20th Century Fox

“What would you prefer, yellow spandex?”

Man, I am old.

Wanna know how old I am?

I’m so old that when I order a three minute egg, they ask for the money up front.

I’m so old that my Facebook memories come in black and white and with piano accompaniment.

I am so old that I can remember a time when the conventional wisdom was that only DC heroes could be made into good superhero movies. Oh yes children, gather round and I shall tell you of the before times.

In the two thousandth year of Our Lord, X-Men was due for release and, like many Marvel fans, I was nervous as balls. I’d say “we’d been burned before” but honesty, it was more like we’d been roasted repeatedly over an open fire. What Marvel movies had come before this? Well, not counting the old Captain America serials from the forties we’d had The Punisher (direct to video), Captain America (direct to video), The Fantastic Four (direct to the secret vault under Roger Corman’s floorboards) and Howard the Duck, one of the  most legendary box office stinkers of all time that nonetheless got a full theatrical release and so was the most successful of the bunch purely by default. So the idea that people would actually show up to a movie starring Marvel Comics characters was (in those days) a big gamble.

“Ahem.”

“Sorry Blade, you don’t count.”

“…”

“Not because…y’know, no, I mean some of my best friends are…I mean, no, no, no, okay let me start over.”

Blade didn’t really buck the trend of Marvel movies being box-office poison because almost nobody knew that Blade was a Marvel hero. He was a minor supporting character in a pretty damn obscure comic and only headlined his own book for ten issues prior to the movie coming out. And when the movie did come out and was a big hit, the comic version was pretty much rebuilt entirely from the ground up to look more the movie version. Saying that Blade the character from Tomb of Dracula was what made Blade the movie a success is like saying that everyone came to see Road to Perdition because they were huge fans of the original comic (didn’t know Road to Perdition was a comic? My point, it is made). Besides, Blade is really more of an action/horror flick than a superhero movie. That’s all I mean when I say Blade doesn’t count.

“Some muthafuckas always trying to ice-skate uphill.”

Yup. They…they sure are. Anyway. X-Men was seen as a real gamble given the track record of previous Marvel movies. But if ever there was a time to try and steal DC’s thunder at the box-office, it was now. After the initial stunning success of the early Batman and Superman movies, Warner Bros’ DC money train had skidded off the tracks in 1997 with the twin box-office disasters of Steel and Batman and Robin.

AKA one of the great underrated comedies of the nineties FIGHT ME.

So Marvel decided to put their best foot forward with their most popular non-Spider-man franchise, the X-Men. Oh yes, back in the nineties/early 2000s X-Men were one of the biggest things in comics, although it took a long while for them to get there.

The first version of the X-Men appeared in 1963, created by the legendary duo of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. And with such a stellar creative team the original X-Men was…kinda awful, actually. Seriously. Really below par. Even Kirby looks like he’s phoning the art in and Jack Kirby was bitten by a radioactive work ethic as a teenager. That said, Kirby and Lee did come up with two novel ideas:

1)      Instead of being a family like the Fantastic Four, or a group of buddies like the Avengers, the X-Men is a school for young superheroes.

2)      The X-Men and their enemies are mutants who are born with a special gene that gives them superpowers. This allowed Stan Lee to introduce new villains every week without having to explain that Hotdog Man got his powers from radioactive mustard or whatever.

In the first issue Professor Xavier, their mentor, explains that their name comes from their “eX-tra power”.

“But “extra” begins with…”
“I know, but the E-Men are a techno group from Leeds and they won’t sell me the name.”

So yeah, some novel ideas, and one or two characters (like Cyclops and Magneto) with striking designs and interesting powers. But on the whole, the early X-Men stories are considered the worst thing to come out of the Lee/Kirby partnership. Roy Thomas and Neal Adams took over in 1969 and produced what is generally considered an excellent run, but it wasn’t enough to save the comic from cancellation. Fast forward to 1975 and everything changed.

As a statement of intent, that’s pretty on the nose.

The relaunched X-Men series written by Len Wein and later Chris Claremont was a very different Beast (sorry) from the original, featuring a multinational cast of men and women from all around the world, including perennial fan favourites like Wolverine and Storm, to this day still the most iconic black female superhero. Claremont used the X-men’s status as mutants to make them an allegory for various oppressed peoples and the comic became one of the most popular in Marvel’s stable. (Yeah, I know Stan Lee says he always intended for Xavier to be Martin Luther King and Magneto to be Malcolm X but I call BS. If the early X-men really was a civil rights allegory then it went “All black people are evil except like six who live in a mansion and protect us from the evil ones”.)

Actually, if anything, it became too popular. By the nineties the X-Men franchise had grown so massive that Marvel could have cancelled every title that didn’t have an “X” in the title and still been one of the two biggest comic book publishers in America. And if there was one single franchise to blame for all the ills that befell the comic industry in the nineties it was the X-Men.

The speculator bubble? Check.

All the claws, cigars, chrome guns and armour? Check.

Unleashing Rob Liefeld on an innocent and unsuspecting world? Check.

Too. Much. Damn. Wolverine? Check. Check. Check and Check.

Seriously, the X-Men were Marvel in the nineties, not like today where they have been sent to live in the little room under the stairs while Marvel tries to sell you on the fucking Inhumans for the bajillionth time.

LOVE US DAMN YOU!!

So, my feelings on the X-Men are a little mixed. I adored the Fox cartoon growing up, and there have been plenty of stories I’ve thoroughly enjoyed. And yeah, as a concept, the X-Men are important. Really important. That there is this huge multi-media franchise about minorities fighting prejudice and oppression, that is a big frickin’ deal.

That said though, man, when the X-Men suck they really suck.

As a Catholic, I loved the story where a fringe Catholic sect tried to make Nightcrawler pope and then trick everyone into thinking the rapture had started with exploding communion wafers despite the fact that Catholics don’t actually believe in the rapture and that is literally the least stupid part of the whole thing.

In its way, the X-Men movie series is one of the most faithful in the history of the superhero genre. Because, like the comic it’s based on; when it’s good, it’s very, very good, but when it’s bad it’ll make you want to claw your eyes out. Which category does X-Men fall into? Let’s take a look.

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Strange Days (1995)

The future is the present, but moreso.

This is has been the guiding principle of futurist science fiction since the genre was invented; take the current status quo and extrapolate logically and presto, you have a plausible future setting for your story. Early British sci-fi is all about the ethics and difficulty of maintaining a vast empire (don’t worry lads, won’t be a problem long term). Star Trek had space hippies and an interstellar Cold War. Eighties sci-fi is really worried about these Japanese guys. Trouble is, the course of history is less an elegant upward line and more like a panicky chihuaha on meth that keeps running off in different directions. For example: The USA and USSR are locked in an inexorable arms race that can only end with nuclear anni…

Whoops. Never mind.

Well, the Japanese economy is an unstoppable behemoth that will crush its Western rivals and establish a new world order of corporate hegemony…

Huh.

Awesome, history is over and now America as the world’s lone superpower will rule over an endless long peace…

Where did THIS clown come from?

Ah jeez, America has moved inexorably to the right and the Republicans will maintain dominance for generations, slowly turning America into a paranoid police state…

What the hey?

Racism is over everybody! Peace love and kumbaya for all!

Okay History you are now officially taking the piss.

This is why it’s almost impossible to write science fiction that accurately predicts the future, because the present won’t sit long enough to have its picture taken. Even the works that do get props for accurately predicting the future tend to only get certain details right while getting the rest very wrong. William Gibson came damn close to predicting the internet, but he also predicted that the world would be ruled over by several competing mega-corporations when of course in reality it’s only ruled by one.

“BEHOLD MY GLORY!”

“Yes Disney, we all behold your glory.”

Which is why, as a good rule of thumb, if you’re writing sci-fi you should set it far into the future so that when you are inevitably proven wrong, you’ll be long dead and no one will be there to laugh at you (unless they use their futuristic magic tech to resurrect you purely so they can laugh at you which would be incredibly petty and, going on current trends, entirely probable).

Strange Days was released in 1995 and sets its tale of sci-fi dystopia in the misty far off time of…December 1999. That’s ballsy.

And yet, it honestly feels more prescient than any science fiction film I can recall seeing.

“Uh, Mouse?”

“Yo.”

“I just looked at this film and it has a ton of boobs Are we a boob blog now?”

“No, we are not a boob blog.”

Yeah, so I realise the movies I’m been reviewing lately have been a little more racy for a blog that rarely reviews fare rated harder than PG. Truth is, this is a review I’ve been trying to find the time to do for almost three years now (it’s one of the Joanna VR requests). This is one my friend Roger Courtney requested because he feels that it’s a ridiculously under-appreciated movie that I should review and everyone should see.

It is, I did and they should.

Let’s take a look.

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State of the Mouse 2018

Hey Mouse, how you been?

Good, good. Great actually. After last year’s unpleasantness I feel like I’ve rebounded in a big way. I’m feeling a lot more confident and hopeful for the future, been writing loads and, long story short it’s good to be Mouse (for now).

Aw, that’s great. Well, see ya…

Not so fast, my bold-faced friend. This is the part where I use you as a sounding board to tell the readers all my news.

Aw c’mon, dude, it’s like half five in the morning, I got work tomorrow

Here is my news!

Marvel Rankings

Yes! So, with the Homecoming review now gone up and Ragnarok not out on DVD until February, seems like this is a good time to put up a page where I rank all the Marvel movies like I have with the canon Disney films. Gasp in wonder and ooh and aah and say “But I really liked Doctor Strange” and “Thor is HOW HIGH? This dude’s crazy!”. Basically, your thoughts are an open book to me. Speaking of…

New series of reviews

Hmm…so we’ve reached the end of the canon Disney movies and we’re almost at the end of the MCU movies. What to review next? It has to be something with a lot of variety. I don’t want to be constantly praising or panning week in, week out. It has to be a series that wakes up each morning and flips a scarred two-headed coin to decide whether its going to suck like it was built by Dyson, or be literally Oscar worthy…

Oh yeah. That’ll do…

Shortstember

So, we’ve finally wrapped our series of reviews of WW2 propaganda shorts (spoilers, the good guys won. For about seventy years. Now it’s a little up in the air.) If you missed them, the reviews are here:

Der Fuehrer’s Face

Jungle Drums

The Ducktators

Reason and Emotion

Fascist Jackboots will not Trample our Motherland

Momotaru no Umiwashi

Nimbus Libéré

Das Dumme Ganslein

Hope you enjoyed them, and if you have suggestions or preferences for another series of short reviews, holla atta mazerunner.

12 Gigs in 12 Months

So I’ve decided to go back to doing stand up and I’ve set myself a challenge for 2018: 12 gigs in 12 months. Gig #1 is already in the bag (it was at Cherry Comedy, no footage I’m afraid) and #2 is in the Ha’penny Inn on Wellington Quay on Tuesday 20th January at nine if you’re in Dublin. If you’re not, do please head over to Facebook and follow Neil Sharpson-12 Gigs in 12 Months where I’ll be posting updates and footage of how I get on.

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Merger Madness

“Uh, Disney?”

“SPEAK, WORM.”

“How ya doin’, buddy?”

“I AM THE RULER OF ALL CREATION! THE STORIES OBEY MY EVERY WHIM! THE FILMS AND ALL THEIR SPOILS BOW TO MY POWER!!”

“Yeah…yeah, that’s what I thought. Ooooooh boy. Look, Disney? I love you.”

“YOUR LOVE SHALL BE REWARDED.”

“Let me finish.”

So in case you’ve missed the news, Disney just went on a little spending spree and bought the entire film and TV wing of Fox, who’ve decided to retire to focus full time on caring for an elderly relative.

This deal is huge. This makes Disney’s acquisition of Marvel and Star Wars seem look like mere aperitifs. 20th Century Fox is not just one franchise or a relatively small upstart studio. It’s one of the most powerful film companies in history with a back catalogue of some of the biggest films ever produced stretching all the way back to the 1930s. And Disney just ate them.

“FANTASTIC FOUR FOR THE MCU!”

“OH YES THANK YOU BENEFICENT ONE!”

No! Bad Mouse! Can’t let myself get distracted. Look, I’m a huge Disney fan. I love the Disney canon, I love the Marvel movies, I really love the new Star Wars canon. I respect that Disney actually take care of their toys. Yes, I know. It’s all about money. But the way they have decided to make money is by making really, really, good, faithful movies of beloved properties. If one company has to own the entirety of Western Civilization then honestly that company being Disney is the best case scenario but…

This is nuts, right? This is insane.

Consider everything Disney owned before this: Their own movies, Star Wars, Marvel, Pixar…and add to that:

  • Avatar
  • Planet of the Apes
  • Alien
  • Predator
  • Modern Family
  • Die Hard
  • The X-Men
  • The Fantastic Four

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Space Chimps (2008)

Never pick a fight with an Australian. Lesson. Fucking. Learned.

This one hurt, folks. Space Chimps manages to encapsulate so much of what has gone wrong with 21st century animation that I almost feel like if I burned the DVD all those sins would just evaporate as the spell was lifted. It’s awful, but it’s awful in so many different ways at once that it has inestimable value as a teaching tool. I feel like you could teach an animation course on what not to do based on this movie alone.  This is the first movie by Vanguard Animation that I’ve reviewed on this blog as I’ve not had the unalloyed pleasure of viewing Valiant, Happily N’Ever After or Space Chimps 2: Zartog Strikes Back….

Sorry. When I typed that last one I felt an ice-cold shudder and had to go check that all the doors and windows are locked. Anyway, Vanguard is at the rearguard of modern American animation and was founded by John H. Williams who is, as the DVD cover is quick to remind us, one of the primates who brought us Shrek. And I have one question. What the hell is Shrek? Shrek? Sounds like an Eastern European currency. Boris bought a red cabbage and a bottle of vodka for three shrek.

Highest grossing animated film of all time you say? No, doesn't ring a bell.

Highest grossing animated film of all time you say? No, doesn’t ring a bell.

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Anastasia (1997)

(DISCLAIMER: This blog is not for profit. All images and footage used below are property of their respective companies unless stated otherwise. I do not claim ownership of this material. New to the blog? Start at the start with Snow White.)

I love reading history. I have a copy of Tacitus’ Annals on my bedside table (because I’m just that kind of pretentious prick) and as a modern reader there’s something really bizarre about reading history written in ancient times.
See, you’ll be into a very serious passage about corruption in the Senate or the war against the Parthians (those Parthians, buncha troublemakers I tell ya what) and suddenly ol’ Tacitus will veer off into describing all the dire portents about Nero’s future rule and it’s all dreams of blood, and visions of locusts and more virgins giving birth to two-headed snakes than you know what to do with.
And then he’ll talk about taxes.
As if the previous stuff was just perfectly mundane. But here’s the thing; for Tacitus it was perfectly mundane. Magic and visions and miracles and supernatural powers were just an accepted fact of life back then. And as a modern reader, sure, we might be a bit sceptical but…we kinda just have to accept all that stuff as part of the historical record. Because Tacitus said it happened and he’s our guy on this stuff, you know? You going to call Tacitus a liar? Did you write one of the greatest works of Latin literature, serve in the Senate and later become governor of Asia?
Yeah. That’s what I thought.
Rome

It’s less impressive when you realise that “Asia” was just a chunk of Turkey back then.

Of course, when you start getting into more recent history, magic and mysticism aren’t part of the picture anymore. Or, at least, they’re not supposed to be.
I think that’s the reason I was always fascinated as a kid by Grigory Rasputin. Here was a twentieth century figure who seemed to come from a time when magic was still real. In the early years of the twentieth century, the Russian royal family had their own wizard.
Wizard
That is awesome.
In secondary school I actually did my final year project on Rasputin and the Romanovs and I’m something of a buff on this whole period of Russian history. And that low sound you just heard is all the Anastasia fans (of which there are a great many) in the audience groaning “Oh God. He’s going to pan it.”
And sure. I can get why you might think that. I mean, if I tore Saving Mr Banks a new one because PL Travers was crying for the wrong reason, I’m probably not going to look too kindly on the February Revolution being started by zombie Rasputin. Or am I? Maybe not. Or maybe yes? Ha ha ha ha! Which door do you choose, Anastasia fans?! Which door?!
“Ugh. Is this some kind of joke? I thought you were going to review one of my good films?”

“Ugh. Is this some kind of joke? I thought you were going to review one of my good films?”

“But…everyone loves Anastasia! It’s one of your most critically beloved movies! It made the most money of all of your films!”

“But…everyone loves Anastasia! It’s one of your most critically beloved movies! It made the most money of all of your films!”

“UGH. Yeah. And google it and see what comes up.”

“UGH. Yeah. And google it and see what comes up.”

Ooooh...thats gotta hoirt.

Ooooh…that’s gotta hoirt.

“Fox asked me to make a Disney princess movie. I was desperate for the cash so I sold out. How was I supposed to make a good movie under those circumstances?”

“Fox asked me to make a Disney princess movie. I was desperate for the cash so I sold out. How was I supposed to make a good movie under those circumstances?”

I dunno Don. But I’ve seen where you can go with unfettered creative control and it often involves trolls and penguins with teeth. If it wasn’t for artists just doing it for a paycheck we wouldn’t have I, Claudius, Sherlock Holmes or half of Shakespeare’s stuff. Maybe, just maybe, you managed to make an accidental classic.
So without further ado, let’s take a look at Disney’s Anastasia.
"UGH."

“UGH.”

Sorry. That just slipped out.

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Fantastic Mr Fox (2009)

(DISCLAIMER: This blog is not for profit. All images and footage used below are property of their respective companies unless stated otherwise. I do not claim ownership of this material. New to the blog? Start at the start with Snow White.)

I’ve got a lot of love for Roald Dahl, even if he was a bit of an unpleasant cuss. He taught me how to read, after all. When I was around four or five years old I was taken to Temple Street children’s hospital for one of my periodic lung re-inflations (I had asthma and smog in Dublin in the eighties was so thick you could chip your teeth on it). While waiting to be seen I picked up a copy of The Magic Finger, which I remember being the first book I ever read through from beginning to end. Dahl was huge when I was growing up. He was our JK Rowling. That probably says something about us, but then again, I think it’s often overstated just how violent and horrifying his stories were. I mean, sure, they were violent and horrifying, but it was all a matter of tone. Roald Dahl was like Rebecca Black, he sounded a lot worse than he actually was. A plot description The BFG or The Witches is arguably more horrific than the books themselves. Roald Dahl took horror and made it so ridiculous and luridly over the top that you couldn’t help but laugh at it. In doing so, he made our terrors ridiculous. I think that’s why so many children loved his work, even nervous kids like me. Roald Dahl didn’t make us feel scared. He made us feel brave.

The trouble with adapting Roald Dahl for screen is that, by necessity, you lose the author’s voice and that tone I talked about often goes out the window. That’s how you get something like the 1989 BFG film which, while certainly not bad, is just cussing terrifying. There have been just under a dozen films based on Dahl’s work (not counting his own screenplays like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) and they range in quality from “terrible” to “one of the greatest movie musicals of all time”.
Chocolate

With the same story at both poles, oddly enough.

Today’s movie, Fantastic Mr Fox, is based on Dahl’s 1970 novella of the same name. It’s probably fair to call the book “minor Dahl”, it’s certainly not as well known or beloved as Matilda, BFG or The Witches but I really loved it as a child. It’s a simple enough story, Mr Fox steals poultry from three horrible farmers, said farmers roll up with some serious firepower and blast Mr Fox’s tail off but he gets the last laugh in the end by tunnelling into their farms and stealing all their cuss and throwing a big cuss-off party. Whatever, I really liked it. But as you can probably tell it’s a fairly slight story which honestly is perfect for adaptation. You see, the best Dahl movies are those where someone with their own distinctive voice comes and builds a story around Dahl’s basic framework. And there are few voices in Hollywood as distinctive as Wes Anderson, who’s work is so distinctive that Slate created a Wes Anderson bingo card.
Would you like to play a game?

Would you like to play a game?

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