The bad beginnings

Stellan Skarsgård working overtime.

Over at Alex on Film I’ve been looking at the two attempts made at an Exorcist prequel: Paul Schrader’s Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist and Renny Harlin’s Exorcist: The Beginning. What a two-car pile-up. Schrader was first man up, but the studio hated what he did and told Harlin to fix it. He ended up making an entirely new movie, which the studio didn’t like any better so they got Schrader to rejig his version.

It’s interesting to look at the two movies side by side just to see what two very different directors did with the same basic material. Both movies are terrible, but I can’t think of any other examples of something like this happening.

O.J. then and now

Over the past month I’ve been rewatching Ezra Edelman’s outstanding 2016 ESPN documentary series O.J.: Made in America. If you’ve never seen it, take this as a recommendation. It’s 7.5 hours but never flags for a minute.

For anyone old enough to remember it, the O.J. Simpson trial (which ran for nearly a year, ending in October 1995) really was the trial of the century. You can’t overstate how big it was. In 1996 I was actually in Los Angeles during the subsequent civil trial and even that was a media circus, though nowhere near as big a deal. I went to the courthouse one day and drew a ticket to get in to watch it, but wasn’t selected.

Revisiting all of this today, I was surprised at how the racial divide foreshadowed what was coming own the pipe in terms of American politics. What I’m referring to is the polarization and rejection of a shared reality. As Jeffrey Toobin puts it in the documentary when describing Johnnie Cochran’s address to the jury, “the heart of the summation was ‘whose side are you on?'” The point being that the jurors, who were mostly Black, were angry at the police and wanted payback not just for Rodney King but a whole history of racial injustice.

This felt very similar to the “jury nullification” of the Trump impeachments. The question wasn’t Trump’s guilt or innocence. The reporting I’ve heard is that there were no Republicans in the Senate who didn’t believe Trump had done everything he’d been accused of. The question was “whose side are you on?” Once you’d chosen your side, the verdict could be taken for granted. There was no need to build a case or present any evidence. The votes were already locked in.

There are other connections too. Like the celebrity angle and the way the media transformed the trial into spectacle and entertainment. It’s become fashionable among political historians to cite Newt Gingrich and the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994, the same year Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman were murdered, as signaling the beginning of a slide into increased anger and polarization in American politics. Looking back, I think the Simpson trial was representative of the fracturing to come.

The Marvel Age

Can’t remember this guy’s name. He’s a talking raccoon.

I grew up on Marvel comics, and still have some old favourites stored in my basement. I don’t think they’re worth anything though because they’re not in the best of shape. But despite this background, I was never a huge fan of the way Marvel/Disney took over the movie business in the twenty-first century.

It’s hard to overstate just how central these movies have been. Their box office success ensured countless imitators, and the Marvel style became ubiquitous. What this meant, primarily, was: (1) the creation of a totally plastic, CGI “virtual” reality, making nearly every blockbuster movie over into a cartoon and every action star a superhero, and (2) the evolution of franchise filmmaking into various “universes,” given over to an even more assembly-line serial format. This latter development would, in turn, help with the transition away from cinemas to streaming platforms in need of a constant supply of new content. The comic-book form was particularly well-adapted to all of these developments, something the triumph of Marvel clearly underlined.

Meanwhile, the Marvel formula in terms of writing didn’t change much. Scruffy, ordinary-guy heroes with self-deprecating senses of humour and bulging biceps save the universe from supervillains intent on world domination (or world destruction). Lots of A-list talent. Lots of big action. Lots of CGI.

Some of the movies were entertaining, but the formula started to feel played out by the end of the 2010s. This is something I think everyone was aware of. Spinning off into the multi- or metaverse was one attempt at trying to make things new, and it worked to some extent. But my bottom line is that I really don’t want to see any of these movies, even the best of them, again, and I’ve already forgotten some of them completely. I was surprised, when compiling this list, to see that I’d reviewed Ant-Man and the Wasp. What had that been about? I have no idea now.

In any event, here’s the line-up of the Marvel movies (not all of them MCU) that I’ve written notes on over at Alex on Film. I’ll keep this index current with new postings, but I think it’s going to be slow on the Marvel front from here on out.

The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)
The Avengers (2012)
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Ant-Man (2015)
Fantastic Four (2015)
Captain America: Civil War (2016)
Doctor Strange (2016)
Deadpool (2016)
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)
Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
Black Panther (2018)
Deadpool 2 (2018)
Venom (2018)
Avengers: Endgame (2019)
Black Widow (2021)
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021)
Venom: Let There be Carnage (2021)
Eternals (2021)
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022)
Morbius (2022)
Thor: Love and Thunder (2022)

The big dig rig

Taking a really big bite out of Mother Earth.

Over at Alex on Film I’ve posted my thoughts on the Edward Burtynsky film Anthropocene: The Human Epoch. Well worth seeing, with stunning visuals carrying an important message. One of the many showstoppers was seeing a ginormous bucket-wheel excavator (BWE) operating in an open-pit mine in Germany. If this is the Bagger 493, which is used at this mine, then it’s the largest BWE ever made, and the heaviest terrestrial vehicle according to Guinness.

Impressive, but depressing too when you think of its job.

Thoughts on Empire (the TV series)

Oi! Thas ma hoom!

I watched this BBC series in tandem with reading the book, which I talked about in a previous post. The series received pretty good reviews, though tackling such a subject at such a time inevitably led to it being criticized for not taking a hard enough line against empire. I can see that (the book felt a bit tougher), but overall I found it an interesting enough show to finish all five episodes.

The second episode begins with host Jeremy Paxman explaining how, “Everywhere they went, the men and women who built the empire created a home away from home. From the wastes of Canada, to the fertile highlands of Africa, and the hill stations of India.” This seemed to me to be a bit tough on my home and native land. Overall, I think Canada offered a more congenial climate for British settlers than Africa or India. Nevertheless, Paxman later returns to the Great White North, calling it one of the most “thinly populated if inhospitable places” to build empire. He says this with an opening shot of him trudging alongside a snowy river. I was expecting to see “Canada” come up on the screen, but it more specifically locates the river as in “Ontario” (a.k.a. “the wild and snowy lands of British Canada”). Drilling down deeper, the place we visit is Fergus, Ontario, which is a ten-minute drive from where I live. I guess the producers thought it irresistibly picturesque, as it’s not mentioned in Paxman’s book.

Anyway, Fergus has a “harsh climate” that particularly challenged Scottish immigrants when the winters turned so cold the wheat froze, “which made the scones pretty chewy.” I didn’t know Scots were so soft, or so particular about their scones. It’s bad on me though that while I knew Fergus’s world-famous Highland Games, and even attended them one year, I didn’t know anything about the town’s founder, the pride of Perthshire Adam Ferguson. He named the place after himself.

Dune on (and not on) film

Over at Alex on Film I’ve been looking at the adaptations made (and not made) of Frank Herbert’s novel Dune: David Lynch’s 1984 version, a documentary on the Dune movie Alejandro Jodorowsky didn’t make, and Denis Villeneuve’s 2021 blockbuster.

To be honest, I’m not a huge fan of the book(s), but that may be because I’m not much into that blend of SF and Fantasy. Denis Villeneuve’s movie was widely praised though, and if you loved the novel then I think you’d be happy. This Timothée Chalamet fellow, however, is not winning me over.

Gilded Age kinksters

I was recently watching the PBS documentary The Gilded Age and was struck by an image of a partygoer at the 1883 ball thrown by Alva Vanderbilt as a housewarming for the newly completed 5th Avenue Vanderbilt mansion (since demolished, alas). This was a gathering of the crème de la crème of New York society at the time, all of them competing with each other in a display of wealth and privilege (the newspapers even promoted the event with headlines about “The Amount of Wealth to be Displayed”). But it was the “youthful and precocious” Kate Fearing Strong who showed everyone up in her Catwoman costume.

The idea of a society lady attending such a party wearing a collar with her nickname “Puss” on it struck me as wonderfully 50 Shades. Animal lovers should cringe, however, at the fact that her headpiece was a real taxidermied cat and her skirt had seven real white cat tails sewn against a black background. I don’t know if Strong was the inspiration for Cruella de Vil, but the connection is pretty obvious. All-in-all a pretty disgusting costume then, though the collar is timeless.