Monday, 14 September 2015

[Film Review] - Brick (2006)

Brick (2006)

Every now and then a film comes along that makes you wonder exactly what the makers were thinking when they produced it. What possessed them to do something this way, when that way would do. Brick is one such film.

It is written and directed Rian Johnson whom I found because I read an article that he had been given one of the upcoming Star Wars films to direct and after looking at his IMDB profile I got interested in "Brick" becasue it was his first outing in feature film. There is a trend in Hollywood at the moment, one of which I approve, for the most part, of major studios hiring young talented indie directors to cover their super-mega projects. Monsters -> Godzilla... Super / Slither -> Guardians of the Galaxy... Chronicle -> Fantastic 4... that kind of thing.

It is hard to talk about Brick because at it's heart it's a mystery film, a well written and convoluted one though not exactly a baffling one. So there is very little you can really discuss without ruining the mystery. Though the interesting part is that the mystery isn't the point. This is more of a ride, it's main purpose is the experience delivered through the films style, this is what is important. So while the mystery and the discovery about it drives the story, the mystery is almost irrelevant to the films real focus. Nostalgia.

This entire film is throw back to the film noir. In some ways it is even more of a recreation of the classic black and whites that form the Golden Age of Cinema than China Town, before it. All the familiar cliches form the fem fatal, to rebellious tough guy shamus, the underbelly of crime stretching from fancy parties to criminal masterminds and the language.

The entire film is written as if it came directly from an Edward Robinson or Humphry Bogart film. "You set that poor kid up! You held Dode like a card 'till you could play him.".. this is an actual line from the film. Now, you could be mistaken in thinking that sounds really corny, because it kinda dose. Yet the film's director, who is also the writer fully commits to this. It is 100% deadpan, no mocking, no cynicism. It is presented as the reality of the world and as the reality is held true through out, it just works. So like when watching a Shakespeare play the use of unusual language in this film fades into normalcy going undetected, even become... well, just cool.

Still the most audacious thing is this is not a film set in the mean streets of Chicago but set on the campus of a high school staring high school children. This is the baffling part.  Imagine if White Heat was set in a highschool and it was the exact same film just that setting change. This is what Brick is trying to be.

Is it a calculated move to get a film done at a much reduced cost? Is their a metaphor about school kids and their melodramatic problems, as the Golden Age films seam almost naive and silly to many now? Is it a commentary on how ideas recycle, and only the very young can truly believe that love is forever and that an idea is ever original? Is it because the setting takes some of the edge off the realism allowing the viewer to accept this strange fantasy version of how people behave more readily?

I'm not really sure, behind the reasoning of why this setting is chosen, this is why the film is so odd. Though I am absolutely sure this film could have been done with adults, even set in 40s Chicago and it would work, with nothing more than changing some of the names in the script. Like VP (Vice Principle) to PC (Police Chief) and the like.

I thoroughly enjoyed this film. What it shows is that even with young adult actors not quite being able to pull off the requirements of the script, that a story purely character and plot driven can still be very enjoyable. This is more than a nostalgic look at scripting and characters. It is a comment on films. On what we have lost and what kids may never know.

Highly Recommend

Friday, 11 September 2015

[Comic Review] Star Wars (Marvel 01 - 05) Comic Review

WARNING: I have not bothered with spoilers in this.. I mean this is Star Wars for fuck sake!

Star Wars (Marvel 01 - 05)

Star Wars is Star Wars is Star Wars. We all know it, we all lived and breathed it as children and for those of us in our middle ages it was more than a film. This movie changed things, not only in popular culture but in us as children. Would I be such a scifi fanboy if these movies didn't warp my mind as a kid? I dunno... all I do know is that I loved these movies and still do, though I have a fatigue about Star Wars now. The modern films and TV Shows and all that.. I couldn't give two shits about.. but the Original Trilogy? That is a different story.

If this is a counsellor ship.. then where is the ambassador?!

What intrigues me about this particular story is the history behind it. This was released months before the actual film as part of the advertising push for the feature. So the artist Howard Chaykin (legend) and the "editor" (firmly placing the writing credits with Lucas)  Roy Thomas didn't have a film to base this comic on. This was the 70s, there was no easily transportable and playable media to share dailies or anything. All they had was 3 different scripts, none of which is the script that ended up in the film and some photos of the cast as well as some concept art.

So what we get here is a very unique entry into the Star Wars lore.. one that has officially been removed form the "cannon" but shows a version of the movie that is less of a copy and more of a creative "version" of the film.

Biggs! The unsung legend of the Alliance!

When I was a younger I always wondered how the cut sequences were so well know. It turns out that what I didn't know was that this comic, which was a massive MASSIVE hit had permeated the consciousness of the fandom so deeply to the point that we all knew about these extra scenes, but people like me never knew why. Kinda cool, eh?

Also, as they were working off a script and not the film, this comic has all the missing scenes, some of which are yet to be "returned" in modern cuts of the film. Famous scenes like Luke and his mates on Tatooine and Han and Jabba chatting outside the Falcon, but also some more obscure ones you may have heard whispered on the wind over the decades by fans you have met.

Integration Droid "Dr. Ball"

So lets talk about the comic itself. This is an old comic a book from the late 70s.

So there is an third person omniscient narrator. A device that is well out of style and morphed into the more common first person internal thoughts of a the main protagonist and this makes the book read like a script, complete with character direction. This was common for the time but I found this to be a slightly jarring and kinda ruined the reading experience. Now it is well know that comics often need exposition from some style of narration, but I feel there is a reason that this style is almost unheard of nowadays.

Jedi got a lot wrong, but Jabba sure as fuck wasn't one of them

Apart from that, this is a exercise in nostalgia. There are no surprises here, even with the additional scenes in this comic that would have been mind blowing only a few years ago, are now not only known to all, but most have been seen actually in versions of the film. We all know the story, we all know what the general look of things are and even with the artist and "editor" not having the true source to base things off there are few real surprises.

Still I found it very refreshing to read this. It is so easy to get jaded and cynical about all the new stuff but reading this was a real throw back to the time when it was all new and more importantly, all of it was actually really good and bursting with potential.

Then once you are done with the story of "A New Hope" (this comic was before that title existed) you are in "fantasy" comic world. Starting at 07 the book is now in pure imagination land, not even having a 2nd film or even a script to work off. This reminded me of when I was a kid, imaging all sorts of crazy stuff into this awesome universe which ended up being destroyed though the clarification of the latter movies

Not exactly a peck on the cheek!

This series continues for 107 volumes with Empire Strikes Back stretching across 39 - 44 and dose not even reach Jedi before the run ends. This is why this entire run is not considered cannon, as unlike the modern Star Wars comics it is really its own thing and I am not just talking about all the comic books (not just this one) basically having Luke and Leia fucking and then the editors doing some serious back peddling once Jedi came out!

There is a freedom to the storytelling here that I find feels very different to the modern Star Wars Universe comics I have read. No restrictions, no worrying about cannon and self-referential histories, just making shit up be cool and it is cool.

Can not be Recommend enough... A Must Read!

Oh yeah.... Only working of scripts.. never seeing the film.. Han shoots first... suck on that revisionist cunts!

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

[Film Review] - Jupiter Ascending (2015)

Jupiter Ascending is a odd film. I find myself torn between my desire to speak about what I consider to be some interesting facets of the film and the fact that this film which in many ways requires no thought at all on the part of the viewer.

On the surface this film appears to be a overproduced melodrama that stumbles over its own feet trying desperately to wrangle some meaning from the threads
of what I'll kindly choose to call; it's plot. Yet there is a far more important aspect to this film that is rooted in the sheer audacity of vision that the film makers have tried to assemble onto our screens.

This is an age when audiences are champing at the bit for original content amid the vast ever flowing downpour of reboots, remakes, re-imaginings, sequels and the seemingly endless deluge of repurposed media in the form of books, TV shows, comics, games and the like. So Jupiter Ascending stands as a ambitious attempt to bring a truly original fantasy adventure to the silver screen. A film created from scratch, specifically for the movies. We should have all loved it. After all, this is what we asked for, wasn't it?

The problem is that original stories are pretty darn hard to think up. So while this is not something that has existed before, the writers were unable to make it stand alone without it being a hodgepodge of half remembered scifi concepts form a myriad of old books and movies that most media junkies can instantly recognise and many non-geeks know through a kind of storytelling osmoses.

So in a time when this film should be lauded for giving us what we claim to want, original storytelling, the film comes off as a unoriginal mess that is less coherent than the most tentatively "based on" type film of an already established IP.  

One thing though. The film looks fantastic.

As computer graphics have improved over the years we have been approaching a time where they fail to impress us.  When I was a small child, I went to see Star Wars and my brain exploded in awe as the Star Destroyer slowly moved across the screen. This was an effect that simply had never been dreamed of and the very real physical experience of simply not believing what I was seeing was a gift from those film makers to the world. It was a spectacle, like seeing the Aurora Borealis or an eclipse. An event like no other. The visual experience itself had entertainment value.

Audiences have spent decades absorbing the growth of special effects, and I am using the term "special effects" as a catch all for make up, sound and the like when creating a visual sequence. That growth has lead us to the point where literally anything a writer can communicate in sufficient detail can appear on the screen. The opening of Star Wars and the audience reaction to it can never be recaptured as the power of it and other early films effects were not in what the effect was showing us in relation to the narrative, but in the effect itself. The effect, just as a spectacle was entertaining.

Now of course we are no longer hindered by reality in the production of large scale films and the effects have gotten to the point where they are so common and at such a universally high quality that we absorb them as part of the narrative with little excitement. Special effects are an expected reality for film audiences. We have seen building explode, planets crumble to dust, men grow small, robots form out of water, cars drive up the side of buildings; ad nauseam. There is a real fatigue overcoming movie goers in regards to special effects. As the visual event itself is no longer entertaining. We now require meaning to justify the effects existence.

Yet there is still one type of film coincidentally of the same genre as Star War, fantasy; that can capture some of that jaw dropping excitement that comes from simply seeing something. Most films and therefore their effects are rooted in the mundane. If you set a film in our world our time, not only is the visual an extension of something we have most likely seen in our real lives, there is a very real chance that we have seen a very similar shot in another film already. It doesn't matter how good your effects are of that car jumping across a river spinning in circles while the hero is hanging onto the roof. We have all seen cars before, we understand crashing and there are a million films with people hanging off things.

Fantasy though, is unique as it offers artists a way to depict things that we have no frame of reference for. Things that are beyond our own imaginings. Things that we look upon and feel enjoyment simply though the act of seeing it. Fantasy is the last bastion for pure special effects. Effects that have their existence only justified by their beauty of design and imaginative innovation.

This is where Jupiter Ascending excels. The fantasy elements of this film look fantastic and the fantasy concepts are detailed and imaginative. The effects are effortlessly incorporated to produce a truly stunning visual feast were I was entranced by the very scope and detail presented of the universe was a dense textured layer of ideas. The internal logic of the film is tight and they really pushed the visual design towards what I would consider to be some of the best science fiction art I have seen on the silver screen. When was the last time you were just blown away by a space ship at the movies, just by looking at it? 

Unfortunately, this is just not enough. In a fantasy of this scope the complex plot feels disjointed and even worse unoriginal due to similarities to some of the scifi greats. I have heard a lot of people say the plot dose not make sense but this is not true. The film's plot is in fact coherent if you are paying attention, it is convoluted but it follows its internal logic closely and all the threads tie up.

So, this film is a hard lesson for the studio and for film goers. While we claim to want original programming on the scale of famous known IPs, the only attempt in decades to make a truly original blockbuster fantasy has failed in all the important ways. This could be the last time a studio tries this for another 30 years. In the narratives need to present so much information due to the viewer not having any pre-existing knowledge of the universe slows everything down to a series of setups and expositions that wear down on our patience. I feel the real problem this film has is the scale.

Yet, I personally did not hate this film. I found it far more entertaining than many of the large blockbusters it was in competition with. When you have films like Transformers or Fast and Furious stinking up the screen how can this film attract such scorn? It is an ambitious, even an audacious film and in my book that is a huge plus in its column. As a voracious consumer of fantasy and science fiction this film is right in my wheel house and the jumps of imaginative acceptance it asks of the viewer are easy for me to make.

I can't call this a good film with a strait face but I've already bought the blu-ray and getting the physical disk on my shelf is a badge of honour I reserve for only the selected few. 

If only this was a better film.

VERDICT: Give it a try, but be warned.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

[Comic Review] - iZombie - Vol 1 : Dead to the World

Recently I saw a television show called iZombie. I wasn't that impressed really, in fact I kinda hated it. It reminded me of The Mentalist, or Monk or Forever, Castle, Bones.. etc etc.. the list just goes on and on. A cop procedural but with some kind of quirky third party helping the cops solve crimes. The escalation from private detective to immortal highlander or in this case, physic zombie is nothing more than a natural progression of "quirky 3rd party" in these procedural cop shows but at the core they are all the exact same show and have been for over half a century.

Suffice to say I didn't like the show. What I did like though was the chick who played the main character. I used to be in the punk scene way back in the 80s and early 90s and to this day have a soft spot for the Goth / Punk look, even a watered down version of those looks like in this show.

Sizzle... . . Don't judge me!

Basically I thought the main chick was hot. So as you do when a show has a hot chick in it, you google her. In my google search I found out that this show is based on a comic. A comic written by Chris Roberson, whom wrote an engaging short story called "O One" in a scifi anthology book I read once, "Live without a Net" which I quite liked as well as a number of cool comics like Fables. Considering myself a bit of a comic guy I thought.. "Hmm.. lets give it a go."

Let me start by saying loud and clear... "THE TV SHOW IS NOT ANYTHING LIKE THE COMIC". We are talking "Wanted" vs the film type level of "not the same". There are a few similar threads but pretty much 98% and more of the comic is unrelated to the TV show. So basically get the TV show completely out of your mind.

The first volume of the comic is pretty much all background and set up. While the threads of the larger world which the comic is set in is extrapolated, the general focus of this book is the characters themselves and not the events in which they exist. There is a larger plot as well as the start of what I assume will be the series wide threads but still the only thing this book concerns itself with really, is the development and the interaction of the personalities of the main players. This comic is very much like Scott Pilgrim or Ghost World, as it is a comic about 20 somethings and how they relate to others. The sardonic attitude of the main character Gwen is very reminiscent my mates daughter and one of the few things the TV show kinda got right.

The main conceit here is that Gwen (a twenty-something zombie) gains personality traits even memories form the brains she consumes. The metaphor is pretty thick, but not so heavy handed that it is off putting. A young women lost and directionless, whom has recently had huge changes in her life (becoming a zombie, or going to UNI, moving out of home) and who's entire personality alters through the influence of others, leaving her full of purpose and community only for it to fade into her "real" personality and she is then back to being as directionless as ever. Herself and a group of misfit friends hang out as she tries to avoid her fate to become a mindless zombie, or grow up and take on adult responsibilities depending on how you look at it.

Now this all sounds very boring but the comic is so well done. The art is off the chain. I mean, I haven't enjoyed art like this for a long time. I have often lamented the real loss that comics have endured by the modern habit of hyper-realism though digital art. It is so great to read a book that looks hand drawn again, that actually has some artistic stylisation to it. Saga is another great example of this, in fact there are a lot of similarities in style and humour between this and Saga, which is another comic I love. Still the drawing themselves are spectacularly good, and a special mention needs to be given to the colourist. In the trade volume there is a number of sketches before colouring, where you can really see the impact her vibrant block colours gives to the book.

iZombie has a strong humorous angle all though it. Like other comics of its type there is a kind of fatalism that is present in all facets of the comic. A character finding out his work mate is a werewolf is no more a cause for excitement than the latest computer game coming out on his console. Someone getting torn to bits in a bloody flurry barley needs a acknowledgement. The main characters have that "seen it all before" with that "nothing phases them" arrogance that is the purview of the young. I am sure people will see their own youth or their kids, probably both, in how these characters act. I found it rather charming and even had a few out loud chuckles on the way. Though the big take away is that all the monsters just want to live in peace, to be accepted for who they are and not to have to change for other, as they can't. Not really in this case anyway, you know... 'cause they're monsters.

What separates this comic and makes it readable compared to other "relationship" comics is that all this is hidden as a under-layer to the actual stories. What we in fact read in this volume is a Werewolf, a Ghost and a Zombie scoobydooing their way though a plot full of vampires, ancient mummies and watcher style monster hunters and a series of bizarre murders. The deeper implications of the subtext is exactly that, subtex and there is plenty to entertain in this one on the surface. The writing is punchy and fun and with the art being so easy to look at I found the pages turning fast and before I knew it the entire volume was done, and this is a 130 plus, page book.

I was absolutely shocked at how much I liked this comic. I mean seriously. I think this is easily one of the best comics I have read all year, with out a doubt and anyone that knows me knows I HATE zombies. I just found this fresh and interesting in a way that even the best soup comics just can never be.

Verdict: Highly Recommended

Sunday, 26 April 2015

[Film Review] MCU 11: Avengers and the Age of Ultron (2015)

It is no secret to those that know me that I have a bias towards DC, but that isn't to say I am into that whole DC vs Marvel thing. One is not inherently better than the other on any real measurable level. The only thing that really separates DC and Marvel in a comparative sense is how the comics resonate with the readers on a personal level and in my case almost universally, it is DC that far outshines Marvel. I think this is important to disclose before I continue.

When MCU 6: Avengers Assemble hit theatres in 2012 I went to see it with very low expectations, partly due to my relatively unenthused interest in the source material and was really blow away with how immensely enjoyable the film was. Age of Ultron on the other hand gave me the exact opposite experience. I went in with high expectations and found a flat, lifeless tale lacking in almost all the areas that made the Avengers Assemble so great.

I think a lot of reviewers and possibly even the film makers themselves have completely missed the point as to why Avengers Assemble was so successful. This failure to understand the reasons for their own brand popularity has lead them to focus on the wrong aspects in Age of Ultron and pull focus from the very things that would assure them of retaining the audience they have cultivated. The most interesting part of all this is that between Avengers Assemble and Age of Ultron we had Guardians of the Galaxy, a film that got nearly everything right and seamed to show they understood completely why Avengers Assemble was so successful.

Avengers Assemble and Guardians of the Galaxy where so popular and so widely accepted that comic fandom can simply not account for their astounding success. For these films popularity was born through a cross appeal that struck home to not just comic fans but all film goers, that enjoy spectacle cinema. These films were record breakers despite being comic book films, not because they were comic book films. This is the crux of the problem with Age of Ultron and it is a problem I am worried Marvel will compound as the MCU continues into the future.

One of the most glaring faults of Age of Ultron stems from this misunderstanding. This lead to an indulgence of the film makers on the individual characters, banking on the appeal of the characters themselves rather than on how the characters behave. The fun interplay is nearly lost in this film, apart form some all to brief fleeting moments at the start. This film is more interested in showing us the comic book icons than in providing a actual story for them to exist in.

Gone is the large group dramatic arcs from the last outing and instead we have a number of dramas involving individuals. Of course in a film this size with so many characters and with so much time devoted to action, this collection of dramatic threads can only be sketched out in a rudimentary way. In this case the attempt is absolutely puerile, leading to ridicules mellow drama that makes the audience groan and check their watches for these sequences feel, and are, completely tacked on.

This is no more evident than the manufactured family connection given to Hawkeye where he suddenly gains a house complete with wife, kids and unfinished home improvement projects. A few thrown away lines and we as a audience are supposed to feel a human connection to the fantastic events of the film. This entire idea to ground the movie a little with some good old fashioned family values is one of the most bizarre and randomly out of context things I have seen in a blockbuster for a long while.

Yet this film is full of this same error, through admittedly less pronounced, I mean this family thing was just bizarre on a epic level. Action sequences are stopped in mid battle for brief conversational drama between to characters, the film is literally put on hold. They do not even try to contrive to have the characters in the same location, they can just speak to each other though magic communication devices. The audience feels this dead stop in the flow of the film and the rolling of eyes start as we just want them to get back to the action we were enjoying. You could fan edit out these conversations and what you would be left with would be a single long uninterrupted action sequence, these small dramas would not be missed.

Avengers Assemble got around this type of cheese ball mellow drama by having the Avengers experience a dramatic curve as a group. The main theme being about coming together in unity, as well as finding ones place and personal voice. As all the characters were experiencing the same group arc, rather than all these individual ones, any time spent on the arc affected all the leads. This gave depth to the story, as each "time out" for drama built on the last, rather than each "time out" being a small, separate and self contained.

One of its most exciting sequences in Avengers Assemble was during the main fight at the end of the film. There was a glory shot of all the Avengers on screen at once in a single dynamic action shot showing them all working together in perfect harmony framed by powerful music. This exact shot though done with more complexity, is in Age of Ultron, but without the emotional backing it completely fails to be anything more than a cluttered special effect shot.

This is Age of Ultron in a nutshell. We have more of everything in that increasing of scale that comes in blockbuster squeals, but that "everything" comes at the cost of storytelling. Drama and more importantly for these films humour is lost for exposition and action and we are left with all the sights but none of the soul, ultimately leaving us feeling hollow and unfulfilled.

You note I am talking about drama a lot, but if you ask most people about Avengers Assemble what they talk about is the humour. This is the thing that everyone seams to get wrong about why Avenges Assemble and Guardians of the Galaxy were so popular. It was that they were fun, adventure films.  There was humour, action and light themes that produced a true roller coaster of amusement. The comic angle was not the draw. I suspect that if Guardians of the Galaxy was a completely non comic related IP it would have still been as popular, as it was the "fun adventure" nature of the film that made it cross cultural boundaries.The fun is lost in this film, instead we had a focus on the comic characters at the expense of what I feel was the very thing, the style of the film, that drew the much larger non-comic reader crowd.

That is not to say there isn't a lot of good parts in this film. The action is competent, and the plot itself while rushed is decent enough for this type of film. I would have loved Ultron to have more of a arc to evil badguy mode, but there simply wasn't time to have him start good and go bad. He just appears, and is evil. Why? Well that is the soul discussion of his motivation.

Ultron in fact was sort of schizophrenically written.  He at times talks in a very casual way, other times he monologues like a James Bond villain and at other times he speaks like the Starship Enterprise computer. It seams his dialogue was tooled specifically for the scene rather than him have any real defined voice. This is unfortunate as James Spader was a real delight and for me by far, the best bits in the film was Ultron when he spoke and acted the most human.

So, this film has a lot of problems. Ones I think will compound as the MCU continues and more and more characters are crammed into the universe. Less time will be spent on anything other than action and the most superficial characterisation.

We have seen the future of the MCU and it is Transformers 3.

Yet the cast is extremely charismatic, the production values are off the chain amazing and there are moments that pepper the show which remind us of why these kind of films can be so fun. So even with its faults it is still one of the better super hero comic films and will be a strong contender as a top blockbuster of the year. I just feel that this is a clear decline in not just quality of what was produced, but the quality of what they even tried to produce.


Recommend, with a warning.