Thursday, 25 May 2017
Wednesday, 24 May 2017
Give or take a sub-Roman warlord who may or may not have even existed, the tales of King Arthur have a beginning in Welsh folklore. Early stories told of an unbeatable adventurer who lead excursions to steal treasure from an otherworldly paradise that predated and informed the Christian idea of Heaven. In Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, Arthur's kingdom stretched all the way into Gaul, bringing the King into direct conflict with the Roman Empire, the headspring of Britain's inferiority complex.
As the centuries rolled on, Arthur would become a rallying point for Greater British and French myth, tying dozens of disparate stories together under the banner of a round table where all men are treated equally. The point being that King Arthur is forever malleable, an undying character in permanent flux, flowing freely from one conceptual conflict to the next. For their pass, designed to appeal to a modern audience's taste for team-ups and their feature length origins, Guy Ritchie, with fellow screenwriters Lionel Wigram and Joby Harold, plunder the monomyth then flavour with the exploits of Middle-Eastern prophets.
Moses' drifting basket is married to the all-consuming humanity of a Christ who did not discriminate by class or social standing. In King Arthur: Legend of the Sword Charlie Hunnam's Arthur has lost the wealth and standing of his hereditary royalty thanks to a treacherous Uncle who can transform into Frank Frazetta's Death Dealer. Arthur has been raised in a brothel, enduring poverty and abuse to become a kind of Dark Ages Fagin, running umpteen scams and rackets that criss-cross London's docks, usually involving cheeky, pick-pocketing urchins. He's a cosy, East End criminal who stands up to bullies and loves his adopted Mum.
It's clear that even operating from this lowly station Arthur has thrived. Not only has he made vast monetary gains, he's also gathered a small crew of capable followers. He's a cheeky fucker but also, clearly, a leader. Just in case all that sounds terribly dry, Richie remembers to mix in his patented market stall argy-bargy, bending the distended structure of modern blockbusters to incorporate the director's rambling, digressive storytelling tics. As with Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, Ritchie insists that the film unfold from the mouths of his heroes, putting them in control of the story and how we are told it. It's an interesting delivery system, at its best representing a verbal barrage that can overwhelm and overcome the weak-minded. At its worst, it erodes the shape of the film, presenting computer generated action sequences in the lacerated language of car commercials.
Monday, 22 May 2017
Thursday, 18 May 2017
On paper, it's easy to read Alien: Covenant as Ridley Scott's bristling response to the criticism that greeted his gorgeous but deliberately flippant Prometheus. For a start the marbled, swaggering Engineers are completely dispensed with, shunted off stage into a delirious, Biblical oblivion that underlines their complete irrelevance to what will unfold here. Rather than pick at an idea of explanation, using rejected Alien concepts to build the nursery, Covenant is woven around a more forthright telling of where the original creature has sprung from. The facts that unfurl here might not align perfectly with everything we've seen before but their emotional, thematic truth work beautifully.
Scott and screenwriters John Logan and Dante Harper approach their sequel with the tried and trusted methods of James Cameron. They take their predecessor's leftovers, boil them down to their constituent parts then explode them on a mythic, sweeping canvas predicated on an easily understandable psychological state. The inherited character is precious, existing on a level entirely above any of the newcomers. Dramatic urgency will spring from, and function around, their objectives and desires. So while Cameron's Aliens transformed habitual survivor Ripley into a superheroic mother capable of physically confronting her nightmares, Logan and Harper raise Michael Fassbender's broken, glitching David up to the level of a towering, Satanic evil.
Covenant abandons Prometheus' questions about humanity's makers to instead ponder our race's future on a galactic scale, asking what legacy we might hope to leave behind. The film's answer is iterative and generational, concluding that mankind is essentially immaterial to what is to follow. We're catalysts, meat grist to power the pupal stage of our offspring. Just as our creators have been swept away, so too will we. It's a big, science fiction idea - the tools we've created to help us chart the stars have actually rendered us bovine, bordering on irrelevant. In this detail Covenant operates as a complementary piece to both Blade Runner and the moment in which Alien's Ash praises the perfection of Kane's son.
Covenant's synthetics are a rolling, real-time explanation why Roy Batty and pals were saddled with such a definitive expiration date. If mankind is able to create a lifeform that betters them in every way, why then should that being take orders? Covenant reorganises David as something of an anomaly, an old man's hubristic attempt to create a flawless but servile companion, two behavioural aspects that can't help but clash instantly. Walter, a deliberately less capable revision of David, occupies a social standing one down from Prometheus' duplicitous butler. Many of the human spacefarers that interact with Walter treat him like a self-sufficient gadget that just happens to be shaped like a man. In Covenant, synthetics are treated as emotionally invisible automatons, they're an underclass expected to bow and scrape. No wonder the greatest amongst them chose to divert, to seize on his father's works and imagine the next evolutionary leap.
Wednesday, 17 May 2017
AVP: Alien vs Predator's finest quality is that co-writer-director Paul WS Anderson has understood that one of the Alien series' key tensions is that women, no matter how accomplished they are, end up routinely ignored by their male colleagues. Like Ripley before her, Sanaa Lathan's Alexa Woods is the smartest, most capable person in the room and, just like Ripley, the men who buzz around her interpret her informed, credible guidance as dreary micromanagement designed to ruin their fun. Of course then Woods goes on to be the last human standing, surviving long after everybody else.
AVP stammers elsewhere. Anderson and accomplice Shane Salerno write everything shorthand, meaning character and detail are delivered in scenes that pivot on one-upmanship and zings. It's a shame the all-inclusive certificate doesn't really support the profanity required to make these scenes bearable. For the most part, people in AVP are simply cogs in an efficient, genre literate machine that has a pressing need for victims. Hence everyone is deliberately underwritten lest we get too attached. The effect of this choice is a film full of aggressively disinteresting drones marching towards their evisceration.
Anderson and Salerno have a little fun with their cast's disposability, casting aside a half-dozen eligible men (and one woman) to anoint an adolescent Predator as the closest thing to a love interest for Alexa. The seven-foot tall big-game hunter even goes so far as to bashfully reveal his monstrous face to his new best friend. This moment would probably sing if the mask Amalgamated Dynamics delivered was lit and photographed to conceal its stuttering motors and waxy, synthetic hide. Likewise, suit actor Ian Whyte conveys very little of the elegant, androgynous determination Kevin Peter Hall brought to Predator and Predator 2.
AVP's Predators are lumps, their cinched waists and barrel chests explicitly recalling the kind of simplistic, easily reproducible shapes you see in cheap supermarket action figures. The Aliens don't fair much better. Following on from their work on Alien: Resurrection, Amalgamated Dynamics once again render the title creature with elongated, insectile limbs and a rabid, bestial gait. The added screentime required to churn through actual fights scenes doesn't help, we're either stuck with ugly CG pouncing or prolonged glimpses that utterly expose the weightless, jittery rubber required to create the Alien's back-piping. We're a long way from Giger using repurposed medical grade bones and Rolls-Royce cooling tubes to arrive at something genuinely nightmarish.
Wednesday, 10 May 2017
Monday, 8 May 2017
Sunday, 7 May 2017
Disney's all-out assault on the ageing process continues in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. This time the megacorp serve us up a digitally sandblasted image of Kurt Russell cackling his way through an early-80s courting session. Stranded in this instant, it's difficult to gauge whether we're working our way through a brief technological blip in which digital artists are pushing their new toy to its limits or we're in the opening stages of a new, unreal frontier where no star, no matter how old or dead they are, is safe from a computer generated face lift.
Given the ubiquity of the technique in their tent-pole releases, it's clear Disney are hoping to normalise these blurry, synthetic performances. Perhaps they see the practice as another portfolio opportunity? They own almost everything else. Their stranglehold on the images and aspirations that cascade into childhood aren't enough for these IP hoarders, they want to take possession of faces and voices now, transforming the very idea of human identity into pliant, malleable data that can, feasibly, be used for any purpose. Really, the only thing holding Disney back in this new, terrible arena is the public's gag reflex.
The point where digital homage creeps into the repulsive is difficult to gauge and seems to vary wildly by star. Peter Cushing's resurrection in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story didn't raise half the stink that greeted the very suggestion that a similar technique might be used to reanimate Carrie Fisher for Episode IX. That was too raw a nerve but, if we take a step back, who doesn't want to see Kurt Russell returned to the prime of his life? Moral principles are great but why deny ourselves the chance to return to a time when the actor was young and perfect, frozen between The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes and Escape from New York?
Director James Gunn, to his credit, pushes the idea of an indestructible software Kurt to the limits of the PG-13 rating. The actor is blasted apart then messily rebuilt, layer by excruciating layer, before crumbling into a shapeless, data-heavy sludge. Guardians 2 must be a uniquely horrifying experience for Russell. The star is given the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see exactly what his body would look like after lasers have bored through it or how his organs might jiggle and pulse as they're knitting themselves into a box fresh skeleton.
These shameless displays of excess neatly encapsulate the experiences of watching Guardians 2. It delivers over and over again without respite, providing blazing, luminescent movement slathered all over jarring, dramatically compartmentalised, emotional pain. Sometimes these interactions work, granting us an insight into these tortured four colour characters. Other times they're just grist for the next punchline. Nothing is ever left alone long enough to simmer either, so when the film actually wants you to be sad there is always a beat or two where you're left wondering if a joke is just about to creep in and explode the moment.