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Non-Review Review: Brightburn

Brightburn is effectively an elevator pitch movie. It’s a heady cocktail combining Man of Steel, The Omen and We Need to Talk About Kevin into a single ninety-minute movie.

Brightburn often feels more like a sketch extended to feature length rather than a movie of itself. Its characterisation is light, its worldbuilding is shallow, its premise is not so much developed as directly stated. With the notable exception of Elizabeth Banks, who largely anchors the film in emotional terms, the performances are largely blank and generic. This is especially true of Jackson A. Dunn, who is cast in the title role. There is something very threadbare about Brightburn, as if the film is operating on nothing more than its fairly simple premise.

Red eyes at night…

Oddly enough, this all serves to make Brightburn more effective than it might otherwise be. Brightburn is a single-minded film, arguably powered entirely by its own high concept. That high concept is ingenious, and enough to sustain the film across the entirety of its ninety-minute runtime. Brightburn feels relatively light, but that is almost by design. There is little ambiguity about what it is doing, and why it is doing it. There is no clutter, no distraction, no wondering attention. Brightburn is little more than its central narrative engine, but that engine is a powerful and compelling force.

Brightburn is not a subtle film. It has all the nuance of its title character, smashing through wood as though it were wet cardboard. Somehow, that lack of subtlety makes it all the more effective.

Holy Moses.

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Non-Review Review: Skyscraper

Hollywood never really gives up on a genre that it loves, even when it might appear that the audience has moved on.

The perpetual reinvention of the western is one example, a genre that is constantly updated in terms of style and substance to reflect the times. The western has been reinvented and reimagined countless times over the past few decades, whether by combining it with other genres or by examining its underlying assumptions. The western survives in movies like The Hateful EightThe RevenantBone Tomahawk; films that are very clearly westerns even if audiences from the genre’s peak would struggle to recognise them.

Hanging on in there.

Disaster films are another example of Hollywood’s perpetual reinvention of a genre that has fallen out of style. While by no means as ubiquitous as they once were, disaster films still pop up from time to time. The attempts to update the disaster film often take the form of hybridisation, of tying the trappings of the genre into a more marketable template. In the nineties, Independence Day cleverly wed the disaster movie to an alien invasion narrative. More recently, Patriots’ Day tied the structure and rhythms of the disaster movie into a counter-terrorism epic.

Skyscraper hits upon what might be the ultimate genre fusion for the disaster movie template. At the very least, it feels like an inevitable hybrid in the modern cinematic climate. At its core, Skyscraper essentially asks… “what if a disaster movie, but also a superhero film?

The bed Rock of a stable marriage.

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Luke Cage – Step in the Arena (Review)

My name is Luke Cage.

Step in the Arena is the obligatory origin episode. It is also the strongest episode of the season.

One of the most striking aspects of Luke Cage is the thrill that the show takes in being a superhero story. It isn’t simply that showrunner takes an established set of plot and character beats and stretches them over thirteen episodes, much like the first season of Daredevil seemed to do with the structure of Batman Begins. After all, Luke Cage messes with the superhero story structure in a few interesting ways, particularly with regards to the character of Cornell Stokes.

lukecage-stepinthearena29a

Luke Cage adores the trappings of superhero storytelling. It thrives on comic book iconography. It revels in the familiar tropes. It embraces the goofy concepts. It latches on to the absurd coincidences. Step in the Arena is a very familiar superhero origin story, populated with familiar beats like the suspect human experimentation or the dead best friend or the fugitive status. However, the film executes those story beats with an incredible and infectious energy. There is no hesitation here, no deconstruction, no undermining.

However, the beauty of Step in the Arena lies in how it subtly shifts the emphasis of these familiar storytelling beats in a way that emphasises its status as a black superhero origin story. A lot of the charm of Luke Cage lies in realising that the writers do not have to choose between telling a story that speaks to the black experience in contemporary America or offering an archetypal superhero television series. Luke Cage never has to compromise, using broth threads to illuminate and inform one another.

lukecage-stepinthearena33a

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Non-Review Review: Birdman (or, The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Birdman is a staggeringly cynical piece of work.

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s showbusiness satire has its knives out from the opening sequence, and never puts them away. It is a movie that is relentlessly snarky and bitter about just about any facet of the artistic process. The movie seldom pulls its punches, lawing into its targets with a vengeance. There are points where it almost seems too much, where it feels like Iñárritu might be better served to pull back or ease off for a moment as the film becomes just a little bit too much.

Showtime!

Showtime!

Then again, Iñárritu turns the film’s relentlessness into a visual motif, structuring Birdman as one long unbroken take. This structure is only slightly disingenuous. While there are any number of “cheats” that allow Birdman to stitch together multiple takes, the end result is still a hugely ambitious and impressive piece of work. Even viewers as cynical as the film itself may find themselves marvelling at some of the incredibly fluid transitions and extended sequences. Birdman‘s anger might occasionally come close to suffocating, but its energy is infectious.

That is to say nothing of the performance at the centre of the film, with Michael Keaton playing a washed-up has-been celebrity desperately (and pathetically) fighting for artistic credibility after a career spent in blockbuster cinema. One of the more interesting aspects of Birdman is that it seems just as dismissive of the attempts at artistic rehabilitation as it does of the original “sell out” work. Birdman is a wry, clever and vicious piece of work. It is also a phenomenal accomplishment.

You wouldn't like him when he's angry...

You wouldn’t like him when he’s angry…

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The X-Files – Pusher (Review)

This November (and a little of December), we’re taking a trip back in time to review the third season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Space: Above and Beyond.

Pusher is perhaps one of the most effective stand-alone “monster of the week” stories that the show ever did.

It is no wonder that the episode is frequently cited among the best episodes of The X-Files ever produced, but it is telling that it was identified by Slate as the perfect “gateway” episode of the show. If you want to give someone a taste of The X-Files without burdening them with continuity or back story, this is a good choice. It may not be the best episode that Vince Gilligan ever wrote, and it may not even be the best episode of the third season, but it is one the strongest demonstrations of what the show does on a weekly basis.

Mano a mano...

Mano a mano…

Pusher is the first episode that Vince Gilligan wrote after joining The X-Files writing staff. It is the only episode credited to Gilligan in the show’s third season. He had been offered a position on staff after turning in Soft Light at the end of the second season, but had hesitated before accepting the job. When he did accept the job, he came down with a dose of infectious mononucleosis. As a result, Gilligan only wrote one script for the third season, despite becoming one of the show’s most prolific writers.

Pusher is a pulpy delight, a spectacularly constructed standalone that perhaps points the way to Gilligan’s later work.

Gift of the gab...

Gift of the gab…

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The Spirit Archives, Vol. 26 (Review/Retrospective)

It’s strange reading The Spirit Archives, Vol. 26. Not just because it’s a collection of absolutely everything (from stories to pin-ups to posters to sketches) rather than a set of comic strips. Also because of the scope of this final hardcover collection in DC’s Spirit Archives programme. While, with the exception of the last volume, each book collected six months of the weekly strip, this final book collects pretty-much everything Will Eisner did with the character from the time that the weekly strip ended through to his death in 2005.  I’m a bit surprised that there’s only one book of this material, although it does allow the reader to flick through the decades following the end of the strip as if examining a family photo albums – watching the subtle changes as time marches on.

Despite the fact that he was cancelled, The Spirit never seemed to quite go away. There was a lot of work featuring the character by other writers and artists, but most of that isn’t collected here. Instead, this admittedly disjointed collection reads best as a sort of a documentary charting the on-going relationship between Will Eisner and arguably his most popular creation.

Still making waves…

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Superhero Movie Fatigue? I Tire of This Argument…

It’s becoming a frequent complaint that there are “too many” superhero films. When Green Lantern crashed and burned last year, there were a rake of articles lauding it as “superhero fatigue.” Even before this summer kicked off, people were asking if “fatigue” had kicked in. Ignoring for a moment that The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises are the two most successful films of the year, I’ve never quite understood that argument. There were, after all, three (or four, if you count the dire Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance) superhero-themed blockbusters this year. Do audiences get “period drama fatigue” if more than four high-profile period dramas are released in a year? Are there widespread cases of “cop movie fatigue” if more than half-a-dozen movies feature a law enforcement official in a lead role? Is there a cap on the number of films that Ryan Gosling can produce, lest he inspire an epidemic of “Ryan Gosling fatigue”?

Twilight of the superheroes?

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