Filmism.net Dispatch July 7, 2023

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I've seen a few movies lately that have reminded me of something that's easy to forget but which we all need to remember as film fans.

If you watch a lot of movies or work in the field you tend to trick yourself into thinking you can spot a winner before you see it just because of variables like the director, the creative performance of the franchise so far (if it's part of one), how many writers its been through, even the studio behind it to some extent. Warner Bros spent the 2010s not being able to gets its DCEU right while Marvel already had its connected universe down to a finely tooled commercial art.

But every now and then a movie comes along that reminds us that no matter what's come before or where it's come from, any idea no matter how seemingly poor can result in a good movie if the movie is made well.

A stark recent example is Prey. The Predator franchise has been the very model of diminishing returns. The 1987 original by John McTiernan was a classic of 80s action. The 1990 sequel starring Danny Glover as a cop in a futuristic urban LA battling the titular monsters was just sort of okay.

Predators, the 2010 attempt to reboot the whole shebang with Adrien Brody at the height of a midguided attempt to remake him as an action hero (after Peter Jackson's King Kong reboot convinced both us and him it might be possible) sucked.

You wouldn't have thought it could get much worse, especially when the new entry, 2018's The Predator, was coming with such a pedigree in 80s action legend Shane Black. Boy, were we wrong, with that abomination making us wish Adrien Brody was back.

So when Dan Trachtenberg's Prey came out I wasn't the least bit interested. The only reason I watched it was because I saw a few rumblings online about how good it was, adding it to my queue while thinking 'surely not'.

Surprise; it's great! The script is a very linear thrill ride, the effects are top notch for the budget, the actors portray just enough characterisation and emotion as the movie deserves and it's a brisk 90 minutes or so.

Here's another, slightly less recent example. If you've ever read the Filmism.net Dispatch you'll know I'm avowedly not a comic book movie fan and even within that firmament I've never been a particular devotee of Batman as a character.

That said, I was incredibly excited about Tim Burton's 1989 vision of the mythology. In fact that as much as any other film made me a lifelong cinema superfan. Of course it all went rapidly downhill in the hands of Joel Schumacher, George Clooney and a gaggle of licensing deal marketers and lawyers.

And that might have been the end of it until one of the best directors working today in Chris Nolan redid it all with high drama and searing realism.

Zack Snyder represented such a sharp dip in quality even Ben Affleck seemed continually miserable about it, and we might have thought everything Batman had run its course.

Then Matt Reeves came along. I didn't go along to The Batman because of Batman per se, but for Reeves, who'd done something special with the reboot of the Planet of the Apes franchise.

He didn't disappoint, and I'm still undecided about whether The Batman is as good or better than Nolan's efforts.

But the point is, like the Keaton/Kilmer/Clooney run, the whole thing got worse over time. Everything in film universes, from The Godfather to A Nightmare on Elm Street , does. Even if it's not a question of the quality declining, we often get to the point where we've seen everything. Burton had done a tortured, conflicted Bruce Wayne. Nolan did too, and did it better.

If you'd told me beforehand that Reeves was going to make Wayne psychologically tortured too I'd have rolled my eyes. Again? But he did it with great finesse. He might even have done it better than Nolan did, I still can't decide.

The same thing happened when Joker came out. Did we really need another movie about DC villains, especially after Suicide Squad was such a crashing disappointment? In the expert hands of Todd Phillips and Joaquin Phoenix... yes, yes we did.

And that film had a precedent in Logan, James Mangold's rumination on how a superhero (Wolverine, in that case) faces ageing that swept away the memory of the increasingly dire X-Men series and spin-offs at a stroke.

The above also applies not just to franchises but entire subgenres. Just look at zombies. After the birth of the modern living dead movement courtesy of George Romero and his Italian schlock imitators back in the 70s they've had a renaissance on TV (The Walking Dead), movies (Zombieland, Anna vs the Apocalypse, Cargo , Train to Busan) and games (Dead Island, Resident Evil, Days Gone).

Since then we've had a thousand representations of the flesh-eating undead in pop culture. A search for the word 'zombie' on Filmism.net bring up a list of at least 300 names alone, and that's just in movies. Even Romero got back in on the act, enjoying the expanded budget in 2005's Land of the Dead.

After all that, you'd think the hallmarks of the mythology (whether they run or walk, having to shoot them in the head, eating human flesh, etc) would be very much played out.

Then along come films like Colin, a no-budget British flick that tells its story from a zombie's point of view. The Cured, which depicts a world where the infected have all been turned back into humans and now have to try and reconcile the atrocities they committed.

Even the slightly silly romcom Warm Bodies introduced a quite cool idea that extends what we know of the mythology when a zombie boy (Nicholas Hoult) falls in love with a human girl and it's his desire for her that starts his heart beating again and bring him gradually back to life.

Even in something as exhaustively portrayed as zombies, a great idea is a great idea, no matter what's come before.

The takeaway here is that regardless of the subject matter you can always... always... make a good movie. I was about to write 'as long as you have a good script, interesting characters and good direction' but even they're intangible qualities in many cases.

Plenty of films are full of promise and expectation, filled with great names, have a fantastic premise, through-the-roof IP recognition or are helmed by a particular talent and have fallen flat. Babylon? Alexander? Amsterdam? Hugo? Green Lantern? Pan? The Fabelmans? Solo: A Star Wars Story? Even the previously unassailable Pixar has suffered another recent bomb.

The most succinct, though unhelpful, way to make a good movie is; make a good movie.

It's been months since I was in a cinema so recent viewings have all been VOD, but now it's the middle of year I'm looking forward to some big screen experiences again.

Meanwhile I thoroughly enjoyed Entergalactic, the animated love story shephered very lovingly to the screen by Scott Mescudi, aka rapper Kid Cudi. He produced it, starred in it, and wrote and performed the most sublime soundtrack I've heard in years. You're going to be very familiar with the story, but you've never seen it told like this.

I was also very pleasantly surprised by the Australian remake of Icelandic film Rams. Everything about it made it seem like a sitcom-ey comedy, but there's much more depth, emotion and welcome characterisation work thn you're ready for.

But the coolest watch of recent weeks was Troll, Norwegian director Roar Uthaug's most recent effort and the perfect blend of realism and fantasy.

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