Why the Trump Presidency isn’t necessarily a bad thing

Allow me to pose a question:

How do you test the strength of a pane of glass?

For most people the first and most obvious answer might be: “Why risk breaking it in the first place?”. After all, our virgin pane is beautifully clear, smudge-free and – seemingly – fragile. The temptation is to treat it with kid-gloves, to carefully wipe it with a feather duster, not subject it to abuse. Why risk damaging it? Surely if the glass fails the test and shatters you have a disaster on your hands; your carefully formulated glass compound has been found to be imperfect. Back to the drawing board. 

However, there are degrees of disaster. In this case, it would be much worse to fit out all the windows of your house with the untested glass, only for the calm of summer to end and a winter gale reduce to your home to a pock-marked tapestry of brickwork and jagged holes. 

You should test your glass: you should want to know that it can survive bombardment by a variety of blunt objects. It is a mistake to assume that just because a certain projectile hasn’t hit your window before, that it never would. Learn to embrace pebbles, sticks and other destructive elements, cherish them in fact, because only they can tell you how strong your glass really is.

Many people treat the United States constitution and democratic system as if they were also something fragile that should be wrapped in cotton wool and shielded from harm. While that way of thinking is understandable, it is ultimately self-defeating. The democratic institutions that underpin the government of the United States of America were not set-up to rebuff, divert or disallow individuals hell-bent on subverting them. Instead, they were designed to smother such people, to frustrate their ambitions through robust checks and balances. The constitution exists to limit their ability to wield power; an ever watchful free press stands ready to expose lies and deceit. 

But what if an individual was elected who was determined to undermine that system? Wouldn’t it be a step too far to allow a natural born dictator to be President? Could an American incarnation of Adolf Hitler be subdued by such a system if he were elected to the highest office in the land (as the real Hitler was by German voters in the 1930s)? The answer is that a perfectly constructed democracy should allow such people to assume Presidential authority, contain and neutralise them, then disgorge them at the end of their term leaving the system intact and essentially unchanged. If this doesn’t happen, then at least you’ve learned that your system is flawed. 

American democracy is a pane of Gorilla Glass, and voters have chucked a giant Trump-shaped rock at it. Let’s see if he’s able to scratch it. 

He will try.

A Country In All But Name

Let's play a game: can you guess which country I'm describing?

Is it:

a) the United States of America

b) the European Union

(Of course, the EU isn't really a country, it is a trade agreement, so this should be easy.)

Here we go. The country I'm thinking of has:

  • A flag
  • A national anthem
  • A national day

 

Have you got it yet? No? Okay let's continue.

It has:

  • A constitution
  • A President
  • A legislative body comprised of directly elected representatives from each member state
  • Founding Fathers
  • A foreign policy and foreign affairs representative
  • A supreme court whose authority supersedes that of individual member states
  • A populace who self-identify as its citizens, carrying passports bearing its name

 

Still struggling? Shout it out when you know.

It has:

  • Its own currency
  • Its own central bank
  • Clearly defined national borders
  • Laws allowing the free movement of people across and between member states
  • Laws controlling the movement of people coming from outside its borders

 

Nobody?

Hmm. Okay I'll give you a big clue:

  • It has its own standing army.

 

That gave it away. The answer is of course the USA. While the EU now has integrated defence initiatives, such as EU Battlegroups, it does not have its own army... yet. However, since the only real objections to total integration came from the UK, it is surely only a matter of time before troops are marching under the banner of the EU (or perhaps USE  ?).

And all this makes perfect sense. The EU is a new country; its institutions openly speak of a "united Europe" as a founding aim; the majority of its citizens seem to be very much in favour of it. I say, sincerely, best of luck to them, and I have a good feeling that the project will be a success.

It is only in Britain that politicians wrestle with language to avoid saying the obvious. I imagine this must seem strange to our European neighbours as they enter the home stretch of nation-building.

Inevitably, as part of that process, reluctant nations have to step back in order for the others to keep stepping forward. It is natural, and shouldn’t be misinterpreted as anything else. We think it’s great that all the other families on the street are moving in together, but ultimately we feel more comfortable remaining in our own house. It doesn’t mean we have anything but warm neighbourly feelings toward them, and of course we wish them well. 

The EU may have started life as a series of trade agreements, but its course was set right from the beginning, and it is a journey with only one destination. The mosaic of small, quirky and overly warlike kingdoms that used to make up the continent is history. A bright, peaceful, unified (and uniform) future surely awaits.

After all, as the voiceover proclaims when you step through the doors of the EU 'Parlamentarium' in Brussels: 

 

“National sovereignty is the root cause of the most crying evils of our times….The only final remedy for this evil is the federal union of the peoples.”

 

But I would humbly suggest – risking the inevitable accusations of jingoism – that Europeans are not sorry that Britain existed as an independent sovereign nation in 1939. 

On Idris Elba as Bond

Actually, I have an issue with his (potential) casting.

But let me start by contradicting myself: I think Mr Elba would make a great Bond, and I would very much look forward to seeing his take on the character.

He’s certainly ticks all the 007 boxes:

  1. He’s a great actor.
  2. He’s got bucketloads of charm.
  3. He exudes an aura of quiet toughness, which is very much James Bond.
  4. He’s English. Although, Englishness is almost irrelevant at this point. Lazenby, Brosnan, Connery – none were English.

He’s also not white, but really, this is a non-issue.

However. I do have one specific reservation, and I’ll be honest, it does involve him being black. Damn, contradicted myself again. To explain what I mean, I’ll have to venture down a Bond-universe rabbit-hole…

 

Like Dr Who, Bond is bad at regenerating

To date, James Bond has been portrayed on screen by six actors; confusingly though, the Walther PPK has been handed on seven times:

  1. Sean Connery
  2. George Lazenby
  3. Sean Connery (again)
  4. Roger Moore
  5. Timothy Dalton
  6. Pierce Brosnan
  7. Daniel Craig

The first transition was the most awkward. Filling Sean Connery’s mighty loafers was a near impossible task, even for a cocky young Australian called George. Lazenby had barely hopped on screen in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service before he gazed down the barrel of the camera and spoke the immortal words:

“This never happened to the other fella.”

Clunk.

This was followed immediately by an opening credits montage that served to visually ‘sum up’ the Connery-Bond era. Next, Lazenby-Bond is at MI6 headquarters rifling though keepsakes from his/the-other-fella’s past adventures. I’m confused already – is he the same guy or not?

The audience is supposed to collectively tilt their heads, squint, and buy-in to Connery-Bond and Lazenby-Bond being simultaneously different people, and the same person. They’re both tall, white, square-jawed, muscular, brown eyes, dark hair… close enough.

This ‘squint your eyes… close enough’ trick became a never-spoken-of pillar of the Bond franchise for over half a century. It may be both the oddest, and most successful way to handle a change of actor. (Numerous other properties* have used this approach, for example the "Aunt Viv" switcheroo on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air).

The question of whether or not all subsequent Bond incarnations are actually supposed to be the same character has never been directly addressed since (save for the odd oblique reference, like when Moore-Bond put flowers on the grave of Lazenby-Bond’s wife).

Think The Simpsons; a reset button is pushed at the beginning of every episode and Bart stays a ten year old boy forever. Likewise, James Bond battled Cold War Russians in the 60's, the Star Wars franchise in the 70's, drug dealers in the 80's, media tycoons in the 90's, and the laws of physics in the 00's.

Speaking of Die Another Day, never has a title been so unfortunately chosen. The film managed to out-Moonraker Moonraker for sheer cartoon ridiculousness, and the series finally died the day it was released. The Connery-Lazenby-Connery-Moore-Dalton-Brosnan era was at last slain, not by Blofeld but by buffoonery and terrible puns.

The franchise then lay in wake for a few years before making a triumphant return with the very best film in the series so far, Casino Royale.

Fittingly, this was also Fleming’s first Bond novel, and it had never been filmed as part of the official Bond canon before. It was the perfect way to begin a new Bond adventure. The series entered uncharted territory as it attempted a complete reboot: new, pre double-O status Craig-Bond, followed by a new Q, new Moneypenny, and then a new sort-of brother for 007: Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Err… what? Nevertheless, it was finally a complete break from the past and promised a fresh new beginning.

Except not really. Inexplicably, Judi Dench’s M returned as Bond’s mentor/boss. Strangely, the character never commented on the fact that the last 007 she managed also happened to have the name James Bond. What are the chances? The ‘squint… close enough’ thing also sort-of returned, as, like the other Bonds, Daniel Craig is tall, white, square-jawed and muscular. He only lacks the dark hair & eye colour (and you better believe that was controversial at the time!).

If I’ve taken a circuitous route coming to my point, it’s because I know this is a sensitive area, and the potential for a knee-jerk reaction is great. I’ve tried to lay the groundwork for my quibble as clearly as I can, before I proceed to insert foot-in-mouth.

What it boils down to (for me) is this: I don’t think a - potential - transition from Craig-Bond to Elba-Bond passes the ‘squint… close enough’ test. I’m aware some might find this notion offensive – I don’t mean it as such, I’m just being honest.

However, I always like to sense-check things by playing them out in reverse: let’s suppose Bond had always been portrayed by black actors (after all, there’s not much worth repeating in Fleming’s books that makes his race or ethnic background particularly important. Bond would certainly die for England, but a whole load of non-white people have and would do that). Were this the case – and were we meant to believe he was the same person – I equally doubt I’d be able to buy Sean Connery taking over the role.

So please Barbara Broccoli by all means cast Mr Elba as our next great JB incarnation, or John Boyega – or Dev Patel for that matter. Just make the passing of that licence-to-kill clearer this time.

 

*Another example is everyone in the Star Trek reboot. All the new cast members happen to be the same race and gender as the original crew, with the exception of Mr Sulu, who is now played by John Cho, a Korean-American actor (as opposed to Japanese-American). I think Trek could have been much more radical here, especially as the Battlestar Galactica reboot had already recast Starbuck as female without a great fanboy apocalypse.

Much more egregious is the case of Dr Who: an alien being who regularly ‘regenerates’ into new human forms. Notably, this Time Lord has only ever adopted white, male, British/Irish personas.

Now he’s got issues.

Rogue One proves Star Wars Stories don’t need the Force

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story was a mixed bag, and largely a missed opportunity. However, it conclusively answered the biggest question hovering over this new wave of spin-off movies: Star Wars doesn’t need the Force.

It’s really a question of “what makes Star Wars Star Wars?”. The galaxy far, far away is bursting at the seams with imagination and rich storytelling possibilities – but all the cinematic adventures to date have featured Force-sensitive individuals (Jedi and Sith): does a movie without this element still have that essential Star Wars magic? What does a Force-less Universe look like anyway?

An easy comparison is to the Star Trek universe, which is entirely free of magic; but I think a closer fit is the Guardians of the Galaxy universe – or that of either Battlestar Galactica incarnation. Thankfully the Jedi-free (and until the last few minutes, Sith-free) Rogue One doesn’t feel like any of these properties. It absolutely feels like Star Wars.

This bodes well for the future of the franchise. The flaws of Rogue One (and there are many) are due to muddled storylines and inconsistent character motivations – not a paucity of Jedi action. Vader’s last-minute rampage was a definite highlight, but the film worked well without it.

In fact, I think the right approach for the non-Jedi stories might be to make the audience feel the absence of the Force. This worked particularly well in Rogue One.

Gareth Edwards’ tale of the Rebellion’s darkest hour, and first victory, gives me new hope (yuk yuk) for the upcoming Han Solo flick; indeed, I’d be happy if the spin-offs hold their nerve and leave the light of the Force for the saga films.

Existential mumbo-jumbo and six-foot grasshoppers

Perhaps, while he was breaking the story for Alien: Covenant, Ridley Scott thought back to his classic original (and perhaps, fleetingly, its superior sequel), and contemplated just what it was that made the character of Ellen Ripley so memorable, indelible and iconic. He obviously concluded it was because she wore a grey vest and carried a big gun.

That Daniels doesn't get lost completely in the chaos of the script machinations is entirely due to Katherine Waterston's fine performance; the fact that she is the best defined human character in the film is a definite problem.

The crew of the Covenant are, without exception, so mind-numbingly stupid, it's a wonder they didn't all accidentally open airlocks and flush themselves out into space. The film asks us to care about individuals that wander off by themselves (and get eaten), trot down the spooky stairwell (and get eaten) and refrain from shooting the baddie when they have the chance (and then get eaten). Actually, it's worse that that: unlike in Alien, where the crew of the Nostromo are visibly terrified out of their wits, this lot treat the monster as more of an inconvenience. If they aren't scared, why should we be?

Speaking of which: sadly, the xenomorph itself (or protomorph, or whatever) has been diminished to the point that it is now just as boring as its human buffet. Ridley Scott was absolutely right when he said the creature was played out. So why then did he build his third act around a xenomorph-variant that looks and acts like a brainless, slobbering, six-foot grasshopper?

Why? Well because of Prometheus. Alien devotees voiced their displeasure with the lack of xeno-action in Prometheus and clearly Ridley listened. Now it's (xeno)morphin time, all the time. However, the creature (or lack thereof) wasn't the issue: Prometheus floundered because of a bad script in which flat, uninteresting characters made increasingly idiotic decisions, and didn't stop banging on about creators and gods and existential mumbo-jumbo...

What Ridley keeps missing about his own franchise is that the androids have always been as scary (and as alien) as the assorted face-huggers and chest-bursters. Michael Fassbender's deranged Dr Frankenstein-ish 'David' is magnetic on screen. His eyes twinkle with the same cold madness as did Ian Holm's 'Ash'. All the good scenes are with David, and the best of these are when he spars (verbally and physically) with his subservient twin 'Walter'.

In the final reckoning, Covenant  was fatally compromised before the cameras even started rolling. It had the impossible job of trying to make sense of Prometheus, while simultaneously wanting to give the audience everything that was missing from that film.

The change of title from "Paradise" to "Alien: Covenant" says it all.

... 

My dearest wish would be for Sean Connery to grasp Mr Scott warmly by the shoulders and say:

"Ridley... let it go"

Cinema’s Top 10 Female Badasses

To mark the release of Alien: Covenant, featuring Katherine Waterston’s (hopefully) xenomorph-battling female ass-kicker, it seems like a good time to do a run-down of Cinema’s Top 10 Female Badasses (according to me):

 

10: M (Judi Dench)

She says:

“Your name is on a memorial wall of the very building you attacked. I will have it struck off. Soon your past will be as nonexistent as your future. I’ll never see you again.”

Dench’s MI6 chief punctured Brosnan-Bond’s swagger at their first meeting and ordered the shot which almost killed Craig-Bond, despite being his strongest parental figure. Tough, ice-cold and ruthless, Dench owns the role.

 

9: Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale)

She says:

“If you want to, you can lay me over the table and amuse yourself, and even call in your men. Well, no woman ever died from that. When you’re finished, all I’ll need will be a tub of boiling water and I’ll be exactly what I was before – with just another filthy memory”

Before Leone, Donati, Bertolucci and Argento teamed up to reinvent the female lead in westerns, female characters had been little more than perfunctory love interests for the male heroes, and generally bland.

In Once Upon A Time In the West Cardinale’s life-hardened ex-prostitute dreams of travelling west to start a new life, “do something, what the hell”. However, her new husband and family are murdered before she gets there, and Mrs McBain finds herself being circled by a number of dangerous men with different motives.

Ever the realist about her position, she treats each with weary disdain, irritation, and barely concealed rage – and tries to kill them whenever she sees an opportunity. The film ends with all the men dead or damaged, and she is left to inherit the new world.

 

8: Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh)

She says:

“Without Green Destiny, you are nothing!”

While Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is generally considered an ‘art-house’ martial arts movie, the unspoken, gently simmering love between seasoned warriors Shu Lien and Li Mu Bai makes it equally romantic.

But Shu Lien really comes alive, with fire in her eyes, in the heat of battle – such as when she squares off against the young thief that wields Li Mu Bai’s stolen sword, The Green Destiny. The fight is one of the most dazzling in cinema history, and it happens to be between two women. Shu Lien eventually prevails – despite Green Destiny shattering every weapon she uses.

 

7: Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence)

She says:

“You can torture us and bomb us and burn our districts to the ground. But do you see that? Fire is catching… And if we burn… you burn with us!”

What makes her interesting?: the Hunger Games series of books & film adaptations have interesting things to say about reality television, celebrity culture and voyeurism, but their greatest achievement is the central female protagonist herself.

Independent, abrasive and a reluctant icon, Katniss is uncomfortable with her unwanted fame while being a more efficient killer than she would ever want to admit.

Katniss is in some way reminiscent of (the screen portrayal of) Lawrence of Arabia: they are individuals so obviously destined for greatness that they struggle to relate to the rest of humanity, and who ultimately find that the act of killing comes all to easy.

 

6: The Bride (Uma Thurman) 

She says:

“Those of you lucky enough to have your lives, take them with you. However, leave the limbs you’ve lost. They belong to me now.”

The Bride/Beatrice Kiddo is not quite the feminist icon Quentin Tarantino was trying for (and the films are still waay too long), but but he does succeed in moulding Thurman into a kicking, biting, slicing, chopping, crashing, crunching, clawing and stabbing icon for the ages.

I still think Tarantino does not do enough to make The Bride sympathetic, however she is believably tough, mean, charismatic and deadly, and here I do give director and muse (“Q&U”) credit. In the years since there have been a slew of wannabe female action heroes that go around beating up armies of male super-soldiers with nonchalant ease (for example Gina Carano in Haywire) – and you never buy it for a second.

 

5: Rey (Daisy Ridley)

She says:

“You will remove these restraints and leave this cell with the door open.”

Marooned alone on a junkyard planet at an early age, Rey learned to scratch out a living from selling whatever she could salvage. Despite being fiercely independent, resourceful and self assured, she shies away from any suggestion that she is special. Compared to Kylo Ren’s confidence in his great lineage, Rey is hesitant and adrift.

But when she finally overcame her self-doubt in the heat of battle at the end of The Force Awakens, a great heroine for a new generation emerged. The best is yet to come.

The ‘Mary Sue’ (non)issue: there have been complaints that Rey is just too good at everything. Funny how that crap never got thrown at Luke or Anakin isn’t it? Both of those guys were also incredible pilots, engineers and Force users, despite living far less self-reliant lives than Rey. Anakin could win podraces and battles in Naboo fighters when he was just out of nappies, and Luke destroyed the Death Star with his first shot when piloting an X-wing for the first time. Lucky! Baby Annie could build droids out of junk, and had a higher rating on the Force-o-meter than Yoda; Luke was a natural crack shot with both a blaster and as a gunner on the Millennium Falcon. Don’t get cocky, kid.

Yes, Rey defeated a wounded Kylo Ren in a lightsaber duel, but who’s to say that she isn’t more powerful with the Force than he is? Maybe she’s more powerful than Luke and Anakin and Yoda too? I guess no-one told Rey that a girl can’t be a badass Jedi.

 

4: Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace)

She says:

“I’ve never done this before. Hold still, or it’ll get messy.”

What makes her interesting? Just about everything. Forget Benedict Cumberbatch, Salander (as inhabited definitively by Rapace) is the Sherlock Holmes for the modern age. A savant-like hacker and programmer, she also displays powers of deduction to rival that of her literary counterpart.

However, there’s much more to her character than that: Salander seems at times like a train barrelling forward, fuelled by pure cold fury. She steamrollers her targets, who are – without exception – sadistic men who hate women, and deserve what’s coming to them.

Add in a compelling backstory that is revealed a piece at a time over three books/films, and you have a fully rounded character that becomes indelibly printed on viewers minds. Her chasm-deep vulnerability also allows for unconventional, yet surprisingly sweet romantic scenes.

 

3: Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton)

She says:

“You’re terminated, fucker.”

Just as the T2 juggernaut completely overshadowed the original, Linda Hamilton’s remarkable transformation into a hard bitten, gun-toting, muscular warrior eclipses the memory of her as a meek waitress.

However, Hamilton proved what a fine choice she was for the role even in that first movie: she ditches the hairspray and bubble-gum sheen half-way in, learns to shoot and make bombs, and stares down the killing machine chasing her. Arnie didn’t stand a chance.

 

2: Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher)

She says:

“I don’t know who you are or where you came from, but from now on you’ll do as I tell you, okay?”

Before 1977 the role of women in big budget, mainstream adventure movies was pretty well established: look glamorous, don’t be smart and don’t talk too much. Star Wars and Princess Leia changed all that.

Yes, she gets captured by the bad guys and the heroic men come to rescue her, so far, so predictable. But then the audience sits up straight: the moment she’s free she takes charge and starts giving orders, grabs a gun and leads the escape.

In Return of the Jedi she inverts the ‘damsel in distress’ trope by rescuing Han Solo, and then cradles him in her arms. Even when the film missteps and can’t resist putting her in a gold bikini, she reacts in the most Princess Leia-ish way possible, by garrotting her captor with her own slave chains (an act Fisher was always proud of).

In The Force Awakens she is referred to as “General” a change I’m actually not crazy about. Leia always owned the Princess thing, Disney should too. In The Empire Strike Back it doesn’t make much sense for a princess to be giving orders in the military control room on Hoth – unless of course it’s Princess Leia. Forget rank, everybody knows if Princess Leia’s in the room, she’s in charge.

 

Honourable mentions:

  • O-Ren Ishii (Kill Bill: Vol. 1)
  • Clarice Starling (The Silence of the Lambs)
  • Private Vasquez (Aliens)
  • Trinity (The Matrix)
  • Mathilda (Leon)
  • Selina Kyle/Catwoman (Batman Returns, The Dark Knight Rises)
  • Hermione Granger (Harry Potter series)
  • Bellatrix Lestrange (Harry Potter series)
  • Wonder Woman (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice)
  • Marion Ravenwood (Raiders of the Lost Ark)
  • Imperator Furiosa (Mad Max: Fury Road)
  • Ilsa (Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation)
  • Rita Vrataski (Edge of Tomorrow)
  • Natasha Romanova/Black Widow (The Avengers)
  • Gamora (Guardians of the Galaxy)

One gets the sense that (if you so deserved it) all these women could blow your head off with one shot, not feel too bad about it, and look cool doing it.

 

Which leaves us with…

 

1: Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver)

Duh.

She says:

“How do we kill it, Ash? There’s gotta be a way of killing it. How? How do we do it?”

She says:

“Yes. I read you. The answer is negative .”

She says:

“Did IQs just drop sharply while I was away ?”

She says:

“I say we take off and nuke the entire site from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.”

She says:

[to Newt] “I will never leave you. That’s a promise.”

Ripley obviously wins because she’s not just the ultimate female badass – she’s the biggest, baddest (and by some distance the most interesting) badass-iest hero in all cinema, period.

I’m going to say it: Ripley is what made the Alien franchise truly great, not the xenomorph. Cameron knew it; I wish Ridley Scott still did.

Why the Star Wars one-shots will protect the galaxy far, far away from the flaw in the Marvel Universe

For me, Star Wars is all about the saga. I’ve been ambivalent – at best – about the idea of doing standalone spin-offs. Sure, there will be good ones and bad ones, and I’m sure I’ll go and see them all anyway.

But, I never questioned why Disney didn’t just apply standard Marvel principles to crack the Star Wars nut; now when I think about it, it does seem rather curious.

The patented Marvel Formula consists of a number of tent-pole film events, such as an Avengers movie, that are set-up and supported by any number of ‘smaller’ interconnected stories (Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Doctor Strange etc). On the surface this seems pretty similar to their plans for Star Wars, doesn’t it? But actually there are subtle differences.

As the boss of Lucasfilm as a Disney subsidiary, Kathleen Kennedy has 2 primary objectives:

  • Make great movies
  • Build a Star Wars Universe

Disney didn’t pay all that money for one trilogy. However, Kennedy has confirmed that the Saga films will be largely independent of the standalones – the first of which was 2016's Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – and even these will not necessarily connect to one another.

Why didn’t Kennedy just copy Marvel? It would’ve been the obvious move (Warner Bros/DC did after-all, and numerous others have attempted it, e.g. Ghostbusters, Terminator).

I think the reason is that Disney has seen a weakness in the MCU, one I now see myself, and more clearly with each new movie.

The flaw is inherent. The Marvel films, like the comic books they are based on, are essentially a giant soap opera: endlessly entertaining, but without ever telling a proper third act. Like soaps, the films don’t get endings, they get arcs. Characters never die, and if they do they invariably come back to life. It is all confectionary – until eventually your stomach tires of sweets and craves a more substantial meal. This is what ultimately turns me off comic books, and what is starting to grate about the movies.

Everything has to build from, connect to and set-up everything else, and because the story can never be allowed to end, you can never feel fully satisfied. This is the reason why Thanos appears for no real reason in Guardians of the Galaxy, why Avengers: Age of Ultron lacked narrative cohesion and why Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice was just a complete mess.

However, a true standalone need not connect up with other elements of the IP, and is therefore liberated to tell a story that builds to a proper conclusion.

As a first attempt, Rogue One fumbles the ball, but it was at least brave enough to satisfactorily end the story it is trying to tell. Any film which features massively outnumbered and outgunned rebels trying to steal secret documents, aught to be prepared to sacrifice its heroes. Killing Jyn, Cassian and the rest was the right decision, and was only possible because of the franchise structure Disney/Lucasfilm have put in place.

Of course, characters dont have to die: the heroes are still alive and kicking at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark for example, and we can be certain that Han Solo will make it to the end of this year’s standalone. I’m just hopeful that it’s a good movie which has a proper beginning, middle – and end.

"Luke Skywalker has vanished"

Lawrence Kasdan and J.J. Abrams did not get enough credit for their work on constructing the story of The Force Awakens:

  1. As I've said before, the ending of Return of the Jedi left no story wriggle room. That ending was sewn up tighter than an Alderaan senator's hair bun - and left not a single stray thread to pull on. There was only the politics of forming a New Galactic Republic. And I'm certain that "politics" was a banned word in J.J.'s writers room.
  2. New characters; making Star Wars fun again - making it *Star Wars* again - was the only critical objective of the new movie. Thirty years of inherited story baggage is not inherently fun. The Force Awakens desperately needed a new core group of characters.
  3. Old characters. And here's the catch 22: Leia, Han, Chewie & Luke's return was non-negotiable.

That's an awful lot of story furniture for a lighthearted adventure blockbuster to deal with, before you even get to the plot itself.

That's why I'm sort of in love with that first line. The very first thing we see on screen, after the title, is that sentence:

"Luke Skywalker has vanished."

It is brilliant economy. In four words Abrams/Kasdan addressed points 1 and 3, thereby giving themselves thirty minutes of breathing room to introduce all four of our new heroes: Rey, Finn, Poe, BB8, as well as Kylo Ren.

So, what do you do if there is no leftover story to utilise? Make something new - Luke's disappearance. Yes it's a fudge, but it's a fudge that honours a beloved character. It puts Luke at the centre of everything, without him even needing to appear.

Much like Orson Wells' Harry Lime in Carol Reed's The Third Man (1949), the film revolves around the character's absence. He is spoken of constantly by others, his whereabouts and purpose are speculated upon at length, and by the time he is at last revealed he has been built up to almost mythological status.

The Force Awakens is far from perfect, but the story craft is masterful.

Get Out (2017)

Jordan Peele is annoyingly talented.

Not only does he, in his first film, try to blend together three genres (horror, comedy, social commentary) - any two of which are normally enough to cause a film to fall on its face - but he's doing it without any big name stars to lean on. And, of course, this is 'Black' cinema: no-one wants to watch that. So Hollywood thinks.

Well, this theoretical train-wreck is already the most successful film of all time based on an original screenplay by a debut writer/director.

Because it's really good.

All the bits work: this is important. If you set out to make a horror-comedy about white liberal racism, then it needs to be as properly scary and funny as it is disturbing. And Get Out is very disturbing.

Fine performances all round too. Daniel Kaluuya is extremely watchable, despite Samuel L. Jackson's objections, and Allison Williams and the great Catherine Keener are especially sinister as mother and daughter monsters hiding beneath a veneer of wealthy respectability.

In a funny way the film it most reminded me of was 2009's underrated genre gem Black Dynamite. Star and co-writer Michael Jai White (between one-liners and head-kicks) similarly explored the culturally sensitive idea that the only black people that white people find acceptable are those whose minds and bodies have been mangled, to fit a white mould.

I also enjoyed the Itchy & Scratchy Land reference.

Batgirl - the Marvel slayer?

The news that Joss Whedon will helm a forthcoming DC universe Batgirl film at first seemed to come out of an alternate universe of its own.

Joss is a Marvel guy, right? He made those two Avengers movies. There was a time when it seemed like he was destined to be the *saviour* of the cinematic adventures of Iron Man, Captain America and the rest.

And so, it came to pass: The Avengers (2012) was a triumph that was most definitely Whedon-verse first, Marvel second. However, the follow-up, 2015's Avengers: Age of Ultron was too heavy for even Joss's mighty shoulders to bear. Indeed, the filmmaker seemed physically and mentally drained by the effort.

It would surely be his last superhero film.

So why, after a moment's consideration, does Batgirl now make complete sense as his next project?

Well, Joss's had a break, recharged his Arc Reactor, and returns to the genre with the knowledge and experience to bend it to his will. Another comic-book universe needs saving.

This time though, he doesn't have to wrestle the biggest beast of all - a huge ensemble movie - and expectations are also reversed. It's not "Can he possibly pull it off and not ruin the franchise?", instead it's "Watch him inject some life into this mess".

Unlike the Avengers - crown jewels of the MCU - Batgirl doesn't come with the same pressures, and yet is a character with much more potential than Black Widow - the buffy-esque Avenger Joss seemed most interested in.

Most importantly, he essentially gets the chance to have another go at that first, failed, Buffy movie.

Beauty and the Beast of Uncanny Valley

The latest of Disney's 'live-action', loving remakes of its animated back catalogue seems even less real than 2016's almost entirely computer generated The Jungle Book, which is saying something.

'Loving' is the word. Bill Condon is trying to pull off a magic trick here: to recapture the look and feel of the Best Film Oscar-nominated animation from 1991, while injecting enough freshness and energy to justify the remake's existence.

On the first point he succeeds (reusing songs, dialogue, settings, camera movements and dancing teacups will do that), but the question of why anyone should watch this instead of the original is never satisfactorily answered.

On the plus side, Emma Watson is terrific and her level-headed intellect shines through in her performance, while Luke Evans' enthusiastically crotch-thrusting Gaston is a real highlight.

Disney's cartoon Beast also bounds triumphantly out of the animator's cell (with Dan Stevens' help), and looks and sounds utterly convincing.

Rather, it is the landscape itself: the trees; the castle; the village and the cosplay costumes which always seem unreal, and fall far short of Jon Favreau's lush jungles of India.

Having said all that, the audience I saw it with spontaneously applauded. Twice.

Logan (2017): Well, that was violent

After 572 X-Men films, Fox has finally struck gold with Logan.

Ever since Marvel birthed a decade of superhero movies with Iron Man in 2008, the other major studios have faced a dilemma: to copy their technicolor action-comedy formula, or do something different.

Of course, most copied, and of course they couldn't get the recipe quite right, with predictably bland results: Fox's interminable X-Men sequels; Sony's redundant Spider-Man reboot. Warner Bros/DC tried to build its Justice League universe by going Dark and Serious. Unfortunately the films themselves were anything but.

The question got asked: is there a way to tell superhero/comic book stories without following the patented Marvel Technique?

The answer is Logan. Hugh Jackman literally fills the screen as Logan/Wolverine/James Howlett, finally appearing as a fully rounded character with depth and pathos. And rage.

The sense of release is palpable: finally the film and the character have been let off the leash. It's impossible not to wince when his claws tear flesh. Wounds (both physical and emotional) hurt. Age has taken its toll.

Ironically, even if Jackman, Stewart et al are done, there is a cinematic way forward here for Fox. Director James Mangold has cracked the code.

Or was the code cracked long ago, without anyone realising? The superhero story this bears most resemblance to is M. Night Shyamalan's underrated gem from 2000, Unbreakable.

Has an actor ever reinvented a role as successfully as Ryan Reynolds - with the same character?

Reynolds' first attempt at portraying Deadpool in X-Men Origins: Wolverine was disastrous. Fans hated his version of the character as much as the movie itself. That all seems like a distant memory now. His second try at filling the red spandex in Deadpool's own movie in 2016 was definitive. Wade Wilson is Ryan Reynolds as much as Christopher Reeve still absolutely embodies Superman.

Other superheroes have barely been improved upon by different actors - unless you count Michael Keaton's realignment of Bruce Wayne/Batman as he made the jump from tv to the cinema screen.

Since then I'd argue that the various actors taking over the role (Kilmer, Clooney, Bale, Affleck) have only portrayed minor variations on the standard set by Keaton, and have not displaced him in the public consciousness. Same goes for all the new Clark Kents.

And while I enjoy Mark Ruffalo's Dr Banner/Hulk, I suspect Bill Bixby owns that role forever; likewise Noomi Repace with Lisbeth Salander.

As for James Bond, Daniel Craig's muscular, mean Bond resuscitated the franchise from life support, but I think most people still hear Bond and think Connery.

Strangely enough, I'd say William Shatner's Captain James T. Kirk might be the next best contender. Frankly, you can thank Shatner for Star Trek's very existence. In 1966 the show was in big trouble, and it hadn't even aired yet: it just wasn't working with Jeffrey Hunter's bland Captain Pike. Then The Shat donned the gold shirt, bounded onto the bridge of the Enterprise, and the rest is history. Miraculously, Chris Pine's Kirk is pretty great too.

Moonlight (2016)

"Devastating drama...of black gay masculinity" is The Guardian's headline review of this year's Best Picture Oscar winner. I don't disagree, although a slightly different thought struck me as the credits rolled.

Drama. Every review I've seen seems to start by wanting to jam the film into this category. But, had the intense yearning felt by Chiron at the heart of the story been for a girl, instead of Kevin, would the movie have been viewed rather more as a tragic, soulful romance? I wonder.

The truth is that Barry Jenkins' masterpiece defies genre or easy classification; Moonlight is too ambitious to be contained.

It is simultaneously subdued and radical: you won't see car chases or shootouts here (the script in fact makes a point of resisting such cliches), instead, the images Jenkins presents are even more striking - of affection, tenderness and love between black men. Specifically black men.

In some ways it is sad that seeing black masculinity depicted like this seems so jarring. Several times I braced for an explosion of violence and barbarity, only to find a scene of profound lyrical beauty in its place.

Originally conceived as a play, make no mistake this is pure cinema, acted and directed masterfully.

Incredibly, the Oscars got it right.

The La La Land backlash, or 'How a white guy saved jazz and the Oscars humiliation serves them right'

Admitting to liking La La Land gets you dirty looks in some quarters these days. 'Oh, you're one of those kinds of people'. Mental calculations are done, Venn circles seem to draw you closer to Trump supporters, Fox News watchers and Moonlight-deniers.

So, I went back for a second look at Mr Chazelle's attempt at bottling pure joy - maybe I missed something the first time. I'm glad I did because my opinion of it shifted quite a bit.

I realised I don't like La La Land, I absolutely love it. Fallen for it big time. It has shimmied its way into my ever-fluid personal list of 'The Best Films Ever Made'. It really is that good. It's delirious, it's mesmerising, it is flamboyantly creative. It's better than Singing In The Rain.

Can it be all these things and still rightly come second to Moonlight?

Yep.

It is possible for two all-time greats to come out at the same time, and the appropriate response is to love them both.

Now please, just stop it.

There be whales here!

As a counterpoint to my last post, I was thinking about some fine trilogies that instead dip in the middle.

Good examples are Die Hard (1-3) and Star Trek (II-IV). In both cases I think what's going on is that the first film is a surprise hit, causing the followup to want to replicate the same 'feel', tone and/or plot.

Die Hard 2 is basically a (pale) imitation of the first, with the skyscraper setting swapped for Dulles airport. However, it must be said that compared to Die Hard 4 and 5, the first sequel looks like Citizen Kane.

Returning director John McTiernan rounds off the trilogy with Die Hard: With A Vengeance, which was a reworking of an original script called 'Simon Says'. The limiting cop-trapped-in-a-building formula was swapped for a fun buddy-movie setup with Samuel L. Jackson in fine form as John McClane's reluctant partner Zeus.

Similarly, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock stumbles by trying to recreate the tense, moody feel of Wrath of Khan.

With the reset button pressed and Spock restored to his body, The Voyage Home is free to lighten up and have a sense of humour. Eschewing any forehead-makeup aliens, starship battles or treknobabble it's as close as Star Trek has ever gotten to a straightforward comedy. And it has whales.

Why is the last film in a great trilogy often a let down?

Some examples:

  • Star Wars (original trilogy
  • (contentiously!) Lord of the Rings
  • Spider-Man trilogy
  • The Godfather trilogy
  • Alien 1-3
  • The Dark Knight trilogy

Usually people will say their favourite part of a story is the ending, which is natural - the denouement is where characters typically achieve some sort of positive resolution.

Why then do many trilogies excel at putting characters through the wringer in the first and second acts, only to fluff it at the finish line? Who would say the last film in any of these trilogies was the best?

In the case of Return of the Jedi, it is clear that George Lucas lost his nerve and abandoned the originally proposed, darker resolution. Return of the King seemed to not want to end at all and was generally rather pleased with itself (I must admit, I checked out when the green ghost army appeared).

The failures of Spider-Man 3 and Alien 3 are largely due to their respective directors' visions becoming compromised by studio meddling (after the successes of earlier instalments).

The Godfather part III smacks of unnecessary-sequel-itis, because it's just so tempting to want to make two great movies into the holy grail 'perfect trilogy'.

As for The Dark Knight Rises, I actually think it is under-appreciated, while Batman Begins and especially The Dark Knight are held in too high esteem.

Or perhaps it Is human nature that we are inherently unsatisfied by happy-ever-afters. It is the struggle itself that we find most compelling, and it draws us back again and again. Maybe we have a primal urge to see challenges overcome; happy endings we can figure out for ourselves.

I'm so glad Logan isn't an X-Men movie, because I can't stand them

There are 4 things about the X-men franchise I just can't get past:

  1. For every cool mutant (like Wolverine or Mystique) there are dozens of frankly ridiculous (and ridiculously garbed) others: butterfly-girl, toad-boy, weather-woman, angel-winged-bloke. Give me a break.
  2. Too many superpeople. My favourite superhero stories are those in which the superperson mostly interacts with us normals. When they stand alone, as in Christopher Reeve's Superman: The Movie, the film has the chance to explore how he or she relates to the rest of humanity.
  3. The only good team-up movie I can think of is The Avengers - and I'm convinced this is down to the fun of seeing the established characters bounce off each other. Characters, not powers.
  4. The science. The X-men films get a lot of mileage out of them being 'mutants'; the 'next step in human evolution'. Sorry, but it's bollocks, and it drives me crazy. A real genetic mutation causes a cell to construct proteins differently/erroneously - it doesn't allow a person to control the weather. The explanation for Thor is that he's 'a magical interdimensional Norse god being... or something'. Fine, a bit of hand-waving and let's get on with it. 

As for Logan, it's light on cgi, very few 'mutants', and as grounded as one could hope for. It's about as far from an X-Men film as you could get, thankfully.

It Follows (2014)

Promiscuous teens being hunted by a stony-faced killer - sounds like a fairly hackneyed horror trope, doesn't it?

What makes It Follows stand out is the tiny wrinkle in the formula, which allows the film to explore new territory: what if you are being stalked by a stranger only you can see?

Here, a malevolent shape-shifting presence inhabits the bodies of random individuals, and relentlessly pursues its victims on foot. Like the classic zombies of old, you can easily escape, but it is relentless. However far you run, it will get you in the end.

Writer/director David Robert Mitchell's film effectively evokes feelings of paranoia and dread, and leaves you involuntarily scanning your surroundings for strangers making a beeline toward you.

The Lego Batman Movie (2017)

While it feels fast paced to the point of frenzy at times, the film is consistently funny throughout, with great vocal performances from the Arrested Development-infused cast, and has a surprisingly well formed narrative.

While director Chris McKay keeps proceedings light, often joyously silly, it is never campy like the awful Joel Schumacher entries that very nearly killed the character's cinematic adventures. Indeed, McKay accomplishes a feat that only Tim Burton before him managed - to make Bruce Wayne interesting. However, unlike Burton (who was more interested in the Dark Knight's rogue's gallery of villains), Batman is very much the focus here. His attempts to bond with Dick Grayson/Robin are both hilarious and touching.

It doesn't have the depths of the original Lord/Miller Lego Movie, and doesn't have the 'wow this Lego movie thing is really good!' surprise factor. This time there is expectation, which it meets based on the volume of gags alone.

Warner Bros/DC has been struggling to find a unique hook to differentiate its cinematic universe from Marvel's. Snyder eschewed the winning action-comedy formula of The Avengers et al., but by trying so hard to make his Batman vs Superman DEEP and IMPORTANT, it unfortunately tipped over into self-parody. Very, very boring parody.

Maybe the answer is simpler than they realise: dump the Batfleck and embrace Bluth Wayne.