Joker: Controversy in all the wrong places

Joker, the long awaited stand alone origin story that director Todd Phillips consistently refers to as ‘a real movie’ (like making a superhero film is akin to making bombs for ISIS), premieres this week. The Scorsese influenced character piece turned heads from the moment it premiered at the Venice Film Festival and has only become more reviled since. One critic referred to it as ‘a dangerous movie,’ suggesting that the level of violence combined with a (vaguely) realistic depiction of mental deterioration and most crucially the political uprising of the downcast working class might encourage the more small minded of the IRL population to take their all-too-available guns out of the closet and rise up.

Joker indeed touches on issues of class and suppression and there’s absolutely a Marxist reading of the text, albeit a superficial one. The root of Gotham’s issues are at best merely hinted at and the civil discourse exists purely as a) a narrative culmination of the discovery of purpose in Fleck’s warped mind, b) the introduction the Wayne family in a semi-organic way (this is still a bat-film after all), and perhaps most pressingly c) the creation of an anarchistic and fabulously chaotic set piece for an explosive finale. Despite water cooler levels of political depth, what is clear is that Joker presents neither an incitement of revolution or a romanticism of graphic violence. What the public (and disturbingly, the allegedly ‘professionally trained film critics’) fail to understand is the distinction between the process of character alignment and the active approval of said character’s actions.

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As we watch Walter White’s family life crumble, do we approve of his insistence on cooking more meth? Of course not. We do, however, understand his motivations and empathise with him because of the perspective of which the story is told, i.e: his own. In the same vein, Arthur Fleck’s story (however unreliable the narration may be) shows a downtrodden man beaten by his society in the worst ways possible. By our very nature as empathetic beings, we feel for him because at our core, we fundamentally don’t like to see another living creature be harmed. I’ve therefore no doubt that where these self important, ‘woke’ critics made their minds up about Joker was during the ‘yuppie scene.’

As Arthur (still not yet Joker) guns down three sexually and psychically abusive upper class blokes, we get a thrill. Of course we do; he’s the protagonist and it feels warranted; it’s self defence, right? This feeling scares people. People who don’t like to think that they’re siding with a violent psychopath and instead write hyperbolised propaganda suggesting that the film is ‘psychologically harmful’ (all while raking in thousands of outraged views and comments for the profit of their sites). This pretentious and reflex outlook bares a strikingly worrying similarity to the censorship of early American Cinema, where local authorities aimed to ban any film containing content that might seduce the ‘uneducated masses’ into committing acts of ‘volatile behaviour.’

It also brings back the long debated and incredibly tiresome conversation that’s persisted over the last few decades; ‘violent video games and films incite violent behaviour.’ This ludicrously unproven argument remains a knee jerk reaction whenever an inevitably American shooting tragedy occurs as young Tommy purchases an AK-47 before he can even legally try a Corona. It’s very boring to discuss this topic as the answer is so obvious that it barely warrants the effort it takes to type. So, all I’ll say is that this ‘argument’ shows a profound misunderstanding of gaming and filmic culture and moreover suggests a disconnect with reality on par with The Joker himself. It actively avoids addressing the true problem and is damaging to the artistic experimentation and variety of the industry. The same controversy occurred with the release of American Psycho in 2000. Guess what? Modern society didn’t erupt with a surge of sadistic serial killers, because anybody can see that our protagonist is not someone to be admired or canonised.  Even The Dark Knight was deemed ‘too disturbing for public consumption’ by concerned UK parental groups. It’s a monotonous, never ending tirade of ill-thought out, predictable reactions by groups with no understanding of the medium and sensationalist journalists looking for an easy angle.

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If you truly want to discuss what Joker addresses in terms of society’s failings, please instead write about our woefully inadequate public understanding of mental health. Now, clearly it’s unrealistically stereotypical to craft a narrative where an abusive family and mental health disorder turns you into a disturbed maniac (hello Halloween 2007) but at the end of the day we’re still dealing with a comic book property. Looking beneath surface level criticism though, the undercurrent of commentary on mental health services and the volatile, dismissive, and universally abusive reactions of the public towards a man with obvious issues, raises important societal questions that deserve recognition.

While the attitude of Arthur’s therapist, (‘nobody gives a shit about people like you’), remains on the nose, the point stands. Mental health consistently remains the subject of mockery, bullying, and misunderstanding. You may hate Joker for its blatant stylistic derivations of a better filmmaker, its warping of the Batman mythos, or its overly bleak and depressing tone. What you cannot hate it for is its recognition of society’s very real derogation of the mentally ill. This secret ingredient creates an interpretation of The Joker like no other; as a product of our own society. He’s let down consistently by all around him when he ultimately wants nothing more than compassion, as do we all. Phillips doesn’t advise you to rise up and take from the rich like a hipster Robin Hood in clown make up, nor does his film celebrate the disgusting massacres of its serial killer lead. What it does do is present an empathetic protagonist, ironically exponentially more damaged than the preceding Joker, who had the same word tattooed on his forehead. What Joker presents is a mirror to our world; one that berates the most vulnerable of our society, and through our carelessness creates people who are desperate, warped, and demented. That’s no joke.

 

Oh, and my review is ★★★★★

Stranger Things 3 (2019) review

High gym socks! Big hair! Back to the Future! The 80s are back, baby, and Stranger Things 3 hits another great season out of the park harder than Steve Harrington and his beloved bat. On par with the great, but undeniably inferior Stranger Things 2, neither quite hit the Christmas lit heights of the stunning original. That said, there’s much to enjoy here, from perhaps the show’s best camera work yet, to brilliant character moments like the adorable friendship of Max and Eleven. Looking past surface level gripes, the series remains strong, though potential cracks in the (bedroom) wall show their monstrous face, suggesting that the finale might ultimately go out with a Demodog’s whimper, rather than turning the world upside down.

The writing for Stranger Things was perhaps the most applauded element of its first season. The tight structure, organic character growth, and concurrent interweaving stories blew audiences away. These achievements have somewhat waned, and while certain characters are awarded satisfying arcs, such as the unexpected but welcome team of Steve, Dustin, Robin, and Erica, others like Hopper and Joyce feel redundant. Additionally, not all characters are treated equally, as ‘leads’ like Lucas and Will serve little purpose to the narrative, acting more as 80s set dressing. The season long narrative is the weakest element, with a flimsy plot involving Russians and the return of the Lovecraftian ghoul, The Mind Flayer that feels rushed, stereotypical, and less thought out than its predecessors.

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However, despite a weaker script, the show remains startlingly endearing. The characters are so well defined that saying goodbye to anyone feels like sending off an old friend, and is genuinely affecting. The actors bring their A game, particularly the insanely talented adolescents, with Millie Bobbie Brown as a stand out. Her portrayal of Eleven continues to evolve from a reserved curiosity, to a well rounded person trying to find her place in the world. Fan favourite Steve Harrington, played by Joe Keery, boasts the show’s best written character arc which this season only makes him more likeable. Perhaps Steve’s former unpleasantness is channeled into Mike and Hopper via the Mind Flayer, as the writers lean further into rude and mean-spirited dialogue for both, with no apologies.

Visually, the show continues to look demo-gorgeous. The muted blues and greens from season one are all but replaced by garish set pieces like the Fun Fair and Mall, which become hubs of the season. The transformation is welcome, though, as these set pieces lead to wonderful shots, such as a confrontation with the big bad in a stunning wide shot in the Mall showing the scale of the creature as it looms over El, mirroring its presence over Will last season. Even the less action packed moments boast wonderful cinematography, such as a shot of the town behind Dustin’s radio tower, which is filled with breathtaking colours reminiscent of an impressionist painting. The use of a brighter colour palette gives Hawkins a more modernised, neon vibe, reflecting its budding industrialisation over the past year. Though the upside down itself isn’t seen, darker scenes boast better visibility than the strobe heavy lighting of The Hawkins Lab, with a particular highlight being the beautifully shot destruction of Castle Byers in the rain; one of Will’s few character developing moments.

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Of course, the 80s references remain plentiful and some of the most attractive elements of the series. Praise must go to the costume designers, set designers, and hair and make up people, who bring such authenticity to the period that you might find yourself squealing with nostalgia at the level of attention to detail. Of course, the narrative is also driven by classic filmic influences; if season one was IT meets E.T, season two was Jurassic Park and The Exorcist, then season three is Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Blob. This is reflected by a darker tone, which, contrasting the colour palette, embraces its horror roots more than ever before. Bodies explode, limbs are sliced open, and fertiliser is eaten. Regardless of the overall sloppier narrative, the Duffer Brothers succeed in raising the stakes to an appropriate level. The only worry comes from that post credits sequence which hints at a more global conflict, far from the setting we fell in love with.

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One slight disappointment is the music, both in the original score, and the soundtrack. First, the latter. While tracks like ‘Can’t Fight this Feeling’ are wonderful throwbacks, many are random inclusions, without much rhyme or reason. Wham’s classic ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go Go’ is wasted, and compared to the excellent additions last season which complimented the action on screen, such as ‘Runaway’ or ‘Rock You Like a Hurricane’, there just seems to be less thought put in here. The reprise of fan favourites ‘You Don’t Mess Around with Jim’ and ‘Heroes’ from past seasons also feel like pandering, and aren’t organically incorporated into the story. This could’ve been a forgivable offence had this season was the show’s last, but as we know there’s at least one more, it’s a tad self indulgent. There is, however, one saving grace in the form of a certain 80s cartoon theme, which is used to near perfection.

Sadly, the OST shares similar problems. While more than serviceable, there are no tracks that stand out in the same way as the melancholic gorgeousness of last season’s ‘Eulogy.’ The synth, Carpenter inspired score with its weird instruments, long notes, and 16 bit sound is still a marvel to listen to though, and fits the tone of its on screen visuals better than any other show on television. One stand out moment in the score, again, comes from a use of Alan Silvestri’s Back to the Future composition, which is used to a hilarious end, effectively heightening both comedy and tension, as well as paying an obvious homage to perhaps the most quintessential 80s flick. Great Scott!

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All in all, Stranger Things continues to be satisfying, if boasting more than eleven issues. But, the third instalment doesn’t drop the eggos, and the franchise’s credibility remains intact. While neither sequels have come close to the mind bending brilliance of the original, the third season offers great effects, cinematography, and heart, from writers who genuinely seem to care for these characters. Stranger Things 3 might better be described as a collection of fantastic moments, amongst a clumsier narrative that struggles to keep all the pieces on the D and D board moving. Though far from perfect, I’m both cautiously intrigued and excited to see where the people of Hawkins go next. Hopefully with more coffee and contemplation, the final season will go out with a telekinetic powered bang.

★★★★

Spiderman: Far From Home (2019) review

Best described as a palette cleanser after the emotional devastation of Avengers Endgame, Spiderman: Far From Home is a (slightly) lower stakes affair, with a well paced narrative, albeit with some tonal issues. It boasts a compelling villain and mostly funny jokes, that’ll send it down as one of the better standalone MCU flicks. I still feel that ENDgame would’ve been a more fitting finale to phase three, but there you go.

Where Far From Home excels is in its well rounded, likeable characters. The cast from Spiderman: Homecoming returns, in addition to MCU alumni Nick Fury and Maria Hill. The greatest strength is the seemingly genuine chemistry between Tom Holland’s Peter and Zendaya’s MJ. As per the Spidey formula, the turmoil of trying to balance a normal life superhero heroics is at the forefront of the narrative, which is a welcome change from the ‘happy-go-lucky’ Peter, so far given to us. Holland and Zendaya both put in the work, creating organic chemistry founded on a teenage awkwardness that is both adorable and cringe inducing.

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The wider cast are also strong, though for the first time in eleven years, Samuel L Jackson’s Nick Fury seems a bit phoned in. After 10+ appearances, that might be understandable, but it could be time for the one eyed wonder to think about retirement. What is not phoned in, however, is the charismatic aura of Jake Gyllenhaal, now filling the ‘veteran actor’ chasm left by Michael Keaton. His portrayal of Quinten Beck, Mysterio, is menacing, funny, and endearing all at once. The MCU has a fantastic way of taking silly, golden age villains and updating them to be both sympathetic and modernised. Mysterio will go down as one of the greats, up there with Thanos, Killmonger, and the Vulture. There’s a reason Spiderman has a venerated rogues gallery, and I look forward to seeing this universe’s remixes of Doc Ock, Green Goblin, and Venom (please leave Tom Hardy where he is) in the future.

The main negative aspect of Far From Home is in its tone, one of the wider MCU’s weaknesses. Its solo films in particular often come under fire for having too much forced comedy and Spidey is unfortunately no exception. The tone is jarring at times, and key dramatic moments are often defused by a stupid, unnecessary quip. This is fine for the majority of the run, but the balance tips too far into pure (not always funny) comedy. Spiderman is a hero built on his struggles, so when his struggles become a punchline, he is instantly less compelling. Equally, the high school elements at the heart of Homecoming feel out of place here, and annoyingly diminish the impact of darker moments. The cast are still likeable, but it seems time for their role to be reduced as we move into a more adult, traditional Spiderman story.

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Otherwise, however, there is little to complain about. Michael Giacchino updates his already wonderful Homecoming score to be a little darker, with heavier brass instruments and more minor chords. It’s therefore a bit of a shame that the action on screen doesn’t reflect this new direction. What do reflect this though, are the visual effects, which are stunningly intuitive. With a character like Mysterio to play with, the artists are clearly taking joy in going ‘full Inception,’ and the results are a joy to watch. Walls become floors, costumes change in a heartbeat, and some fairly disturbing imagery is shown, which is always welcome in the overly light and fluffy MCU. Finally, director Jon Watts brings a more mature approach to the action, an element lacking in the previous film. There is much more creativity and variety in the set pieces, particularly as characters use their environment to their advantage, which is a nice way to shake things up. The spectacle of the various city’s architecture is also a welcome change from The New York focused battles of prior films.

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In review, Spiderman: Far From Home is a solid solo adventure. Though it has frustrating tonal issues exacerbated by the need to conform to the ‘MCU formula,’ it’s still a well written, fun time with enough twists and turns to keep you invested. I can’t overstate how well the action has improved too, making huge fight scenes a joy, rather than a slog, to sit through. Coupled with some A list acting by Mr. Gyllenhaal, an unsurprisingly brilliant score by Mr. Giacchino, and you have a great, but Far From perfect, globe trotting superhero romp.

★★★★

 

Black Mirror series 5 review

Another year, another bleak foray into the existential dread of the nature of the human condition. Although, this time, things seem a little different. Perhaps showrunner Charlie Brooker has discovered inner peace, or at least a substance based substitute, because Black Mirror series five is perhaps the franchise’s most optimistic and bright outing yet.

Continuing on Netflix following six expectedly dark episodes and one bizarre and disappointing AR experiment that Bandersnatched expectations and threw them down the loo, series five provides a comparatively conservative three episodes. The viewing order is seemingly random, so I’ll briefly break each down in the order I was shown; Striking Vipers, Smithereens, and finally Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too.

Reflecting on the three as a whole, there are two major differences when compared to previous series. Firstly; less of a reliance on future technology for narrative devices. Unlike the memory chips, cookies, and robot dogs of past series’, this edition could almost be considered contemporary. Facebook (sorry, Smithereens) and VR games are the targets of Brooker’s cutting ire instead. Of course, there is some tech that goes beyond the realm of current possibility, mainly within Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too, but instead of being horrifying and dread inducing, it’s just a bit too silly to believe. That said, this is the same series that tried to sell us on a prison-torture theme park, so make of that what you will.

That leads me nicely onto difference number two; tone. Historically, and especially during its initial Channel Four run, Black Mirror has taken an almost laughably bleak view of modern / future life via desperately depressing scripts. Horrifically dark twist endings would flirt with almost absurdist finales that would make even the grimmest Twilight Zone epilogue look like an episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark. Not so in series five. While only one of the three endings could be considered ‘happy,’ another is certainly optimistic, and the final one is ambiguous, but admittedly, more traditionally ‘Brookerish’.

Striking Vipers 

Striking Vipers is about two dudes shagging as Street Fighter characters while telling themselves that ‘it’s not cheating’ (life hack fellas – if you’re hiding it from them, it’s cheating). Alright, so there’s more to it than that. The question of sexuality is probably the most underdeveloped aspect, and LGBTQ+ viewers will likely be disappointed to see how glossed over this conversation is, as it essentially amounts to ‘no homo.’ The VR concept is novel, and I’m always game for a conversation that encourages video games to be viewed as an art form worthy of intellectual discussion (as well as scantily clad fighters with fire punches), but the social commentary just doesn’t hit the mark here.

It should go without saying that all three episodes are shot real nicely, maintaining the washed out Black Mirror colour palette that gives the series its own identity. Performance wise, it was lovely to see nobody’s favourite Avenger Anthony Mackie show off some proper acting chops. He’s great, and I’d love to see him in more things. Overall, Striking Vipers is a beautifully filmed episode with great moments, but an ultimately undercooked script.

***

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Smithereens 

So this is the best one, without question. The commentary about the out of control state of social media, as well as how damn effective it is at keeping your personal data, to the point where it does a better job than the police, is terrifyingly on point. Andrew Scott is absolutely sublime here. He brings a genuine frustration that is so absolute, so severe, yet mathematical in nature. You don’t know what he’ll do next, and his performance combined with the tight script will have you on pins for the sixty five minute run time.

Other performances are equally excellent. I particularly enjoyed Topher Grace as a would-be Mark Zuckerberg, Billy Bauer. What could’ve easily been a one note villain becomes a sympathetic and almost likeable pawn of his own making, which was a great twist. One tiny gripe; the woman playing the lead British Police Officer was just…not good or convincing? Did no one pick up on this? Her intonation was all over the place, and the direction wasn’t strong enough to iron this element out. Luckily every other actor puts in the work and the result is a tense, brutal episode, that, while ultimately ambiguous, comes the closest to the quintessential shock and suspense that only Black Mirror can deliver.

*****

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Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too

Yikes. At the polar opposite of Smithereens comes Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too. Not only the weakest in the series, but a contender for worst Black Mirror thing, ever. It’s between this and Bandersnatch, because boy, this one was a tough slog.

There’s a great script in here somewhere. If the focus had been on Ashley O (Miley Cyrus), and the toxic relationship with her (hilariously) evil Aunt, we could’ve had some ace commentary about the music industry, corporate greed, and the breakdown of strained family relationships. Instead, we focus on two plucky sisters who learn the value of sisterhood via a talking, swearing Hannah Montana doll. It’s a mess. The Ashley doll is bafflingly played for comedy and the result is a haphazard, tonally inconsistent romp that ends (perhaps appropriately considering the lead) with a finale ripped straight from a Disney Channel movie.

That said, the performances delivered, cinematography choices, and editing are all on point. Miley Cyrus gives a surprisingly subdued, genuine performance that lets you empathise with Ashley’s situation. It’s just a shame that this well developed characterisation ultimately devolves into Pizza Delivery costumes / generic baddies / rat robots / doll road trip / crashing a virtual pop concert / forming a punk super group. Don’t hate me for spoilers, I’ve saved you an hour of your life.

**

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Overall, Black Mirror series five is the very definition of a mixed bag. Smithereens is instant classic and one of my personal favourites, with its realistic commentary that doesn’t veer off into absurdism, grounded by an exceptional lead performance from Scott. Then Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too is essentially well filmed trash that not only jumps the shark but proceeds to come back on a hoverboard, slaps the shark in the face, call its mum a dirty word, then jump over it all over again. Striking Vipers sits somewhere in the middle of the scale of badness, but the muddled script and message make me lean towards it being on the worse end.

I do, however, prefer the small episode release model though as it allows me to appreciate each episode properly and thoroughly. With series four, I find myself forgetting the specifics, as well as episode names, so I’m game for tighter series’ moving forward.

If history is anything to go by, one thing is for sure; Mr. Brooker pays attention to what people say. The main complaint on the twittersphere has been the lighter tone, so if his Netflix overloads allow it, I’d expect the inevitable season six to pile on the macabre scripts to make up for what could in hindsight be a breath of levity before we properly dive into the pits of despair.

★★★

Toy Story 4 (2019) review

Besides ‘we have no cheese’ and ‘live action remake‘ there are few words that fill me with such dread as ‘Toy Story 4.’ A trilogy that is unanimously agreed to be as close to animated cinematic perfection as possible really didn’t require a fourth entry, and the list of good third sequels could barely fit on a sentient spork. Alas, here we are. But, in a ray of optimism, Toy Story 4 is not bad. Far from it, in fact. Does it live up to the immense standards of its predecessors, though? Well, no.

There’s a lot to like in Toy Story 4 (it still feels weird to type that). From the fun new players like Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele as Ducky and Bunny, to the mercifully fresh narrative, we can all breathe a sigh of relief as the credibility of the franchise remains intact. In what will come as a surprise to nobody, leading man Tom Hanks is still likeable and compelling as Woody, a role he’s been played with affable joy for nearly thirty years. Let that one sink in. Everyone (except Bonnie’s) favourite Sheriff’s arc is undoubtedly intended as a metaphor for Fathers of children who’ve left home, as he struggles to find purpose in an Andy-light world, where he’s no longer the number one toy at play time. Hanks slips back into the role with ease, delivering on both the comedy and the mushy moments through the warm gravitas that only his voice can bring.

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Sadly, besides a near unrecognisable Bo Peep, Woody is the only member of the OG gang to get much of any focus. Fan favourites like Slinky, Jessie, Rex, and my beloved Bullseye are afforded almost no screen time, and are hastily left out of the action in favour of new players. Even once co lead Buzz Lightyear feels not only sidelined, but also dumbed down, to the point that he feels a shell of his former, heroic self. As a big fan of Buzz, this was a shame to see, especially as the initial draft of the script was reportedly Buzz-centric, an element that hasn’t reappeared since the first film.

Nostalgic gripes aside, the new players are mostly welcome. Christina Hendricks’ Gabby is a suitable evolution of the bitter-toy-villain stereotype, and despite her frankly horrific organ harvesting plan, she does garner a suitable level of audience empathy. A big shout out must also go to the ventriloquist dummies; a genius concept for henchman that are as hilarious as they are nightmare inducing.

So, about Bo. She’s great here, though entirely unrecognisable from her original appearance, even sporting a new voice. Her former damsel in distress / weirdly sexy voice persona has all but evaporated, as she (somehow) trades in her porcelain dress in favour of a badass cloak and bandage combo. She leads an underlying motif of girl power than runs throughout the film, as Jessie, Dolly, Gabby, and Bo all either lead the gang or take the reigns of power from the male leads. You could take an academic feminist reading and say they’re taking back power from the patriarchy. Hell, Woody even literally loses his voice to a woman. Perhaps I’m reading too deeply into it and they’re just better written characters.

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In terms of the technical stuff, this is Pixar working with all engines running. The visuals are fantastically realised, with smooth animation that reminds you how refined the medium has become since the gang first broke ground in 1995. The Antique store’s cat in particular looks amazingly lifelike, especially when compared to the very polygonic dog guarding Sid’s back garden in the original. The colour palette is equally lovely, with far less murky blacks and greens than its darker predecessor. The carnival setting allows for vibrant and varied technicolour machinations at every turn.

The traditional Randy Newman score also makes a somewhat triumphant return, with a wonderfully nostalgic montage song near the beginning, harkening back to the days of ‘Strange Things’ and ‘I Will Go Sailing No More.’ It would also be a lie to say that the reprise of ‘You’ve Got a Friend in Me’ didn’t put a big smile on my face. The orchestral score however, does seem entirely phoned in. Character leitmotif is one thing (and one thing I’m VERY passionate about), but entire musical cues are seemingly ripped in their entirety from previous entries, which is just lazy.

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It is the script that is ultimately the film’s greatest strength, yet its biggest weakness. In many ways the plot is a breath of fresh air, and many jokes and emotional moments do indeed stick (or rather crash – you’ll get it when you watch it), the landing. However, there’s just something absent, that makes the experience ring hollow. Perhaps it comes down to the MIA main cast, or the bittersweet ending that’ll undoubtedly be a divisive topic. Personally though, I feel the pacing drags, far more than in its predecessors. There was just more of a sense of urgency in those films, that left you genuinely tense. Here however, through the admirable exploration adult topics like life purpose and existential crisis (!), the film loses a bit of what made Toy Story so great. The camaraderie and simplistic storytelling is lost, but what replaces it isn’t bad, just different.

I ultimately feel warmer about Toy Story 4 the more I think about it. It remains in my mind, unnecessary in its existence, when the third and at the time, ‘final instalment’ had a sense of finality that will always be unmatched. However, Toy Story 4 justifies itself by taking the characters (well, two of them) in bold new directions, touching on important, difficult aspects of life in a sugar coated, comedic skin that stop things getting too real. If a Buzz focused Toy Story 5 is in the future, then so be it. If it’s this good, then we have little cause for concern.

★★★★

My series ranking, if you’re interested:

Toy Story 2 (1999)

★★★★★

Toy Story (1995)

★★★★★

Toy Story 3 (2010)

★★★★★

Toy Story 4 (2019)

★★★★

Musical consistency – the MCU’s achilles heel

In a world of failed Dark Universes, Amazing Spider-verses, and whatever is going on at DC, the Marvel Cinematic Universe shines as a beacon of success. However, these films aren’t infallible and often come under criticism for being too formulaic and safe in their storytelling. I disagree, but that’s a topic for another day. No, where the MCU falls down in my mind is in one of the cornerstones of technical filmmaking, and what was formally a genre defining element of the superhero aesthetic – leitmotif.

For those who don’t know, a leitmotif is defined as:

‘A recurrent theme throughout a musical or literary composition, associated with a particular person, idea, or situation.’

The Imperial March, for example is both a leitmotif for Darth Vader, and the Empire. Leitmotif is a really useful tool to drive audience investment, helping to establish a connection with characters that in turn makes key story beats hit harder. Some examples of leitmotif done well can be found in two seminal tv shows with appalling endings: Game of Thrones and LOST. Thrones composer Ramin Djawadi crafts distinctive themes for the houses of Westeros, as well as other important groups like the Dothraki and the Unsullied. The result is a powerful suite that allows for variations on a central group of characters. For example, in a low moment, such as the death of Ned Stark, the House Stark theme is used as a sombre device to reflect the family’s grief. The result is a quiet version using mainly strings at a slower pace.

 

Yet, when the family are victorious, the theme is used again in a more uplifting manner, with a full choir and percussion instruments that suggest battle readiness and victory.

 

LOST composer Michael Giacchino introduces leitmotifs for every main character (and there are a lot of them) from as early as the pilot episode. The result is a musical continuity that spans across six seasons, making the emotional moments more beautiful, more painful, and more impactful.

Charlie, everyone’s favourite heroin addicted Manc with a heart of gold, is associated with the above theme from the beginning of season one, where it’s mainly used as a motif for his drug cravings. Through a beautifully written character arc, he comes to terms with who he is, beats his addiction and ultimately sacrifices himself for the good of the other survivors. The resulting scene uses a blend of Giacchino’s ‘Life and Death’ motif used when (shocker) a character is born or dies, combined with Charlie’s addiction theme layered over the top. This makes for a compelling death that carries more subconscious emotional weight because of prior association with that piece of music.

Now, on to Marvel. Previously, the leitmotif had been the bread and butter of the superhero genre. Danny Elfman employed them extensively throughout the scoring of the Batman and Spiderman franchises respectively, making for rich musical experiences that had suitable motifs for characters, themes, and even buildings. Hell, even the X-Men franchise through all of its non existent continuity managed to keep a consistent main theme for the team (edit: this point is ruined post Dark Phoenix, thanks again Dark Phoenix for ruining everything).

Yet, musical consistency has constantly evaded the most profitable superhero franchise of all time, the 22 film (at the time of writing) strong Marvel Cinematic Universe. Almost every film employs a new director, and with that, a new composer, creating a thematic disconnect in a franchise that in every other regard, values consistency as its MO. The only exceptions are in sequels, and even that isn’t a hard and fast rule. Alan Silvestri composes the original Captain America score, yet none of the sequels, and is at the helm of Avengers 1, 3 and 4, yet franchise black sheep Age of Ultron is palmed off to a collaboration between Elfman and Brian Tyler (remember those names). You can see the full list of composers here:

https://www.imdb.com/list/ls063508458/

As a result of this disconnect, individual characters have leitmotifs introduced in their solo films, only to have them disregarded in subsequent movies. The most heinous example comes from the Guardians of the Galaxy main theme, which almost acts as a space operatic interpretation of the main Avengers cue. This theme goes completely unused in the team’s first crossover with the Earth based MCU heroes during Infinity War, which is endlessly frustrating. Other examples such as Tyler’s fantastic Iron Man 3 theme and Michael Giachinno’s Spiderman: Homecoming and Dr. Strange leitmotifs are also painfully absent. In fact, the duo of films that culminate the Infinity Saga, Infinity War and Endgame feature almost no musical continuity with the past films, except Captain America’s leitmotif (shocker, as Silvestri composed it), and of course…

The only piece of music that everyone at Marvel can seem to agree on, Alan Silvestri’s admittedly incredible Avengers theme is almost the only example of a film spanning leitmotif throughout the MCU. The Avengers theme may as well be the anthem of the MCU, as it features not only in Avengers, Infinity War, Endgame, and a reworked version for Age of Ultron, but it also pops up in Ant Man, Spiderman Homecoming, and Captain Marvel. Here it is in Ant Man at about the 50 second mark.

If the Avengers theme deserves to endure across films, why not other character based leitmotifs? Well, despite the apparent disinterest in any kind of musical continuity, a duo of composers shine through in understanding the importance. Mr. Danny Elfman and Mr. Brian Tyler, please take a bow. Though Age of Ultron is undeniably the weakest Avengers film, it has what the others lack; character leitmotifs from prior films! Captain America’s theme, Tony’s Iron Man 3 theme, Thor’s Dark World theme, and the Avengers theme all reappear to remind you that these characters do indeed come from a wider universe. Here’s a neat video showing all examples thus far. The Age of Ultron comparisons start at 2:37.

So, with the Infinity Saga complete and Thanos dusted, will phase four finally see a consistent use of character leitmotif? Probably not. Though Marvel seems to learn from its mistakes, there just isn’t the outcry for consistent compositions, bar from whiney film and Marvel nerds such as myself writing blog posts that no one will read. The answer isn’t just to hire one composer for every film, that would be insane. (Though I’ll link a video showing if Silvestri had scored Guardians of the Galaxy below, because it’s super neat). No, all Kevin Feige and company need to ensure is that when a new composer is hired, they adhere to prior leitmotifs established for individual characters. In fact, the best way forward might be to hire a specific composer for each franchise, for maximum coherency. Moments like the return of a fan favourite character will be made much more impactful in future films if they’re accompanied by a recognisable theme that has endured in the fan’s minds for years. People appreciate these technical touches, you need only look at the reaction to the return of the iconic Elfman Batman theme in the abomination of cinema that is Justice League for proof.

Sadly, this just doesn’t seem a priority for Marvel currently, and well, that’s a shame.

Rocketman (2019) review

If the last ten years were the age of the superhero film, perhaps we’re moving into the era of the music biopic. Rocketman follows the tumultuous and often difficult life of Reginald Dwight, better known as the most famous British solo artist of all time, Sir Elton John. While liberties are undoubtedly taken with the truth for the sake of a compelling narrative structure, the heart is in the right place.  And boy does this film have heart to spare. This, combined with innovative camera work and a stunning soundtrack, make Rocketman something really special.

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Biopics can have a tendency to be a little formulaic, predictable. They flirt with both the drama and documentary genres, steering clear of anything creatively bold, filmmaking wise. In a refreshing twist, however, this film is as flamboyant and brave as the man himself. Combining the drama and musical genres is nothing short of genius and the bombastic broadway dance numbers that take a 180 turn into formalist filmmaking are as exciting as they are frequent. All of the cast are able to have a stab at re-vamped classics alongside the bafflingly excellent Taron Egerton, which keeps things varied. These formalist elements extend to bizarre trip sequences that manipulate time and space to evoke the feeling of a drug addled mind, while concurrently taking us on a masterful musical voyage.

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The cast is wonderful. Egerton leads the charge as a truly believable and unapologetically angry Elton, hitting every emotional beat with an electricity that strikes you through the screen. Richard Madden may as well be twirling his non existent moustache for how evil he plays manager John Reid, but his initial suave charm just about makes it work. Slightly more questionable is Bryce Dallas Howard as John’s mother, who not only doesn’t seem to age, but also acts a little too ditzy, so when the big emotional confrontation comes in the third act, it falls a tad flat.

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Overall though, Rocketman is phenomenal. The soundtrack provides beautiful re-orchestrations of so many hits, performed incredibly by the shockingly amazing at-singing Egerton. The writing is spot on, hitting the key beats of John’s life while not shying away from his demons. The dialogue is both witty and appropriately dramatic, yet it somehow feels organic and real. Finally, and most wonderfully, is the brilliant cinematography, editing and sound design. This is a technically fantastic film, bearing a strong resemblance to the innovative shots and transitions of La La Land, which is certainly no bad thing. Don’t let the sun go down on this incredible flick, and make sure you come back for several viewings.

★★★★

Writing a satisfying ending (Avengers: Endgame vs Game of Thrones)

What a month April 2019 will go down as for major fandom franchises. We were given both the culmination of the MCU’s Infinity Saga in Avengers: Endgame, and the conclusion of HBO’s once epic adaptation of A Song of Ice and Fire; Game of Thrones. The former is on track to dethrone Avatar as the highest grossing film of all time (suck it, James Cameron), whilst the latter has cemented its place in the hall of disappointing TV finales. But how did this happen? Without going into behind the scenes Chinese whispers, it seems clear that Thrones show-runners D.B Weiss and David Benioff grew bored with telling this story a long time ago. Where Endgame concluded with a gamma radiated roar, GoT went out like a whimpering direwolf; rushing great, expectation subverting plot points to become totally unfathomable, and giving us finale that will be remembered as sloppy and unsatisfying.

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Let me first make clear that this is a critique of the writing exclusively. The acting (mostly- looking at you, Kit), editing, cinematography (bar the Battle of Winterfell episode), visual effects, and phenomenal score, all remain consistently brilliant throughout Game of Thrones’ eight seasons, and should be applauded as some of the best examples of technical filmmaking on television.

With that caveat out of the way, the major change in the writing, that most fans have noted is a bafflingly rushed narrative. When working from George R.R Martin’s source material, hikes across Westeros take multiple episodes and characters mull on decisions over several scenes. Yet, from season six onwards, but most egregiously in season eight, snap decisions are made, rarely carrying emotionally effective weight. Compare this to the pacing of Endgame. Though admittedly operating in different mediums, the characters remain consistent and are ever evolving. The Tony Stark (there’s a Stark in Winterfell joke in there somewhere) that we see in Endgame has metamorphosed from the arrogant playboy seen in Iron Man. More importantly though, both Infinity War and Endgame balance their characters, giving them a fair amount of screen time, which hasn’t been the case in Thrones for years. While it began by subverting traditional fantasy tropes, when going off the rails of Martin’s text, it became quite clear that the writers embraced these tropes, and pouty albino puppy Jon Snow is clearly our lead. The characters become lazily written and no longer make organic, smart decisions that reflect their motivations. This is the opposite of Marvel, who, say what you like, almost always craft consistent characters, even when re-casting.

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Let’s look at an example comparison. Take the decision of The Spider, Lord Varys to openly blab treason to anyone who will listen vs Star Lord’s decision to lash out against Thanos in Infinity War, giving the Mad Titan the chance to regain the gauntlet and kill half the universe. Both are moronic decisions, but where Varys has been presented as the scheming, highly intelligent master of whispers, Peter Quill is consistently shown to be an idiotic man child. The bottom line is that it’s in character for Star Lord to make stupid, emotionally charged decisions based on what we’ve seen in Guardians of the Galaxy and its sequel, so this makes narrative sense. Varys on the other hand, who has been presented as perhaps the most intelligent man in the realm, bar Tyrion Lannister (who gets equally shafted ) surviving the reigns of three prior kings, just wouldn’t be so foolish. It seems obvious that instead of taking their time filming slow, politically charged conversations that made Thrones so unique and interesting, the writers were instead so desperate to rush into the ‘endgame’, that Varys and most of the main cast act widely out of character and make dumb, ill thought out decisions. This is because the writers made dumb, ill thought out decisions.

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This criticism also applies to character arcs. I’m perhaps in the minority, but Dany’s turn to dragon-queen-Hitler, in my mind, isn’t an inherently awful idea. It gives her a Shakespearian fallen hero quality, and if handled correctly, it could’ve been a bitter, tragic end to her once noble arc. However, the problem again comes down to pacing. Had the show been ten seasons instead of eight, with the usual ten episodes in each (as Martin pushed for, I might add), this change in Daenerys could’ve bubbled and built organically, leading to a killer moment like the red wedding, where she finally snaps. Compare this to a character arc in endgame, let’s take Steve Rogers. Captain America is shown to be pure of heart from the beginning. In The First Avenger, he jumps on a (fake) grenade without hesitation to save those around him, and that’s before he’s been super soldier serum-ed. Avengers: Age of Ultron hints that he’s worthy to lift Thor’s hammer, and since then, he’s grown wiser and more world weary, but still retained his unbreakable moral centre. So, when in the final act of Endgame, he wields Mjölnir and beats on Thanos, it’s incredibly satisfying, because of years of anticipation and foreshadowing. Dany’s turn could’ve been an equally satisfying (though in a more soul destroying way), if it had been appropriately woven across multiple seasons. Two episodes just isn’t good enough for an organic reaction, unfortunately. This also goes for Jaime’s betrayal, Jon killing Dany, and hell, even King Bran; all could’ve worked, had the appropriate groundwork been there.

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Though my unapologetic bias for Marvel might slightly cloud my judgement, I can still admit that Endgame isn’t a perfect film. The time travel elements in particular raise plot-hole related eyebrows, and Thanos is sadly more two dimensional than he was in Infinity War. That said, this is nothing compared to the amount of loose ends and unresolved plot points in Game of Thrones. These are issues that are initially introduced as important, game changing elements that either become completely irrelevant, or are totally forgotten about. Including, but not limited to:

  • The origins and motivations of the White Walkers
  • The point of the three eyed raven
  • The Lord of Light vs the other religions
  • The Prince who was promised prophecy
  • Bran’s time travelling abilities
  • Bran’s warging abilities
  • Jon being Aegon amounting to sweet FA
  • Arya’s face changing abilities
  • The impact of the Golden Company joining Cersei’s army
  • Euron’s character development
  • Jaime and Brienne’s one knight stand and Jaime’s character arc in general
  • DORNE?!
  • The valonqar prophecy (book only, but come on – THE CEILING KILLS JAIME AND CERSEI?)
  • The Dothraki (they seriously left Westeros because Grey Worm told them to?)

 

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There are many, many more, and this isn’t including plot points that technically make sense, but aren’t satisfying, but I digress. Avengers: Endgame managed the impossible and created a satisfying, heartfelt end to a twenty-two film saga, giving almost all of its characters meaningful arcs, with an appropriate level of fan service. Game of Thrones on the other hand, felt like its creators lost interest after season four. While there are amazing moments scattered throughout seasons 5-8 (The Battle of the Bastards, The Door, Hardhome etc), the sprint to the finish is beyond messy. Thrones was ultimately murdered by terrible pacing, ignoring its own verisimilitude, and an ending that just isn’t acceptable based on the narrative development thus far (but will likely make more sense in the eventual final book, A Dream of Spring). Overall, I’m thrilled at Marvel’s conclusion, under the supervision of nerd-God Kevin Feige, who genuinely seems to care about the characters, and perhaps more importantly, the fans, as a long time comic book reader himself. However, Thrones show-runners D.B Weiss and David Benioff lost this respect for both audience and source material a long time ago, it seems, and what was once the best show on television will go down with LOST as having one of the least satisfyingly written finales of all time. It became a hollow imitation of itself, and well, that’s just a…

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