Wednesday 22 June 2022

Top Gun: Contrived but fun

Don't think, just do! Use the Force, Tom! Which movie am I watching again?

Top Gun: Maverick is a template driven popcorn blockbuster, but it's a hoot nevertheless. 

It starts with our eponymous hero, Maverick, working as a test pilot on a secret Air Force project that's about to be terminated... spoil sport general (Ed Harris) is on his way! Mav has to steal the plane and push it to Mach 10 to avoid the program being cancelled! The jobs of his comrades (who look sad) are on the line, and only Mav can save them (as if the Air Force wouldn't reassign them elsewhere). 

He flies over the general as he takes off, blasting Ed Harris with a huge gust of wind. The script is not subtle.

Maverick being Maverick (show character!), he pushes the plane beyond its limits, causing the experimental craft to break up in mid air. Oh noes! Is Mav dead in the first five minutes, like Seagal in that nineties flick? Surprise! Mav ejects safely and winds up at a diner for a comedy beat. 

The program he was trying to save is not so fortunate, as their billion dollar plane is now toast. 


Fortunately, Mav is immediately reassigned (they do that!) to Top Gun again, to train young hotshots for the most difficult target imaginable. And I mean that: the mission comes across as wildly contrived and artificial, a mix of Star Wars trench run, test material (every challenge thrown into one scenario) and video game. As if the screenwriters asked pilots what would be the most ridiculously difficult mission to fly and cooked this up.

Obvisously it has to be flown by pilots, not programmed drones or missiles.

To avoid offending foreign markets, it's against an unnamed enemy. The target's an uranium enrichment plant; Russia and China already have plenty of nukes and enrichment plants. North Korea also already has nukes. The enemy nation also has fifth generation fighters, which I don't think Iran or North Korea have. They're flying over snow covered forests, somewhere in the north... the only choice is North Korea, but even that doesn't really make sense. 

Whatever. Don't think, just do! That's the film's mantra. It's something Yoda might say.

Before sending Tom off, General Party Poop had told Tom pilots were no longer necessary. Unfortunately, I think Harris is right. Before long, planes will either be piloted by machine or remotely. 

But that'd make for a short movie though.

The mission is so Death Star trench run it's funny (I laughed out loud a couple of times), but that's the tone of the film: bonkers and high octane silliness.

The action scenes, however, rock. They didn't use (much?) CGI; a lot is actual planes pulling crazy stunt maneuvers. That gives scenes a verisimilitude and kinetic energy that's nothing short of enrapturing. You get a sense of the thrill (and horror) of being a fighter pilot. 


Harrowing yet magnificent flying scenes

Sometimes it's difficult to understand where exactly the planes are in relation to each other, but given the limitation of using actual footage, they do a pretty good job.

There's an emotional aspect to the film, with a peripheral love story and strained relations between Mav and Goose's son. You care about the characters just enough to feel involved in the action sequences (well, Mav and Rooster). 

Tom Cruise fits in a running scene (must be in his contract) and the ending piles on the ridiculousness. 

If you're looking for a grounded, gritty, realistic fighter pilot flick, this isn't it. It's gung ho action and wahoo fun, with (barely, just barely) enough emotional connection to keep you interested. 

The best thing I can say (given my jaded tastes) is that I was engaged during the action sequences and finale. 

There are a good number of other big budget bonanzas where I was bored stiff during the spectacular CGI climax. 

Cardboard characters surrounded by explosion bling just isn't enough anymore. 

For a fun diversion excursion, I'd recommend Maverick (with the caveat you should leave your brain at home).

Tuesday 14 June 2022

The Way Back (2010)

I had never heard about The Way Back until I saw it on Netflix. It’s Peter Weir’s last film, starring Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris and Colin Farrell, and (apparently) was a failure at the box office. Which is a shame, because it’s very well done, and Weir’s a fabulous film maker. The Year of Living Dangerously, Witness, Gallipoli, Dead Poets Society, The Truman Show and Fearless are all modern classics. 

From a certain point of view, The Way Back is a horror film. 

But instead of someone in a hockey mask jumping out from behind a tree with a machete, you have the Soviet Gulag Archipelago and 4,000 harrowing miles of rugged, inhospitable landscape between the characters and freedom. 

Based loosely on the memoir of former Polish prisoner of war Slawomir Rawicz, our heroes are a rag tag group of Eastern Europeans, plus (oddly) an American. The Latvians and Poles were screwed over by the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact between the Nazis and the Soviets in 1939. The American fell victim to idealism. Now they must pass across frozen wastes and scorching hot deserts, with little food or water, all the while in mortal fear that they will be apprehended by the authorities.

That’s scary. 

Millions toiled away in 30,000 camps in the Archipelago at it's height, all disposable slave labourers, powering the Soviet Union's resource extraction and economy. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is a compelling account of life in a Soviet labour camp in the 1950s, if you're looking to dive deeper. Some 1.6 million perished in the gulag system, although reliable numbers are difficult to come by. 

Doubts have been raised about how true Rawicz’s tale is as well, but numerous stories of people escaping Siberia have floated around for some time. A British officer, Captain Rupert Mayne, interviewed three men who claimed to have escaped from Siberia in 1942. The BBC did an investigation and came across a man named Witold Glinski who claims to have made the same walk. So who knows? 

The ending, the very ending, is what got me. It ties in beautifully to the beginning. It's speaks to the power  and perseverance of the individual in the face of towering, implacable institutional inhumanity. 

There is no need monsters in this world, not really: we have people. 

I am so glad I did not live in The Bloodlands (although I recommend the book), where people had a choice between two murderous tyrants. What is more 1984? Between Stalin and Hitler, over 30 million people lost their lives. 

Conventionally speaking, The Way Back is an survival film with an underlying anti-communist angle. It was a bit of a slog for my goldfish short attention span; it’s a very, very long trek to India. And yet, the ending would not work if the film did not feel long; it adds to the emotional impact.

Definitely worth a watch if you have the time. It deserves more attention than it got on release. At the same time, I found the picture deeply upsetting. Which, I suppose, is a sign that it is very well done. Movies are emotion generation machines, after all.

In the BBC article, Weir said, ""It's about the struggle that all of us have to survive every day. This is on an epic scale, but survival is at the heart of it, and what keeps you going with all the difficulties and pain of life and the bad luck."

Amen to that. 

And may God (or the universe, if you prefer) bless.

Monday 13 June 2022

Kenobi vs. The Boys

The Boys: for ages 8-12

Comparing two properties, even very different ones, as they unfold can be really instructive in terms of understanding what works and what doesn't; I tried it before with Peacemaker and The Book of Boba Fett.

(I get the impression that Star Wars is spiralling down into itself, with story after story endlessly revisiting old characters. Pre-teen Palpatine and Chewie's Wookie Cub Playhouse can't be far behind.)

Both Kenobi and The Boys are action / adventure. Kenobi, however, is quite obviously aimed at kids, while The Boys is very adult. VERY very adult. Trust me, you do NOT want your children watching it. Which reminds me they made an Alien monster toy, back in the day, for kids... for an R-rated film they should not have been able to see. 

I think this is the 1978 version, but it may be a reissue. I never noticed there was a human like skull contained within the Alien's head.

The Boys is more my cup of tea. It's filled with scathing social commentary, pushes boundaries (this is a two sided sword, as vulgarity, obscenity and gratuitous violence can be both needlessly unpleasant and shock value can become a crutch), has well developed and motivated characters, and the villain, Antony Starr, is phenomenal and brings much needed nuance to Homelander

In fact, everyone on The Boys is fantastic. There's not a weak link among them. Karl Urban, Jack Quaid, Erin Moriarty, Karen Fukhuara, Tomer Kapon, Laz Alonso... they're all absolutely fabulous, although arguably Moriarty hasn't had as much material this season (so far). It's got to be difficult juggling such a large cast of characters. And yet, they are all much more rounded than the characters in Kenobi.

This may be a function of the audience the show is aimed at. Kenobi is simpler, more direct narratively if not technically (it looks astonishingly good). It is very 'cute': Leia Lulu is chased in one episode by bounty hunters who are obviously going slowly, to not catch her, like parents faux chasing their kids. It's so obvious it took me out of the narrative. For children, however, that may not be a bug, but a feature. 

I greatly prefer the staging in The Boys. Kenobi fights feel more like what you'd see with little kids playing: henchmen running onto the stage to be immediately gunned down, like ten pins. 

On the other hand, The Boys can be gratuitously gruesome. To me, this makes violence more horrific and impactful. Kenobi sanitizes killing. There's no blood at all. 

Which is better? Which is worse? 

There is a tremendous amount of violence in our TV and film productions, with heroes like John Wick mowing down hundreds of nameless disposable drones in every outing. It does give me pause. Arguments swirl around whether it encourages mass shootings. Virtual carnage in video games has not impacted rates of violence and, despite being counterintuitive, could actually be reducing them. I've been recommended the book Moral Combat by psychologists Patrick M. Markey and Christopher J. Ferguson, but not read it yet. Too much to read!

Strange things that happen in Kenobi: our eponymous hero makes mistakes you'd think he'd be far too smart and experienced to commit (such as blurt out Leia's name in front of stormtroopers, or immediately surrendering when faced with three troopers, after just easily killing three plus a deadly probe droid). And is it not a continuity issue for Kenobi to have a space phone in his cave? Why didn't Leia just ring him up in A New Hope? 

The emotional beats in The Boys are more impactful, whereas Kenobi's feels forced (heh). Again, this could very well be because it is aimed at children. On the other hand, when I was a kid, I never liked it when a show talked down to me. 

Writing for kids is such a challenging juggling act. 

I don't mean to imply I could do better. Criticism is easy; it's creating that's hard. 

Writing for Disney, especially on such a massively important, high profile and EXPENSIVE property must be an exercise in pressure management. Trying to integrate all the disparate corporate voices and interests (and, let's face it, merchandising) into a really compelling script... that's insanely challenging.

Sunday 12 June 2022

Ten years of Cutting Edge Conformity

As if!

It was a good run.

Time to celebrate: I've had this blog for exactly ten years, as of today. My first post was a review of Prometheus. The scary thing: it doesn't even feel like that long ago. 

After deep, soul wrenching contemplation, what have I learned from blogging?

1) I don't edit enough. 

2) It is impossible to reach the point where I no longer feel the itch to edit.

I am in an eternal struggle against filler words and pointless phrases, which regularly slip into my prose, seemingly unbidden, forever frustrated by smooth flowing sentences that remain out of reach. Also, purple prose.

But it's been good exercise.

I've written numerous movie and TV reviews; not what I set out to do, but I fell into anyway. And then mostly fell out of: my opinion isn't relevant, I'm (usually) not the target audience, and there's enough negativity out there without me griping. I've consumed so much television and film, especially over the Covid lockdown (Toronto had one of the longest in the world) that I'm now unquestionably spoiled and jaded in my TV tastes. It would be better to focus strictly on material I still find inspiring. 

On the other hand, that would require mental energy.

In addition to Cutting Edge Conformity, I created a number of 'sub-blogs', for specific properties, such as Theo Paxstone, Rebel Angels and Max Zing. There's even a blog for Nil, which I posted in a grand total of once. 

And then there's the blog for jtillustration which... honestly, I'd completely forgotten about. 

Social media has long overtaken the blogosphere, but I don't mind posting, from time to time, in my happy little backwater.

Here's to another 10 years!

Heh. Maybe not. It may be time to pack it in. 

Everthing changes.

Maybe this combo image is more appropriate: it conveys endless self-indulgent annihilation. Has he even put the glass down since 1997? I mean, that's a lot of alcohol...

Friday 10 June 2022

The best villain on TV: Homelander

Just kidding, kids, you're all going to die.

Stand aside, Darth Vader. 

Take a powder, Freddie. 

Have a nap, Jason and Alien Queen and Mindflayer. 

Homelander is the best, in the most awful, horrible, nightmarish way possible, villain on TV.

Hands down.

(And yes I know the others are mostly movie villains, but they're streaming now)

They've been building up this malignant narcissist for 2 seasons, and now he's blooming into his full, monstrous self. The training wheels are off, and he's being his best worst self. 

Emperor Palpatine, as great as Ian McDiarmid is at chewing the scenery, is a mere vaudeville villain, a moustache twirling trope by comparison. There's no motivation behind Ol' Palpy's desire to be evil and rule the galaxy.

Homelander? He wants to be admired. He needs it. That's the only thing between him and lasering millions. And you get the character. He comes across as a fully realized monster, his deep rooted insecurities and egomania driving the plot like an Indie 500 pro.

From the chilling scene, back in season one, where he refuses to save even one child passenger from a doomed passenger plane because it'd ruin his f*cking image, to his recent shenanigans to seize power at Vought, his evolution is frighteningly believable. 

Antony Starr's performance has been consistently amazing, across all three seasons. He sells insane rage behind a big, bright and fake smile. You believe this is a guy on the edge, ready to slip into obscene violence at any moment, at the slightest provocation. 

The world of The Boys walks on egg shells around Homelander. He's like that super powered psycho kid in the famous Twilight Zone episode, the one with the powers of a God and the impulses of an angry eight year old. 

Only Homelander is smart. Deranged, but smart.

What's particularly good about Starr's portrayal, and the writing team's material, is that people defend Homelander, and argue he isn't a real villain, just, essentially, misunderstood. 


The Boys continues to mine the superhero metaphor to comment on power structures, society and cynical facades. 

Season 3 wasn't quite doing it for me until Episode 4: Glorious Five Year Plan. That was some seriously disturbing television, and I'm dying to see where the writers take it next. 

I imagine the title pertains to the NEP, the Soviet five year economic plans. The second one, from 1933-37, pushed collectivization and resulted in the deaths of millions of Ukrainians. Perhaps it refers to the Soviet habit of back stabbing; Stalin frequently triangulated against his rivals (a list that dwindled over time as they wound up shot or with an ice pick in their brain). 

I confess I am not sure.

We'll see what next week brings!

What Homelander is frequently thinking of doing