All posts by A J. Black

Author of books: Myth-Building in Modern Media / Star Trek, History and Us | Writer of words on film/TV/culture | Rotten Tomatoes approved critic: Twitter: @ajblackwriter | Podcast chief: @wmadethis | Occasionally go outside.

THE ADAM PROJECT is the derivative, sentimental Netflix algorithm hard at work

We sure did something to warrant two films in the space of a year starring Ryan Reynolds and directed by Shawn Levy, but what that is remains an open question.

The Adam Project arrives hot foot in the wake of Free Guy which, last summer, projected Reynolds into the virtual reality world of a plucky NPC who gains self-awareness, free to evolve into a slick action badass able to win the heart of Jodie Comer’s gamer girl. Free Guy had something of an old-school blockbuster about it, fuelled up with 21st century visual aesthetics, and though not always successful in the ambition it had, Reynolds was compelling and enjoyable in a role that, to a degree, cast him against type.

Arguably, ever since Deadpool turbocharged his career after the failure of Green Lantern and a fairly plodding cycle of comedies and action vehicles, Reynolds has understood that the best on-screen persona is one combining his natural propensity for all-American sarcasm with an ironic self-deprecation, even geeky subtext, which endears him to an audience beyond his matinee idol good looks. Levy understood this equation in Free Guy. He doesn’t quite get it with The Adam Project in the same way.

This is not as successful or interesting a film. Indeed, The Adam Project is yet another example of how the Netflix algorithm just isn’t to be trusted.

Continue reading THE ADAM PROJECT is the derivative, sentimental Netflix algorithm hard at work

Failed Critics Podcast: The Betmen

Welcome to the all new, rebooted FAILED CRITICS podcast on the WE MADE THIS podcast network!

This week, your host Steve Norman is joined by his very own Robin in Paul Field, these days chatting music on We Made This with the very successful We Buy Records podcast, who despite now having decamped post-Brexit Britain to the classical climes of Belgrade is here for plenty of main film cast about Matt Reeves’ brand new all-consuming comic-book blockbuster THE BATMAN–or as it’s known in Serbia, ‘The Betmen’.

Along the way, in News they chat about the ludicrous Film Twitter wish for Jeremy Renner; in What We’ve Been Watching, Steve has a close Encounter while Paul dodges a Moonfall. Meanwhile, in Recommendations, Paul takes The Guardian to task for a Netflix show they tore apart while Steve encourages us all to forgive Martin Freeman’s Scouse accent and try his new BBC cop show.

Plus! The Triple Bill returns, this week covering Best Recast Roles. Steve plays by the rules. Paul doesn’t. Are you at all surprised?

Join Steve and guests next time to discuss the return of kinkmeister Adrian Lyne as we rub our thighs over his new erotic thriller, DEEP WATER

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Film Review: THE BATMAN (2022)

There was a moment during The Batman in which it became clear the film was a great piece of cinema.

Following an attack that almost kills him, Batman is cornered by aggressive police officers looking to blame him for the Riddler’s reign of terror before he is assisted in an escape in which he rappels up through Gotham PD headquarters, crashing through to the roof before he abseils down into the murky city below. In and of itself, this could be a sequence from any Batman film since 1989 but it was the point where it dawned on me just how well Matt Reeves’ latest take on the Caped Crusader was working.

Because, let’s be honest, everything was stacked against this. DC Comics, one or two outliers aside, have had a torrid time of it in cinematic terms since the conclusion to Christopher Nolan’s towering Dark Knight trilogy a decade ago. Ben Affleck essayed a fine Bruce Wayne across two (and a bit) dreadful Zach Snyder-led movies but Batman remained in the shadow of Nolan’s modernistic take on Gotham’s corruption and Bruce’s tragic heroic myth that felt, in many respects, quite definitive. There are always fresh avenues to take with a hero who has frequently reinvented himself but where could you go after those films and it have the same scale and impact was the burning question.

Snyder’s answer was bigger, louder and universal. Reeves provides a more satisfying response with The Batman by far.

Continue reading Film Review: THE BATMAN (2022)

Failed Critics Podcast (Reborn): The Failed Critics Rebirth Massacre

Welcome to the all new, rebooted FAILED CRITICS podcast on the WE MADE THIS podcast network!

Don’t panic, Mr Mainwaring, it’s as shambolic as ever as Steve Norman, your erstwhile host, is joined by new FC publisher & We Made This network chief, Tony Black, and one of FC’s legendary O.G.’s Matt Lambourne, for a brand new/exactly the same Failed Critics episode after 3 or 4 or 5 (who knows?) years away.

It’s business as usual as the boys talk Oscar 2022 news (including Matt’s pure apathy for it), in What We’ve Been Watching, Steve goes West Philadelphia born & raised to discuss Bel-Air, Matt discusses Reacher done right in the new Amazon show, and Tony waxes lyrical about the new NHS comedy drama This Is Going to Hurt.

The main feature this week is Netflix’s brand new Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which the lads thoroughly disagree on, and Steve hosts a Chainsaw-focused quiz all about. And they finish with Recommendations including the fall of Boeing and a very difficult & powerful conversation in Mass.

Join Steve and guests next time to discuss adopts growly voice The Batman

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ALL OF OUR PREVIOUS EPISODES REMAIN AVAILABLE ON OUR ARCHIVED FEED HERE.

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TV Review: The Fear Index

The Fear Index suffers from a difficult to resolve problem, namely: how do you make a show about arrogant, super rich people and it be in any way relatable to the audience?

Robert Harris is one of my favourite novelists of all time. Most of his works have been adapted for the big or small screen and continue to be – most recently Netflix’s Munich: The Edge of War (suffix added to distinguish it from the Steven Spielberg thriller, most likely). Yet I’m hard pressed to remember an adaptation of his work that matched the compressed thrills inherent in the way Harris tells his stories. Many of the screen versions of his books are austere and impersonal, not to mention staid.

I’ll say this for The Fear Index – it is never staid. Across four episodes telling the story of Dr. Alex Hoffman, a genius hedge fund billionaire in Geneva who, following an attack in his home, begins to uncover a strange conspiracy against him which leads increasingly back to himself, The Fear Index uses a contained, just over 24 hour time frame to its advantage in throwing Hoffman into a series of increasingly ridiculous situations that stretch credulity.

This isn’t exactly praise but while The Fear Index is not really any good, it is at least never entirely dull.

Continue reading TV Review: The Fear Index

TV Review: This Is Going to Hurt

Have we reached the point yet where we can collectively agree that the ‘clap for the NHS’ phenomenon during the height of the Covid pandemic was a tokenistic gesture at best? This Is Going to Hurt really brings home how unintentionally insulting our efforts were.

Not that Adam Kay’s adaptation of his best-selling memoir of the same name directly covers these events, or even references Covid, but across seven episodes it rather brilliantly brings home the stark reality of just what the National Health Service does on a daily basis. To say doctors, nurses, clinical staff and more go above and beyond is an incredible understatement. Kay’s series presents them, undoubtedly accurately, as modern heroes fighting against a system driving them into the ground.

One might suspect the resulting series would be a highly depressing journey through the darkest corners of hospital life but This Is Going to Hurt is no bleak episode of Casualty or existential hour of Holby City. Kay’s show manages to accomplish what his memoir did in balancing the melancholic and downright despairing with the deeply hilarious. His series can veer from razor sharp wit all the way to tragic, shocking consequences in a heartbeat, and does so without ever missing a step.

It is, quite simply, one of the finest depictions of the NHS we have perhaps ever seen on screen.

Continue reading TV Review: This Is Going to Hurt

All the Time in the World: JAMES BOND in the 2020s

As we bask in the long-awaited glory of No Time to Die, if not the pinnacle of the Daniel Craig era as James Bond then a fitting conclusion, the inevitable question on everyone’s lips is simple: what’s next?

You can totally understand the thinking of Eon Productions head honchos Barbara Broccoli & Michael G. Wilson behind giving themselves space to enjoy Craig’s swan song. No Time to Die has spent a torturous 18 months thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic ready to go and suffered delay after delay as Eon & MGM (now Amazon) waited for the right moment to give audiences the best chance to see it in cinemas. Their patience will pay off given No Time to Die is tracking to be a huge hit, even if it is unlikely to match the box office haul of either Skyfall or Spectre.

Although in decades past the wait between the announcement of Bond actors was shorter, with Roger Moore or Timothy Dalton replacing their predecessors within two years, we will almost certainly not know who the next Bond will be until 2023. We had to wait three years between Die Another Day and Craig’s unveiling and that was 15 years ago. We are unlikely to see Bond 26 until, at the very earliest, 2024 and personally I would wager it will more likely be 2025. Which means, in all likelihood, Bond in the 2020s will reflect the 2000s as a transitory decade giving way to the next Bond’s debut, and his second movie before the decade is out. Anything more is likely to be very optimistic, and this is even without pandemics or other unnatural global events getting in the way.

The future, however, is not just about who plays James Bond as it perhaps was in many previous decades. The future of the Bond franchise now has many broader questions attached. After No Time to Die, is the franchise ever quite the same? What kind of Bond should the character be? How does he figure into a rapidly changing geopolitical and cultural fabric? A fabric in even greater flux than when Craig assumed a harder edged, stripped back version of the role in the wake of 9/11 and the global ructions of the terrorism threat that shaped much of his Bond era. And how exactly does this uniquely produced franchise continue to exist, and more importantly work to evolve, in an entertainment landscape that increasingly threatens to leave the style of how Bond is made behind?

These, for me, are the questions that will define the discourse around James Bond’s future over the next few years.

Continue reading All the Time in the World: JAMES BOND in the 2020s

Escaping Reality: The Feel Good TV Effect

Reality has been tough lately. The world feels like a powder keg of polarisation, violence and economic spiral, certainly if you poke your head over the parapet and engage with the day to day.

Can we therefore be surprised that we have seen, in the last couple of years, a resurgence of what we might describe as ‘feel good’ TV? Ted Lasso, Sex Education, Grace & Frankie, Trying, the list goes on – modern series which present to audiences worlds that exist on the fringes of the reality we all experience. Worlds in which we might see favoured characters undergo emotional and spiritual changes, many of them painful and difficult, but through which we are reasonably confident these people we have come to admire and show genuine affection for will be okay in the end.

Whether these series have been devised specifically for this purpose is an open question. My instinct is that the answer is both yes and no. It is hard to imagine any creative, from Jason Sudeikis to Marta Kaufman to Laurie Nunn, truly writing and developing their show specifically for the ‘feel good’ designation. These things tend to happen organically and by osmosis, even if—as in the case of Ted Lasso—your entire series is deep rooted in ideas of kindness, teamwork and hope. The question that interests me is this: do we need these shows right now because we need to escape reality? Are they the television equivalent of taking the blue pill offered by Morpheus?

Maybe the rabbit hole, right now, is just too existentially grim to face. Maybe we need to feel good in these fictions because they are, for many, our only escape.

Continue reading Escaping Reality: The Feel Good TV Effect

TV Review: The Book of Boba Fett

Set to go down in television history as one of the most bizarre misfires in the streaming era, The Book of Boba Fett is both simultaneously absolutely fascinating and profoundly dull.

That is quite some trick from the creative forces within the Disney Star Wars family, who since LucasFilm was bought out in 2012 and the biggest science-fiction franchise in history was revived as one of the dominant multimedia IP’s, have presided over a distinctly mixed bag of content. For every The Force Awakens, you end up with what previously might have been termed a Rise of Skywalker, and from now on could well be designated as a Book of Boba Fett.

Quite how they managed to so staggeringly get this wrong is perhaps the biggest mystery about the whole project. It was steered by Jon Favreau, the primary mastermind behind The Mandalorian which, despite the flaws that show does have, is probably outside of The Last Jedi the most broadly critically acclaimed piece of modern Star Wars that we’ve seen produced, which has managed to seep into popular geek culture relatively swiftly. Star Wars stalwarts such as Dave Filoni are involved. Seasoned directors such as Robert Rodriguez. All of the creative building blocks are in place.

This is without even mentioning that the show is about Boba Fett. Is there, outside of Darth Vader, a masked character in pop culture history, certainly in the Star Wars universe, who has been so mythologised in the last 40+ years? So how, exactly, has his first significant dramatic storyline been so utterly, completely botched?

Continue reading TV Review: The Book of Boba Fett

Film Review: Death on the Nile (2022)

In some ways, Death on the Nile feels like a film that came out years ago.

Originally slated to arrive ‘P-C’, ‘Pre-Covid’, in December 2019, a slew of delays followed as the pandemic rocked the cinematic world and further pushed back Kenneth Branagh’s follow up adventure as the self-styled ‘world’s greatest detective’ Hercule Poirot, after his successful and largely critically praised debut in Murder on the Orient Express, until finally it has arrived—perhaps more appropriately—on Valentine’s weekend some two and half years, almost, late.

The project since then has been lurking in the press for all of the wrong reasons, be it Gal Gadot’s views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Armie Hammer’s blacklisting thanks to some troubling sexual peccadilloes, or Letitia Wright spouting full blown anti-vaccination nonsense (which she denies). Some even wondered if the film would ever see the cinematic light of day or end up sent to the streaming doldrums of Disney+ as some kind of ‘premier exclusive’. Perhaps wisely, perhaps not, that didn’t happen.

Branagh’s film is undeniably a cinematic experience but that, nor the delay, prevent the finished product being a frustrating disappointment.

Continue reading Film Review: Death on the Nile (2022)

Film Flashback: MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (2017)

With sequel Death on the Nile arriving in cinemas, we look back at Kenneth Branagh’s 2017 adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express

Murder on the Orient Express isn’t just a remake, or another adaptation of a classic text, it’s also undoubtedly an attempt to contemporise an incredibly well known piece of work, in this case Agatha Christie’s legendary 1934 detective novel featuring her most famed, irrepressible character: Inspector Hercule Poirot.

Don’t get me wrong, the piece remains set in the mid-1930’s, with period production values and Kenneth Branagh’s protagonist sporting the most daring, rakish moustache you could imagine, but everything about Branagh’s new take on the material is concerned with highlighting the simmering, modern day issues which Michael Green’s screenplay picks out of this hugely popular piece of detective fiction.

Christie’s original story sees Poirot seeking a holiday, following a case in the Middle East, but upon being recalled back to London to consult on a case, he boards the Orient Express in Istanbul with an eclectic group of passengers from all corners of the world, one of whom in short order ends up dead as the train is stalled by an avalanche while travelling through the mountains. Cue the inspector attempting to put the pieces together in true sleuth fashion, negotiating the myriad egos and personalities of everything from middle-aged American lushes to aged Russian princesses.

Well known for its ultimate twist (one I didn’t infact know, nor which I will spoil), Poirot’s ultimate detection leads him to multiple realisations, both literal and emotional.

Continue reading Film Flashback: MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (2017)

Failed Critics Reborn

The heartiest of welcomes, friends, to Failed Critics circa 2022.

My name is A. J. Black and I’m delighted to be the latest steward of both the Failed Critics website and associated podcast. As you can read on our ‘Who We Are’ page, Failed Critics was founded in 2012 and produced a huge amount of content between then and 2017 including hundreds of articles and podcasts, before the previous editors decided it was time to call it a day.

As someone who has edited and created a website before–indeed with Owen Hughes, the last editor of Failed Critics–in Set The Tape (happily still going strong), the temptation to have a run at reviving the slightly shambolic brand that is FC was too great to resist.

Fact is, despite the marketing, Failed Critics was never truly shambolic. It brought together a range of tremendous writers and podcasters who shared their love of film and made friendships along the way, myself included. All of that writing still exists in the FC archives and much of it will be trickled out again amidst the new content to come.

And what is to come, I hear you ask?

Well, first and foremost, the podcast will soon return with trusty old Steve Norman back in the hosting chair, an unadulterated format, many of the old favourite guests, and a new home in my podcast network We Made This. All episodes will be also available in links here but we’re all very excited to bring what was for a time a very successful film podcast back online and with a whole new set of contributors likely joining in too.

The website will also steadily trickle out new content, led chiefly by myself. The remit has now been tweaked slightly to cover more than just cinema. FC will also look at television and other media, be it books, comics, perhaps music, even maybe podcasts. We will start with film & TV predominantly and then see how it goes. The hope will be to bring in other writers who might enjoy contributing some hobbyist writing for FC over time.

However you have found Failed Critics, a huge welcome. Take a load off and crack open a tin. For we have such sights to show you…