Did that come out already!? Love & Mercy

love and mercy

Welcome to the first in a continuing series of reviews that will look back on films that might have slipped under the radar or simply have passed you by. With the continuing dominance of streaming sites such as Netflix and Amazon Video, it’s become easier to catch up with unsung gems or avoid outright stinkers.

First up is Love & Mercy, otherwise known as ‘that film about Brian Wilson’…

Thankfully eschewing the standard biopic format (see Ray, Walk The Line, blah, blah, blah…), Bill Pohlad’s 2014 film, Love & Mercy, instead positions itself more as a character study of the achingly productive and terrifyingly troubled Brian Wilson and attempts a more interior look at the man rather than simply recreating the edited highlights of his career.

Structurally cutting back and forth between the late 1960s and the 1980s, Wilson is portrayed by both Paul Dano and John Cusack and the film is at its most vibrant when showing Wilson’s incredible gift for songwriting and production, but also submits us to the grueling and heartbreaking treatment meted out to Wilson by both his father and the Svengali-like Dr Eugene Landry (who held Wilson in a horrific grip for years), and draws a clear line between the two figures. Dano and Cusack couldn’t be further apart in their more usual screen personas but here they blend seamlessly to give a fully fleshed out a layered portrayal of this fragile genius.

Performances are strong throughout, with the two leads backed by Elizabeth Banks and Paul Giamatti, but the film’s finest qualities are that it leaves you appreciating Wilson even more, allowing us a glimpse into the beautiful, spiritual sounds he heard so clearly in his head, and thankful that he has been able to find some measure of peace and renewed creativity in his later years.

Finally, Love and Mercy leaves you wanting more and leaves you with the desire to go out and discover (or rediscover) Wilson’s astonishing body of work, and that in itself makes the film both worthwhile and successful.

Image © Lionsgate

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Daredevil Season Two: Crime & Punishment

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In every way a superior production to its predecessor, the makers of Daredevil season two have definitely looked back on their previous failings (and taken note of what made Jessica Jones so successful) and given this run a far stronger sense of identity. This feels more confident and assured in every way, and while I maintain the thirteen episode seasons do more harm than good (every one of these shows has run two or three episodes too long, and would benefit from a healthier HBO/Game of Thrones style pruning down to ten episodes), the shows are improving constantly.

After a stunning first episode, this season takes a measured approach with a strong arc across the next three instalments. The next two arcs fold into each other neatly too, but if there’s one strong criticism to be made it’s that the three core threads don’t finally come together in the way you really hope. There’s a big scene missing, one which you’ll definitely want to see, that actually occurs in a somewhat diminished form. To say more would involve spoilers, but you’ll feel it when it comes (or rather, when it doesn’t come).

Still, there are surprises along the way, especially for those paying attention to Daredevil’s fellow Netflix shows, and several threads are set in place for forthcoming series. One particular thread promises what could be the first strong link to the eventual team up show, The Defenders (bringing together Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist).

Jon Bernthal finally gives us a definitive Punisher, not just a cold hard killer but a fractured, broken soul who frequently seems more like a wounded animal than a man, and his nuanced performance breathes life to a character attempted several times onscreen before but never quite humanising him the way Bernthal does here. This take on The Punisher is genuinely interesting and definitely leaves you wanting to see more. You hear that, Netflix…?

The same applies to Matt Murdoch’s long lost love, Elektra. Last seen several years back portrayed by Jennifer Garner in a generally rotten movie, Élodie Yung essays her as playful and dangerous, the bad girl that Murdoch can’t let go of. Fans of the comic book iteration are certain to be pleased with this take on the beloved character.

Charlie Cox has settled well into the dual role of Murdoch/Daredevil, making him a multi-faceted and far from perfect man, both in and out of costume. Deborah Ann Woll and Elden Henson (as Matt’s partners, Karen Page and Foggy Nelson – far less of a douche here, I’m glad to say) share greater chemistry with the lead and have more to do this time round. Thankfully, what they do feels, for the most part, more intrinsically a part of the main narrative rather than leaving them with the wheel spinning duties of the first season.

This season’s big bad is far less earthbound than the strong, focused villainy of Vincent D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk/The Kingpin, and opens a very definite door for things to progress into the wider Marvel Universe, but its slightly diffuse nature does leave a less satisfying whole. However, this deficiency is more than made up for by the introduction of The Punisher and Elektra. Both characters are given room to breathe and shine throughout the twisting, turning narrative.

The superheroics are much more fun this time, Daredevil’s costumes and weaponry receive significant upgrades along the way, and we’re finally presented with full on action from the billy-club that became his trademark weapon of choice in the comics (and we’re even treated to the wonderful sight of Hornhead using it to swing across a rooftop or two).

And for those who felt season one kept things too street level, this second season takes turns into far weirder and darker corners of the Marvel Universe. Action is plentiful, constantly exciting (sometimes even breathtaking) and frequently positively brutal, and with more than one costumed character running around this feels even closer to the source material than ever.

Themes of love and responsibility weave through the action alongside questions of what exactly makes a hero, and though the TV budget does occasionally show (the climactic battle feels just a little lacking) this is a wilder, generally more satisfying ride and finishes with multiple endings which, while a little predictable, also leave the door wide open for more adventures with The Devil of Hell’s Kitchen!

With the Netflix shows improving each time, and with early word suggesting that Luke Cage will hit with torn-from-the-headlines subject matter of police brutality against the black community (giving the kind of emotional heft that accompanied Jessica Jones), I’ll be glued to my sofa (again) come September 30th!

Batman v Superman: Dawn of way too much.

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There is a sequence near the beginning of this film which perfectly illustrates the frustration I felt coming out of the cinema some two and a half hours later: after the obligatory (read: redundant) recap showing us Batman’s origin (…just in case we’d forgotten about it since Batman Begins in 2005, or Batman in 1988, or any of the other myriad retellings across the past 75 years or so), we cut to the battle of Metropolis which occupied the last hour or so of this film’s nominal predecessor, Man of Steel. As Superman and fellow Kryptonian General Zod wage war, director Zack Snyder reminds us of the terrifying collateral damage caused by their conflict. Into this comes grey-at-the-temples Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), roaring through the panic stricken streets in an attempt to reach the Wayne Enterprises offices.

Wayne reaches his business associate, Jack, on the phone and tells him to get the Wayne employees out of the building. Cut to Jack in the office, surrounded by panicking staff, who are all looking out of the windows of the high rise building at the apocalypse around them, the city being leveled by two unseeing gods. Having received the word from his boss, Jack then tells everyone to start evacuating. Honestly, had I been working in that Wayne office I would have been moving my sorry ass down the emergency stairs the second after the first neighbouring building was destroyed, never mind waiting for my millionaire boss to jet in from the Bahamas to give me permission to leave as the world collapses around me! A simple piece of editing would have given this scene so much more power, instead of leaving you rolling your eyes.

In the middle of a stunningly shot and edited action sequence, this one, blindingly idiotic moment pulled me completely out of the story. With so much of the film being simultaneously breathtaking and moronic, it’s seeing just how close this was to being something far better that makes it such a frustrating exercise.

There are many problems with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and one of the biggest issues is hinted at in that title. As well as being the first live action screen pairing of the titular heroes, it also serves as an introduction for Wonder Woman (of who, more later) as well as The Flash, Cyborg and Aquaman, who will all go on to form the Justice League in the 2017 movie. The decision to add these characters to the story line seems to have been decided very late in the creative process, as the glimpses we get of most of them do nothing but add bulge to an already top heavy plot. In fact, one particular appearance (I’ll avoid details for the sake of spoilers), is so completely nonsensical that I had to explain to the friends who joined me for the screening what the hell it was about and who they’d just seen. This overcrowded film would have benefited greatly by excising this fairly ineffectual subplot completely.

It’s also a particularly dour film, full of bombast. Don’t expect much lightness or shade across the bloated running time. Snyder has set the controls for S.E.R.I.O.U.S. and amps up the levels to way past eleven. Why so serious, Zack?

In terms of construction it’s a hot mess, with little in the way of ebb and flow, instead simply cutting from one gloomy, portentous scene to the next, seemingly blissfully unaware of the filmmaking skills so essential to transporting an audience through the journey that makes a story. This happens… BWAAAAM… that happens… BWOOOOOOM… and then something else happens… BDAAAAAAAAM. You’ll be sorely disappointed if you’re hoping for nuance or subtlety.

It’s actually difficult to discuss Superman here without getting into heavy spoilers, but let’s talk a little about the Last Son of Krypton.

I rewatched Man of Steel recently, both in readiness for this sequel and in the hope that time would allow me to view it with a little more kindness, and there is indeed much to love about the film (the cast – who work their hardest to add moments of grace to their characters – design, score) but all of this is crushingly undermined by the fact that Snyder and writer David Goyer just don’t understand Superman. They get him wrong on a very fundamental level in every way that counts.

We’ve since had years of Snyder promising this would all make sense when we saw what came next, that he was working his way towards making the Superman loved by generations. Of course, as we’ve gotten closer to this film we’ve also had to listen to Snyder’s nails down a blackboard comments about Superman killing being canon and other such gems of squealing aural feedback which really should have proved that everything else he’d said was simply lip service.

But I’m an essentially positive guy and I like to believe the best in folk and so I remained cautiously hopeful we might get a redemptive second act for Superman. Sadly, we don’t quite get that, instead Snyder and Goyer (joined on script duties by Chris Terrio) pour on the Superman as Messiah references, which are heavy handed and mostly serve to remove the character even further from what should be his essential humanity.

Snyder’s faults as a filmmaker (“Well gee, let’s just do *this* because, well, it looks *cool*!!”) would be more forgivable if he understood this simple fact about Superman; that he should be the hero above heroes, and the measure by which we hold ourselves. And if Snyder thinks that sounds corny, well that just highlights his utter lack of understanding for why Superman has endured for almost eighty years, but more worryingly, as the creative entrusted to shape the DC cinematic universe, it does not bode well for the shape and tone these films will take.

If you’re still with me, you may be wondering why I found BvS to be so frustrating, given that there’s so much weighted against it. The frustration comes because there is also much to enjoy.

Chief among the positive points is the latest iteration of Bruce Wayne/Batman, and Affleck gives us an absolutely top notch Dark Knight. As Batman he is lithe, swift and brutal, as Bruce Wayne he is cynical and devilish. Affleck is clearly having a blast and that feeling is infectious. His chemistry with Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman (…wait for it, I’m coming to her soon) is a genuine highlight and I’m eagerly awaiting Affleck’s forthcoming solo outing as the caped crusader.

Gadot’s Diana Prince/Wonder Woman is a joy. When the Amazonian warrior finally enters the fray she is the epitome of awesome. It’s just a shame that the Warner Bros marketing department have spoiled every moment she has in the trailers. Equally shameful is the fact that you could remove her entirely from the film and not make a jot of difference to the plot. But man, she is awesome in action. This will also leave you excited about her forthcoming solo adventure.

Seeing the holy trinity of DC characters side by side is undoubtedly a beautiful thing. It’s a shame this was also spoiled way in advance.

Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL provide a fabulous score, and Wonder Woman’s theme in particular is almost absurdly exciting.

The supporting cast (Amy Adams, Laurence Fishburne, Diane Lane and Jeremy Irons) do their best with the little they’re given and raise up the film a notch or two more than it deserves. Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor, however, is astonishingly atrocious, spouting unintelligible dialogue that aches for fractured profundity but instead reaches only Friday night coked up jabbering. It’s less a performance than a never ending series of tics and twitches designed to irritate like needles being poked into your genitals.

To sum up, like Man of Steel, there is much to admire but this is a film too obviously dictated by the still evolving goals of DC and Warner Bros for their cinematic universe. Their decision to avoid the patient and careful cross fertilization of the Marvel franchises which lead to The Avengers by simply shoehorning everything into this one film is ultimately self-sabotaging and this shattered, incoherent production reeks of the indecisiveness and lack of control anyone whose followed its journey to the screen feared it would be.

It really should have been Batman v Superman and left the Dawn of Justice to come later.

Image © Warner Bros.

The obligatory origin story…

with great power
I’m not a mutant, I wasn’t bitten by a radioactive typewriter and my parents weren’t murdered by a cowardly criminal blogger, so the origin of this page is far more prosaic.

It all started… cue dramatic but uplifting music… on Facebook. Years of writing posts reviewing films and TV series finally led to friends requesting that I put my writings in a place that could be more easily accessed than the endless scrolling necessary on that site (though I can’t even begin to guess why anyone wouldn’t want to spend hours searching through drunken status updates and photos of me in my underwear to get to a review of Gareth Edward’s Godzilla).

So if you’re looking for someone to blame, as you sigh at the sight of yet another morass of words added to the onrushing tidal wave of blog pages, just blame my friends. Or Facebook. Or my ego. They’re all culpable.

For anyone discovering these words by accident, my newfound writing superpowers here do have some relation to my background (and indeed my career). I worked in comic books for many years, both as an artist and a scriptwriter, working with the likes of Warner Bros., DC Comics, Marvel UK, Express Newspapers, Cartoon Network and many more. I’ve written for comic books, magazines, books, newspapers, radio and TV. I now work in both education and the animation industry and my writing has continued into both these areas.

For those of you who’ve followed me here from Facebook, well… you asked for this.

So there we are, this post is the equivalent of Superman The Movie, Batman Begins or poor Marc Webb’s ultimately unfinished Spider-Man films (which seemed determined to drag the webspinner’s origin out across at least three movies). Now the dull old origin tale is out of the way we can move on to more exciting adventures, I hope you’ll join me.

At the very least you won’t have to look at photos of me in my underwear.

Image is © Marvel Comics Group