Wednesday 30 January 2019

Douglas J. Ogurek’s top five mass market science fiction/fantasy/horror film picks of 2018

Superheroes continue their assault on moviegoer pocketbooks, while innovative suspense/horror quietly captivates audiences.

America loves its superheroes… and so does the rest of the world. In 2016, four of the top ten grossing films at the box office (US) were of the superhero variety. The following year, superheroes claimed half the top ten spots. Last year, the masked, caped and clawed adventurers broke the halfway mark with six top ten spots. Will this upward trend continue until superheroes occupy all the top ten? Or will the kryptonite of sameness finally strike a blow to these films?

The infatuation with these films makes sense – they have huge advertising budgets, a well-established fan base, and a universal appeal stemming from the fusion of humour, drama, action, special effects, engaging plots, compelling characters and, in most cases, good guys beating the bad guys. Moreover, what would the average person rather see on the big screen: people sitting around talking, or a collection of eccentric superhumans fighting and destroying things?

Other films in this year’s top ten included an arguably underappreciated Jurassic Park entry, an animated remake of The Grinch, the latest Mission Impossible film, and Solo: A Star Wars Story. All these films rode the coattails of others, whether they were part of a series, a cinematic universe, or a remake. Remember, though, that the number of people who go to see a movie is by no means a measure of the quality of that film.

I was somewhat disappointed by the mass market genre film offerings in 2018. Only a couple films – not surprisingly works that aren’t connected to another film – stood out as truly innovative. Following are my top five selections, along with an honorable mention:

#5: Rampage
Don’t expect some profound truth to be unveiled with this one. Do expect to be thoroughly entertained. Dwayne Johnson, Jeffrey Dean Morgan (with some of his The Walking Dead swagger), and gigantic monsters tearing apart Chicago – that’s a hard combination to resist on the big screen. Additionally, Rampage promotes environmental conservation by having the world’s leading action hero (Dwayne Johnson) play a character who fights for animal rights. Full review.

#4: Mary Poppins Returns
The umbrella-clutching nanny returns over fifty years after the original film to reignite the magic that caused the world to fall in love with her. Like its predecessor, Mary Poppins Returns is full of sage advice, iconic imagery, and toe-tapping songs. It’s hard to walk away from this one without feeling uplifted. Full review.

#3: Avengers: Infinity War
This is the Vegas-style, pull-out-all-the-stops superhero film of 2018. It brings together most of Marvel’s beloved characters, several of them at odds, to take on their most formidable foe yet. Thanos is a Hulk-like purple brute who plans to wipe out half the human population. What makes Avengers: Infinity War especially admirable is its focus on an antagonist – the story really is about Thanos – with a respectable goal (i.e. achieve ecological balance) muddied by an abhorrent method, as well as its departure from the rosy ending common in superhero films. Full review.

#2: Deadpool 2
The wisecracking antihero returns with a barrage of gore, vulgarity, and cultural references. Ryan Reynolds’s chatty Deadpool takes the viewer on a metatextual ride as he obliterates not only the bad guys, but also superhero film clichés. What other character would joke around with the viewer before blowing himself up? Full review.

#1: A Quiet Place
John Krasinski’s directorial debut silenced theaters, yet critics and the general public alike loved talking about it. This post-apocalyptic suspense/horror chronicles a family’s attempt to survive amid creatures with supersensitive hearing. It combines the suspense of Aliens (1986) with the tight focus on one family of Signs (2002). From the tragedy at its beginning to the triumphant open ending, A Quiet Place sets itself apart in a filmscape dominated by explosions and crumbling cities. Full review.

Special Mention: Hereditary
I limited my top five selections to films that I saw in the cinema. If I had done so with Hereditary, I may very well have included it among my top five. Again, this one follows a family in the wake of a tragedy. However, whereas A Quiet Place covers the themes of strength and perseverance, Hereditary explores deterioration and madness. Several scenes exhibit superb acting in which the characters convincingly convey shock or extreme grief. And it all builds to an ending that gives Rosemary’s Baby (1968) a run for its money.

See Douglas’s top five SF/F/H picks from 2017, 2016, and 2015.—Douglas J. Ogurek

Wednesday 23 January 2019

Mary Poppins Returns | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Over 50 years later, the magic returns in respectful sequel that celebrates positive thinking and the power of the imagination. 

Since she floated down to London to help the Banks family in the 1964 film that bears her name, Mary Poppins has been an internationally beloved representation of patience, wisdom and imagination. Mary Poppins Returns, directed by Rob Marshall, stays true to the inventiveness of its predecessor, while presenting a more 21st century-relevant (i.e. economically-driven) story-worthy problem.

Mary Poppins Returns takes place in the mid-1930s, 25 years after the original story. Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw), one of Mary Poppins’s original charges, is now a widower raising his three children with some help from sister Jane (Emily Mortimer), another Poppins protégé. When Michael falls behind with payments on his family’s home, William Weatherall Wilkins (Colin Firth), the malicious CEO of Fidelity Fiduciary Bank, gives Michael a few days to pay the entire mortgage. Otherwise, the Banks lose the home.

While Michael and Jane attempt locate a possible inheritance, Mary (Emily Blunt) and Michael’s three children, often joined by Jack the lamplighter (Lin-Manuel Miranda), go on musical adventures, but also try to help Michael. Among their destinations are a bathtub portal, an animated world depicted on a porcelain bowl (listen for the clinking as they walk), and the shop of Topsy (Meryl Streep), Mary’s presumably Eastern European cousin who can fix anything except on second Wednesdays, when everything in her life goes upside down. Guess what day they visit her.

Emily Blunt does justice to the iconic nanny with her economy of movement, quiet confidence, and impressive vocals. As with the first Mary, this one is just as likely to remain silent as she is to dole out advice (spoken or musically) to children and adults.

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Jack, with his Cockney accent and always-chipper mood, gives a nod to the effervescent chimney sweep Bert (Dick Van Dyke) of the original. Street lamps are not the only thing Jack lights up – from the time that he kicks off the film singing “(Underneath the) Lovely London Sky” (despite riding his bicycle through a gloomy cityscape) until the buoyant “Nowhere to Go But Up” at the end, Jack maintains a positive outlook.

The upbeat tunes that dominate this film seem designed to embed themselves in viewers’ heads… especially younger viewers. The toe-tapper “A Cover Is Not the Book” has several parables and even a (near) rap performed by Jack. In “Trip a Little Light Fantastic”, Jack and his fellow lamplighters, accompanied by Mary, do an atmospheric number that pays tribute to the chimney sweeps’ “Step in Time” in the original film. The most serious number is “A Conversation”, Michael’s heartrending message to his deceased wife.

With its abundance of inspirational quotes and didactic songs, Mary Poppins Returns, like its forebear, entertains and teaches. Here’s to Mary Poppins and her umbrella protecting us from rainy days for another 50 years. – Douglas J. Ogurek *****

Saturday 19 January 2019

Twin Peaks: the Return, by David Lynch (Sky Atlantic) | review

The original Twin Peaks was a remarkable programme, easily liked for its quirky characters in a lovable town, but utterly terrifying as that lovable town’s dark secrets bubbled to the surface. It was said to have lost its way after the revelation of Laura Palmer’s murder, but I don’t remember ever being anything less than desperate to watch the next episode. I remember talking about it in the school library with other fans, lending out my copy of The Diary of Laura Palmer. The film came after I had gone to university, and I was very unhappy when the promised follow-ups never appeared. (We didn’t have back then, so I had no idea that it had not been a financial success.) Like many who enjoyed the show, I was extremely excited to hear that a third season was on the way, with David Lynch writing and directing, and many of the original cast returning. My feelings while watching the revival varied from scene to scene. I never stopped being glad that the new episodes existed. I was glad that a television channel had given a genius and his clever colleagues the money, time and space to indulge himself. But it did sometimes feel like it was taking the mickey.

The return begins where the last show ended, with Agent Dale Cooper trapped in the Red Lodge, and his evil doppelganger at large outside. The details of the plot are often hard to follow (all part of the fun), but, essentially, Cooper gets out, with help from bizarre supernatural beings, and is damaged on the way, and thus takes the place of a second doppelganger, who was married with a child. As Dougie, he lives on instinct, speaks few words, is baffled by the world, shepherded by his wife, Janey-E Jones (Naomi Watts), and yet treated like a genius. (One might suspect that this is an allegory for how Lynch often feels.) This state of affairs carries on for much, much longer than most viewers will appreciate, even if Kyle McLachlan’s performance is superb. Far more enjoyable are the scenes involving FBI Deputy Director Gordon Cole (played by Lynch) and FBI Agent Albert Rosenfield (Miguel Ferrer), as they investigate murders, track down the evil Cooper doppelganger, visit mysterious locations, and introduce us to mythical Diane, to whom Dale would dictate his messages, played brilliantly by Laura Dern.

Not much of this happens in Twin Peaks itelf, and it often feels more like a spin-off from the original programme (like the one originally planned for Audrey Horne) than a sequel. The scenes that take place in Twin Peaks are reminiscent of Arrested Development season four, where characters appeared in their own storylines but rarely interacted, due to the production difficulties involved in getting them on set together. That’s understandable with the actors in this who died after production began – it’s wonderful that a way was found to include them – but even with other Twin Peaks characters it feels like all their scenes are with the same few people every time, or with no one.

Often the lack of background music, long scenes and earnest acting make it feel like a parody of bad, low-budget films like The Room – or are those scenes just plain bad? They often feature women who are shrill and hectoring. Women are generally not shown in a good light, and there is a great deal of violence towards them. Perhaps both of these things could be explained by this all drawing on the stuff of nightmares, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if many viewers stopped watching for that reason. Another group of viewers likely to be disappointed are those for whom the original was a quirky soap, the predecessor of shows like Northern Exposure and Gilmore Girls. There’s not a lot of that here, and it’s easy to understand why US channel Showtime almost had second thoughts about making it.

At times it is quite boring, at others nasty and unpleasant, and it’s not a lot like the original programme, and yet, overall, I loved it. It was genius, unmissable television. Those who loved the weirdness of the original, who adored the even weirder Fire Walk With Me, will find a lot of what they have been waiting for. Even if the rest had been a total disaster, the new episodes would have been justified just by the scenes in the black lodge before Cooper is released. That tree! And the flashback episode, surely a contender for greatest television episode of all time! At times it was literally necessary to remind myself to breathe, and I couldn’t let myself think about the programme at night. Stephen Theaker ****

Sunday 13 January 2019

The Punisher, Season 1, by Steve Lightfoot et al. (Netflix) | review

Jon Bernthal returns as The Punisher, Frank Castle, after being so good in the second season of Daredevil. That makes this that rarest of things, a non-fantasy spin-off from a fantasy show. (NCIS is another, being a spin-off of JAG which featured, at least in the episodes I saw, a psychic whose powers helped her solve crimes.) There are no resurrected ninjas in this one, no super-powers, just lots of violent people with lots of guns. The events of Daredevil left everyone thinking that Frank Castle was dead, and he’s pretty much finished wiping out the organised crime gangs involved in the gunfight that led to the death of his wife and family. However, a guy going by the name of Microchip (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), who is also pretending to be dead, has tracked him down, and wants help clearing his name, so that he can return to his own lost family. What’s more, Dinah Madani of Homeland Security (Amber Revah) has returned from Afghanistan with a mission of her own, to find who killed her partner, and that’s going to lead her into Frank’s sights. This is a very well made action programme. Bernthal, a serious actor, is given lots to chew on, and he conveys both Frank’s heart-rending pain over losing his family and his bottomless rage concerning everyone involved. When he’s upset, you believe it, and when he lashes out, it looks like it hurts. The action, whether it involves guns, knives or fists, is always well-staged, clear and exciting. There is a formula to these Marvel shows, with the airtime divided between the titular heroes, their allies and the villains, and Iron Fist showed how it could hurt the show if any of those are less than compelling. Here, all the story threads are compelling, and viewers are unlikely to feel that there hasn’t been plenty of Frank in the show. It’s really good. Stephen Theaker ****

Saturday 12 January 2019

Preacher, Season 2, by Sam Catlin et al. (Amazon Prime) | review

Jesse Custer (played by Dominic Cooper) used to be a preacher, albeit not a very good one. His life was turned upside-down, and not for the first time, when he gained the power of Genesis, a heavenly being. It had previously tried to join with Tom Cruise, with explosive results, but seems quite comfortable with Jesse. It gives him the power to command anyone, as long as they can hear him, and as long as they have a soul. By season two he has an uneasy romance with with passionate criminal Tulip O’Hare (Oscar nominee Ruth Negga) and an uneasy friendship with dissolute vampire Cassidy (Joseph Gilgun). (Church helper Emily from season one does not return.) God has wandered away from heaven, but he loves jazz music, so they come to New Orleans in search of him. Meanwhile, the Grail tries to get its teeth into Jesse Custer, the Saint of Killers is on his way, Cassidy has to learn a bit of responsibility, and poor old Eugene Root has to deal with Hitler (a brilliant Noah Taylor). It’s a season that features some of the most shocking scenes ever seen on television. Maybe it’s not quite up to the extremely high standards of season one, but it’s still a great show, and it looks like season three will be a corker, drawing on the comic’s very best issues. Stephen Theaker ****

Monday 7 January 2019

Aquaman | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Tiaras, tridents, and explosions: latest DC Universe film goes deep into the ocean to achieve shallow, yet engaging story. 

After underwater princess Mera (Amber Heard) magically extracts water from Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa), then uses it to activate a glowing key, Arthur says, “You could’ve just peed on it.” Then Arthur watches the projection of a deceased king dramatically deliver a message. When Mera quizzes him on what he just heard, Arthur says, “Something, something, trident.”

These reactions exemplify what makes director James Wan’s Aquaman such a pleasure to watch. Arthur’s gruff manner makes him a glaring counterpoint to the melodramatic underwater beings that populate this film. It’s kind of like watching a biker at a ballet.

Arthur, with his superhuman strength and ability to breathe underwater, lives a simple life brawling and drinking brewskis. Then Mera shows up to enlist his help in preventing an impending Atlantean/human conflict by becoming Ocean Master. Aquaman initially resists, considering himself unworthy of such a position. Unfortunately, Arthur’s half-brother and Mera’s fiancée Orm (Patrick Wilson) wants to unite seven underwater kingdoms to wage war on land dwellers. He considers Aquaman a “half-breed” because of Arthur’s human father. The majority of the film chronicles Arthur and Mera’s journey to stop Orm and find the trident. Among the diverse settings are a cramped submarine, visually stunning underwater empires, and the streets of Sicily, Italy.

Though Aquaman is predictable and contains nothing new, one can’t help but be taken in by its schoolboy charm. Examples include the bug-like costume of villain Black Manta, the raising of weapons and shouting triumphantly, well-timed explosions, and the rubble that Aquaman leaves in his wake as he kicks ass and gets his ass kicked.

Another delight of Aquaman is the presentation of the protagonist’s ridiculous backstory, including the meeting and courting of his completely incompatible parents: Maine lighthouse operator Tom Curry (Temuera Morrison) and Princess (eventually Queen) Atlanna (Nicole Kidman).

Like most action movies, Aquaman has dialogue-heavy parts during which the modern moviegoer’s attention begins to wane. However, in this case, Arthur Curry is the viewer’s ally in distraction. What will one remember about Aquaman? Something, something, fun.–Douglas J. Ogurek ****

Sunday 6 January 2019

The Love Witch, by Anna Biller (Anna Biller Productions) | review

“I’m the love witch. I’m your ultimate fantasy!” Elaine Parks (played by Samantha Robinson) is a witch and a former burlesque dancer who comes to a new town, having left behind a poisoned husband. She has buried bodies before, she tells us, and she’ll do it again. She befriends Trish (Laura Waddell), and will later betray her. At the park she lays the whammy on Wayne (Jeffrey Parise), a louche professor. A love potion proves surprisingly successful, leaving him profoundly desperate for her. The strength of her powers is perhaps fuelled by her sublimated fury at the behaviour of men, including a scuzzy former mentor. Eventually her shenanigans will bring a police officer, Sergeant Griff Meadows (Gian Keys), into her life, as an investigator, and a lover.

Her professed submission to the desires of these men places them completely in her power. The message seems to be that what men think they want in a woman isn’t what they need: given everything they want they will lose their minds. Men are at best selfish buffoons, at worst dangerous brutes. Like children, they need boundaries. Women need to show solidarity with each other, and Elaine does not, which is what marks her as a villain.

Anna Biller writes the script and a song, directs, produces, edits, dresses the stunning sets, paints artwork, and makes the wonderful costumes. This is clearly the work of an auteur if there ever was one, and an auteur with a unique vision. It’s as stylish and as distinctively creepy in its way as a David Lynch film, but it feels authentic and sincere: it’s not a retro spoof like The Brady Bunch Movie (though that was brilliant too), and it’s easy to see why Biller has been rather put out by people calling it a parody or a comedy. It is absolutely not a film that’s so bad it’s good or anything like that. Viewers coming upon it unawares will honestly think it a product of another time till they see Trish using her mobile phone.

It’s heartbreaking to hear stories of Biller being treated badly by the crew, who for example she said crowded around the monitors for the (tastefully done) nude scenes. Hopefully the critical success of this film will give her more clout on set in future; one doubts the people who gave Ridley Scott a hard time on Blade Runner would get away with it now.

To a science fiction fan, this horror film was reminiscent of the original Star Trek series: intense, brightly-coloured, and deliciously ripe. A sequence set at a renaissance faire made this reviewer imagine her adaptating Jack Vance’s work (if she could find something of his with decent parts for women – a bit of gender-swapping might be necessary). She would do wonderful things with the stylized society of The Moon Moth, for example. But whatever she comes up with next will be worth a look. This movie is a true work of art. Stephen Theaker ****

Saturday 5 January 2019

Death Note, by Charley Parlapanides and chums (Netflix) | review

In this American adaptation of the Japanese saga, dropped by Warner Bros but then produced by Netflix, Light Turner – yes, that’s his name – is plying his trade, homework for cash, while watching the cheerleaders practice, when out of a cloudy sky falls a battered book with the words Death Note on the front cover. He picks it up, then gets himself punched in the face confronting some bullies. He gets punished for the homework service, the bullies go free, and in detention he has his first encounter with what we will learn is the death god Ryuk, in a scene where the shrieksome Nat Wolff as Light Turner makes you wonder if this is going to be a horror comedy. It’s not, or at least I don’t think it is meant to be, but then, once Ryuk has made his first entrance, it’s not very scary either. It’s more a thriller with supernatural elements. The chatty, persuasive, spiny-backed monster (voice by Willem Dafoe, body by Jason Liles) tells Light that if he writes a name in the book, that person will die. If he specifies how they will die (and it has to be physically possible – no sharks in toilets, he is told), that is how they will die. There are lots of other rules, and bit by bit the film tells us those that will be relevant to the plot. Ryuk tempts Light into using the book, and it’s an easy sell: those bullies are harassing a cheerleader, Mia (Margaret Qualley, from The Leftovers). Soon Light and Mia will become close, and start using the book, but you know she’s a bad influence because she’s smoking in her first scene, and as they expand their death noting it’s not long before L, trained since the age of six to be the world’s greatest detective, is on the hunt for them. L, easily the best character in the film, is played by Lakeith Stanfield, also great last year in Atlanta and Get Out. I wouldn’t have minded seeing a film just about him, and apparently there is a spin-off of the previous Japanese films about the equivalent character.

I haven’t seen the anime versions, or the live action Japanese films, or read the comics, but you would think that with so many previous versions to consider that the film-makers would have been able to get a pretty good idea of what worked and what didn’t before starting work on this one, which despite that ends up being pretty unremarkable. For one thing, Light is is a very unsympathetic lead character. The film was criticised by some for whitewashing, by casting a white actor in the lead, and maybe that played into my feelings when watching it. No one’s saying that when adapting a title from another country you must keep the setting and ethnicities of the characters exactly the same, and there’s certainly more diversity in this film than in the Japanese version, but when you cast a blonde white guy in an American remake of a Japanese film, it can feel like you are making a statement about the blonde white guy being more typically American than the alternatives. He certainly didn’t come across as the genius the film needed him to be.

What I did like about the film was how it opened out very quickly from what could have been a straightforward Final Destination kind of film to exploring the wider possibilities of the death note power, but I have to say I liked the Final Destination films much better. As well as vividly demonstrating perfectly the importance of good health and safety, they brim with suspense. There’s nothing in this film that comes close to the set pieces in those, though the conclusion has a crack at it. Ryuk is good company but you could replace him with a series of bombs without affecting the plot very much. It’s not a classic film, but it’s sweary and gory, and music is deployed very well throughout. It’s watchable enough to pass a couple of hours, and I could see a sequel being better, especially if it played up the horror. The part most likely to stick with me is the excellent advice of L’s right-hand man, Watari: “Sleep is key to strong thought.” Stephen Theaker **