SCHIZOPOLITAN! IT CALLS TO YOU! JUST LET IT IN!! The podcast of genial nerdy chat returns, as Saxon and Jehan finally take on the film that everybody can’t stop talking about. Yes, it’s the momentous arrival of Star Wars – The Force Awakens, and it’s time to finally talk about what this film is. How do new arrivals like Rey, Finn and Poe Dameron match up to old hands like Han Solo? Is the film a worthy continuation of the saga? What’s with all this ‘Mary-Sue’ business? Why exactly was Saxon reminded of Prometheus on his first viewing? And does JJ Abrams actually understand how big space is? ALL THESE QUESTIONS, AND MORE!!!
(Also, as fully explained on the episode, this is going to be the last podcast for quite a while. Schizopolitan is going into stasis, but will hopefully returning in the not-too-distant future…)
SHAKEN BUT NOT STIRRED! The Schizopolitan podcast roars back into view in its vintage Aston Marton DB5 to bring you another grab-bag of discussion, nerd chat, fierce opinions and big-time spoilers! First up, there’s a quick discussion of Ridley Scott’s recent (and rather odd) comments about the future of the Alien franchise, and whether or not there’s any chance of salvaging it after the good-looking mess that was Prometheus. Then, Saxon indulges in a quick burst of Who-related chat, as he examines the first half of Doctor Who S9, where the unexpected creative renaissance continues and Peter Capaldi remains scarily awesome. And after that, Jehan takes us through his full and spoilerific opinions on the latest James Bond film, Spectre! Is it a decent follow-up to Skyfall? Has it resurrected a classic Bond villain in a fitting manner? Is it just a very silly Bond film that’s attempting to play things seriously by having lots of people glowering? Are the answers to the previous questions “No,” “No,” and “Yes”? ONLY TIME WILL TELL!
THERE HAS BEEN AN AWAKENING! Unbroken and undefeated by various technical snafus, Saxon and Jehan are back to discuss the heck out of the biggest movie trailer in a long time. The final trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens has arrived – and what’s the reaction? How much is this film going to emotionally destroy Saxon? Are we possibly seeing too little of what the film is actually going to be? And can JJ Abrams deliver a Star Wars movie to truly be reckoned with? EXPLOSIONS! CONTROVERSY! MYSTERIOUS BLUE DEATH-STAR TYPE THINGS! IT’S ALL HERE!!!
DELAYED BUT NOT DESTROYED! The most significant cultural milestone the world has ever seen (*citation needed*) returns with another episode of podcast goodness, as Saxon and Jehan brace themselves to discuss the charm, the colour and the emotional devastation of Pixar’s latest CG animated movie, Inside Out! How much of a return to form is this for Pixar? How well have they taken on the tricky subject of psychology? And exactly how much will this film make you cry? ALL THE ANSWERS LIE WITHIN!
WARNING – some spoilers for Tomorrowland contained within.
Politics can be a divisive business, and it’s no surprise that a lot of people simply hate talking about it, especially when it comes to appreciating and enjoying art and media. But it’s equally true that it’s frequently a topic that can’t really be avoided, especially since so much of art, culture and human expression is inherently political, whether it means to be or not. When you’re a fan of the filmmaker Brad Bird – whose new film Tomorrowland is now playing in cinemas – avoiding politics is nigh-on impossible, and the resulting discussion can often be fractious and tricky to navigate.
Bird is, after all, an extremely political filmmaker, and one whose specific ideology has proven tough for many people to get to grips with, given its unexpected and unconventional nature. He’s primarily known as a purveyor of family entertainments – from his background as a Disney animator to his tenures on The Simpsons and at Pixar – and we’re used to mainstream family entertainments being relatively unchallenging in their political character, usually settling for broadly universal self-empowerment themes, with a dash of left-leaning acceptance and diversity messaging. That’s not really Bird’s style, though – he’s a much more overtly didactic filmmaker, and deviates from the standard script often enough that his philosophy has become distinctive, recognisable and – to a certain degree – controversial. With Tomorrowland, he’s released his most message-driven movie to date, which makes this a good time to have a look at what makes this supremely talented yet oddly divisive filmmaker tick.
1: I’m surprised that it’s actually happening. My first reaction to the rumours that JJ Abrams might be directing Star Wars: Episode VII was “That’s weird.” My second was “Didn’t he say he’d turned it down?” My third, eventually, was “I bet this is one of those rumours that turns out to be false.” Just occasionally, it seems the Internet can prove me wrong.
2: It’s a choice that’s simultaneously understandable, a little odd, and almost a little too obvious. Alongside Joss Whedon, Abrams was one of the first directors touted by fans for Star Wars, simply because of his 2009 Trek reboot, which almost immediately seemed to make him unlikely to do it. He’s proved himself able to handle a big, technically complex blockbuster with heavy levels of special effects. He’s also able to handle character well, something not every candidate could manage (Hello, Zack Snyder). The fact that the 2009 Star Trek reboot shared so much storytelling DNA with Star Wars makes this all feel like one of those fandom wish-fulfilment “Oh, wouldn’t it be great if ****** got to direct it?” dreams that’s somehow spilled out into reality. But he’s signed. It’s official.
3: The countdown begins now to the point where Disney announce a release date shift from 2015 to 2016. Abrams is still in post-production on Star Trek: Into Darkness, and then he’ll have major press commitments around the release. If the 2015 release is stuck to, that gives him just over two years for all the pre-production, shooting the film, and the post-production – for a blockbuster, that’s a pretty tight turnaround, and while they can be made to a tight schedule, the end results often aren’t pretty. Many blockbusters have been ruined by sticking to a release date over everything (often meaning that shooting starts without a script in place), but with so much riding on this, I’m pretty sure Disney aren’t going to force Abrams to rush what’s likely to be an epic production schedule (especially in terms of post-production and CGI effects work). I’d also lay bets on that being part of the deal – I doubt Abrams would have signed to do something like this if he didn’t also get the power to do it *right*.
4: He’s a fan. It’s one of the resons he quoted for originally turning it down, but Abrams is a dyed-in-the-wool Star Wars fan, which means anyone worrying about Episode VII being slathered in lens-flare can probably relax. I’m sure it’ll look slick as hell, but I also suspect he’s going to stick a lot closer to the visual style of the original movies. Not being a fan of Trek before he hopped onboard the reboot meant he went about reviving the franchise in a very deliberate way (admittedly, one I didn’t always agree with), giving it a very new and fresh identity, with aspects of the classic version of Trek woven in. I suspect Abrams’s Star Wars will be a lot more faithful to what’s come before.
5: He’s capable of being an amazing director, but Abrams has yet to make a film I’ve wholeheartedly loved. Mission: Impossible III is great fun, but light as a feather and essentially plays as a feature-length episode of Alias (Abrams’s hilariously convoluted female-led TV spy-saga) with Tom Cruise as a lead, a blockbuster budget, and fewer over-the-top costumes and wigs. Star Trek is great fun, but has a plot that shatters into pieces if you so much as breathe on it, and also sacrifices a bit *too* much of Trek’s sense of intellectual SF adventure in favour of wham-bam action and STUFF! BLOWING! UP! Super 8 is frustratingly close to being an outstanding movie – when it’s being a homage to the Amblin movies that Abrams grew up with, it’s heartfelt, beautifully played and genuinely moving. However, when it veers left into Stephen King territory, it ends up drowning out the quieter (and stronger) emotional content in favour of horror-movie shocks, an alien that’s both an evil chomp-monster and a misunderstood tragic figure, and even more STUFF! BLOWING! UP! It’s especially frustrating when Abrams’s television work has almost always been stunning – especially the pilot episode of ‘Lost’, which still stands up as an awesome and adventurous piece of television. I’m hoping that maybe taking on Star Wars will make Abrams push that little bit further, and produce something that really does pay off the talent and storytelling I saw in all those jaw-dropping early episodes of Alias.
6: Screenwriters Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (Transformers, Cowboys and Aliens, Star Trek) are not writing this film, and I can’t begin to describe how happy this makes me – especially as they seemed joined at the hip with Abrams. Other people are worried at the idea that Damon Lindelof may get involved thanks to his Abrams connection, a worry mainly rooted in him getting lots of the blame for people’s disappointment with Prometheus – but (a) most of the blame for Prometheus’s undeniable flaws have to be piled at Ridley Scott’s door, and (b) screenwriter Michael Arndt is already at work, and if whatever he’s done is presumably good enough to play into changing Abrams’s mind, I’m hopeful that we may be in good hands. (And whatever happens, any of the screenwriters will have to work very hard to best some of the insanely creaky writing in the prequels).
7: Thanks to a rumour that directorial contender Matthew Vaughan would have cast Chloe Moretz in a pivotal role, it’s very possible that there’s a significant role for a young female lead. If Abrams isn’t on the phone to his Super 8 star Elle Fanning right now, then the man’s a fool…
8: Ultimately, I can live with JJ Abrams directing Star Wars, but it doesn’t fill me with an immense surge of excitement either. We’ll get a damn efficient crowd-pleasing SF blockbuster, and I can almost guarantee there’ll be a sense of character and life back in the celluloid Star Wars universe that hasn’t been there for a while, but there’s still no guarantees that it’s going to be anything other than a pretty SF blockbuster with kick-ass setpieces. Abrams is unlikely to serve up a turkey, but he isn’t the bold and interesting or left-field choice they could have gone for, and he isn’t a director with an approach I would absolutely love to see tackle a Star Wars movie. (I know it’s a foolish dream and it’s ultra-unlikely to happen, but a Star Wars film directed by David Fincher would send my inner geek into meltdown). But I do think Abrams is a solid choice, and there’s potential for greatness there (as well as the potential for it all to go a bit wrong, as well). Whatever happens, despite previous disappointments, the prospect of new Star Wars movies still has me intrigued. For now, there’s life in the old Saga yet…
Once again, the Internet and the fans give me a reason to care about Star Wars again. One of those crazy projects that seems completely demented until you see the final product and realise that yes, people actually did this, Star Wars Uncut is a crowd-sourced version of the entire original 1977 film that takes a Be Kind Rewind ‘swedeing’ lo-fi approach to expressing love for the classic SF adventure, and did it by inviting fans to remake the film however they liked. The only rule? Each group of amateur remakers only got to tackle 15 seconds of the original movie. The result is a barking made patchwork-quilt of live-action, animation, glove-puppets and the truly unexpected that all holds together a lot better than you might think. Two hours of sheer Star Wars nuttiness awaits…
Blimey. Okay, given that I’m not going to be seeing the prologue for at least the next few days, this is my first proper glimpse of Christopher Nolan’s upcoming third Batman film The Dark Knight Rises, a blockbuster for which the phrase ‘hotly anticipated’ is an insane understatement. Nolan set himself a huge hurdle to leap with The Dark Knight, and it’s perfectly possible that the ludicrous levels of expectation may in some terms end up working against the film – but the trailer has gone live over at Apple (and is available in an embed below, which may or may not get yanked soon…) and what we’re seeing so far looks pretty damn impressive; certainly a massive improvement over the “Oh crap, we’d better throw together a couple of shots along with a sequence of Gary Oldman mumbling incoherently in a bed” teaser trailer we got a few months ago:
From advance reaction to the prologue, it looks like one of the more divisive elements (unless there’s some serious fiddling happening in the next few months) is going to be Bane’s voice – and the one line we get here isn’t exactly the model of intelligibility, but I’m willing to give it the benefit of the doubt.
And while we don’t get a full look at that controversial costume, we do get to see Anne Hathaway in action as Selina Kyle (including an oh-so-appropriate mask), and as I suspected, whatever she may be wearing, it looks like Hathaway is going to be giving a seriously impressive performance as Catwoman. There’s eye-candy here, and spectacle (which promises to be pretty amazing in the IMAX format, especially considering the film will feature almost fifty minutes of IMAX footage) – although, as with the first The Dark Knight trailer, and almost all the publicity for Inception, there’s very few signs of exactly how this all fits together – but what’s really surprising is exactly how political that speech from Selina Kyle feels. It’s one of those moments where art accidentally coincides with real life (after all, the screenplay for The Dark Knight Rises would have been finished long before the Occupy movement got going), but it certainly looks like Nolan isn’t backing away from melding real life issues with superhero action in the same way he did with The Dark Knight. On top of everything, there’s some very interesting hints at how time has moved on for all the characters, and a general sense that whatever happens, even if The Dark Knight Rises doesn’t top The Dark Knight, Nolan is currently at the top of his game and would probably have to really try hard to completely mess this up. Whatever happens, July 2012 feels like a very long time away right now…
The Low-Down: A ridiculously stylised and deeply demented flipside to last year’s Clash of the Titans, Immortals is a barmy mix of mythology, action and borderline insane costume design that packs in some unexpected pleasures for those willing to go along with such a seriously kooky approach.
What’s it About?: Thousands of years ago in ancient Greece, a conflict took place between two warring groups of immortal beings. The defeated, named the Titans, were imprisoned beneath Mount Tartarus, while the victors, naming themselves ‘Gods’, now rule over the world but are forbidden to interfere in the fate of mankind. However, the Heraclian king Hyperion (Rourke) is on a vengeful quest to bring down the Gods, and the only man able to stop him may be humble peasant Theseus (Cavill)…
The Story: (A brief note – Immortals was shot in native 3-D, but as I’ve recently been having major problems watching 3-D movies (and prefer not to get headaches and eye-strain at the cinema), the 2-D version is the one under review.)
For someone who’s only notched up three directorial credits so far, Tarsem Singh is ending up as a seriously divisive filmmaker. Right from his movie debut, the 2000 serial killer thriller The Cell, he’s showcased a deliberately sumptuous, lush and in-your-face approach to visuals, costume design and filmmaking technique that there’s absolutely no middle ground on – you either get swept along by his almost theatrical approach to visualising fantastic sequences on film, or you find his whole ethos deeply annoying and ludicrous in the extreme. Now, eleven years later (and with his only other movie inbetween being the quirkily weird and beautiful low-budget drama The Fall, which Singh mostly self-financed with his lucrative work in the commercials sector), he’s made a return to big budget filmmaking, and there’s absolutely no sign of him backing away from his idiosyncratic visual stylings – in fact, Immortals takes the lush insanity of the fantasy sequences in The Cell and The Fall and pushes it even further than before.
The result is a mythological actioner that basically functions as a style-over-substance fever dream, a lush and barmy journey into a world where normal rules of cinematic reality don’t apply. Anyone going into Immortals expecting a 300-style tale of throbbing manliness is largely going to be disappointed – while Henry Cavill looks admirably heroic with his shirt off and there are a selection of very well-realised traditional combat sequences, the limb-lopping, bone-crunching violence is more influenced by Park Chan-Wook’s Oldboy than Snyder’s testosterone-soaked opus. Added to which, with its approach to mythology, Immortals frequently plays like a creature-free, gory version of a 1960s Ray Harryhausen adventure, tackling its story of gods and men with an admirably po-faced level of seriousness. Indeed, it’s hard to think of a fantasy actioner that’s been this deliberately portentious and stony-faced since John Milius’s Nietzche-influenced take on Conan the Barbarian, and the melange of accents and acting styles, along with the truly bizarre approach to costumes and visuals (with the strongest visual reference being 16th Century painter Caravaggio), all gives the film a wonderfully rich and exotic sense of mythic oddness.
This bizarre blend also includes the approach to the story, and while Singh has an amazing eye for visuals, with Immortals embracing even more than 300 the idea of making greenscreen movies deliberately artificial, the story doesn’t always hang together. Weirdly enough, at various points the movie is both a remix of Greek myth and a ‘realistic interpretation’ – we get intertitles informing us of specific dates and locations, and Theseus’s showdown with the bull-helmeted ‘Beast’ soldier is obviously meant to be the beginning of the legend of the Minotaur, and yet the film also plays the mythology as completely real. This is absolutely a film that’s at least attempting to tackle what it means when Gods mess about with human lives, but it’s only fitfully successful in doing this, while also showing a weird habit of building up strong conflicts only to either abandon or forget about them.
Lysander (Joseph Morgan), the traitorous soldier who sells out Theseus’s village (and is also the victim of one of the more memorable and eye-watering moments of baroque violence) is built up throughout as a relatively important character, only to be abruptly dispatched with little ceremony in the climax, while oracle Phaedra (Slumdog Millionaire’s Freida Pinto) is given a potentially major problem – she’ll lose her powers of prophecy if she loses her virginity – but then hops into bed with Theseus halfway through the story and spends the rest of the film as window dressing. The story of Theseus really boils down to a fairly predictable hero’s journey, as he’s maneuvered into place by fate, destiny and the actions of the Gods, and the film never quite comes to grips with one of the biggest features and problems of Greek myths – keeping dramatic tension going when, at any moment, powerful deities can turn up and deliver stunningly realised ultraviolence at the drop of a hat.
Of course, in a film that features more than its fair share of exotic, eccentric and downright insane costume choices (particularly Hyperion’s natty giant lobster-claw hat), the weirdest and probably most divisive choices are kept for the Gods themselves. Presented as fey, ludicrously beautiful fashion models swanning around Mount Olympus in massive gold cloaks and headgear that boggles the mind (especially Apollo and his spiked-mohican helmet), they’re a gigantic distance from the usual portrayal of Greek gods – and yet, it’s almost as if they’re a deliberate litmus test, that Singh is pushing his love of operatic theatricality as far as it will go and challenging the audience to keep up, making the Gods seem exotic, weird and oddly inhuman in a way that doesn’t involve using CG (a device he only really uses to transform landscapes and create insanely over-the-top violence). It’s a stylistic choice that manages to be utterly ridiculous and yet weirdly effective and powerful at the same time, especially in the final battle, where the Gods are finally pitched against the bestial, dog-like Titans, and suddenly those perfect bodies are being subjected to all kinds of blood-soaked gory violence.
Immortals isn’t a film to look to for a traditional, expected version of Greek mythology, and what it tries to say is somewhat muddled by Singh’s sheer determination to make everything subservient to the wonderfully weird visual atmosphere he’s building. The performances vary wildly, with Rourke and Cavill feeling like they’re in different films, although Cavil does acquit himself well – aside from a woeful rousing pre-battle speech – and shows enough screen presence to make him an intriguing choice for the upcoming new Superman film. Rourke’s natural sense of mumbling menace is occasionally effective, although it’s hard not to think Hyperion would have been an even more effective villain with half as many scenes, and his climactic fight with Theseus seems to go on for at least five minutes too long before his absurdly protracted death.
But ultimately, this isn’t an actor’s film – it’s a fantasy romp and a visual feast that’s so deliberately off-the-wall that for some, the emphasis on surreally theatrical eye candy is either going to be too much or boring in the extreme. Once again, there’s no middle ground on Singh’s sword-and-sandals epic, and yet while 300 is undoubtedly more focussed and direct, Immortals is weirder, more textured, less grotesquely right-wing, and ultimately a hell of a lot more interesting. Tarsem Singh may have a genuinely great film in him somewhere (although, from the looks of the recently released trailer, it certainly isn’t his next project, the dreadful-looking fairy tale comedy Mirror, Mirror), or he may be destined to remain a filmmaker who dazzles the eyes while never quite mastering the art of balancing the style with substance. However, for the moment, he’s made a fantasy action adventure that’s nuttier and more visually bizarre than anything else on the market, and with most Hollywood blockbusters going out of their way to be as bland and homogenous as possible, that’s at least something to be applauded.
The Verdict: The best example of visual style balancing out muddy storytelling since Tron: Legacy, Immortals is undoubtedly a brutal, eccentric and frequently ridiculous movie – and yet, there’s something about its single-minded determination to deliver visual weirdness that’s ultimately quite beguilling. A mess, but a visually stunning and weirdly compelling mess all the same.
If you haven’t heard of The Hunger Games yet, treasure that feeling – it’s unlikely to last very long. With the Harry Potter series having come to an end, and the death-rattle of the Twilight Saga already beginning with the release of Part 1 of Breaking Dawn, Hollywood is desperate to generate another hugely popular multi-volume teen franchise. Given the excitement that already exists around teen dystopia series The Hunger Games (and its two sequels), the upcoming movie adaptation isn’t much of a surprise, and anyone following movie news websites for the last twelve months will have been deluged by reports and rumours about casting of the various characters, making it pretty certain that even if The Hunger Games isn’t the next Twilight (in terms of impact), it’s going to be pretty damn close.
Now, the first trailer is out for the movie adaptation, directed by Gary Ross (who hasn’t directed a film for nearly nine years (horseriding drama Seabiscuit in 2003), although he’s had a major reputation as a screenwriter ever since 1986’s Big)… and I’m actually kind of impressed. The story of teenagers chosen by the government to compete in a fight to the death, it’s essentially a teen-centric fusion of The Running Man and Battle Royale, and there’s certainly a healthy dose of kookiness in the costume design and general appearance of The Hunger Games’s future world (especially in the wonderfully eccentric names – with everything from Peeta Mellark to Haymitch Abernathy). The trailer certainly isn’t without its cheesy moments, but the casting looks pretty strong – especially Jennifer Lawrence, who was exceptional in the drama Winter’s Bone and did a wonderful job as a youthful Mystique in this summer’s X-Men: First Class – and the restless, hand-held visual style actually looks like it’s going to give the film a healthy amount of edge. The fact that it’s aiming at the Twilight-related market means there’s going to be a number of people lining up to rip the hell out of The Hunger Games at the first opportunity, but I’m now genuinely interested to see how it turns out. The only question is – do I read the books first to see how it measures up, or leave myself unspoiled? Only time will tell…