Tag Archives: franchise

Alien: Covenant

The best part of Ridley Scott’s latest offering, Alien: Covenant (2017), is when Michael Fassbender kisses Michael Fassbender. The film features Fassbender in dual roles as the androids David and Walter and, of course, they kiss. This is bound to be great fun for fans of the actor, but it pinpoints a troubling side to Scott’s cinema. If one considers that it is the film’s villain, David, who kisses his double Walter, one cannot escape the legacy of villainizing characters who do not conform to heteronormative sexual practice. The stand-out representative of this trend in Scott’s films is Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) in 2000’s Gladiator.

Alien: Covenant

Repetition is the theme of Alien: Covenant in more respects than just the one stated above. For it seems that the narrative of Alien: Covenant is born out of a fusion between James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) and Erle C. Kenton’s The Island Of Lost Souls (1932). Thus, Alien: Covenant is as predictable as 2012’s Prometheus was subversive. There is now, more than ever, a sense of formula to 20th Century Fox’s Alien franchise. Not only does Alien: Covenant rehash familiar narratives, it also recycles it’s characters. By casting Katherine Waterston as the protagonist Daniels in a position within the narrative not dissimilar to that of Ripley in the original films, Scott has diminished the subversive potential of a female protagonist within a science fiction film.

Ridley Scott’s strengths as a filmmaker are, however, very much present in Alien: Covenant. The attention to detail in the set design and the pervading sense of atmosphere render this mediocre film far more visceral than it has a right to be. This does not redeem the series of special effects and stunts that send us blundering through Alien: Covenant’s narrative though. A criticism that seems applicable to almost all of Scott’s work.

Interestingly, this pattern of repetition or doubling appears to have extended beyond the confines of Scott’s work on its own terms. Just as Ridley Scott began his career by emulating Stanley Kubrick in his underappreciated first feature The Duelists (1977), so has Denis Villeneuve been emulating Scott since 2013’s Prisoners. This aesthetic intersection only occurred to me when the latest trailer for Blade Runner 2049 played before Alien: Covenant. Villeneuve is quite literally replacing Scott as he helms the sequel to the acclaimed 1982 film into the world of the franchise. My impressions of Blade Runner 2049 are actually quite similar to those I had of Alien: Covenant upon first seeing the latter’s trailer; haven’t I already seen this? Within this complex of subtle codification it is entertaining to ponder if Ryan Gosling really is to a generation of viewers what Harrison Ford was before him.

-Robert Curry

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Wolverine’s Swan Song

Logan & Laura

“This repression of the ‘non-serious’ aspects of pleasure, of a discourse of fun, is not, of course, a total exclusion. Notions of distraction, diversion, and entertainment have appeared with regularity in the academic discourse on cinematic pleasure. Yet, within that discourse, they are almost invariably positioned as negative terms. They are often figured as decadent – betrayals of truth, morally corrupt, politically incorrect – or, at best, as escapist or trivial. Indeed, it seems that the vast majority of the academic ‘discourse on pleasure’ has been calculated to distinguish between these ‘corrupt’ pleasures and more acceptable, ‘serious’ pleasures.”

-R.L. Rutsky & Justin Wyatt, Serious Pleasures: Cinematic Pleasure And The Notion Of Fun, 1990

Most of the films that American audiences see or hear about are designed to maximize public appeal, to gross highly, and to entertain. With this set of priorities, the mainstream, the most commercial of American cinema, cannot afford much in the way of serious artistic expression. If we accept Rutsky and Wyatt’s arguments, then the films that come out of the major studios enter into critical discourse as “corrupt pleasures” insofar as these films primarily represent distractions, diversions and entertainment.

James Mangold’s Logan (2017) fits within this niche easily. It’s a major blockbuster and an installment within a well proven franchise of movies that has been turning a healthy profit in cinemas for seventeen years now. However, unlike most films within a franchise, Logan dares to challenge the genre to which it was born (so to speak).  J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) is a far more typical representation of how a franchise functions, evidencing how best to keep the grosses consistent: more of the same, again and again. Logan is not just alone in the X-Men movie franchise because of its rating, Logan is also a character study, and a film whose narrative devices have been absent from the superhero genre. In fact Logan has more in common narratively with Clint Eastwood’s A Perfect World (1993), Luc Besson’s The Professional (1994), Takashi Miike’s Rainy Dog (1997), James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), and John Cassavetes’ Gloria (1980) than it does with any of the Batman, X-Men, Avengers, Spiderman, Superman, Ironman, or Guardians Of The Galaxy movies that have come out in the last twenty years or more.

Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart

The primary reason Logan does not fit within the aesthetic blueprint of the superhero genre is because the film prioritizes its three lead characters over the spectacle of violence. Mangold’s film is interested in the frailties of his superpowered characters, and populates his film with moments that allow these frailties to function as a direct counterpoint to the sequences of action-violence that the audience is expecting. The narrative of Logan is designed for this kind of investigation into character much in the same way as A Perfect World, Rainy Dog, The Professional and Gloria are. Every time the audience finds comfort in the familiar heroic antics of Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), Professor X (Patrick Stewart), and X-23/Laura (Dafne Keen) that comfort is in turn subverted. The scenes of Wolverine caring for Professor X are particularly adept at subverting the standards of superhero fare.

Logan is also unique for assuming that its target audience, comic book fans, will be in tune with the characters introduced in the narrative to a degree that Mangold can forgo the usual scenes of expository action. Besides, one does not need an in depth working knowledge of The Reavers, Dr. Rice or Albert within the context of the Wolverine comics to understand their narrative function. If one is familiar with this set of Wolverine #40, June, 1991characters, that is simply just another layer of pleasure that Logan has to offer. One of the great drawbacks to the superhero genre in film is that the authors of these films assume that the films will not work if they are not “all inclusive” in terms of their narrative accessibility. The best superhero films, Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie (1978), and Bryan Singer’s X-Men: Days Of Future Past (2014) all operate on the assumption that an audience even vaguely familiar with the characters will be able to glean from the film an understanding of these characters and their respective narrative complexes in other media forms.

There has been a tremendous amount of hype surrounding Logan. If one were to read Kevin P. Sullivan’s article in the March 10th issue of Entertainment Weekly, one may very well assume that Logan was the greatest film of its kind ever made. However, Logan can never escape what it is, a “distraction, diversion, and entertainment”. And, for me at least, this isn’t a bad thing at all. 

-Robert Curry

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Spectre & The Legacy Of 007

I’ll admit it, I enjoy the James Bond films.  It’s a guilty pleasure, and I would not defend them if anyone said they are bad, I know that.  But I enjoy them nonetheless.  I have since I was a kid and first saw Goldfinger (1964) at a sleepover in fourth grade.  My friend Jason and I watched every Bond movie that year (at least all of the ones that had come out at that point).  In recent years, my tastes have developed and changed of course, light years beyond that of my fourth grade self.  In fact, I hadn’t seen a Bond film in a long time till I revisited the Roger Moore titles this last summer.  And I have to say that The Man With The Golden Gun (1974) is now my favorite Bond film (and it’s not just because I am an avid fan of classic British Horror films either).

golden-gun-1

Christopher Lee & Roger Moore in The Man With The Golden Gun

The James Bond franchise has a lot of problems, but the overriding one that plagues every incarnation of the character is how to blend the campy aspects of Ian Fleming’s novels with the pulpy grit that also exists in Fleming’s writing.  The Daniel Craig titles Casino Royale (2006) and Quantum Of Solace (2008) lean toward the grittier side of thing, only acknowledging the camp aspects of the franchise when the filmmakers feel obligated to interject familiar characters like M and Q to create a unifying sense of continuity.  Whereas the Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan Bond films worked toward, and once or twice, succeeded at achieving this precious balance.  Yet, these contemporary incarnations strove so hard to keep the character relevant by way of transporting the narratives into a vein of hot-button issues that they managed to move away from the book.  The first Bonds, Connery, Moore and I suppose George Lazenby embraced the Camp aesthetic more than anything, most likely because, in the sixties particularly, that brand of humor was so chic.  And the Bond films handled their camp so well that it wasn’t till the mid-eighties that audiences grew tired of it.

This gets to why The Man With The Golden Gun is my favorite Bond film.  Directed by veteran British filmmaker Guy Hamilton, whose background had been in comedy features before joining the Bond Franchise, the film benefits from an excellent sense of timing.  Moments of pulp are undercut with moments of camp, and vice versa.  This balance is extraordinary and allows the film to, at times, transcend the genre of “sixties spy film”.  However, it is that The Man With The Golden Gun‘s brand of camp is that same sixties chic that permeates all of the Connery and Moore films that, when balanced, gives the film the authenticity of Fleming that Dalton, Brosnan and Craig all lacked.  In fact, the campy side of the late-eighties Bond through to Daniel Craig is much more like that of the Stallone and Schwarzenegger blockbusters of the same time period.

Luckily, it looks like history is about to repeat itself in a good way.  Sam Mendes’ two Bond films, Skyfall (2012) and the new Spectre (2015) each show signs of returning to the classic formula, away from the over-the-top “realist” posturings of Craig’s first two Bond outings.  Javier Bardem and Christoph Waltz as Blofeld are two of the campiest and outrageous Bond villains since Jonathan Pryce in Tomorrow Never Dies (1997).  The dialogue and theatricality of these performances is right out of the Roger Moore era, albeit with a hipper sense of irony now trending in all espionage thrillers and detective films courtesy of Sherlock.  The only problem remaining, and it is a waning problem, is that these villans don’t really seem to fit in with the darker sensibility of the Craig films.  Javier Bardem’s performance was, unfortunately, left out in the cold by a negation of the classic gadget and girls formula that has managed to seep into Spectre.

bond-girl

It is, unfortunately, still too early to tell if this will be a permanent shift in the aesthetics of the franchise.  It would be nice to see the James Bond films begin to lighten up and not take themselves so seriously again, but when contrasted with the trends of the Marvel and DC blockbusters, Spectre begins to look like an anomaly.

-Robert Curry

 

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Supply & Demand In The American Cinema

            It’s widely known, just as it is widely reported, that the primary motivation of any financial endeavor is profit, and such is the case with Hollywood. Films of a certain cost are designed to recoup their expense not only from ticket sales, but also by franchising into other markets. Independence Day (1996) had toys, video games, and books, following a model popularized by George Lucas, who may have learned a thing or two from Disney’s Davy Crockett: King Of The Wild Frontier (1955). But these tie-ins and franchises have become so prevalent in our culture today that they go by almost unnoticed, and the effects these marketing strategies, and Hollywood’s approach to the cinema as a whole, are rarely analyzed for their effects outside of the market place.

The fathers of the blockbuster on the set of Indiana Jones & The Temple Of Doom.

The fathers of the blockbuster on the set of Indiana Jones & The Temple Of Doom.

            If one compares the cinema to other forms of art such as painting, one finds that the cinema is severely lacking in regional dialects or aesthetics. There has been, since the advent of the blockbuster, a unifying series of styles that have come in and out of vogue, essentially restricting audiences’ filmic literacy to these accepted aesthetics. These aesthetics themselves have found prevalence, and have therefore become stylish trends because of their marketability, due to the management of film studios and distributors as corporations and not curators of art. When audiences reacted positively to Darren Aronofsky’s Pi (1998), a slew of films were made that resembled that film in some way. Similarly, Miramax’s acquisition of In My Left Foot (1989) resulted directly in the acquisition of In The Name Of The Father (1993). Both instances represent this trend in American cinema explicitly. This is not entirely new, but as the internet spreads positive criticism of once hard to find films like Valerie And Her Week Of Wonders (1970), why are so many movie goers allowing Hollywood to dictate which films are imported to this country?

            The Criterion Collection released a box set earlier this year that was curated by Martin Scorsese and represented the first instance that many of the films contained within were available in this country. Each film represents a unique cinematic voice indigenous to a world beyond our borders. This is nationalist or regionalist cinema, one a smaller portion contained within the other. Such imported expressions are almost verboten in the American theatrical market because their ability to fill seats or spark a franchise is as uncertain as it is untested. These circumstances are a testament to the ignorance of the American moviegoer, and perhaps every moviegoer in the Western World.

A once obscure Czech film has found a mainstream following.

A once obscure Czech film has found a mainstream following.

            Regional cinema is all around us. Filmmakers toil unrecognized in every corner of the world, yet their work is lost to the general public because of an inability to meet a marketing quota. Online streaming and distribution offer an array of options, but the industry is still primarily focused on the festival circuit. Like all businesses Hollywood and American film distributors will only meet supply with demand. As an audience the American public must therefore demand that foreign regionalist films and even domestic regionalist films find wide spread theatrical distribution.

-Robert Curry

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Star Trek: The Kind Of Blockbuster We Need

If you know me personally, then you know I idolize Captain James Tiberius Kirk.  I’m not embarrassed.  Anyhow, last weekend I saw my brother.  Like any time we get together Star Trek comes up.  We both love Star Trek.  So, I’d just like to thank him for always making time to talk Star Trek with me, cause without those conversations, you would not be able to read the following article.

The Hollywood blockbuster has become a staple in the American experience.  At Christmas or during the summer, studios unleash action-packed franchise films to audiences craving escape.  Of all the Hollywood franchises and blockbusters, the original six Star Trek features are among the most iconic and the most unconventional.  Helmed by Harve Bennett, Nicholas Meyer, Jack B. Sowards, Leonard Nimoy, Gene Roddenberry and William Shatner, the Star Trek franchise was able to revive itself after a long hiatus and launch numerous spinoffs.

But it is the conventions of a Star Trek film that make them a different kind of blockbuster.  Films like Terminator 2, Jurassic Park, the Rambo films, and Aliens all have a distinct affiliation towards big special effects, an abundance of action, and a lot of cheap thrills.  While on the other hand, your average adventure with Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) has a lot of special effects, a little action, and some suspense.  The reason Star Trek is still successful as a blockbuster despite these differences is the characters.  During the three years Star Trek ran on television, it established its characters with audiences nation wide.  In fact, it was the audience demand for more Star Trek that brought about the six subsequent films.  That said, each Star Trek film has had the luxury of telling the story of the characters James T. Kirk, Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and Dr. “Bones” McCoy (DeForest Kelley) rather than manufacturing a fast paced narrative in which character comes as a second priority.

Every Star Trek film has at its base a revelation.  In Star Trek: The Motion Picture Kirk comes to realize his higher rank and older age have distanced him from the man he once was at the helm of the original series.  In the second film, The Wrath Of Khan, Kirk must not only atone for Khan’s fate, but for that of his broken marriage and abandoned son.  Each film works like this, foregrounding the personal conflicts of Kirk against what would be the narrative of a blockbuster.  But even putting it like that does little justice to the weighty messages the narratives of these films bolster.  The Undiscovered Country deals, in a strictly narrative sense, with the Cold War, and with racial tensions.  This kind of plotting makes the Star Trek films not only extremely relevant to their time of release, but again during the second or third viewing.  I am joining the chorus when I say that the endurance of Star Trek is primarily due to the timelessness of its stories, on TV or in the cinemas.

Another decidedly different factor between Star Trek and most conventional blockbusters is the age of its cast.  By the time they had completed their final film in 1992, all the cast was into their fifties.  Yet, despite the age of the films stars, only the first film sports younger cast members in an attempt to engage a new target audience.  And these two characters don’t even appear in the next five films.  What audiences wanted and expected was the now middle-aged crew of the original series.  The Star Trek films don’t shy away from addressing the crew’s age either.  Every film contains a reference or an allegory concerning mortality.  It’s a question posed to Kirk in almost every film whether he is too old to be commanding the Enterprise.

By their very nature one would not suspect Star Trek of being blockbuster gold.  The films number six and span over a decade, proving without a doubt their financial certainty.  Looking now at the blockbusters that have been released in the passed decade, one doesn’t see any blockbusters of this nature.  Even Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings trilogy lacks the clear and believable characters that Star Trek boasts.  George Lucas’ second-wave of Star Wars films are anything but natural and relevant.  So audiences are left with a void where Star Trek used to be.  Star Trek can’t come back, not in this incarnation anyway.  So a new franchise has to fill the shoes of Star Trek, providing provocative and character driven blockbusters to audiences every summer.

-Robert Curry

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