Monday, 16 April 2018

A Marvellous Movie

I may have turned my son into a political activist. I'm not sure, but I think he may be on the verge of joining a rebel group in a far off continent. There could be complications as the group are renowned for being highly secretive and not accepting people from outside cultures. That and the fact that he's 8 years old.

And the fact that Wakanda doesn't actually exist.

Yes, I took my son to see Black Panther at the weekend, the first 12A certificated film we've seen at the cinema together. It turns out that he knows an awful lot more about the Marvel universe than I do, no doubt due to a mix of watching the Iron Man cartoon on Netflix, reading some books at school and having friends who are well versed in the mythos (as well as a cousin who could actually talk for days about both the Marvel and DC universes without pausing from breath).

For what it's worth I haven't really gone too deep into the lore, I enjoy some of the Marvel films, but can generally take it or leave it. While some of my work colleagues almost had heart attacks when the Infinity War trailer first aired, I shrugged my shoulders and said that it looked okay. "Only okay"? they said. "Don't you understand the significance of blah, blah, blah....." No, I don't understand the significance of any of it. Left to me, Guardians of the Galaxy would stay in its own film franchise and never touch Iron Man and chums. But what do I know? Not a lot actually, especially about this stuff.

So, the lad was desperate to see it. He'd also like to see Deadpool but clearly has no idea how massively inappropriate that would be for him (thanks Lego Marvel for including him in your games). In a bid to stay in touch I had a look at the BBFC ratings app and concluded that while there was some very minor swearing he would be okay to watch it, he's come home from school having discovered worse and we have strict rules in our house about what is and isn't allowed to be said (at least for the kids). With fingers crossed I booked tickets.

When Saturday comes.

We travelled to town and he was super excited. I love taking my children to the cinema, it's something we always do in the holidays and this was the first time since Big Hero 6 that just the two of us went (his sister saw Peter Rabbit with his mum the next day, there may be a future guest blog post if we're lucky). We got lunch, picked up the tickets, bought an eye-wateringly expensive bag of popcorn and went in.

And we were blown away.

No wonder this is one of the highest grossing films ever made. It is an absolute stunner of a movie. Yes, the plot's quite straight forward. Yes, there is a big fight in act three. And yes, you have a good shot of being able to plot the major beats of the film in the first twenty minutes, but the delivery and commentary on all manner of issues is done so deftly and with such comedy and grace that you can't help but be taken along with it all.

Marvel has done something really important here, they have put their money where their mouth is and made a strong film that focusses on Africans and African-Americans and portrays them without caricature and without feeling the need to justify anything. I came out wondering why the major studios haven't had the balls to do this before. What were they waiting for? What were they afraid of? I've heard people complain that this is a film for the modern, apologist PC world but that's frankly bollocks. I can't grasp historic issues of race in America and the western world, I understand them but I am a step removed. I understand that I live in privilege and am from a country that has a brutal history of suppressing minorities and taking over countries they think are beneath them. We have dug up kings and ransacked the riches of a variety of cultures and profited off all of it. I can't go back and change any of that, but it's about time Hollywood stopped portraying Africa as a continent of despair, and focussing on African-Americans as either Uncle Tom's or gangsters.

I firmly believe that it's important to see your own race and culture portrayed in film in a variety of ways, in balance. There's nothing wrong with seeing negative portrayals, but when they become the default, when they become lazy stereotypes then there is an issue. Which is why I'm not surprised how successful Black Panther has been.

Digging up kings.

If you add up the combination of the appeal of the Marvel franchise, the racial diversity, and the equality of gender roles in this film it's not hard to see why it's done so well. This is a film with universal appeal. I can only imagine some executive looking at how well it's done and working out how they can continue to benefit from this (simple answer, make more diverse movies).

I mentioned above that this film dealt with historic issues with a deft touch. On the one hand it addresses issues such as cultural theft, colonialism, slavery, the continued portrayal of Africa as a desperate continent, and the western belief in the ignorant savage. On the other hand, it doesn't dwell on them. Each case is stated and either moved on from or laughed at, and in some cases both. It's left for the viewer what they want to do with the information. My son won't get the references about one of the tribes being vegetarian, but I took it as a comic take on the old movie threat of the savage cannibal tribes eating the plucky white adventurers.

I could go on. I think this is a really important film, and I hope it proves that there should be no fear in making a film that's not solely based around white characters. If a film's good it will stand up on its own merits. When it also manages to pack a cultural punch as well judged as this then we are potentially entering a golden age of film-making that combines box-office savvy, entertainment, and political film-making. For while Wakanda is completely made-up the themes in this film are real. And that's where it wins over so many other superhero films.

And as a measure of just how good this film was, I didn't even mind Andy Serkis being in it. I can normally only bear his gurning when he's wearing a CGI mask to be honest (and it's hard to top Gollum).

It's worth noting after all this that my son loved this film. He couldn't stop talking about it on the journey home, and when his mate scored a goal the next day at football they both crossed their arms and shouted "Wakanda" at the top of their voices. We haven't found it on the map yet so I don't think he'll be running off any time soon.

Monday, 29 January 2018

Fantastical family films

In our house, Saturday night is family film night. And recently things have taken a turn for the fantastical.

I know where this started. A while ago my lad and I watched the Fellowship of The Ring, one of my favourite films, and now one of his too. We'd read The Hobbit and attempted to read The Lord of The Rings too, but at 8 years old he got a bit bored of all the walking. But he wanted to watch the films so we started with The Fellowship and he loved it. He's a bit too young for the rest of them at the moment so him and his sister started asking about other films they could watch that were similar.

Warwick and Kenny.

Rachel and I started having a think about other fantasy films that we could watch and it didn't take long to get a list together. Labyrinth was already a firm family favourite, The Dark Crystal hadn't quite stuck ("Boooooring"! as my 6 year old daughter would say. She'll learn). They already both loved The Wizard of Oz and The Princess Bride, and then Joey, a colleague at work, leant me Willow.

Well this went down a storm. It's a Tolkien-lite adventure full of magic, sword fights and the other mainstay of the fantasy genre: dwarves.

I mean, it's wall-to-wall little people. Megan loved it because she likes munchkins and oompa-loompas, and Jacob was astonished to find out that Warwick Davis (Willow himself) also played the Ewok Wicket in Return of The Jedi. Throw in a Kenny Baker cameo as a village musician and this became a family favourite in one viewing.

What else can we watch Dad?!

The game was afoot! Now the kids were demanding more. The good news is that the 1980's were littered with fantasy movies, admittedly not many really good ones. While they're too young for Krull, they may enjoy Ladyhawke. I'm on the fence whether Legend is too scary (meaning it's probably too scary), and Return to Oz may scar them thanks to the headless Queen running down a corridor full of screaming heads. But there are plenty of films to choose from (and they all have dwarves in them to boot).

So we struck upon the idea of watching The Chronicles of Narnia series. Admittedly these aren't fantasy films from the 1980's but they went down a storm. The kids got the plot super quick and couldn't get enough of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. I read the books as a child and quite enjoyed them, and I'd only seen the first film and thought that was pretty good. Well, now I've watched Prince Caspian, as well as the Voyage of The Dawn Treader multiple times and they're great to watch with the kids. Once you factor in talking animals (Ray Winstone as a beaver is something I never could have imagined), little people, fantasy creatures galore, massive battles, and travelling between reality and fantasy multiple times these are films that all children could enjoy.

Coming soon to a living room near you...

To continue this theme we decided a couple of weeks ago to show the kids the first 5 minutes of my film choice for the following week. Once the credits had rolled for the Dawn Treader I put on The Time Bandits. The fact that a fully mounted and armoured knight charges out of a wardrobe in the opening scene determined that my kids were fully excited about the next week's film night.

And that's what we watched this weekend (and I'd somehow forgotten that Kenny Baker was in this film as well). The kids ended up really enjoying it. They took a little while to warm up to it as there is a lot of switching locales and characters but they loved the crazy nature of the whole thing. And Randall and chums have quickly become firm favourites in our house. I think I may try them with The Adventures of Baron Munchausen at some point in the not too distant future and see how they get on with that. 

And then maybe Krull. 


Monday, 8 January 2018

The best of 2017 (according to me)

Okay, brace yourselves, here comes the obligatory films of the year blog.

There were loads of films that I was really looking forward to this year (and some I was anticipating with fingers tightly crossed). So here's my list of my favourite films of 2017 (it's a top 5 so your coffee will still be warm by the time you finish reading). And there'll be a few extras at the bottom, which are films that I enjoyed this year even though they weren't released this year. Please note, there are very few arty or edgy films in this list, I don't get out as much as I used to!

So without further ado, and in no particular order, here are my favourite films of 2017....

La La Land
This is one I was really looking forward to, and I wasn't disappointed. Ryan Gosling is turning into a really accomplished actor and paired with Emma Stone this was a beautiful, bittersweet romance that delivered an ending that was both heartbreaking and heartwarming.

I love musicals and this had all the hallmarks of a great one, from the sunny opening on the freeway right through to the piano solo at the end. Everything felt laid back in just the right way, and the commentary on the balance of making a choice between art and commerce was just right.

Add to that a storyline that looks at the success and failings of relationships, as well as the very human ability to imagine where former relationships may have ended up and you've got a winner on your hands.

Bladerunner 2049
I was massively nervous about this one. Bladerunner is high on my all-time favourites list and a sequel felt needless after so many years. But it was stunning. I may have seen this more than once. Quite a few times in fact. On first viewing I was blown away by the sonic assault and the Hans Zimmer soundtrack was superb. If you haven't seen this one in a cinema then you've missed out.

Visually it portrayed a different tone to the original, probably a wise move. Where the first was a mass of different textures, combining almost victorian elements with lived in sci-fi, this borrowed heavily from the 1950's and had a more minimalist look and feel.

Storywise, it paid great attention to the original and I can't help but think that the fact that Ryan Gosling's character was openly a replicant was a great nod to the whole "is he or isn't he" question that trailed Deckard for years. And Gaff turned up.

Star Wars The Last Jedi
I loved it. I loved. I loved it. Yes, it had flaws. The kids, the casino, and Leia's outer space floaty thing were all slight missteps but the effect on me of the whole film was of a movie that was moving away from the reliance on the original trilogy, and carving it's own storyline.

I loved the fact that a couple of the main questions from The Force Awakens (such as who are Rey's parents) were dealt with in such short ways (her parents were nobodies, take that fan theories!). This felt like a step away from pandering to an audience, something that The Force Awakens had to do after the terrible prequels.

And here's something else, I'm already bored of having to justify why I like this film so much. I don't give a hoot about the minutae of the background, I want an exciting sci-fi film that makes me feel like  a 10 year old all over again and this delivered in spades. Space battles? Light sabres? Dark vs light? Unlikely odds being overturned? Tick, tick, tick, tick.

I love the fact that this film has caused so many conversations and binary views but if people want to use it to brow beat me into forcing their particular worldview upon me they can do one. And it's also one of the best examples of a big budget film using a multi-cultural cast and putting women in positions of genuine authority which is ABOUT FUCKING TIME.

I've written about this one before, so I'll keep it short. This is a film where the director clearly has faith in his ability to tell a story visually. There's nothing fussy about this film, the soundtrack (also by Hans Zimmer) complements the story brilliantly, the pacing is wonderful, and the tension is racked right up.

This feels like a war movie made in opposition to the way modern war films work, and it's all the better for it.

Paddington 2
A late contender, but this one gets in by the seat of its pants. I took the children to see this between Christmas and new year and it's every bit as good as the first one. I've never been much of a fan of the cosy British RADA-fest style of movies, their very chummy smugness always put me off. But somehow the Paddington movies rise above this. Both films are great fun, brilliantly acted and innovatively put together. Hugh Grant fits his part perfectly, and any film that ends with a Busby Berkeley song and dance number set in a British prison is fine by me.

Even friends of mine who prefer edgier movies agree on this one. Paddington 2 is a massive warm bear hug of a film.

So they're my favourites, but here's another few that I watched this year which I really enjoyed:

Get Out
This is a batshit crazy film that takes you on a journey that you couldn't guess at the start. Startling, funny, horrific, and with a twist that switches genres and not just plot, it's a massive poke in the eye for how American culture treats race.

The Good Guys
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is one of my all time favourite films and whilst this is clearly just a retread that doesn't quite hit the high notes of the former, it's still a really funny film. It was much better the second time I watched it as I think the expectations had diminished and the comic relationship of Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe was spot on.

On the back of Bill Paxton's death this year a friend lent me a copy of his directorial debut. I'd read about it years ago but never managed to see it and I'm glad I ended the year by watching it (after, it must be said, failing to watch it for about 2 months after it was lent to me). Just like Bill, it's a solid, reliable movie that is full of great performances and a nicely nuanced plot. And it's got Powers Booth in it. Which should be enough of a reason to watch for anyone.

Guardians of the Galaxy 2
I braved watching this again and all was fine, it probably isn't the greatest movie, and it's flaws are even more apparent on a second viewing but few films have affected me quite as much on first viewing this year. Damn it, the cinema must have been dusty for I swear there was something in my eye!

Gods of Egypt
We all need to have a rock solid bad movie in our back pocket. Whilst not made in 2017 this one certainly lit up my year. It's a shocker. A big budget turd of a film by a director who should know better. It's full of great actors dialling in their performances for a pay check. It's got CGI that wouldn't have cut it ten years ago. You could guess the plot after the opening credits. Bizarrely, this may be one of Gerard Butler's finer films (Geostorm anyone?).

I hope you had some favourites in the last year too. Happy new year!