The French Dispatch

*Dedicated to my Grandad. My first favourite storyteller, whose legacy I could only ever dream of living up to*

The written word is one of humanity’s finest achievements. It allows stories, both fictional and otherwise, to persevere in a more concrete form than by word of mouth alone. A story passed through dialogue alone is prone to embellishment but once written it is frozen in time, like a work of art. Indeed the written word is in itself a form of art, though few works ever reach the same recognition as a painting like the Mona Lisa. JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and George Orwells 1984 are both well-revered, but this doesn’t mean that lesser-known works are without their own merit.

Wes Anderson’s latest production The French Dispatch is a love letter to those lesser-known forms. An anthology of stories set in the fictional French town of Ennui for its equally fictional magazine The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun perfectly demonstrates the best of journalism.

The Cycling Reporter is an account of a day in the life of an Ennui resident, centered around the quirks of the town and its people. It is factual, expelling statistics like the average snowfall and amount of bodies found in the river per year, but is more concerned with showing the town through the eyes of the people. Without inhabitants, a city is just an amalgamation of empty buildings. It’s the people who make this town come to life, and every walk of life is fairly represented from the mischievous schoolboys to the under-achieving elderly population. It romanticises the town, giving it all the warmth that nostalgia has to offer.

The Concrete Masterpiece is a historical account of an artist painting his magnum opus from inside an insane asylum. It seeks to answer the question “is this man insane, or insanely gifted, or could he be both?” whilst leaving it open to interpretation. It’s a provocative piece that adds humanity to a character who would otherwise be a series of facts. Historical figures are interesting in that you can learn all the details of their life, like their age when they died and who they married, but you’ll never truly know them. Nobody will ever truly know their personal opinions or what they daydreamed about. It creates an odd parasocial bond. A good historian gets all the facts right but a great historian imbues those facts with life.

Revisions to a Manifesto reports on a student uprising and is a testament to the role of journalism in political movements. Journalists, like documentary film crews, are supposed to be there only to observe – but to what extent can that rule be pushed? When should journalists be active participants and what kind of responses would they receive? The piece never truly answers these questions, nor should it. There are certain biases inherent in everything a journalist writes, whether or not they are aware of it, but under certain circumstances, those biases should be allowed prevalence.

The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner is a journalist’s recollection of a particularly intense dinner that consists of a kidnapping, a stand-off, and a car chase. The most interesting aspect is the reporter: a gay man of colour whose first article for The French Dispatch was written from inside a jail cell. It demonstrates the faith that the magazines’ editor was willing to place in his writers, cultivating talent wherever he saw it. Indeed, art can come from anywhere but it is through encouragement and opportunity that it can become great.

The epilogue tells of the end of The French Dispatch after the sudden passing of its creator. As each of the journalists mourn their loss, they begin writing his obituary. There is a sense of obligation, of course, but also one of camaraderie. This is writings greatest gift: the gift of expression. A great deal of emotion can be poured into a written piece, and it can help to deal with those emotions. This too is something that The French Dispatch accomplishes, at least for me.

I’ve often been told that I see media in a way that others around me do not. I approach it out of positivity and am driven by the emotion and artistry in a piece. It sets me apart, I’m told. I’ve also been told that my work is well researched and this sentiment particularly means a great deal to me. More than can ever be conveyed in words.

My writing is my escape. Thank you for indulging me.

Signed: Your grateful neighbourhood queer

Ant-Man and the Wasp

It’s amazing the difference a cohesive film production can make. 2015s Ant-Man went through several script rewrites and directors which resulted in an entertaining film that fell short of being truly great. Meanwhile, its sequel, Ant-Man and the Wasp had one creative team throughout which resulted in one of the funniest, most heartfelt tales in the MCU. It takes all the aspects that made its predecessor good and refines them to amplify their greatness.

The film centers on former cat burglar Scott Lang, in the final days of his house arrest following the events of Captain America: Civil War, as he attempts to help Hank and Hope Pym without alerting the FBI or his family. As they build a machine capable of rescuing Hank’s wife Janet from the Quantum Realm, they must keep it out of the hands of black market dealer Sonny Burch and the mysterious Ava Starr/Ghost who can phase through objects.

The brilliance of the film’s title is that it refers to the two stories at play. The first is on the new Ant-Man, Scott, and his Wasp, Hope, as they learn to trust each other again so that they can fight side-by-side effectively. The second is on the original Ant-Man, Hank, and his Wasp, Janet, as they try desperately to reunite after 30 years apart. These relationships are the core of the story and are impactful even without the context of their previous appearances. Scott and Hope are clearly in love despite Hope’s pain at Scott’s betrayal whilst Hank and Janet clearly adore each other even when they aren’t on screen together. The highlight of these relationships, aside from their resolution, is when Hank, Hope, and Scott are pinpointing Janet’s location in the Quantum Realm. Janets consciousness inhabits Scott’s body and, for a brief moment, it allows her to interact with Hank and Hope. Actor Paul Rudd simply melts into this performance allowing the moment to come across as sincere whilst Michael Douglas and Evangeline Lilly give equally emotionally charged emotionally performances.

The final relationship that allows Ant-Man and the Wasp to stand out is that between Scott and his 10-year-old daughter Cassie. It was a highlight of Ant-Man and it’s just as impactful here. The screen lights up whenever they share a scene and Cassies desire to be a hero like her dad will pull at even the hardest of heartstrings. Their interactions are all bittersweet with the knowledge that this is the last time Scott will see her at this age. The gag about Scott being the World’s Greatest Grandma is equal parts funny and relatable. Actress Abby Ryder Fortson has really knocked this role out of the park so is definitely one to keep an eye on.

With a new film comes new characters and Ant-Man and the Wasp has some delights. FBI Agent Jimmy Woo is instantly likable with his childlike innocence and adorable interactions with Cassie which have rightfully made him a fan favourite. Sonny Burch is a slimy weasel in all the best ways with his easygoing personality and punchable demeanor. Ava Starr is an interesting villain with one of the more tragic backstories, making her actions understandable without being reasonable. Lastly, Janet is a superb addition to the cast. It’s always good to have more female role models and with her intelligence, as well as her warmth, she is certainly that. Ant-Man and the Wasp also sees the return of comedic trio Luis, Dave, and Kurt who could easily be annoying but are never given enough screentime to be so. Actor Michael Peña is marvelous at delivering Luis’ speedy monologues, which have become a highlight for this franchise.

The action scenes are some of the most creative that the MCU has to offer. The ability to shrink and grow makes both Ant-Man and the Wasp a formidle foe for enemies but it’s when that technology is used on objects that the fun really begins. There’s some superb use of shrinking when it comes to modes of transportation and living spaces with spledid use of expansion when it comes to Pez despensers. It also provides some excellent tension as the film nears its conclusion and it seems as if Scott’s luck evading the FBI has run out.

When it comes to post-credits scenes, those attached to Ant-Man and the Wasp are perfect. The first sees Scott becoming trapped in the Quantum Realm as the Pyms are turned to dust whilst the second shows several dead quiet locations. With this film being released in between Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, the post-credits scenes make sense as well as bringing Scott’s timeline up to date. However, placing this film before Infinity War chronologically allows for the perfect lead-in. It serves as a spoiler for that films ending but, in doing so, paints The Avengers’ actions as pointless. In a world where the films were released chronologically, the Pyms are dusted and nobody knows why. For 6 months, the audience sits on this information until Infinity War comes out. This Thanos guy talks about eradicating half of the universe, leading to 3 hours of utter despair at the knowledge that this is what happened to the Pyms. It would have been utterly devastating but, as it is, Ant-Man and the Wasp is already a heartfelt and funny tale.

Excelsior!

Signed: Your friendly neighbourhood queer

Queen of Glory (LFF 2021)

Comedy isn’t just for laughs. It provides them, but it can often expose flaws within society, bring groups of people closer together, and can be a coping strategy for grief or loss. Laughter isn’t just an emotion we feel but a tool to be used and the best comedy films often do it well. Films like Airplane! and Hot Shots! use absurdist comedy to great effect, but Dark Comedy films are particularly interesting. Something like 1989’s Heathers takes a dark situation and makes light of it with a small amount of schadenfreude. It is this type of comedy that is present in Queen of Glory.

The story centers on a Ghanian-American woman who has her life totally mapped out, including moving to Ohio with her already-married lover. Her plans are thrown into turmoil when her mother passes away suddenly, leaving her with the ownership of a house and a Christian bookshop. In an attempt to return to her planned life, she must arrange to funerals for her mum (one American and one Ghanian), live with her previously absent father and sell the bookshop without upsetting the only employee it has. Through comedy, Queen of Glory explores the aftermath of death without disrespecting the topic.

The protagonist’s life is relatable. She argues with friends and family, resides in an average part of Brooklyn and panics whenever things go wrong. The story wouldn’t work without any of these elements because her pain could just as easily belong to any of us. Loss hits hard and it’s explored through conversations with her family and an increasing number of empty pizza boxes on her table. It’s a difficult thing to process, made worse by the increasing number requests and repetitive questions about the funeral. The use of jumpcuts throughout the narrative amplify this to great comedic effect.

There are enough jumpcuts present to make a YouTuber blush but Queen of Glory never feels over-edited. It’s coupled with several smash cuts but the camera is often allowed to exist within the scene, letting the story play out. Timing is one of the most important elements in comedy, without which even a brilliant joke can fall flat. Cut to the next scene too quickly and the joke doesn’t have time to make an impact, take too long to cut away and the joke can fizzle out. Queen of Glory balances its timing perfectly which amplifies an already funny script. The gag about her wanting to move to Ohio relies on an understanding of that State’s reputation, but the deliveries are deadpan enough to get the joke across regardless of context.

With the story focussed on a Ghanian-American woman, it makes sense that Ghanian culture is also centred. There’s an almost educational aspect to its presence, but there’s an evident amount of respect for it. This is also the case for Christianity, which exists in the plot through the bookshop and the people who visit it. So often, race and religion are the punchline which, aside from being unnecessarily cruel, is lazy humour. This can be seen mostly in teen comedies like American Pie and Epic Date Movie. Not only does Queen of Glory not use them as punchlines but it never feels like it’s about to. Comedies can often put certain groups of people on edge, since there’s a history of jokes at their expense, and it can often lead to those people preparing for the worst. It puts people on the defensive, even if they ultimately don’t need to be, so to see a comedy that respects these topics is refreshing.

The only issue Queen of Glory has is its runtime. At 75 minutes, it barely qualifies as a feature length motion picture and it deserves more time. These characters are so engaging and likable that it feels almost cruel to spend so little time with them. The film’s conclusion is satisfactory, but feels slightly rushed, like there should be more time dedicated to the story’s repercussions. Much like all good stand-up routines, Queen of Glory‘s leaving us wanting more.

Until Next Time…

Signed: Your friendly neighbourhood queer

Beetlejuice

The works of Tim Burton are ripe for Halloween viewings. Their gothic design and dark comedic writing lend themselves to late autumnal nights or even, in the case of Edward Scissorhands and Batman Returns, late winter nights. One of the most entertaining is 1988’s technologically astounding Beetlejuice.

The story sees recently deceased Barbara and Adam Maitland unwillingly sharing their house with the eccentric Dietz family. As they contemplate asking for help from self-proclaimed “bio-exorcist” Betelgeuse, so too does the youngest member of the Dietz family Lydia who is desperate to leave home. Every single one of these characters is well fleshed out and likable. Barbara and Adam Maitland are clearly in love, despite never having to really say it. Their journey is comedically unfortunate but their upbeat attitudes keep them sympathetic. They are the straight people in this bizarre landscape but they are very rarely serious, instead attempting to find small moments of joy wherever they can. Meanwhile, Charles and Delia Dietz are quirky from the moment they enter the frame. Delia is an artist, in the most bizarre sense of the word, who is prone to anxiety and shrieking. Charles is dull in comparison as a former real estate agent who has lost his edge and simply wants to enjoy some peace and quiet. The comedy lies in how determined he is to enjoy that peace and how exasperated he is by his wife’s antics.

The story is equally centered on all of the main characters, but the true protagonists seems to be Lydia Dietz and Betelgeuse. Lydia is iconic, as one of the earliest pop culture goth icons. Mourning the loss of her mother and frustrated by Delia’s antics, she is fascinated by the world around her. She is able to see the strange and unusual because she herself is strange and unusual, and thus becomes torn between the world of the dead and the world of the living. She is sympathetic yet strong, which makes her a great intellectual match for Betelguese. The man himself is both morally and physically disgusting. Many words that describe him best are not suitable for children, given his infatuation with women- Lydia in particular. Betelgeuse has been dead for centuries but can return to the land of the living if he marries a mortal, so he chooses the desperate-to-escape Lydia. Having become trapped by this deal, he becomes the main villain of the 3rd act, having only been mischievous for the previous 2.

The brilliant characters are matched by stunning visual effects. A mixture of green screens, physical effects and stop motion animation create some of cinema’s most memorable visuals. The model work is wonderful. Adam Maitland’s model of the town where he lives is particularly wonderful as a prop and a plot point. Its use in the opening flyover is a beautiful send-up to other horror openings like The Shining and perfectly sets the tone of the film. The giant black and white Sandworm is particularly notable as a stop motion creature on a green screen. This not-so-subtle nod to Dune makes a couple of appearances throughout before helping to save the day in the finale (Chekov’s Worm, if you will) which isn’t just good writing but an excellent use of comedy’s Rule of 3. The practical effects used for the dead are outstanding. Each design is unique and conveys to the audience how this character died without ever having to say it. The Maitlands case manager has a slit in her neck that emits the smoke of her cigarette, whilst a member of the filing team is flattened with tire marks across his body. The latter of these characters is unable to work so is suspended from the ceiling and moves through a pulley system which is a great comedic gag and an amazing feat of engineering. Of course, it’s not just the characters that are well designed but the world that they live in. Tim Burton’s work is always unmistakably his and Beetlejuice is no exception. It’s full of angles and small pops of colour with a large palette of blacks, whites, and greys.

The film’s success inspired the animated television Beetlejuice: The Series, which aired on ABC from September 9, 1989, to October 26, 1991, with the final series airing on Fox from September 9, 1991, to December 6, 1991. Composer Danny Elfman returned to write the theme song while director Tim Burton returned as Executive Producer. The series doesn’t seem directly connected to the film, with The Maitlands being completely absent. It follows Lydia and Beetlejuice as they partake in supernatural adventures, with Beetlejuice often trying to scam inhabitants of both the mortal and non-mortal worlds. Their relationship is vastly different from the film, with them being friends instead of enemies. The whole series is very child-friendly and contains many vibrant colours but it is not commercially available outside of the United States.

The film also inspired a Broadway musical, which opened on April 25, 2019, and released the soundtrack on June 7, 2019, before taking a break due to The Pandemic. It’s closer in tone to the film but is a mixture of the film and series when it comes to plot. Following the loss of her mother, Lydia Dietz moves into a new house with her father and his new girlfriend where they are haunted by The Maitlands with a little help from Betelgeuse. Having been fired by The Maitlands, Betelgeuse then attempts to use Lydia for his nefarious deeds with her finally giving in and reveling in the darkness. Having realised that she could see her mother in the afterlife, Lydia follows the Maitlands, only for them to begin plotting a plan to keep Betelgeuse dead, which is pulled off during the finale. As in the series, the musical gives Beetlejuice and Lydia a more friendly, almost romantic relationship whilst Delia is portrayed as more of an airhead instead of an erratic artist. Meanwhile, the Maitlands are simply “unready” to have children before they die and their caseworker Juno only makes an appearance during the finale. It’s vastly different from both the film and the series – as it should be. Adaptation is pointless if everything remains the same. Eddie Perfect’s songs are an absolute delight and suit the materiel excellently. The Whole Being Dead Thing and Say My Name are good picks for the best song but, personally, I’m very fond of That Beautiful Sound which is a duet between Lydia and Beetlejuice as they revel in their mischief.

In all its forms, Beetlejuice is an absolute delight. It varies in darkness without ever straying too far to the light and excels at the absurd. Each is a feat of effects, whether practical or animation and the music always embodies the tone of the story. Tim Burton has created an outstanding and creative franchise that is brilliant all year round but is perfect at this time of year.

Happy Halloween!

Signed: Your friendly neighbourhood queer

Thor: Ragnarok

The MCU has an odd relationship with comedy. When it lands—as it did with Ant-Man—it makes for great entertainment, but when it doesn’t, as with much of Age of Ultron, it comes across as cringeworthy. Thor: Ragnarok manages to have a mixture of both, although it errs more on the side of cringe. To top it all off, the film itself comes across as one bad joke, with Avengers: Infinity War as the punchline.

After vanishing during Age of Ultron Thor is revealed to have been restoring order to the chaotic Nine Realms, which is an adventure that ends upon his return to Asgard. It is his hope that this will prevent Ragnarok- the end of days- but it arrives just the same, along with his sister the Goddess of Death Hela who kicks Thor and Loki halfway across the universe to the wasteland planet of Sakkar. after reuniting with Hulk and making friends with former Asgardian warrior Valkyrie, they escape The Grandmaster’s rule and return to Asgard for one final battle.

Hulk’s presence here may seem odd given his often strenuous relationship with Thor, but it is a matter of contracts. In the late 1990s, Marvel Studios sold the rights to a solo Hulk film to Universal, who promptly released Ang Lee’s Hulk in 2003 before striking a deal with Marvel to release 2008’s The Incredible Hulk as part of the fledgling MCU. The film received mixed reviews, and for that reason or another, there would not be another solo Hulk adventure. Instead, he was used in team-ups, as Marvel still had rights to use the character that way, which led to his appearance in further MCU projects. However, fans of the character clamored for more, specifically adaptations of the Planet Hulk and World War Hulk comic book storylines. The former of these sees Hulk exiled to the distant planet of Sakkar by the Illuminati where he becomes a gladiator and ultimately leads a revolution, whilst the latter deals with the ramifications of Hulk’s return to Earth. With the possibility of a solo Hulk film outwith their grasp, Marvel decided to incorporate Planet Hulk into a buddy movie with Thor. As the only Avenger to frequent other planets, Thor is a perfect match for this story which ultimately ends up being Planet Hulk focussed as opposed to Ragnarok focussed, though that isn’t a bad thing. It would be better if more of that time had been spent with Bruce Banner instead of Hulk, who acts as a comedic sidekick stunned into stupidity by his circumstances instead of an intrigued scientist with 7 PHDs.

A comedic sidekick can work well provided they are working off a less comedic partner. For instance, in Ant-Man, Scott Lang is the funny one reacting to the bizarre scenarios while Hank Pym is the more serious elderly gentleman. In Thor: Ragnarok, everyone is a comedic character. Arguably the least humourous is Valkyrie who often has her alcoholism used as a punchline. It’s quite juvenile, much like the majority of humour. Taika Watiti is an interesting director who can be hilarious, like in What We Do In The Shadows, but it doesn’t feel like he brought his A-Game for this. It feels like he took the Disney-sized paycheck to pay for his independent projects, which is clearly where his heart lies. Nowhere is this more apparent than with Korg.

The character of Korg made his first comic appearance in the Planet Hulk storyline where he was the leader of the rebellion with a tragic backstory. Here, he is portrayed by Taika Watiti, who feels like he improvised every single line resulting in a lot of cringe-worthy humour. Improvisation can be funny, like in Ghostbusters where improvised lines were only kept in if they were funnier than the already funny script. This worked because Ramis, Ackroyd, and Murray still had regular lines which carried the script forward. Korg on the other hand feels like every single line is improvised and none of them carry the plot forward. The character himself could be removed from the plot without affecting it since the revolution is kickstarted by Valkyrie and ultimately led by Loki. It’s unfortunate because Korg could be a fun and important character instead of what feels like a role written specifically for the director.

Perhaps the biggest flaws of Ragnarok‘s stem from the context that surrounds it. The first is Valkyrie, although this is only an issue for those who were present for the film’s initial release. Her actress Tessa Thompson and aforementioned director Taika Watiti both made a big deal about how Valkyrie was going to be the first openly gay character in the MCU, mourning the death of her girlfriend at the hands of Hela many decades ago. This scene was supposedly scripted but never filmed, although her death remains in the final version of the film as she takes a spear for Valkyrie. The other issue is Thor: Ragnarok‘s placing within the MCU. Thor has spent the entire plot desperately attempting to save his people, managing to save a great number of them by boarding them on an escape ship. He has made what will likely be his biggest achievement and lost an entire eye in the process. He can finally be happy. He is immediately greeted by Thanos’ ship because this film leads directly into Avengers: Infinity War. It’s worth noting that this isn’t the fault of the team but the fault of the corporation. Taika made the best film he could despite presumably being told it had to end this way. It makes this film feel like a joke at Thor’s (and Taika’s) expense.

With all that said, Thor: Ragnarok is still highly entertaining. When the performances aren’t bogged down by attempts at humour, they are heartfelt and emotional, particularly with Loki and Thor who are closing their arcs here. The casting of Jeff Goldblum as The Grandmaster can’t be ignored, nor should it be. He oozes his regular Goldblum charm throughout and the screen simply lights up whenever he appears. Cate Blanchett is brilliantly vicious as Hela who feels like a more intimidating version of Rita Repulsa from Power Ranger while Karl Urban as Skurge is a complex character with his own mini-arc. Then there’s the cinematography which is stellar. The Thor films have always been grand in scale, although the first film practically perfected it straight out of the gate. Here it is matched with vibrant colours which make each scene pop like an Andy Warhol painting. Capping it all off is the outstanding score which has a heavy synth base making the whole film feels like an epic 1980s adventure. This culminated in probably one of the best moments in the MCU where Thor, adorned with lightning, jumps onto the Bifrost bridge while The Immigrant Song plays.

Thor: Ragnarok is seemingly the best that could be done given constraints although it is let down by the juvenile humour that had mainly been confined to the first two Avengers films. It closes arcs brilliantly and entertains plenty but it deserved deep exploration. Both the Ragnarok and Planet Hulk storylines deserved their own exploration but as a mash-up, this is pretty good.

Excelsior!

Signed: Your friendly neighbourhood queer

New York Ninja

When travelling, it is often the longest route that provides the most interesting journey. Such is the case with martial arts movie New York Ninja which is finally seeing the light of day after 37 years thanks to the efforts of film preservation studio Vinegar Syndrome. They have crafted a thoroughly entertaining, high-definition motion picture from raw footage, no audio, and no script. The latter two of these they had to provide themselves in a tale that’s as barmy as the film itself and has to be heard to be believed.

New York Ninja stars martial arts legend John Liu as the titular vigilante who is hunting down the gang responsible for killing his pregnant girlfriend. This gang is also behind a slate of female kidnappings and is led by The Plutonium Killer, who regularly exposes himself to the chemical in order to survive. It’s a simple story, embellished by the absurdities within, although it isn’t as much a story as it is a reason to move from one fight scene to the next. Liu demonstrates impressive kicks and astounding flips throughout the 92-minute runtime, with his opponents acting as mere puppets to be demonstrated upon. His feats are truly stunning and matched in entertainment value by the costumes.

The 1980s were an interesting time for fashion, with big shoulder pads and even bigger hair. These are present in New York Ninja, but the most fascinating clothing choices are made by the villains who would fit right into a low-budget pantomime. It’s a style that can only be described as “mismatched Halloween costumes” but the choices are to be laughed with instead of laughed at. Equally commendable are the special effects, which appear rarely but make an impact whenever they do. This particular era of filmmaking was home to fake-looking effects that only needed to get the notion of gore across on-screen and it’s immensely charming. The blood has a paint-like quality but the prosthetics are genuinely brilliant, especially where faces are involved.

With no surviving audio or script, both had to be provided by the restoration team, which is a difficult task, especially when the ADR has to fit over pre-existing mouth movements. The team solved this by only matching when required, and considering the average quality of ADR work in mid-tier production movies at the time, it feels more like an homage than it does a necessary choice. It’s not an award-winning script either, but the voice actors are delivering lines with all the campness required. There are stretches with very little dialogue outside of grunts and it’s in these moments the score is allowed to shine. Composed by Detroit-based band Voyag3r, the score is written specifically for the film and oozes 1980s excitement. It’s as much a work of art as the film and equally worth checking out on its own.

The DVD release will feature the 50-minute documentary Re-Enter The New York Ninja which features interviews with both original and new crew members. It’s a bizarre tale of guerrilla filmmaking, studio dismissal, and surprising secrecy which details the importance of preserving media.


Vinegar Syndrome’s mission is an admirable one. Many may see New York Ninja as just another martial arts movie but, due to its complicated history, it is so much more than that. It is a testament to those who salvaged it and to all those who salvage the media of the past. It saved the inspirational 1927 sci-fi classic Metropolis and 79 episodes of the original run of Doctor Who. Saved pieces like this are a love letter to those original artists, credited or not. New York Ninja does not list those who worked on the original production because the restoration team could find no names to list but hopefully, they hear about their rescued project and seek it out. Hopefully, they’re proud of their work and the added work of Vinegar Syndrome because they should be. They’ve helped create a campy, violent work of art.

Until Next Time…

Signed: Your friendly neighbourhood queer

Spider-Man: Homecoming

Great power used to come with great responsibility. Now it seems to come with a safety net and a large amount of whining. Gone are the life lessons of the humble Uncle Ben and in their place is the arrogant bravado of Tony Stark. This makes sense for the Iron Man-centric MCU, and for this iteration of Spider-Man, but that does not mean it’s a good decision. What makes Spidey such a great character is his relatability, and unwillingness to give in when life is at its worst. He’s a superhero but he’s also juggling a career and a personal life. He barely scrapes by on rent, he has arguments with his girlfriend and he also loses those closest to him. Whether it’s Uncle Ben, Aunt May or Gwen Stacy, Spider-Man is plagued by loss but he doesn’t let the grief define him. Not everybody can be saved but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth trying.

Spider-Man: Homecoming picks up with 15 year old Peter Parker shortly after the events of Captain America: Civil War as he awaits his next mission from Tony Stark. When disgruntled salvager Adrian Toomes begins selling alien-powered tech to criminals, Peter goes behind Tony’s back to deal with it himself. Whilst this iteration of the titular character is not perfect, he is a very decent mixture of Peter Parker and Spider-Man. Previously there was Tobey Maguire, a great Parker, and Andrew Garfield, an amazing Spidey, but they were each better at one aspect of the character than the other. Tom Holland manages to find a happy medium. His Parker is a lovable goofball and a genius but he lacks the understanding of basic concepts like how Hotel rooms work. His Spider-Man is quick witted and good in a fight but is driven by a determination to impress Stark instead of to help people. Holland is at his best when he is bouncing off of Jacob Batalon’s Ned Beatty. The screen lights up whenever the pair interact with a friendship that is clearly more than just acting. A particularly nice touch is the secret handshake that they have developed off-screen that they don’t even have to watch to know they’re doing it correctly.

A hero is only as good as the villain and Toomes’ Vulture is one of the best in the MCU. Micheal Keaton provides a chilling yet lovable performance as the character who, after appearing in the script for the unfinished Spider-Man 4, is enjoying a resurgence with another portrayal in PS4’s Spider-Man. Toomes is a working class man whose very secure job as a salvager was ripped away by the intervention of the Stark funded Department of Damage Control, which has led to a life of crime. In a lot of ways he is similar to Scott Lang/Ant-Man, but where the two differ is in their morals. Lang takes from the rich and gives to the poor while Toomes steals from the rich to make himself richer by selling to criminals. His motivations are understandable but it’s his actions that make him a villain.

The confrontations between him and Spidey are tense. The build up of their respectful relationship is handled masterfully and is elevated by Micheal Giacchino’s score. He always brings a vibrancy to his work, allowing the heroic moments to feel bombastic and the quieter moments to be somber. Having previously scored The Incredibles, and Mission Impossible III, Giacchino is no stranger to composing for heroes, and is himself a hero of the audio variety. His score is evocative of the 1980’s films it pays homage to and the orchestrated version of the classic Spider-Man theme brings chills.

Spider-Man: Homecoming is a beautiful coming of age comedy when it’s allowed to be, but the necessity to tie into the larger MCU is inherently restrictive. Tony Stark is ever present, whether it’s in person, over the phone, through Happy Hogan, as a topic of conversation or as the motivation of the villain. He is literally holding Peter back by giving him a high tech suit with training protocols embedded into the system and then taking the suit away when Peter hacks through those protocols, but he is also holding the film back from being its own thing. Stark tells Peter that if he’s nothing without the suit then he shouldn’t have it, which is an act of hypocrisy so massive, it wouldn’t fit in The Grand Canyon. In actuality, it is Stark who is nothing without his suit – it just so happens that he is a billionaire so he can do whatever he wants regardless. He keeps Peter out of the loop on issues that he raises and, worst of all, he has the hots for Aunt May. The disrespect to Uncle Ben is astounding.

Part of the MCU connection is the buildup to events that are still to play out as I write this. Toomes survives, as does one of his henchmen with a scorpion tattoo, which is a clear nod to Marvel character The Scorpion and a set-up for The Sinister Six. This villainous team will make an appearance in Spider-Man: No Way Home although it seems like they have gone in a completely different route so hopefully this set-up will still lead somewhere. There’s also a reference to Thor’s magic belt Megingjörð, which has never made a physical appearance, and a gag about Happy carrying around an engagement ring for Tony and Pepper since 2008, which is a cute little meta moment. The most interesting aspect is where this film takes place in the larger MCU timeline because it isn’t entirely clear. Title cards state that the events of Homecoming take place 2 months after Civil War in 2016 and 8 years after the Battle of New York in 2012. The writers have since stated that audiences should ignore the “8 years later” title card but it’s a fun little peek behind the curtain of this supposedly well oiled machine that is the MCU.

Despite its several glaring flaws, Spider-Man: Homecoming is highly entertaining. The characters and story are compelling with a cracking soundtrack to boot but, much like Ant-Man, it is the requirement that it fit a larger narrative that lets it down. This is not something that is going to improve in future movies but that’s a discussion for another time.

Excelsior!

Signed: Your friendly neighbourhood queer

Ant-Man

Discussions of an Ant-Man film date back to the late 1980s, when Stan Lee first attempted to get the project off of the ground. None of the major studios showed any interest in it, and all plans were shelved until the early 2000s. Writer/director Edgar Wright wrote a treatment with his conspirator Joe Cornish, which they pitched to Marvel Studios in 2003 – despite claims that he never intended to pitch the film to anyone. Over the next several years, the script was adapted so that it included original Ant-Man Hank Pym as well as the current iteration Scott Lang. Over the next decade, the script was revised between Wright’s work on The Cornetto Trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, The World’s End) and in late 2014 it finally entered production. However, in the months leading up to this—despite all the crew members being hired and ready to go—Wright left the project, citing creative differences. It was at this point that director Peyton Reed and writer Adam Mackay were brought in to finish the project. We may never know how Wright’s Ant-Man would have looked, but the film we got is, in my opinion, still one of the most entertaining movies in the MCU.

The plot follows cat-burglar Scott Lang as he pulls one last heist in the hopes of finding enough money to pay child support for his daughter Cassie, who he is not allowed to see otherwise. Instead, he finds himself in possession of the Ant-Man suit, and at the beck and call of its creator Hank Pym, as well as his daughter Hope. Hank’s former protégé, and Hope’s, current boss is Darren Cross, who has created his own weaponised shrinking suit, which he intends to sell to the highest bidder. Which happens to be Hydra. It’s up to our new trio, as well as a few crooks that Scott knows, to pull off a heist in order to stop him. As somebody with a soft spot for heist movies like the Ocean’s trilogy, I really appreciate that the heist isn’t the sole focus. The majority of the plot is spent preparing for it, but it’s here to serve to different purposes. The first of these is training Scott to use the suit, since he’s going to continue using it, and the second is kickstarting the plot and allowing our characters the opportunity to bond. The heist is more of a catalyst than the focus of the narrative, what really drives the plot forward is the relationship between the characters, although there are still several Marvel Moments to remind you that this is a blockbuster.

Scott Lang is an extremely likable and sympathetic character. He’s a father, down on his luck, who can’t get a regular job due to his status as an ex-convict. His crime? Taking money from a company who was underpaying their employees, so that the CEOs could get bigger payslips, and returning that money to the employees. He’s a modern day Robin Hood… but the legal system doesn’t see him that way. After serving his time he lies about being an ex-con to procure a job at Baskin Robbins, but is fired once they find out. This isn’t an MCU or film issue, this is a real thing that happens to real people. The American Justice System functions on behalf of prison companies who make the most money when their cells are full. Coupled with companies refusing to hire ex-cons, it’s no wonder that so many return to a life of crime. The primary goal of the justice system should be reformation, not punishment, and Scott Lang is an embodiment of that. He also happens to be a caring father, and is portrayed with all of the charismatic charm of Paul Rudd.

The other father in this story is Hank Pym, who retired from SHIELD after they attempted to replicate his shrinking formula, The Pym Particle. His wife Janet sacrifices herself on a top secret mission but hides this information from Hope, who grows to resent him for keeping this from her and telling her that Janet died in a plane crash. In attempting to shield her from the pain, he has denied her the chance to grieve properly. Their journey is one of reconciliation, as Hank realises that he was over-protective, and Hope understands why. To me, it’s one of the most beautiful relationships in the entire MCU.

I believe that these relationships, as well as a healthy amount of comedic action, were what Wright’s Ant-Man would have focussed on. Of course, we may never know for sure, but I have my suspicions about where Marvel may have stepped in. The first is anything connected to The Avengers, and the second is the villain. During Scott’s first mission, he must retrieve a gadget from one of Hank’s old warehouses, however things quickly go awry when he discovers that this warehouse is now home to The Avengers. This leads to a fight between Scott and Sam Wilson, who I suspect may have been the only hero available at the time. Meanwhile, Darren Cross is a decent villain with solid motivation, but at the beginning of the third act he becomes straight up evil. He’s selling his tech to Hydra, shooting Hank and holding Cassie hostage. This is supposedly due to his variation of the Pym Particle being unstable and altering his brain waves, but I wonder if the more likely reason might be a corporate one. I feel like these two scenarios lessen the impact of the film slightly by pulling you out of a character driven story and into an action blockbuster, which would be decent enough reason to leave a project.

For me, there are two factors that help Ant-Man stand out from most other MCU instalments. Firstly, this film is funny. Other films in the MCU have humour, but they would still be classed as action-adventure, whilst this is definitely a comedy. There are some particularly effective visual gags which make brilliant used of Pym’s shrinking and enlarging tech, specifically one featuring beloved children’s character Thomas the Tank Engine. The second is the wonderful score composed by Christophe Beck. The comparisons to James Bond are plentiful, so I will instead compare it to the work of Murray Gold whose music was instrumental in shaping the revived run of Doctor Who. He filled his music with the amount of energy and heart that was a core component of the show, and Beck’s score fills me with a similar sense of excitement, especially the Ant-Man theme itself which has all the whimsy of Rob Grainer’s original Doctor Who theme.

Ant-Man was released mere months after the tonally dark Avengers: Age of Ultron, and was exactly the kind of palette cleanser the fandom required. There were no long-lasting or even short-lasting ramifications aside from an Avengers connection and the introduction of the Quantum Realm, so it very nearly stands on its own. This isn’t the last origin story we’ll be seeing in the MCU, but I think it is the last one that feels like it doesn’t have any commitments, set-up or connections to the bigger picture. My opinion of it only continues to grow.

Exclesior!

Signed: Your friendly neighbourhood queer

Home Alone: Lost in New York

The original Home Alone, released in 1990, is a Christmas classic beloved by millions of people across the globe. It has been this popular ever since it was first released to theatres, maintaining the number 1 spot at the Box Office for 4 months. In fact, it would remain the best selling Christmas film of all time until the release of Illumination Studios’ The Grinch in 2018. As you would expect with a movie which made this much profit, a sequel was put into into production by the end of 1991 and planned to be much bigger. This was matched by the $28 million budget, which was $10 million more than the original, and with scenes shot on location in New York City.

We follow 10 year old Kevin MacCallister as he accidentally boards a flight to New York instead of one to Miami with the rest of his family, leaving him stranded in one of the largest cities in the world. Initially, all is well, as he stays at the illustrious Plaza Hotel. But with the return of Harry and Marv (under new mantle The Sticky Bandits) and their plan to steal from a toy store on Christmas eve, it is once again up to Kevin to stop them. I’ve seen a lot of criticism of Home Alone: Lost in New York, with the main critique being that it simply re-hashes the plot of the original in a new setting. It’s hard to dispute that, but I do think that the change in location gives Kevin more issues to deal with this time around. As well as the Sticky Bandits, Kevin must keep his solitude a secret from the management at the Plaza Hotel. Although everything eventually works out well, Kevin is found to be using his father’s stolen credit card and he runs straight into the arms of the Sticky Bandits. He also encounters a homeless woman in the park who he befriends, mirroring his relationship with Old Man Marley in the original. However, this woman is totally alone as opposed to just not talking with her family, which is possibly the biggest difference between these two films. There’s less home and more alone.

I’ve also seen criticisms of Macaulay Culkin’s performance in comparison to the original, and whilst I think it feels less genuine, I think it’s unfair to criticise the man himself. It is now well established just how little control he had over his own career and finances, coupled with his stardom coming literally overnight. What Macaulay Culkin went through, as well as being the result of a system that was drastically unfit for child stars, was incredibly rough, and I think we should cut him a little slack. As for the character of Kevin, I do think there is an inherent flaw with him being two years older. An 8 year old attacking grown men as an act of self-defense is funny, but a 10 year old luring two grown men into a trap just comes off as cruel. He comes across as bratty, and with the change of context (luring instead of defending) he also comes across as vindictive. The comedy itself still works, with the slapstick being implemented well and the traps being just as inventive as in the original film. The standout moments come from the acting of Tim Curry, who portrays a concierge at the hotel and is clearly having a blast with the role. Tim Curry always gives 120% to every single performance, and it is practically impossible to be sad whenever he is on screen. His line delivery on “a cheese pizza” is particularly outstanding, I think the main difference in the comedy- the slapstick in particular- is that it is more child friendly; making the slapstick feel less of a genuine threat. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, although I suppose it depends on your personal opinion. For me, it isn’t enough to spoil the film.

Home Alone 2 ends up being longer than its predecessor by around 20 minutes, taking its runtime to just under 2 hours. This allows for the film take its time to tell a story, and that might be my only issue with it. This instalment takes a little longer to get to the main plot, and it can sometimes linger on a joke for too long. Home Alone 2 is, I feel, not as concise as it needs to be, and it certainly isn’t as concise as the original. I usually don’t compare films, but when it’s a self contained franchise where the plots are so similar, it’s difficult not to. I wonder if the film would have been received better if it had come first, but alas there is no way of knowing.

What makes this film re-watchable is the emotional core. Catherine O’Hara gives another truly heartfelt performance as Kevin’s mother, and much like Tim Curry, it is difficult not to like her. This is amplified by the beautiful score, brought to us once again by the masterful John Williams. There have been essays written about the legacy of his work, and it is well deserved. Once again, the set is adorned with Christmas decorations so it is impossible to escape the festive feel. At the end of the day Home Alone 2 is a suitable sequel and wonderful festive fare. There are several small issues but they are not enough to dampen the movie for me, or many of its other fans. I once wrote this of another sequel, and I feel it is equally applicable here:

There is a marvellous sequel in here trying to get out but, for what it is, it’s fine. It will forever hold a place in my heart.

Until Next Time…

Signed: Your festive neighbourhood queer

Dr Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)

In 1957, Theodor Geisel, under his pen-name Dr. Seuss, released a storybook for children title How the Grinch Stole Christmas. As with many of his works, the tale included a lesson which, in this case, was that Christmas was about peace, love, and joy, instead of decorations and presents. The book was received well, and was adapted into an animated special in 1966 which padded the runtime with new songs written for the occasion by Geisel himself. This was also received well, and has been a staple of American television at Christmas ever since, along with entering the pop culture mythos. For many, this is what they imagine when you ask them about The Grinch. But there is another… in 2000, the story was adapted for the big screen in live-action by director Ron Howard- of Apollo 13 fame- which clocked in at a staggering 1 hour and 50 minutes. I have seen both ends of the reaction spectrum with this one, from hate and ridicule right through to love and enjoyment, but whatever your opinion, it exists in infamy.

The plot follows The Grinch as he plots to steal Christmas from the present-and-decoration-obsessed Whos of Whoville. We also glimpse the life of Cindy Lou Who, who is no more than six, and seems to be the only Who aware that Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more. If you are familiar with the Whos of old, this may seem a little odd to you, because they knew what Christmas was about and this seemed to be what finally changed The Grinch’s sour heart. It’s one of the several issues that I have seen levied at the film, but I am of the opinion that it’s a good way of updating the story for the 21st Century. There is a discussion to be had about whether or not the story needed updating, after all the 1966 Special seems to be doing just fine, but there is no denying that society has changed since then. Over the decades, Christmas has only become more commercialised and even in the 20 years since this movie was released it has only continued to increase. It really does feel like the decorating, the shopping, the music, and the advertising start earlier every single year, especially to those of us who work in retail. (Side note: Please be nice to retail employees. They are only doing their jobs and it is especially stressful at this time of year.) Updating the Whos to be consumers makes them more relatable to us, the audience, which makes the final message of the story hit a little bit closer to home.

This update does come with an odd repercussion which becomes difficult for me to ignore. In the original tale and the 1966 Special, we know next to nothing about The Grinch. We know that he hates the joyful noise, lives atop Mount Crumpet, is disgusting, wears shoes that are too tight, and has a dog named Max. However, the film gives us an extensive backstory where he is taken in by two old women, is made fun of as a child, and when he finally gets into the Christmas Spirit is mocked by his peers and his teacher. (2 side notes: Firstly, those women are lesbians and I love them. Secondly, that teacher sucks. I mean if you are that mean to a child you need to find a different job). We know exactly why he hates this time of year, and if it wasn’t clear enough, when The Grinch finally returns to town he gives a lecture about how the Whos are focused on the presents and the decorations to a ridiculous degree, which is what inevitably leads to his decision to steal Christmas. Where as the original had him hating the Whos and wanting to do something exceedingly cruel, here he is trying to teach them a lesson. The Grinch is not the villain of this movie, he is more like the anti-hero. There is one constant between these iterations, and that is that his dog Max is adorable. You can add and change what you want about this story, but it is difficult to not make Max a cute and lovable character.

The tone of the film is also criticised as it comes across like an action movie instead of an uplifting Christmas tale. However I do wonder if this is because many are viewing it through the same lens that they view the 1966 Special. Personally, I have never viewed it through this lens because until recently I had not seen that special, and this film was actually my introduction to the town of Whoville. Now that I have seen it, and have compared it to the film, I have come to the conclusion that the 2000 version is itself a response to the commercialism of that year. Through this lens, the film becomes a parody of the media that surrounded it. It has all the traits of a blockbuster, from the relatable villain and montages to the chaos and explosions, but if you really look at what message the film is delivering, it doesn’t fit in with that genre. The message is that same as it has always been, but it is being reached in a way that seems to be the complete opposite of how it was done in the original. I think the best example of what I mean may be the mayor of Whoville, who is more like a game show host than a mayor, right down to the promise of a new car. Dr Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas is a beautiful book and a marvellous television special, with a beautiful message, but if you are expecting a direct adaptation, I think the satire in this film may go over your head.

In terms of adapting the design of the book to the realm of live action, I remain stunned as to how close it is. The Whos themselves are mildly odd to look at because they allowed them to look a little more human, but once you get over that, it fits with the rest of the aesthetic. Every physical aspect seems to have been lifted directly from the book, and all this led to Academy Award nominations for Best Direction, Best Costume Design, and Best Makeup – the last of which it won. There are also elements that originated with the 1966 Special that have carried over, including You’re a Mean One, Mr Grinch, and The Grinch’s green skin tone, which have themselves become synonymous with the story and the festive season. Special acknowledgements must go to James Horner for his brilliant score and to Jim Carrey- The Grinch himself.

It’s possible that the two and a half hour long application of the Grinch makeup has become as well known as the film itself, but I think it’s important to remember that it isn’t the makeup doing the acting, it’s Carrey. If you don’t like Jim Carrey, and his cartoonish performance style, then this really isn’t the film for you because he’s in full swing here. It takes a great amount of skill to act through a costume that only allows us to see your eyes and mouth, but Carrey had proved he could do this with his 1994 film The Mask. He has often been likened to a living cartoon character, and that is not the mockery that some may think it is. Wife of the author Audrey Geisel herself said that she thought only several men could pull of the role: Robin Williams, Jack Nicholson, and Jim Carrey. For the record, she was absolutely right.

So here we are, 20 years later and, love it or hate it, we are still talking about Dr Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas. There is now a generation of children that experienced this before any other Grinch media. I have watched it every year since I was young, as have many of my friends, and as someone who enjoys this film I can see why there are those who don’t like it. Although I don’t think it’s as far removed from the source material as it could have been, I dare say that you could recreate the 1966 special using the footage from this film, at the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter what version you prefer. What matters is who you share it with.

Until Next Time…

Signed: Your festive neighbourhood queer