Saturday, 29 June 2019


David Yarovesky, 2019, USA
Writers: Brian Gunn & Mark Gunn

The ‘Superman’ and the Evil Child premise mash-up in another dissection of the superhero. This one is a family occasion, written by Brian and Mark Gunn and produced by genre favourite James Gunn. 

Childless couple Tori and Kyle (Elizabeth Banks and David Denman) adopt a baby from space that falls outside their homestead. The boy Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn) is mild and smart and, it seems, mostly ostracised/bullied by peers. We know how this goes. But when he hits puberty, the spaceship hidden in the barn starts calling to him and his burgeoning powers make him dangerous and unhinged.

There is solid work from the main actors and a no-fuss modern feel to the characters: for example, there’s a nice mature sexual warmth to Tori and Kyle’s relationship and they have no hang-ups about adoption at all. ‘Brightburn’ looks good and the script skips over the points it already assumes we know from many, many superhero and supervillain backstories (which isn’t quite the same as the underwriting I accuse it of later). This stops things from tripping up with the familiar but sometimes it just leaves lacunas. 

Director David Yarovesky’s 2014 film ‘The Hive’ was an initially intriguing idea but was quickly weighed down with genre cliché. That film’s assurance and play with colour is also evident here, giving ‘Brightburn’ vivid and memorable images – it gets a lot of mileage from Brandon’s red cape and eyes against darkness – but there are just as many techniques that easily veer on the cliché: moving through flapping hanging laundry; recourse to repetitive fading to black or strobe effects: tiresome horror devices done to death by the likes of ‘Insidious’. 

And although brevity serves to speed things along, there’s a suspicion that other points are underwritten. For example, when Brandon actually cuts himself it looks quite bad: wouldn’t he need stitches, and wouldn’t that mean a trip to the ER where more about his invulnerability would be revealed? And everything comes to a head before we can fully explore his burgeoning sexuality, as creepy and frightening as that might be: the sub-plot with his stalking of the girl is just dropped and there feels an important chasm between his last visit to her bedroom and the naked disembowelled woman in the barn. What about that lawnmower? Then there was the threat of a conversation with the Sheriff in the morning… but I guess the car crash put paid to that. Still, there seems a neglect in the writing of some of the finer details. 

And then it launches into something like music video satire for the end credits, skipping ahead to add more story, with a tonally ill-fitting song (Billie Eilish’s wicked rendition of 'Bad Guy' - is that meant to be ironic? Celebratory?). Perhaps this is a parody of the end credits that typify modern franchises, but it’s also a mood-killer … and I don’t think so. It is also what we are now used to for indicating a franchise. It is as if at the end it isn’t self-aware of its barbed subtext.

I don’t know if “Brightburn” will be the start of a franchise, but I kind of hope so. Not that I’m necessarily rooting for this humorless little dude with a knit mask and a dumb logo to grow big muscles, acquire sidekicks and all the rest. It’s about time that someone understood superheroism as a dangerous pathology. What I mean is: It’s much too late. 

Where ‘Brightburn’ is most interesting is in its intersection of superhero power fantasies with (white male?) privilege and toxic masculinity. Brandon’s constantly being told he’s "special", a dogma that seems of a particularly American flavour that trumps the individual over the collective. Commercials and brands are always hammering the message that the world centres around you and your choice. Of course, Brandon’s parents are only trying to make him feel worthy, which is admirable, but with the onset of adulthood his interpretation of “special” seems to be the privilege to do whatever he wants, which ultimately means he feels a right to kill others as he pleases. In an American context where currently school shootings seem be a monthly tragedy, where mass murder is the end-result of aggrievement and entitlement (not only, but they’re key elements), where these are means to potency and infamy, this feels like a sharp cultural criticism of the very fanbase wallowing in and taking the wrong message from the MCU and DCU (no, it’s not about how you can “Take the world” or how cool or lethal your power makes you: it’s about how you use that power to help others). It joins ‘Chronicle’ as a bad guy origin.

It’s not as obviously sharp as James Gunn’s ‘Super’, which gets engaged with the limits of power fantasies when carried over to the real world, and perhaps ‘Brightburn’ resembles the contemporary superhero format too closely for its critique to resonate clearly, but it’s there. Dunn’s performance as Brandon is sweet enough and mild at first and then, when the sociopathy sets in with the onset of puberty, he’s opaque and cold and lying, but tinged with confusion and still saying he wants to be good – maybe more accurate for a sociopath than the smirks of Kevin in ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’. Certainly recognisable teenage behaviour. Of course, some may just put it down to shaky acting.

In the end ‘Brightburn’ falls short of the mark. Yet as a scaled-down curiosity with some nice visuals, middling action, some cliché mixed with a little genre and social criticism, as well as some lingering jaw-gore you won’t forget, it entertains.

Saturday, 15 June 2019



Olivia Butler, 2019, USA

Written by: Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, 
Susanna Fogel & Katie Silberman

Count ‘Booksmart’ as another film ill-served by its trailer. It’s not a just a ‘Superbad’ for girls, a gender-reversal on the standard hormonal (possibly obnoxious) young men gross-out comedy, although it is that too. It’s the tale of two girls at their last day of school realising that in having made the choice to forfeit fun for a more academic approach, they have been missing out. After all, their peers who apparently have just been goofing around are still going to good universities. So, they embark upon an odyssey to go to a party one last time to make up for what they’ve lost out on. Because partying defines young America.

It’s directed in a no-fuss style by Olivia Wilde that allows Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever to fully indulge in evoking a believable friendship between the two nerds, Molly and Amy. The screenplay is funny all the way through with a couple of surprises thrown in. The fact that Molly isn’t a Barbie doll is never mentioned. The fact that Amy is gay is just an excuse for more risqué gags and for offbeat crushes: no angst here. Even when the girls have a falling out, music mutes the argument and the camera strays to look around, because although the argument matters, ‘Booksmart’ doesn’t dwindle so that it drags the comedy into dull dramatic cliché (although Pat Brown sees this as a misstep). There a real let’s have fun! philosophy at work here.

The cast fully embrace the broad strokes of their archetypes (everyone wants to be in ‘The Breakfast Club’) and, of course, over the course of the film their deeper layers are revealed: Hey, jocks like ‘Harry Potter’! Insufferable dweebs are just trying too hard and are actually sweet and interesting! The seemingly dumbass guy who has re-taken years is going onto coding! Hey, do you think maybe those guys are gay? etc. As Molly and Amy are defined in more complex and believable ways – for example, their ritual of praising each other to high heaven when dressing up is both endearing and cringe-worthy – this does leave a gulf of characterisation between them and others, but the sense of all-inclusivity wins out. There’s a benign agenda of acceptance that eschews, say, the tougher terrain of ‘Eighth Grade’ for an agreeably positive outlook. It’s more like ‘The Edge of Seventeen’ in its message for “get over yourself and have a good time” and “this is just a phase”. They are presented as a very self-aware generation but not with the tiresome privileged and narcissism of ‘Assassination Nation’. Untypically, peers aren’t vehemently nasty or bullying: indeed, these girls are generally welcome wherever they go. It becomes clear they’ve been their own worst enemies when it comes to socialising, that actually it’s they who have been indulging in snobbery. And then, as the genre demands, over one night they learn their lesson and it’s all good. This generosity of spirit makes ‘Booksmart’ highly likeable and uplifting. 

Butler and team wanted to make the kind of teen comedy they loved as adolescents, but ‘Booksmart’ is better than John Hughes candyfloss because it’s less prone to platitudes. It’s not above the broad humour of falling into claymation for a drug rip, but even this turns out to be a jab at the Barbie Doll fantasy. It benefits from updating the perspectives of its influences. It all makes for highly agreeable, slightly edgy and consistently funny light entertainment. 

Sunday, 9 June 2019

Godzila: King of the Monsters

Michael Doherty, 2019, USA

So, I recently gave ‘Kong: Skull Island’ another whirl, thinking I may have been too hard on it previously, but a second watch didn’t sway me. There was still something in the drama that aggravated me (and I didn’t change my mind that Samuel L Jackson is just tiresome in it, coasting along as if aggressively bored, as if he is determined not to have fun with the rest in a giant ape movie). But in retrospect it had good monster fights and had a nicely tropical feel.

By contrast, ‘Godzilla: King of Monsters’ insists on being dark and drained and moody, even in the daytime. It often follows on from Gareth Edward’s 2014 ‘Godzilla’ in having the monsters so glumly lit and in the fog of battle that on occasion you wonder if you are actually watching monsters at all. When the screen is lit up, it with the orangey hue of dying cinders. Sure, there’s a large chunk of the city caving in but: monsters? In ‘Kong: Skull Island’, it was brightly lit in dazzling sun so you could see it all. So, you know, there isn’t the excuse for underlighting for hiding any defects of CGI. And digital effects have some so far now that the monsters are magnificent: see the way Godzilla falls into a gorilla’s mannerisms Actually, King Ghidorah probably steals the show.  And maybe that’s also the thing: CGI is so awesome sauce all the time now that it’s hard to be dazzled just by one computer-generated marvel punching down on another. But when you have men in suits or models, there’s charm and mortality that CGI just doesn’t have. There’s a need for more narrative invention for the monsters and to the fights.

For example: Edwards’ ‘Godzilla’ had the parachute jump which nearly transcended the format for a moment: and when Godzilla lights up and gives an impressive light display, all the chiaroscuro made sense. ‘Kong: Skull Island’ gives Kong two great entrances: twice, Kong emerges as other narratives are playing out so that his appearance is unexpected and thrilling. Kong versus the helicopters is a peak for monster battles. It would seem there’s now a studio directive that the monster must appear in the first act so as not to lose the attention-span deficient, but in ‘Godzilla: King of Monsters’ in his introduction he’s just there, demolishing the city; it’s an introduction that’s barely trying. Later, there is maybe one notable fight with Rodan versus the jets: if there is one transcendent image I take from the film it is Rodan spinning in flight to destroy the fighter planes. Oh, and King Ghidoran atop a volcano with a cross in the foreground like a painting of the devil by an old master (and from this you could theorise the film is drawing a line from these ancient titans to the development of religion… but that doesn’t lead too far). But, yeah, we see the tremendously impossible all the time now. Michael Doherty’s previous films ‘Trick’r’Treat’ and ‘Krampus’ were far more alive with attention to detail and quirkiness. 

So: secret organisation Monarch is hiding and monitoring these titans/Kaijū and bad government folk are interfering with things they don’t understand, and then a rogue eco-terrorist group (*raise eyebrow*) frees the titans to risk the world of the plague that is mankind. But they too are messing with things they don’t understand. King Ghidorah takes centre stage and impresses. Rodan gets his moment. Mothra too. The other monsters… not so much. And all this is to now cast Godzilla as a good guy, an apex predator that keeps the others in line. He often appears (tiresomely) just in the nick of time, then King Ghidorah kicks his arse… in fact Godzilla has to be revived a couple of times to continue the fight until he’s a deus ex machina. It’s enough to make you doubt his awesomeness.

But what is most unforgiveable is that when a monster fight is going down between Godzilla and King Ghidorah, we focus on the humans and are supposed to care about the family reunion of the perfunctory human interest. And they aren’t that interesting. It’s a waste of a decent cast. Yes, big monsters are fighting just like mommy and daddy, and now mommy and daddy are making a truce for the daughter - but we’d rather watch the monsters. That’s what we’ve paid money to see. Any splendid stuff just dries up. I mean, even 'Shin Godzilla' made me fairly interested in the politics of it all, so there's no reason for being rudimentary. 

Unkle Lancifer at Kindertrauma gives all the positives but I was left with a feeling of being underwhelmed. Of course, the argument is that aside from the seminal original, all the Godzilla films suffer from silliness and negligible human representation, and that’s undeniably true; but there’s a sense when I go to see a new gorilla-whale film with lots of money and skill behind it, I am thinking maybe this time, it will truly raise the bar more than being half decent. I don’t want to see a mega-budget film with the same flaws because then it just comes across as not caring enough and doesn’t have the same charm. 

There’s a sense these films are just coasting. But there will be some interest is seeing how the tropical colours of Kong conflict with Godzilla’s drained look in the inevitable ‘Godzilla vs Kong’.