Friday 25 March 2016

Batman vs Superman review

I don’t think I've ever seen a film as immediately at odds with its own material as Batman vs Superman. It is fundamentally and joyfully a silly premise, but the film appears to be terrified of being labelled in any way silly. And that works against it.

Instead, we have a movie that is so desperate to appear mature that it actually comes across as a teenager trying to make out that the patchy bum-fluff on his upper lip and chin is real stubble. It feels a bit like two and a half hours of Zack Snyder shouting at his mom that comics aren't just for kids. This is why we have tortured dream sequences, references to human trafficking and paedophilia, terrorism, PTSD and Clark Kent having sex with a strangely nipple-less Lois Lane in a bathtub. And it’s why we have a Batman that really likes his guns (and boy, that’s a strange sentence to write) and won’t hesitate to kill if he has to. Because it’s a grown up movie, mom!

What’s frustrating, in a similar way to Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, are the glimpses of the film (or even films) that it could have been. The cast is fantastic throughout - everyone works hard, delivering performances that feel the most perfectly realised versions of these characters that have been around for a long time.

Henry Cavill is the best Superman since Christopher Reeve, and a pretty good Clark Kent as well. Ben Affleck is a really good Bruce Wayne and an even better Batman. Gal Gadot is immediately right as Wonder Woman, leading you to wonder just how studios thought this was a character that couldn't make money for so long. Amy Adams still feels miscast as Lois Lane, but she clearly has her working boots on, and she’s a great actress. Jesse Eisenberg, oddly, appears to play Lex Luthor as Jim Carrey’s Riddler, but he has moments that he hits a level of menace and intelligence that feel more right than any major comic movie villain not played by Michael Fassbender.

The movie looks, in places, perfect. A dream sequence of Batman leading a resistance brigade particularly stands out, where he’s wearing goggles and a heavy coat over his batsuit, in a way that looks ripped out of the comics. That this feels natural, in character and unremarkable is an achievement, considering how ludicrous it actually is when you think about it. In sequences where Superman appears in front of City Hall, you get the same thing - visuals that should appear incongruous enough not to work, yet they’re carried off so well that they bypass that part of your brain in exactly the same way the comics often do. You ignore the ludicrousness of what you’re looking at and just think ‘oh, Batman’s doing this… I'm on board’.

It has moments where the ideas work as well. There's one, in particular, which makes fantastic use of a mild coincidence between Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne that I've somehow never noticed before, and hits exactly the right emotional chord.

Oh, and Hans Zimmer’s score is wonderful - easily his best since The Dark Knight, and it’s not like they've dipped far in quality since then.

All of which makes it a bigger shame that it wasn't a better movie. Because just about everyone involved deserved more. The biggest problem is that it isn't really a movie. It’s a studio checklist of what they think they have to do to compete with the Marvel cinematic universe. So it’s trying to catch up with where Marvel are now, rather than take the time and build the blocks in order. You know how, after 12 movies, the Marvel universe has become a bit too complicated for its own good? The DC cinematic universe has got there in two.

In the space of one movie, it’s trying to be a sequel to Man of Steel, a new Batman movie, a new Wonder Woman movie, the first Justice League movie, the first part of Crisis of Infinite Earths, the first part of Kingdom Come, an adaptation of The Dark Knight Returns and an adaptation of a major mid-nineties DC event that I won’t mention for the sake of spoilers. All at the same time.

It’s exhausting to watch as a result. By the last half hour, I was totally numbed. It wasn't just that I didn't care about what they did - I couldn't. I was just sat there going “Oh. This is happening. And now this is happening. And I see that this is happening as well.”

I've been a comic book fan for a long time. For others that have been as well, I can best sum it up by saying that this is the kind of movie that Wizard Magazine really thought we’d have wanted, and that is actually everything that was wrong with comics in the 1990s.

It used to feel like mainstream comics (and DC in particular) were very aware of their core audience, and aimed everything at them. So you’d get events that only made sense if you’d already been a fan for at least ten years and bought everything.

You may remember how comics used to feel like a more exclusive club. And you may remember how it could make some (and I stress only some) comic book shops feel like a rather unwelcoming place to be if you weren't already a bit obsessed with the right characters, or if you seemed at all like you might not be. Some of them could be the kind of places that attracted the repressed and angry, those who felt marginalised and unfairly treated.

That feels like the exact audience that Batman Vs Superman has been made for and by. Angry adolescents who feel like they've been laughed at too much and want to prove how grown up they are.

For all the good elements in it, I’ve mainly ended up wishing for more silliness. I’ve ended up, instead, wishing for this Batman vs Superman. The one we’ll never see, but could feel perfect in our heads.
"I'm sorry, Mr Bat, but I can't let you do that" 
"Sorry about this, old chum,"

Sunday 7 February 2016

London Wanderings - Saving London

Walking around Central London at the moment is beginning to feel far too similar to walking around the city at the end of the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Bodysnatchers (admittedly, with less Donald Sutherland). You’re seeing all the areas you used to know stripped of all connection and all meaning.
I’m seeing a lot of this at the moment. Walking around London and seeing voids and building sites where entire blocks were before. Progress clearly has to happen, but it’s feeling like a feeding frenzy at the moment. And a feeding frenzy that’s indiscriminately damaging the city itself.

My point, before I go on, is not specifically about any individual cases. It’s about the overall effect and the scale and speed with which it’s happening. I’m just picking out a couple of specific shops I’m aware of. You will likely be aware of others.

Cinema store
Image source 
Just last week, the Cinema Store in Leicester Square closed down after 22 years. As the name suggests, it was a shop that sold film memorabilia and books with a downstairs section with more obscure movies (which sounds far dodgier than it actually was, especially considering the downstairs sections in other nearby shops – it was more likely to sell Jimmy Cagney’s Yankee Doodle Dandy or Italian Giallo horror movies than [insert your own joke porn title here]).

The first time I came to London on my own would have been within its first years. I remember finding it fairly quickly and found it immediately both appealing and comforting. London was still the big, scary city for me and a shop that seemed made for cinema fans like myself was the first thing that made clear that London can be a city for anyone. Whatever you’re into, there’ll be other people who are into it and who share your love of it.

The owner’s statement on Facebook said that “it has become increasingly difficult for a small business like ours to maintain a physical store in Central London due to the increasingly corporate nature of today's retail environment.”

Food for Thought (original image at The Guardian)
Within the last few months, we’ve also lost Food For Thought, one of London’s oldest (and most loved) vegetarian restaurants after 44 years. One of the staff members said “In the last few years, the landlords have put the rent up so much we couldn’t cope. It’s one of the few places in the area that is still independent, low-profile but very busy. Now the whole area is changing. All the older shops are closing.”

As a vegetarian cinephile, these are two that speak closely to me. But the slow death of Denmark Street is one that’s likely to hit home for a lot more – the spiritual home of a lot of the London music scene, generally know as Tin Pan Alley. It’s being redeveloped into a large, multimedia building complex with shops, cafes and a new performance space to allow people to “interact with the brands we love in exciting new ways,” in the name of “meaningful brand engagement”. 

Denmark Street in days gone by (original source louderthanwar)
Denmark Street plans (original source bdonline)
Meanwhile, gay venues across London are also closing - Manbar and Madame JoJos have both closed recently due to surprisingly mild-sounding legal issues surrounding noise and violence.  Both areas are being redeveloped at the moment in what I can only assume is coincidental timing.

The Yard in Soho, one of the few left, is currently fighting development. They say that “the Yard, not only of architectural and historic significance, has played a key role in the LGBT community. It is one of Soho's oldest surviving LGBT bars providing a safe haven during the dark years of persecution, while offering privacy and a unique Soho atmosphere. The Yard is not safe and the battle continues.” 

The Yard and staff - (Original source WestEndExtra)
A street away, where a number of small independent shops have been closed for redevelopment, there are large advertising boards instead of shops and windows, stating that the work will bring more colour to Soho.

More colour to Soho, apparently (image mine)

Chinatown Market a few weeks ago (image mine)
The Chinatown market is currently boarded up for redevelopment (although it’s not clear whether or not the businesses will return once the work is complete). 
A street away, the Kowloon bakery (the original Cantonese bakery in Chinatown) is feeling the heat of rising rents. As the owner, Danny Yeung, said in this week’s Time Out article on Chinatown, “‘I don’t know how much longer we can go on, though. The rents have got higher and higher until they’re almost killing our profits. We used to deal with individual landlords. Now it’s a consortium: they’re all owned by a hedge fund – a PLC. They don’t care about us. They just say: “It’s market forces. If you don’t pay it, somebody else will.” We’re having to pay £600 a square foot for rent and business rates. Even for a small place, that’s about £36,000 a month. You know how many buns you have to sell before you break even? That’s a lot of dough!”
Kowloon Bakery, Chinatown (original source HomespunLondon)
Over in Shoreditch, the Norton Folgate saga, which has been continuing for decades, nears a close. Norton Folgate is a tiny block surrounded by glass corporate monoliths by Liverpool Street. It’s a beautiful Victorian area, with plenty of local history which has been bought up by “British Land”, a non-private-sounding private business. They’ve allowed parts of it to become neglected in order to bring around the planning permission to destroy it.

Despite a successful local campaign to prevent this, the history-loving Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, has the ability to potentially overrule local council decisions on this. He has done this twelve times so far, and each time sided with the developers. He did it again with Norton Folgate, allowing a 14 story office building to replace it, despite an alternative plan being offered that would keep more of the heritage and provide a space for local artists and businesses. The Spitalfields Trust is taking legal action to, if not prevent it, at least see if there will be a ruling and some consequences over what they say is clear misconduct (due to him calling in the plans within an hour of receiving them – nowhere near enough time to begin to absorb the level of information in there). You can read more about this in the wonderful Spitalfields Life blog by The Gentle Author.
Spitalfield residents join hands against development (original SpitalfieldsLife)
British Land plans for Norton Folgate (original Spitalfields Life)
Again and again within a short space of time, we’re seeing small businesses in danger. Not because they aren’t profitable, but because they’re being forced to compete in an artificially raised market. A Nandos, a Starbucks, a Sainsburys or an Apple Store will always be able to offer more money to the people who own the land than small businesses. A small Cantonese cake store will never be able to compete with yet another Jamie Oliver restaurant.

It’s not the fault of the businesses, and it’s not even always the fault of the landlords – with the amount of money they’re being offered, it’s difficult to turn that down. Of course it is. And I don’t know what the answer is, outside of some kind of rent cap for businesses.

The London that I fell in love with was the London that offered something for everyone, no matter what they were into. It’s being replaced with brands aimed at everyone instead.

To quote Warren Ellis talking about the rise of the monoculture, “If we didn’t want to live like this, we could have changed it at any time by not fucking paying for it. So let’s celebrate by all eating the same burger.”

If you want to help preserve some of these, these are the campaigns you can join. If you're aware of others, I'll happily link more.

Save Soho - Twitter @saveSoho