagram stories knows, I am currently re-watching the Marvel Cinematic Universe in chronological order, from Captain America: The First Avenger to Spiderman: Far From Home. I have currently just passed the “significant dip” of the parabola that is the MCU: Phase Two. It has the worst Avengers film, the atrocious Thor film and a weak Iron Man film. Ant Man was serviceable, but hardly essential viewing. With a couple of exceptions, the films in the middle phase of the Infinity Saga are painfully average, with some even being too boring to watch. These films are littered with problems that, thankfully, Fiege and the rest of the creative team fixed in time for Phase Three.

The infamous villain problem in the MCU is at its most noticeable in Phase Two. Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy may be widely considered the exceptions- the stand outs- in this average run from the MCUs, but even these films lack engaging villains. The Winter Soldier initially appears to be the villain of the second Captain America film, but it soon turns out not to be the case. This leaves Alexander Pierce, a name I had to google. His goal was power and control of the planet. Ronan also pursues power in Guardians (he is literally hunting for the power stone). Killian is your typical Iron Man villain: someone Tony Stark upset in the past and is looking for revenge. I could go on. All of the villains in the Phase Two villains have cliched, one dimensional goals. Villains are rarely given enough screen time to develop and display more nuanced and interesting characteristics. Ultron is the closest Phase Two gets to displaying a villain with an actual ideology and set of unique beliefs, but he is ineffective as a villain. He feels more like the Avengers’ court jester than a series threat, constantly losing battles with them, lacking an intimidating presence throughout, and constantly telling jokes. Fortunately, this infamous problem was fixed by the time Phase Three arrived in 2016.

This is part of a wider problem with character in this phase of the MCU. The protagonists, the superheroes themselves, are given a lot of attention and space to develop and grow. Tony Stark’s PTSD is a very worthwhile storyline and one of the most interesting aspects of Iron Man 3. Captain America’s growing disillusionment with America and what it represents is fascinating. For him, the world used to be black and white, good vs. evil, America vs. Nazi Germany. The modern world he wakes up to at the end of his first film in is much greyer. His belief in America and in the government to do what is right crumbles. It is engaging to watch. The MCU knows how to do justice to its lead characters. As stated, this attention to character does not extend to the villains. In fact, it rarely extends to anyone other than the superhero lead. The side characters of the first two Thor films are completely forgettable, essentially walking stereotypes who could be anybody. There is a lack of strong female characters too. Until Captain Marvel, released towards the tail end of the Infinity Saga, there are no female superheroes. This would not be so bad if the supporting female characters were three dimensional. For the most part, they fulfil the cliched role of damsel in distress. Jane Foster became a host for Thor: The Dark World’s McGuffin device. Black Widow and Pepper Potts need to be rescued by the male superheroes. Gamora comes out more positively, but even she is represented as a mere sidekick and possible love interest to Star-Lord. Phase Two films have fully fledged protagonists, but this is at the expense of nearly every other character.

The focus on MCU protagonists is also at the expense of plot momentum. Phase One was about building up to the assembling of The Avengers. Phase Three was about the assembling of the Infinity Gauntlet. There was an exciting drive towards a dramatic conclusion in Phase One and Phase Three. Phase Two lacked that. Each film was a standalone character study of each respective hero, or an origin story for a new superhero/superhero team. This is not the reason why the Phase Two films are worse, but it did mean that Phase Two lacked a goal to reach. Age of Ultron did not feel like a culmination to years worth of storytelling. In fact, the final film of Phase Two was about a character who had never been introduced before, and had no links to any of the other avengers, save Falcon. Phase Two films do not build upon each other, nor contribute significantly to the overarching story. This made for a less exciting section of the series. With the Infinity Saga now over, I’m worried Phase Four will be plagued by the same sense of inertia. The Phase Two films lacked a sense of necessity to the overall narrative, nor urgency. These stories did not feel like they needed to be told.

Nor were they told with any particular flair or creativity. Other than Gunn’s Guardians and the Russos’ Winter Soldier, none of the Phase Two films have any personality or individuality. They all look the same, and they all seem to be checking the same boxes. Humour? Check. Doing something dark and interesting with the villain? No, keep it family friendly. This was clearly an aesthetic choice on Fiege’s part. Edgar Wright famously left the production of Ant Man due to a lack of creative control. He had a vision for the character, but Fiege wanted the film into the typical MCU box. Perhaps this was an attempt to keep all the films feeling like they are part of the same universe. Or, perhaps they found a winning formula and did not want to fiddle with it. Either way, I’m glad Phase Three directors were allowed to bring in their own personalities and take more risks.

Considering Endgame recently became the highest grossing film of all time, what Fiege and Marvel have created has clearly worked. People still came to see them. However, I believe this is a testament to the quality of Phase One and The Avengers. We all became hooked and engaged with the slow-burning narrative, as any good first season of a TV show does. Fortunately for Marvel, Phase Two was just good enough not to lose viewers’ interest. It kept the ship steady as we waited for the tumultuous (and much more exciting) Phase Three to arrive. Nevertheless, it was filled with flaws, and this prevented Phase Two films reaching the same glorious heights as other MCU films.

Blinded by the Light (2019) Review

Watch this as soon as you can…

Gurinder Chadha (Bride and Prejudice, Bend It Like Beckham) has created a new film that embraces two currents of the river flowing through Hollywood at the moment.

Firstly, Blinded by the Light is a feel-good tribute to a influential musical mega-artist. There has been an explosion of these recently: Rolling Thunder, Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman, and Yesterday. It is only a matter of time before Bowie or The Rolling Stones get one. Chadha’s new film is a tribute to Bruce Springsteen, if you could not tell by the title. Rather than telling the story of Springsteen’s life, this film is unique in choosing to focus on the life of a fan from Luton, and how Springsteen’s music sparked positive change in his life. If you are a fan of his music, there is plenty to enjoy here. The soundtrack is mostly a “This Is” Spotify playlist dedicated to The Boss. The songs are aptly chosen with regards to the character development of Javed (Viveik Kalra). “The Promised Land” plays during a key milestone of Jared’s character development, and “Born to Run” perfectly encapsulates his growing rebellious spirit later. It is a pleasure to hear, and enhances this feel good story.

Secondly, Chadha’s tribute to Springsteen is also following the trend of 80s nostalgia. More and more films and television series are being set in that tumultuous decade, representing it as a lost golden age to be remembered fondly. Stranger Things and It immediately spring to mind as obvious examples. Blinded by the Light is obviously not a horror, for it follows the classic template of a feel-good comedy set by Bend it Like Beckham, so the comparison may appear tenuous. Chadha’s film is also more interesting in its representation of the 80s by choosing to depict it from the perspective of a character from an ethnic minority group in Luton. The 80s is much less nostalgic here: mass unemployment, a “witch” as prime minister, and ubiquitous racism (from outright use of slurs to the idea that Jared can only work on the “Asian channel”). The dark underbelly of that decade is on full display here, subverting the trend of depicting the 80s positively and uncritically.

This backdrop is also effective because it serves to juxtapose with the pure joy Bruce Springsteen brings to Jared’s life. The lyrics often appear on screen, which is a nice touch. It draws attention to the key words that really speak to Jared. They also create the impression that the music is overwhelming Jared, often following and encircling him. This use of visual text not only pays tribute to the immense impact Springsteen had on him, but foreshadows Jared’s blinding by the light of his music. He starts making selfish choices which are hard to approve, like skipping half a wedding to nab Springsteen tickets, which were hardly selling out anyway. Nevertheless, Jared constantly remains likeable. Kalra does a great job at capturing the awe and inspiration Springsteen’s music can inspire, whilst also showing the darker aspects of the 80s can take their toll. You can empathise with Jared when he puts himself and the music before his family. He feels locked, and miserable, in Luton, and Springsteen opens a door for him to escape.

It is hardly an original structure or template. If you have seen any feel good British comedy, you have seen this one, and you will see the emotional beats coming a mile off. The dialogue often relies heavily on the lyrics of Springsteen. Rather than capture Javed’s thoughts and feelings through his own words, he often quotes The Boss himself. Used sparingly, this could have been an effective tribute. It is overused though, and comes across as cheesy a lot of the time. Hayley Atwell’s stock character of an English teacher would be the worst offender if the film did not have that neighbour randomly walk into the family home every now and then to praise Jared’s writing. Has anyone ever had a neighbour so invested in their ambitions? The film can feel unrealistic and contrived at times.

This is a feel-good movie, though. Depicting the reality of being working-class and from an ethnic minority in the 80s, which this film does with damning authenticity, does not naturally lend to optimism. To achieve its goal of making the audience smile, rules have to be bent. Yes, nobody talks in such a cheesy manner, and nobody’s neighbour is that caring. Who cares? Even the hardest of cynics will smile. This film is at its strongest when it is depicting the dark, harsh realities of Thatcher’s Britain, but it also does a brilliant job of showing the light too.

Free Meek and 13th

Documentaries can be a useful tool for social change. They start a debate on a troubling topic, and raise awareness of an often unnoticed issue, whilst also providing lucid insight. When one demands reform, a riveting documentary can prove an invaluable megaphone. No one documentary is the same, though. Even if two documentaries are about the same social issue, Free Meek and 13th look at the racist criminal justice system in America for example, both can use different techniques.

On the surface, Free Meek and 13th both look at the racism inherent in the criminal justice system in America in similar ways. Both effectively use hip hop songs to transition between different sections, which provides insight into the emotional impact of police brutality and racism in the judicial system. The songs reiterate the facts and revelations revealed in the documentary, but add raw, emotional weight to these facts. Both documentaries also use visual text to state clear, startling facts and statistics, allowing them to make a big impression on the viewer and become easier to remember. Further, both have very invocative titles. Free Meek echoes famous chants like “free Huey” from the 1960s, whilst also serving as an imperative, implying Meek Mill is still not free, even though he is out of prison. 13th suggests that the problems in the documentary stem from that very amendment all those decades ago, whilst also invoking the idea of unlucky number 13. The two documentaries seem to employ very similar techniques to rally the calls for social change.

The main difference between the two documentaries is one of perspective. Free Meek looks at the need for criminal justice reform through the life of the Philadelphia rapper Meek Mill. Chronologically chronicling his life from young rapper taking part in rap battles to megastar in the company of Jay Z (executive producer for the documentary), Rick Ross and Nicki Minaj, the documentary represents the criminal justice system as a hindrance on his career. At 19, Meek was arrested for carrying an unlicensed firearm, but he was falsely accused of 18 other crimes by his arresting officer. He did a short amount of prison time, but was given ten years probation. Meek’s probation period is still not over. The terms of his probation have affected everything from his live tours, to when he can and cannot release music, as well as his relationship with his family. Free Meek incites anger and a sense of injustice at the criminal justice through a very personal story, framing it as a hindrance on a blossoming artist.

If Free Meek is a close up of this issue, then 13th is an establishing shot. DuVernay’s 2016 film  uses eloquent interviews with an eclectic and impressive range of experts offering many different angles, whether social, political, economic, or historical, on the issue. Whilst Free Meek does use experts, most of the interviews are with people close to Meek, and are used to emphasise the emotional impact of his unjust convictions. 13th uses well-sourced archive material to show that this is an issue affecting many African-Americans; Free Meek uses reconstructions of the stories Meek has to tell. Unfortunately, the reconstructions are not as impactful as the truly uncomfortable viewing provided by the archive material. It provides a brutal, more lucid look at similar examples of police mistreatment. DuVernay’s film has a much wider scope too. It starts with the end of the US Civil War and the abolition of slavery, and chronicles the history of US race relations from this point, looking at the links between segregation, the war on drugs and the rise of  mass incarceration.

The wider perspective allows for the more effective documentary. Whilst Free Meek does make attempts to suggest Meek’s story is part of a wider systemic problem, for many interviewees make this point, it takes such a close up look of his story that it can be easy to forget other people are being affected by these issues too. For example, the documentary ends with a piece of visual text stating that Meek Mill has finally been granted a new trial with a new judge, something he has been struggling to get throughout the second half of the mini-series. It frames this change of judge as a triumph, which it is, but only for Meek. It does not draw attention to the fact Judge Brinkley, whom the documentary suggests is highly corrupt, has not lost her job and will be able to judge other cases. It is just relieved she is no longer on Meek’s case. The ending of the documentary mini-series also fails to draw attention to the fact Judge Brinkley is part of a much wider problem- will changing the judge actually make that much of a difference if the system itself remains unreformed? The time spent talking about irrelevant details like Meek’s arguments with Drake and his relationship with Nicki Minaj could have been spent situating Meek’s situation within a much wider context. It is effective at getting you to sympathise with Meek. By the end, you’ll be chanting “free Meek” too. However, to truly grasp the horrifying injustice of the criminal justice system, 13th is much better equipped to provide that insight.

One very important issue has been raised by these two documentaries. The film and the mini-series use two very different perspectives. Free Meek is much more personal and focused on the life of one man. 13th looks at the issue of racism in the justice system as a product of historic and social race relations in America. Whilst the latter is much more effective at driving home the magnitude of the issue, both have a substantial impact, moving the audience with very powerful, emotional stories. They both raise awareness of a very important, which, sadly, remains an unresolved one.

Retrospective Reviews: The Incredible Hulk (2008)

By the time the Avengers assembled, Marvel Studios and Kevin Fiege had found their formula. They found a rhythm which most of the later Marvel Cinematic Universe films would follow- a rhythm that echoes Iron Man more than it does Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk, both released in 2008. Starring Edward Norton, this film is often considered the weakest link in the chain of twenty three movies of world building. It feels like it belongs to another franchise, but this does not necessarily the film is a bad one; rather, it is extremely underrated.

The formal aspects of The Incredible Hulk are much stronger here than in many of the other films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It is one of the more streamlined entries in the franchise, and has one of the shortest running times. Many have criticised superhero films for being too long- Endgame approached the three hour mark, much to the dismay of those with a small bladder.  Part of the reason for this is the fact the film starts in media res. The origin story, which often slows down the pacing of superhero films, delaying the exciting superhero action for at least forty minutes, is told in an effective montage during the opening credits. It is impressive how much of the origin story of Bruce Banner (Edward Norton), and the conflicts that will become central to the film, are told with so few words. With only images and short clips, the audience is brought right up to speed, and we swiftly get  into the film’s rising action. The music adds to this opening montage too. In fact, Craig Armstrong’s score is one of the film’s greatest assets, making the action more tense, and the emotional moments more overwhelming. It is very memorable too. MCU movies are rarely known for their scores, but this film breaks the mould of the MCU formula. Formally, The Incredible Hulk is one of the strongest in the series.

Many of the narrative problems that have held back many of the MCU films from reaching true greatness are not present here; for one, it has two great villains. Ross (William Hurt) is ruthless, and a dark cloud that Banner can never quite shake off. The two characters are connected by a love for Betty Ross (Liv Tyler), already giving the hero and villain relationship more complexity than those depicted in most MCU films. Their views on the Hulk are completely opposed. One believes the Hulk is too dangerous and chaotic to be controlled, and the other believes the Hulk can be controlled to be used as the ultimate weapon. Ross is in awe of something Banner fears completely. The fact both worked as colleagues on the project that created the Hulk only adds to the interesting dynamic. Ross’ ruthless pursuit of the power he created leads to the creation of the Abomination, the Hulk’s evil, destructive equal. Once Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth), he represents Ross’ vision for the Hulk weapons programme taken to its extreme conclusion. This is not to suggest Blonsky/Abomination is a mere pawn, though. He has many motivations of his own. He is a soldier who has passed his prime. The Hulk’s power reminds him of the soldier he once was, and he wants that back. Further, he is jealous of the power, and does not believe Banner deserves it. Addiction plays an interesting role too. Ross gives him a smaller dose of the super soldier serum that Banner used. As with many drugs, the user is left chasing the high. He relishes in the power given to him, and he wants more. MCU villains are usually like the Brain- they only want to “take over the world”. Or, if Fiege really wants to mix things up, they might want revenge against Tony Stark. This early MCU gem is refreshing because it has two great villains where most MCU films can barely manage one.

Norton’s Banner is a refreshing antidote to the repetitive nature of MCU protagonists. Whilst most MCU superheroes experience positive character development, ooze confidence, display quick-witted humour, and are adored by those around them, Banner is a refreshing change. He is a reluctant hero who sees his powers as a burden. Thankfully, he has Betty Ross’ support to stop him falling into a pit of despair. Their love is another highlight of this film, in fact. It is authentic and moving, rather than just cheap flirting, like in other MCU movies. Banner is different from other MCU heroes in other ways too. Instead of joking about everything, Banner is a lot more muted. Most of Norton’s excellent acting employs the use of his eyes and his body. Captain America, who took a very similar serum, may be a national icon, but Banner never gets a warm reception. The Hulk is something to be feared, and that takes its toll on Banner. To be fair to people who encounter the Hulk, the character design of this version is much more intimidating and frightening. Ruffalo’s Hulk looks huggable and not particularly threatening. Even Thanos would be cautious around the savage, raw power of the Hulk depicted here. Banner is not your typical MCU protagonist, and it is a welcome change for someone who has seen them all.

The Incredible Hulk is completely standalone and self-contained; yet, it is integral to phase one of the MCU. Banner is represented as a dark foil to Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man. Both created their superhero powers, but only one wants it. One is allowed to enjoy adoration from the public. The other is feared. One has a close group of supporting friends. The other is a lone American hiding in Brazil. Tony Stark creates most of his villains through his own behaviour and actions. Banner does everything he can to avoid conflict. To understand Iron Man/Tony Stark more fully, you need to see this movie, despite it being completely self-contained. Further, the super soldier serum that creates the Hulk is a 21st century version of the one used to create Captain America. This provides an organic link to the rest of the MCU that does not feel shoehorned in (particularly in comparison to some of the heavy handed foreshadowing of Thor: Ragnarok in Age of Ultron). This film achieves the impressive feat of smoothly sliding itself into the MCU through characterisation and subtle plot points, whilst also being completely standalone.

This film has often been overshadowed. It is the ugly duckling of the MCU. It stands out and uses a different formula from the other movies. It is much gloomier and darker than the typical MCU movie, where nothing can go wrong. However, everything that makes this movie different is a strength. This is one of the MCU’s strongest movies, and a completely underrated gem.

Comedy’s Changing: Superbad vs. Booksmart

High school graduation is approaching. Two best friends want to go out with a bang, and, over the course of one day, prepare for, and try to get to, the biggest party in the neighbourhood. Once they reach the party, they realise the celebrations are not going as imagined, and they learn something about themselves during the night of partying. Two films may have come to mind when you read this paragraph: Booksmart (2019) and Superbad (2007). Both films are very similar in terms of premise and structure. However, there are key differences to these two hilarious comedies. Looking at these differences reveals how much comedies, and movies in general, have changed over the last twelve years.

Wilde’s debut film was clearly made in a movie context where the representation of women and female sexuality is much more common. The most notable difference between Mottola’s Superbad and Wilde’s film is that female characters are leading, instead of male characters. Booksmart is aiming to represent stories that are never really talked about in the teen comedy genre. Female sexuality finds greater representation in Wilde’s film. Masturbation, desires and orgasms are discussed with a candidness, as it smoothly weaves its way into the conversations of the two main characters. Men in this kind of film do this all the time. With regards to women, this has never really been depicted on screen.

To say that Booksmart is simply Superbad but with women does not do justice to the effortless way it incorporates a diverse range of characters. We discover that Amy (Dever), one of the main characters, is gay in such a natural way. It never defines her character; it is part of who she is as a person, and she is represented with the adorable awkwardness that is usually only reserved for the straight characters and their crushes. You never feel like the diversity has been tacked on in order to appeal to political views of this decade. All of the characters, whether gay, straight, black or white, are just allowed to be themselves. It is organic and brilliant to see on screen. Mottola’s Superbad, in comparison, is about three straight white guys. Their love interests are also white, and skinny too. Molly (Feldstein), in comparison, is overweight, but that never becomes a barrier. I don’t think it is ever mentioned or highlighted either. The world of Booksmart is much more inclusive, and chooses to represent stories that were previously underrepresented. This does not mean Superbad is an inferior film; however, it goes to show the rising prominence of diversity in cinema over the last twelve years.

The main characters are also motivated to party for completely different reasons. Molly and Amy have been workaholics throughout their time in high school, believing it is the only way to get into college. However, their peers managed to get into the same colleges despite partying every weekend. A wave of regret and a sense of waste overwhelms Molly, so she and Amy set out to cram four years of fun into a single evening. The characters in Superbad are obsessed with getting laid so that they have had an appropriate amount of practice in time for college. Booksmart is also a deconstruction and subversion of the familiar teen comedy film. The binary between jocks and nerds has been chucked out completely. Girls are no longer the prize waiting to be grabbed by the underdog male hero. Superbad’s protagonists are slackers who mock the high achievers like Fogell/McLovin. The high achievers are the protagonists of Booksmart. Whilst both films are hilarious, there is a greater maturity and complexity to the motivations of the main characters in Booksmart.

Further, the later film is much less reliant on brash, offensive humour. Following the Me Too movement, it is startling to hear the constant dick jokes, to hear Seth (Hill) speculating on whether a woman can “take a dick” or watch him get mocked after menstrual blood is accidentally rubbed on his leg. The humour of Superbad is from a world that does not exist anymore. Booksmart is still absolutely hilarious, but it never feels at the expense of a particular character, or mocking of a particular stereotype. Superbad has a truly iconic character who can still crack you up to this day in McLovin, something Booksmart is missing. This is not necessarily a bad thing though. Part of McLovin’s representation involves brutal mocking and shaming. Seth throws some shocking insults at him. Booksmart is funny without bordering on the line of bullying.

Humour has changed over the last twelve years. It was much more offensive and reliant on shock factor than it is today. Cinema has also changed. It has become more inclusive, and is representing underrepresented stories. Superbad reflects a world where the high school experience seemed to be defined by your average straight men. Whilst Superbad is still hilarious and some of its characters have reached iconic status, it is refreshing for Booksmart to show that other high school stories exist.

The Stars Are Going Out?

The night sky is supposedly looking ever darker for Hollywood, for the stars are apparently disappearing. A recent Hollywood Reporter suggests that Leonardo DiCaprio is the last actor whose very presence elevates the film’s status and suggests its high quality. His films rarely flop, and he does not depend on social media, or doing multiple blockbusters a year, in order to maintain his cultural currency. Whilst this may be true, it does not have to be seen as a negative. Rather, it just reflects changes in what audiences want from film.

It certainly does appear that Leonardo DiCaprio is the last truly bankable star in Hollywood, if you go by Tatiana Siegel’s definition from the Hollywood Reporter. A Hollywood star is someone who does not star in franchise films, nor family movies, because they do not need to play it safe. They can take risks, and work on more original projects because their name alone is a hallmark for success. The highest grossing films being released today are no longer sold through the actors in them; rather, they are sold through the brand. The commodity being sold has changed from actor name to series name. “Check out the new Fast and Furious film, or the latest instalment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe”, to paraphrase movie advertisers. Whoever stars in the film appears to matter less. It is hard to imagine an original film with Dwayne Johnson or Will Smith grossing nearly a billion dollars. The Fast and Furious and Disney brands power their 2019 movies, not their starlight. There is a reason why Rogue One had “A Star Wars Story”, and why Hobbes and Shaw has “Fast and Furious Presents:”, in their respective titles. Audiences want to see extensions of films they have already seen. They want films set in familiar worlds, with recognisable faces and scores. DiCaprio has never starred in a franchise film, but his films constantly make a lot of money. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood recently had the biggest opening for a Tarantino film; coincidentally (?), it is the first to have DiCaprio on top billing. Despite the four year hiatus, DiCaprio remains a bankable star.

However, this is an outdated definition, reflecting a previous era. There are still big names in Hollywood who can draw audiences with their mere presence. Whilst you could argue people went to see Legend because it was about the Kray Twins, one must remember their story has been told a hundred times. Tom Hardy was the main draw of that film. Despite being a great movie, would anyone have gone to see Mandy if Nicholas Cage was not in it? Both of these actors have starred in a franchise, though. Should they be discounted as Hollywood stars? I think not. Brad Pitt starred in the Ocean’s franchise, meaning he should be discounted too. Yet, the main reason I am aware of, and want to see, Ad Astra, is because he is in it. Starring in a franchise film does not make one less of a star. It is more likely that Tom Hardy wanted to star in Mad Max: Fury Road. It is considered one of the best films of this decade, and perhaps Tom Hardy wanted to be part of what looked like a promising project. Starring in a Hollywood franchise may not be a sign an actor is desperate for popularity. Actors can still find value in starring in a film like Mad Max or The Dark Knight, even if the snobs consider them “mere” franchise films.

Another reason for the decline of Hollywood megastars is because Hollywood is finally becoming more diverse. In the past, only the most privileged were being represented: middle-class, white, straight men were everywhere in the film landscape until very recently. There was a smaller pool of people Hollywood was using in their movies, meaning those rich, white, straight and male actors had more of a chance to develop their “star status”. They were appearing in more films, and had more of a chance to develop a recognisable brand of their own. Now, things are thankfully changing for the better. We are starting to see more films with female leads, more films about homosexual romances instead of just films with heterosexual love stories, etc. There is a more eclectic range of people from different backgrounds leading Hollywood movies, to reflect a diverse and eclectic world. Audiences want to be represented in cinema, and using the same old white, male, straight and middle class stars over and over again, as was done before, is hardly going to lead to fair representation.

Hollywood is changing. There are more actors and from more diverse backgrounds. White, male, straight and middle-class actors are no longer the “go-to” cash cow. They are starring in less movies, and have less of a chance to develop their star status. This is not a bad thing. Diversity in Hollywood has been a long time coming and it is refreshing to see the changing direction of the wind. Hollywood is also changing in that stars are no longer the main commodity being sold. Instead, it is the franchise name or the series title. Whilst there are a lot of bad franchise films, some absolute gems have come from franchises over the last fifteen years or so. As long as a diverse range of talented actors continue to star in moving and valuable films, who cares whether it is a sequel or not?

Retrospective Reviews: Jackie Brown (1997)

Watch this as soon as you can…

Coming second in a tournament will always appear disappointing if you have already won the same competition; likewise, creating an impressive piece of cinema will always be considered a disappoint if you are making a follow-up to what is widely, and rightfully, considered to be one of the best films of all time. This was Tarantino’s challenge in the late 90s as he was filming Jackie Brown, his first film after Pulp Fiction. For many, he failed to escape the shadow of his greatest work with his 1997 film about an air hostess (played by Pam Grier) who smuggles gun money from Mexico into the USA for the criminal Ordell Robbie (played by frequent Tarantino collaborator Samuel L. Jackson). Whilst this film may be different from Pulp Fiction, it is still a Tarantino classic in its own right, with plenty to impress.

From the outset, Tarantino seems to have deliberately embarked on a project that would differ from Pulp Fiction. For one, Jackie Brown is his first film adapted from a novel, Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch. He is not using an original screenplay here, and the hip ironic tone of his first two movies is replaced with a less chaotic narrative with a more gracious tone. His third film is also paying homage to a very different kind of genre, the 1970s blaxpoitation film, rather than early 20th century pulp crime magazines. Further, one of the most noticeable things about Tarantino’s third feature length film is how it is straight forward in structure. The chronology is mostly linear, apart from the final act, which could be a direct response to the fact Pulp Fiction is one of the most famous non-chronological narratives of all time. You could argue that this makes Jackie Brown less inventive, not as interesting, and far more conventional. However, the mostly linear chronology works well . The best thing about Tarantino’s films is how they are told. You can never imagine them being structured in any other way. Telling Jackie Brown more or less chronologically, differing from Pulp Fiction profoundly, allows for the slow release of information that keeps the audience hooked throughout.

Despite being different from his previous work, this film is still quintessentially Tarantino. There are still elements of non-linear chronology. In the final act, Jackie Brown is involved in an illegal exchange of a large sum of money. Whilst this may seem straight forward enough, one must consider the intelligence and scheming of the eponymous character. Earlier in the film, she is caught  smuggling and is given an ultimatum: snitch on Ordell, a crime punishable by death, or go to prison. She, along with bail bondsman and admirer (Forster), hatches a scam to play both the cops and Ordell against each other. To capture the scheme, Tarantino depicts it three times, from the perspectives of three different sets of characters. The final act thus runs like a yo-yo, constantly moving backwards and forwards in time to reveal more and more information about what Jackie is doing. It makes a simple exchange far more complex and interesting; it arrests your attention for longer and never feels tedious. Non-linear chronology is one of Tarantino’s hallmarks, and he does employ it here to superb effect.

Other hallmarks of Tarantino can also be found here. There is a split-screen sequence that smoothly transitions into the film without feeling out of place or jolting. There is remarkable crane shot used to depict Ordell’s deceit as he does not drive Beaumont to a gun trade; rather, he drives him to the middle of nowhere to murder him. The tracking shots of Jackie Brown, framed so that we only see the side of her as she walks have the typical Tarantino magic you cannot look away from. The songs playing in the background, like the rest of the soundtrack, are also chosen with perfect accuracy. You could not imagine any other song working. Tarantino has an impressive ear, and eye, for cinema. His impeccable skill in casting is also present in his third movie. Pam Grier nails the smart, stylish and cunning character of Jackie Brown. Samuel L. Jackson is intimidating as the movie’s antagonist. Robert De Niro is clueless and lethargic as Louis, and always a joy to watch, even when he is not saying or doing anything of note. There may be less blood-baths and violence, and the film may be one of Tarantino’s longer pieces, but it is also oozing with many of the tropes that make Tarantino such a remarkable filmmaker.

Tarantino, as always, has directed a film that is technically impressive, remarkably told, and thoroughly entertaining. Despite the pressure of following one of the greatest films of all time, he further cements himself as one of the most important filmmakers alive today, and has created a film that soars high in its own right.

Retrospective Reviews: Mean Streets (1973)

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Director Martin Scorsese described one of his earliest films as an “an attempt to put myself and my old friends on the screen, to show how we lived, what life was like in Little Italy. It was really an anthropological or a sociological tract”. The second half of this description is key to understanding one of this legendary director’s oldest films. It is less about any single character, and more about the city setting, and recreating what it is like to live on the eponymous mean streets. This drive to capture Little Italy leads to inventive cinematography that is stylistically impressive, even if it means character and plot remain in the backstreets, hardly in the forefront.

There is a boundless energy and creativity to the cinematography in this film. Opening with a family home video style montage with “Be My Baby” playing in the background, your attention is grabbed already (in fact, the entire soundtrack is superb. Every song chosen is memorable, a joy to hear, and contributes to the mood of the scene). This opening is ironic, given the title, and the film’s dark depiction of Little Italy. It contrasts significantly with the destructive ending, to say the least. The network of characters depicted are an active volcano where violence erupts frequently. Everyone owes everyone money, and everybody is forced to pay up eventually. To capture this grim, dark outlook of the mean streets, Scorsese employs his signature range of shots. Seemingly every possible shot from tracking to tilting, some from the corner of a roof to some long close ups with Keitel’s face central to the frame, is used to recreate the city setting, and present an authentic, yet grim reality.

Despite one critic describing this movie as a character piece, I feel like characters sit in the backseat in favour of this authentic representation of the mean streets. Some of the minor characters feel like they have just stumbled in front of the camera, and then randomly fall out of shot again. They don’t appear to service the plot; rather, they help develop the sense of a vibrant city full of life. The main characters, for the most part, are not particularly memorable, which is quite disappointing in Charlie’s case, played by Harvey Keitel. Keitel usually works wonders when he stars in a film. The Wolf is one cinema’s iconic roles, and he is only in Pulp Fiction for a short sequence! He doesn’t shine so brightly here.

Keitel is completely overshadowed by the one memorable character in this film: Johnny Boy, played by Robert De Niro. From his very first scene where he walks away from a letterbox bomb that he planted, walking with a clumsy, youthful excitement, De Niro portrays this off-the-wall, unpredictable character convincingly. De Niro steals every scene he appears in. Watching him is so much fun. He is funny, charming and entirely volatile at the same time. Unfortunately, Scorsese makes the unwise decision to leave him out for most of the second act. This adds to his unpredictable nature as a character, but makes the film far less entertaining as it could have been.

This film’s main concern is with recreating, almost anthropologically, the life of Little Italy. You could almost call it a documentary in its attention to detail. It is also very creative in its use of cinematography to create a panoramic depiction of the city. Using the legendary director’s signature style, maturing and developing throughout, Scorsese really gives the impression that this place is alive. Sadly, save for De Niro’s Johnny Boy, the same cannot be said for his characters.

Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs and Shaw (2019)

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From the first rev of the engine, this latest instalment of the Fast and Furious franchise establishes a world where basically anything can happen. Bionic men, characters with nigh superhuman abilities, logic-defying stunts and a deadly super weapon that can wipe out the planet. This film has it all, and from its opening, we are shown that anything goes. It is also highly self-aware, as characters often acknowledge the predictive and over the top nature of the film.  Getting this tone and crazy world established early allows the audience to suspend their disbelief, and for the director, David Leitch (Atomic Blonde, John Wick and Deadpool 2), to get creative and original, in places. Nevertheless, a lot of this film is highly unoriginal, and it really leaves with the sense that this film could have been so much better.

In places, this film can be imaginative, and there is a lot of fun to be had for fans of the franchise so far. I particularly enjoyed the final chase sequence involving the helicopter, when multiple cars are attached together so that their joint weight can keep the helicopter from taking off. Ridiculous? Absolutely. It is also inventive and fun to watch. As I’ve said, the film’s tone asks you to suspend your disbelief. If you do, sequences like this are great popcorn entertainment. Visually, you can tell the director had a lot of colourful, creative energy. Hobbs (Johnson) and Shaw (Statham) are both introduced split-screen. Each side has its own hue that contrast significantly, suggesting how different these characters are. Yet, both are doing exactly the same thing in their respective sequences running simultaneously through the split-screen: investigating, interrogating, and trying to help with the issue at hand. In a creative manner, Leitch establishes that, whilst these two heroes may have different methods and styles, they are essentially motivated by the same desire to help. 

Further, the dialogue can be clever. This film is filled with extended imagery, such as the idea of dancing used to establish that Hattie (Kirby), an MI6 agent with a connection to Shaw, is someone who works alone- she has never heard of the tango, she tells Hobbs, wittily. I also like the “you catch him. I’ll gut him” line. This fishing metaphor cements the growing team dynamic between Hobbs and Shaw, as they both learn that they have a part to play in defeating Brixton (Elba). There are many references to pop culture that don’t feel tacked on, and often serve to develop a relationship between two characters. I particularly like how a reference to Game of Thrones was used to make the sweet father-daughter relationship between Hobbs and his little girl even cuter. There are many set ups for jokes and cool lines in the first half that pay off much later in the film, which helps create a more cohesive narrative. The dialogue does have its moments to shine.

However, these glimmers of brilliance in the dialogue are few and far between. For the most part, the dialogue is littered with cliches of the genre: “the asset has been found”, “brace yourself”, “I’ve hacked the mainframe”, and “want a war?” are lines that are ubiquitous within the action movie genre. Hearing them again here gives off a sense of laziness, and a lack of inspiration. They are used to move the plot forward, but, unfortunately, in a cliched manner. Some of the lines are unforgivably corny too- who uses “your mum” jokes today? Perhaps this film was written by a thirteen year old in 2012. Whilst the insults between Hobbs and Shaw can be entertaining in places, these exchanges go on for far too long, and become borderline worrying indicators for their toxic masculinity and aggressive macho attitudes. Interesting dialogue, for a majority of the film, is secondary to the action and to maintaining the plot’s momentum. 

This may be a worthwhile cause if the plot and action were consistently creative; sadly, it is not. Considering the director of John Wick is behind this instalment, the fight choreography is not very inspired. The major set pieces and plot points are also taken from other action movies. Hobbs holding down a helicopter with his own strength has been ripped straight out of Captain America: Civil War. The biological weapon is essentially the same MacGuffin from Mission Impossible 2. The premise of the ending- making a noble last stand against an unstoppable enemy in the eponymous hero’s childhood home- is too similar to Skyfall’s ending. Changing the setting from Scotland to Samoa does not hide that. Shaw and Hattie being revealed to be siblings will only surprise those who have never watched a film in their life. Even if you have not watched this movie yet, I can confidently say you’ve already seen nine tenths of it.

To reiterate, this film is a lot of fun if you are capable of suspending your disbelief. Sometimes enjoyable scenes filled creativity do shine their way through the gaps in the curtain. However, to also enjoy this film, you have to be able to forgive it for ripping off much better, more beloved, action franchises. I just about managed it, but I would not take this car for another ride.

The Irishman Trailer- Thoughts

This is not a drill. The master of the crime film, and one of the most influential directors of all time, Martin Scorsese, is returning this Autumn. is bringing his new film to Netflix. Starring frequent collaborator Robert De Niro as Frank Sheeran, a hitman who recalls his history with the mob, Al Pacino (they’re finally working together!) as Jimmy Hoffa, the union boss who famously disappeared, and Pesci playing Russel Bufalino, this is a very exciting project.

Compared to The Wolf of Wall Street, this film appears to have a much more sombre tone. There is none of the nonchalant debauchery hyped up by an epic Kanye West beat in this trailer. It also looks much less energetic than Goodfellas. The Irishman looks like a more muted, slower and considered story of the criminal underworld. We are in for a less glamourised, and much more murky portrayal of the mob life. Despite differing from previous work, this trailer reminds us that the film is in very safe, familiar hands. Scorsese’s signature style is all over this.

We get a glimpse at the de-aged De Niro and the technology is looking as impressive as ever. How do they do it? The Irishman depicts a large period of Sheeran’s life, so this technology will likely be used for the earlier parts of the film (assuming it is in chronological order).

The film will open New York Festival. For those not fortunate to enough to have a ticket for that, the film comes to Netflix later in the year. Given the commercial failure and lack of awards buzz surrounding the underrated Silence, it is perhaps not a surprise that Scorsese is going back to his roots for this film. The trailer is, at the time of writing, number two on YouTube trends, so this will likely be a smart career move for Scorsese. Much like the rise and fall of Nintendo, with the highly successes Wii console being followed by the commercial bomb of the Wii U, only to be followed by the successful Switch, Scorsese is likely aiming to capture the imaginations of film audiences like he did with The Wolf of Wall Street. This trailer gives me confidence that he will. I’m very excited indeed.