Monday, November 28, 2011

The Motion Picture of Dorian Gray

Sometimes you sort of stumble on a movie and you’re like what the hell, why not! Such was the case for me and 2009’s DORIAN GRAY starring beautiful Prince Caspian (he is an actor named Ben Barnes though he is not really a prince named Caspian).

2009-dorian_gray_poster1

You’ve probably an inkling of the plot if you live in a First World country with internet access, but Doctor Who has taught me to be mindful of every world so:

Hot young guy comes to London, meets rich assholes. Has picture painted of him, says he’d sell his soul to look DAT HOT forever. Wish backfires when he remains the same but the picture takes on the signs of decay.

Okay, that doesn’t sound like THAT much backfiring but let me tell you, you’re not hanging that picture in your living room unless you’re Tom Savini.*

The two rich assholes are Lord Henry Wotton (Colin Firth) and painter Basil (Ben Chaplin). Both actors are super charming and witty, and make you not really mind that they are rich assholes. They take young Dorian a-drinkin’ and a-whorin’ and seem far more amoral than him. Wotton’s bon mot “There is no finer opportunity to hone one’s skills of deception than in marriage” should say it all. If it weren’t for these two, Gray probably wouldn’t have cursed himself unwittingly, nor would he have gone off the deep end as far as he did. I was actually under the impression (purely from the connotations that the name “Dorian Gray” carries in pop culture) that he would be a more decadent protagonist. But while he does indulge in vices from orgies to murder, it’s not a sudden turn *coughanakincough* from Johnny Appleseed to Stabby McGee. And he’s even repentant quite quickly!

Movies like DORIAN GRAY, to me, are kind of a bitch to try to assess. They’re obviously based on fantastic source material, so what do you review? I mean, it’s based on Oscar Wilde, of course the dialogue’s gonna be fantastic. And if you’ve got people like Firth et al. to deliver it, that’s half your movie right there. Unless you’re planning on spending your entire budget on SCONES AND TEXTING (that’s what British people do, right?) and then shoot it under a single fluorescent light with a webcam from 2003 with grease smears on the lens, I’d say way to fucking go director Oliver Parker!

As you can see in his credits there, Weird Rasta Mutant from NIGHTBREED is also totally the director of the fancy-pants adaptation of a gothic classic.

*Not adding a picture of the, um, picture here since it’s a third act reveal. It’s probably a lot more shocking if you’re an Edwardian lady/gentleman that has never seen THE MUMMY, however.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Quoisabi?

I’d been picking up some stragglers in the Luc Besson oeuvre, some of the movies he squeezes out between ARTHUR sequels, and happened upon WASABI. Barely 90 minutes long, it seemed a good movie to have on while I worked out (gotta keep my potato chips ‘n Mountain Dew credibility).

wasabi

Jean Reno is a TUFF COP who don’t work by the book. We’re introduced to him as he punches out a transvestite in a club, and via reprimanding flashback we’re told he wrecked a bunch of other dudes, one of which looks all of fifteen. The fifteen year old kid hilariously gets it the worst, as he is punched down a flight of steps. But alas, he’s the police chief’s son and our boy Jean has to go apologize in the hospital, where he hilariously wrecks the kid some more by accident. Meanwhile, his schlubby partners have had no luck in interrogating the villainous tranny. Big Jean knows a secret technique, however! If your guess was that he punches a tooth outta the guy’s face you are some sort of Nostradamus, sir! The Tranny Gang is pulling a heist at a Parisian bank RIGHT NOW! Why they really needed to get that info from an accomplice is never really answered, as the remainder of the gang is pretty flamboyant and they’re pulling the job in broad daylight with dynamite. I mean, murders in the Rue Morgue this ain’t. Reno does your classic SCREECHIN TIRES ENTRY accompanied with a superior going OH NO NO NOT THIS GUY followed by him going in alone and… Nostradamus, soothsay this scene! Oh he wrecks all the trannies by punching them in the face/nuts? You’re so good, Mr. Damus. Hilariously, one of the trannies is actually a woman, so our COOL GUY hero has spent most of the first act punching women, children and comedy gay guys.

Trying to relax, getting his golf on and stuff, the captain comes to tell Reno he’d better take a leave of absence since the commissioner’s son is gonna spend the next two months in traction. Start a family or something, man! “Buy an Armani shirt and you won’t stay single for long!” Seeing as how Reno is a BESSON PROTAGONIST, he is heartbroken at the realization that all this tough guy posturing is just a front to hide his crushing loneliness! Even a comically awkward date with Carole Bouquet (Melina from FOR YOUR EYES ONLY with her moustache plucked and better hair) just reinforces the idea that the love of his life, Miko, still haunts the cobwebbed chambers of his heart! Coincidentally, a Japanese notary calls him at that exact moment to tell him Miko just passed away and he’s the sole beneficiary. Little did Jean know there’s a Japanese Lil’ Jeanne out there named Yumi!

Together with his ex-intelligence buddy Maurice (Momo)*, Jean’s got his hands full at keeping his cop identity a secret from his delinquent 19 year old while they try to solve the mystery of Miko’s death. Cancer don’t leave traces of cyanide! Yeah, there turns out to be foul play involved, of course, but rather hilariously we only get to see any antagonists at minute 43. The movie is 89 minutes long. With credits.

I’d say WASABI is a good action movie for kids, since the action is very comedic and bloodless, there’s no serious profanity or any nudity, and the scenes of Reno adjusting to his wacky Japanese daughter are sweet. Yeah, it’s pretty broad LOL ZEES ASIANS ARE CRAYZEH stuff but Reno is a very charming and skilled actor and makes it work, even if the actress who plays his daughter (who actually couldn’t speak French and learned her lines phonetically) grates at times.

The title WASABI is there probably just because it sounds cool and Japanese. Okay, in one scene Reno is eating a bunch of it to the comical dismay of Momo and also because his daughter is wild and wacky and crazy like a spicy wasabi meat-ah ball-ah? I dunno man.

My favorite is the one he kicks when he’s down.

*Fat, short, clumsy, big teeth… just needed some floppy prosthetic ears and this guy was literally a human Jar Jar Binks.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Besson-moi!

Anyone who’s sorta into American movies of the last couple of decades knows about Michael Mann. They could also probably tell you about the kind of movies he makes, in a broad sense. Shit about, like, badasses, man! Total pros kickin ass! The last couple of years (maybe a decade and change?) you could even accuse him of going way overboard on the “pro” aspect, choosing to focus rather exclusively on characters with highly cinematic occupations and the extremely efficient ways they engage in them. This reached its apex with PUBLIC ENEMIES, which some people thought might have been better off just being a documentary, so focused was Mann on procedures and accurately recreated TRUE EVENTS!!!

You know who is not like that? LUC BESSON MOTHERFUCKER

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This man cares very much about the emotions of his characters, oh yes you best believe it!

Who is this unshaven, yet affable looking slob? You may have heard of obscure cineasts like James Cameron? George Lucas? Luc Besson is basically the European version of them. When it comes to movies, Besson has all the money in Europe. If you’ve in the last decade at your local cinema watched a sleazy action movie set in Europe that somehow had a big international celebrity in it, chances are Besson wrote and/or produced it.

…you know what I mean. Basically cinematic fast food that manages to taste pretty good too. Not as much McDonald’s as that decent kebab place down the road. These, along with the animated ARTHUR movies you can see Besson posing in front of in the first pic, are the man’s bread and butter nowadays. But he is not some garlic eating Michael Bay, non non non! As I said before, he cares very much about the happiness of his characters rather than the beauty of his explosions. CONSIDER:

  • THE TRANSPORTER: Jason Statham is a former marine earning a living in the South of France as a wheelman for shady transports. No questions, no opened trunk, no problems! But when he breaks his own rule and finds a beautiful AZN WAIFU in his trunk… perhaps… his heart will be opened as well~?
  • UNLEASHED: Jet Li is a feral street fighter, kept caged like a dog by Evil Bob Hoskins! But perhaps… beautiful Octavia from HBO’s Rome and kind magical (blind!!) negro pianist Morgan Freeman will show him the more poetic things in life~?
  • TAKEN: Divorcee dad Liam Neeson is gonna fucking slaughter every smelly Albanian in Paris to get his daughter and nearly-worst-character-on-Lost-and-that’s-quite-a-feat Maggie Grace back from sexual slavery! …but not before we learn what a kind and put-upon soul he is in a soulful first thirty minutes where the biggest conflict is that Liam’s pony isn’t as big as the one Maggie’s new stepdad bought her! Ponies~

Yeah, the kickassery may have made you forget it, but there’s a lotta touchy-feeliness in these movies! As my friend Andrew Clarke once put it: “There’s a surprising amount of action in his artsy movies, and an equally surprising amount of artsy in his action.” Now, don’t misunderstand it, though. Besson’s “artsy action movie” is not that sort of Refn/Kubrick atmospheric, low-on-dialogue-high-on-symbolism kinda artsy. It’s a very old-fashioned type of artsy that is not so much “artsy” anymore as it is treacly and (at “best”) Oscar Baity. BIG Emotions! Suffering, sensitive characters pondering the BIG Questions! In his pre-US movies, Besson’s protagonists are just crazy guys who don’t live by society’s ruuuules, man! And maybe they can open up a buttoned-down lady’s heart to the subtle wonder and beauty of life~

what

In SUBWAY it’s pre-HIGHLANDER Christophe Lambert (already sporting sort of a youthful punk Raiden hairdo) who is a hobo hiding in the subway after stealing some “documents” from a shady businessman after being invited to a cocktail party by beautiful trophy wife Isabelle Adjani for helping her with her groceries (???). Now these “documents” (never explained, by the way) he only stole so that the wife would follow him because he is super in love with her. In the subway he finds a bunch of OTHER hobos that live off of purse-snatchery but dream of making it big with their band (???). SUBWAY is basically a couple of cool chase scenes to go with hobo slapstick and that strange Lambert/Adjani courtship. I don’t even know man. It’s super weird, it’s super 80s, but the actors are actually pretty suave and charming. Along with Besson’s skill at how to set up a chase, it becomes a fascinating the-fuck-will-happen-next kinda movie.

Deceptive trailer does not show spaghetti or comedy matrons.

LE GRAND BLEU is Besson going “waaaahhhh waaahhhh I wanted to be ze diver but I had ze accident so now I have to settle for ze direckteeng waaah!” The underwater shots are super beautiful and dolphins are cute and Jean Reno and his mom are funny (did you know Italian mothers are domineering and make spaghetti?) but 168 minutes of Jean Reno, Little Jacques Nocharisma (Quirky Man) and Rosanna Arquette (Buttoned-Up Lady Falling For Quirky Man) palling around on a Sicilian beach is pretty punishing. And the spaghetti looked weirdly white. Were they just eating it with oil? Arquette’s frutti di mare looked good when she and Reno first meet though.

Funny how the trailer is selling you the movie as a wife-with-a-hitman-double-life story–it’s definitely an origin movie, training montages and all.

NIKITA is probably the movie where it simply all clicked. Anne Parillaud’s (Mrs. Besson for a while) Nikita is definitely a QuirkyWoman but she’s also an irresponsible crackhead who gets good ‘n fucked up by the government as she’s trained to be an assassin. The relatively few action scenes are clear, tense and badass. Nikita starts out as a piece of shit, but she gets pooped on so hard that it’s tough not to root for her.

After NIKITA, Besson moved to sorta-Hollywood with LEON*(/THE PROFESSIONAL, depending which cut you’ve seen) and THE FIFTH ELEMENT. It’s interesting to note how the role of quirkster post-NIKITA starts being taken by the women, who pull the buttoned-down men out of their ruts. Could it be a reflection of Besson’s subconscious desires? Before he made it big he was the rebel, the artist, givin’ it to the boring Euro-establishment. As he grew in power (and responsibility), he perhaps started longing for some muse to pull him out of his routine. It’s perhaps telling that he married two of his leading ladies briefly (Parillaud and Jovovich).

Luc, mon pôte, I hope you are happy. Or depressed. Look, just whatever mood you were in when you decided that this was a good idea:

If you could just be like this mostly, we’re cool.

*Along with NIKITA, probably the best sentimental/badass Besson combo. I’ll give LEON the edge for its hammy Gary Oldman villain.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Why TWILIGHT Sucks (And Why It’s Okay)

Ooohohoho you are treading dangerous and iconoclastic ground here, Luca! A post denouncing Twilight as sucky? Surely, a vampire pun will soon follow! To which I would say no way man! The level that I am on is wholly above that! Ahem.

I’m going to admit straight up front that this post was inspired by JoBlo tweetin’ at the esteemed Film Crit Hulk over at Badass Digest, asking him whether someone had ever written something intelligent about why exactly TWILIGHT sucked. However I, always looking for DAT EXTRA ANGLE, thought that maybe it’s time that someone who doesn’t really like the series at all took the heat off.

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We’re gonna ice-skate up this hill in two parts!

1) Why’s it suck?

  1. Little to no plot: Very little happens in these movies! At least, not enough to warrant their two hour+ runtimes. Movies don’t need a lotta plot, of course, if they have interesting characters.
  2. No interesting characters: Everyone is thin as shit, and in some cases actively unlikable. Edward is possessive yet distant and aloof, Bella is ridiculously co-dependent and weak-willed, Jacob is Jacob, … you name it.
  3. A blank-as-fuck lead: Remember how Lizzie Bennet in Pride & Prejudice was an awesome heroine who didn’t take no guff from the establishment? And how life must have sucked for Austen as she seemed to be mentally two centuries ahead of the curve? Maybe Stephenie Meyer should get in a TARDIS and switch places with Austen: Bella seems very adamant about her life being pretty much worthless without a maaayunnnn in it. In NEW MOON, Edward leaves her (temporarily – don’t worry!) for her own safety and we get a montage of her sulking for months. Hilariously, the camera swirls about her, showing the passing of seasons. OH AND ALSO Kristen Stewart tells us that months had passed in a voice-over. I’m not sure, but there may have been pages falling off a calendar as well. In the book (or so I am told) there is actually a bunch of blank pages to signify how EMPTY her life is without Edwardo. Note that Bella does not come from an abusive family, nor is she friendless. Her parents are divorced and she’s moved to a new town, but she picks up a new clique of friends pretty quickly, and everyone’s generally shown to be nothing but nice to her. But nope! EMPTY!
  4. EMPTY: Vampire-human romance? We’ve seen that stuff before! What unique spin has Meyer put on her story for it to gain such incredible popularity? Well, they ain’t yer grampappy’s vampires! For one, they don’t actually die in sunlight. It reflects off them so beautifully that it looks like they gleam! And… that other thing. That is also original. The… they fight werewolves. They don’t like ‘em. They… uh… no, it’s pretty much the sparkles. *sigh* Look, we’ve got a lot of attractive people in this movie, okay?

2) Why’s it okay for it to suck?

Okay, so we’ve got a lead couple setting gender relations back about five centuries, set in a world where nothing interesting or imaginative happens*, populated by supremely attractive people. Why should we not boycott this with all our might (lol)?

  1. Look, male geeks have been marketed to for decades. Hollywood knows pretty much exactly what they want: explosions, punches, capes, space ships, attractive ladies, … The female geek demographic is a relatively new one. I’d say it kind of started branching off from the herd with Harry Potter in the late 90s. It was a merchandising machine that engulfed many (mainly?) women. So of course movie studios/publishers were gonna push whatever they thought would be the next Harry Potter. And yeah, Twilight happened to push some very base buttons! Super powerful guy who suppresses all his natural kill instincts because you – a super regular girl with no special talents – are so damned gorgeous and special… OMG SWOON! And god… another one exactly like him… and they’re fighting over YOU!!! EEEEEK!!! Surely you’d get psychotically dependent over less than that! Compare it to a movie like BAD BOYS 2: everything that happens on screen is morally wrong… and yet kinda awesome, because it speaks to that Neanderthal side of our brain. Any rational adult can identify lowbrow entertainment for what it is. Yeah, sure, there are people that think the world really needs a Punisher, but they’re the ones that shoot up high schools. Why would a woman NOT be able to say “Yeah, Bella’s actions here are… not healthy.”**
  2. Female geekdom is a relatively new thing, something of this millennium. Geekdom in general as we know it was probably born in the 1920s, with the fanzines popping up around the Weird Tales style pulp magazines. And for many decades, geekdom was a pretty grassroots thing! Hell, when George Lucas made STAR WARS, Fox allowed him to have the merchandising revenue. Geeks just weren’t a market! Female geekdom came into being in an environment that was pretty much the opposite of grassroots. Geek movies are now the biggest blockbusters every year, and if we can count on Hollywood for anything it’s that they’ll push hard for the most easily digestible common denominator crap out there. And if you market something hard enough, it works! I’ve had young students come up to me telling me how awesome AVATAR was, being utterly in disbelief when I told them there were even better movies in the same genre. Another class (kids around 15) had not a single person in it that had heard of Indiana Jones. After some describing on my part, one of them had seen CRYSTAL SKULL.

In summary, TWILIGHT is popular because it appeals to some very base (and basic) desires, coupled with its core audience existing in a very corporate controlled environment. It would, however, be wrong to get up in arms about it, since most fans are (or will be, once they get out of adolescence) rational and critical people who can separate fact from fiction. And then sir, YOU would be the sexist! Some will grow out of it entirely, some will experience it as a gateway to other, better things, but only a minority will end up a female version of this guy***

*In the second movie/book, Jacob takes Bella to an action movie. It’s called something like THE BLOODKILLENING or some such Simpsons joke name. The normal human guy from Bella’s circle of friends that has a crush on her accompanies them, but he quickly blows his chances by getting nauseous from the stomach-churdling violence on screen. I love how out of touch this paints Stephenie “I have never seen an R-rated movie” Meyer to be. She thinks action movies are stomach-churning gorefests.

**Teenage girls are exempt from this, as in your teenage years everything is as dramatic as shown in TWILIGHT. Twi-moms though? They shoot up schools.

***btw every twilight movie is better than the 1986 transformers movie trufax

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Truths Universally Acknowledged

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that any man currently watching a romantic feature film, must not be in want of a wife, elsewise he would be watching a Jason Statham vehicle.

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The preference of women for romances that expound upon their characters, as contrasted to men’s preference for romances that pound upon their characters’ faces, is a well-documented and oft-lamented dichotomy. But how the D– do they manage to keep up a productive and joyous marriage? Doth the husband not leave the room in a huff and engage in nine-pins whenever the wife, however dutiful in her disposition, endeavors to consume such literature as rewards its protagonists steadfastness and virtue with secure marriage bonds? And likewise, doth the wife not excuse herself presently to practice the clavichord, should the husband wish to partake in such narratives as engage in pugilism, costumed or otherwise?

My first brush with Jane Austen was an attempt at Sense & Sensibility in my seventeenth summer. I had seen the movie before that, but I remembered little from it besides Kate Winslet getting sick from walking in the rain too much and then marrying Alan Rickman. Since this was on TV before RUSH HOUR ever hit theaters, I had no means of identifying Tom Wilkinson. The book left a similar impression on me, in that I’m pretty sure that if I’d start reading it again now, I’d be taken by surprise by most plot twists. That, and complicated, long sentences.

After years of having it on my Big Pile O’Classics I Should Read Some Day Maybe, I gave Pride & Prejudice a shot a few months back. Maybe it was the years, maybe it was the mileage, but I found myself enjoying it, and a far brisker read than S&S to boot! Something that always irked me in popular fictions of yesteryear was the unflinching tendency of the writers to go phrenological. Not only were their protagonists shining exemplars of goodness, they had all the physical attributes to prove it! The typical symmetric cranium of a philanthropist! A dainty nose signifying inquisitiveness! Strong cheek bones indicative of great moral fortitude! Now, I’m not a big fan of long-winded descriptions (Tolkien is my enemy), so you can imagine that by the time your average 19th century pulp fictioneer was done describing his characters, I’d come to properly hate the character I was to follow for the rest of the book.

Not so with Pride & Prejudice, gentlemen! Granted, it’s not exactly pulp fiction, but people tend to throw “old books” on the same dusty mental pile. Lizzie Bennet, the main character, is actually pretty sharp! She lives in a world where a woman can’t have a job (except that one, I suppose) and all her hopes are set on marriage. Okay okay, I’m scaring the guys off here, but Lizzie totally makes it work! She’s not some marriage-crazed harridan, but rather a more laid back, witty person. She takes after her dad, Mr. Bennet, who also just prefers reading and being left alone. Two Bennet sisters straight up suck – no spoilers, I’ll leave it up to you which ones! Mrs. Bennet is an airhead whom Mr. Bennet admits he just married for her looks way back when (“Alas, they have faded!”). Mr. Darcy, Lizzie’s love interest, is a very singular literary character in that you can perfectly recreate him in ASCII:

>: [

But, you know, gotta give Austen a little leeway! She can’t just come out and call all these bitches out, simply because that shit wasn’t done back then. If you’re thinking Regency England is FOR FAGS BRO, consider this: every character in this book that posesses even a modicum of intelligence thinks the exact same thing! Besides the awesome ice burns Lizzie and Darcy give the norms, it’s kind of a sad meta-look into the life of an author that was mentally just centuries ahead of the curve. If you put some effort into it, you too can enjoy some really sweet burns directed at the establishment, the church and conformism in general. Plus, history!

Now I must address my male readership; I gave you the means to impress your significant other with considerably less effort than it otherwise would have cost you. Remember these things, read this book, wow your lover! If you are the non-book-readin’ type, the 2005 Joe Wright version is about as flashy an adaptation as you could make.

–shire, Surrey, 11 November 2011

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Why Cobra Is Cooler Than The Driver

Since the release of Drive, I’ve been hearing a lot of mumblings over the interwebs about COOL.

Ryan Gosling’s nameless Driver in Drive is COOL. He’s the classic archetypal silent tuff guy, never saying more than needs to be said, doing everything with clockwork precision and deadly accuracy. He even has a recognizable badass getup: leather racing gloves, bowling jacket with a SCORPION on the back, toothpick in his mouth… the works.

 

But the Driver is actually not cool at all! You know who is?

stallone-cobra-poster021

That’s right motherfucker, Cobra is cool. Why is he cool while the driver isn’t? They both have same over the top badass attitude, they both waste bad guys with aplomb, they even have a similar getup almost sorta! The answer, my friends, is tone!

Let me get one thing out of the way first: I think DRIVE is an excellent movie that I would recommend to anyone with a brain in a heartbeat. I hate doing the apples and oranges thing, but (fuckin’ SIGH) to just really get my ass out in the clear here I’m also gonna state that DRIVE is a much better movie than COBRA.

But alas! Director Nicolas Winding Refn is trolling you, kind sirs! In an excellent interview with the AVClub he calls DRIVE a “fetish film”. And he’s actually very literal when he says that! In VALHALLA RISING, Refn asked us “What is the deal with religion?” (Refn likes Seinfeld, okay?). In DRIVE, he asks us “What is the deal with movie badasses?”. They’re always on top of things! They’re so in control and skilled and successful all the time that they should be pretty much millionaires doing whatever it is they do! Well, how do you get into Carnegie hall? Practice (TCHAWN PRAKTESS)! The Driver is shown to be a socially pretty backwards guy, who basically just spends his free time honing his skills, working on engines, doing getaways and stuntin’ for the movies. When he bumps into Carey Mulligan and her son at the store, he bashfully moves to the other aisle! Now there’s nothing about these things that stands in the way of the Driver being cool. But AH! Yon scorpion jacket betrayeth thee, Madam!

The Driver is a STONE COLD PROFESSIONAL that doesn’t have time for simple pleasures like a family life! He only says what needs to be said! No time for bullshit! But… the scorpion jacket. He wants to look cool. He works really hard at it. He’s got all the skills to back it up, but goddammit… the talking thing is hard. I know! I’ll just let a cool outfit say it all for me! I won’t have to say a thing! The deliberately slow-paced first act is all about letting you know this guy: he’s a creature of habit, a creature of dedication, a creature of awkwardness. But he wants to be noticed. He wants to be found cool. The jacket, the glove, the toothpick… that’s a lot of image building for a guy who doesn’t really have a life.

Now, in COBRA, we don’t really get many scenes of Cobra’s home life. As you can see in the poster, there’s definitely the calculated look. He even has a trademark fifties oldtimer. In the first scene where we see Cobra at his apartment, he gets hassled by some no-good Reagan-era eses. They wanna get rough, but Cobra rips the main guy’s shirt down the front to his belly. This immediately appeases all of them, and they turn into jolly and polite mariachi! He comes in, puts his gun in the fridge and cuts some cold pizza with scissors as he watches the news (which just happens to have a plot-advancing report on).

HEY MAN i hear you say WE ALL PRETTY MUCH GOT THAT THE DRIVER HAD SOME SORTA PSYCHOLOGICAL PROBLEMS WHEN REFN LITERALLY PUT HIM IN A MICHAEL MYERS MASK to which I say okay man don’t yell jeez. But also I say: this immediately exempts the Driver from being COOL.

Refn is essentially a big troll, telling us a joke and explaining it while he does so. No joke is funny if you have it explained to you. There’s no mystery in a magic trick once you’ve seen how it’s done. Seeing a badass try really fucking hard at being badass negates the effort. Cool is effortless, it’s a funny joke, it’s a magic trick, it’s chemistry.

Some say DRIVE is a triumph of style over substance. I think it definitely requires some viewer participation. The first act is all about simultaneously building up and tearing down the Driver. This is who this guy is, he’s pretty badass, but ain’t he also kind of a loser? And when he starts kicking ass in the second half… who do you root for? This blank, boring wannabe? The nice lady he met (but isn’t really in the film all that much anymore)? Marlin and Hellboy, the infinitely more interesting-to-watch bad guys? Well no, they’re the bad guys. Refn promises you badassery, spends a whole lot of time tearing down the badass, then delivers. But do you still want it?

DRIVE is a very good movie. COBRA is a very cool one.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

No Hard Feelings, Japan.

Look, Japan, I’ve been…

You gotta admit that…

No no no, let’s… let’s start this over.

Japan, we met at a very strange time in your life. America had not too long ago hurt your feelings (twice)* and you were just in a weird place. But I was wrong to judge you on that! So I shoulder some of the blame here too, I think. Look, if a guy loses his leg in a car crash, you don’t expect him to go and run the quarter mile. If a country gets nuked twice within a couple of months, you can’t expect the cultural psyche to be all that and a bowl of miso soup, you know?

I was reading Akira for the first time recently and a certain style of imagery kept poppin’ up.

That’s tsunami water in the last one, not… something else. I mean, I know you’re wary cuz I’m talking Japan and all.

Note: my only manga experience before reading Akira was Berserk, a (real life) decades-spanning fantasy epic which I had mixed feelings about.

Now, I’m obviously a complete newbie at this whole Japanese pop culture thing, but it’s pretty divisive here in the west. You’ve got your overzealous otaku and your crazy cosplayers and your totally justified normal people that just frown upon it all.

I’d recently watched a BBC documentary series called Japanorama, in which the UK’s main otaku Jonathan Ross gives you a pretty good overview of many of Japan’s different crazy subcultures.

May contain some NSFW bits.

Manga (the written one) and anime (the animated one) are often ostracized for being juvenile, perverted and completely self-indulgent. I’m not even going to try and counter that, as even anime that I used to love as a child is complete poop to me as a not-even-that-discerning adult**. Jonathan Ross kept harping on about Akira, one of his absolute favorites you guys, and I decided to check it out.

To my surprise it was a very enjoyable book filled with tension, impressive set pieces, cool characters and amazing art – Katsuhiro Otomo’s city-scapes are (as seen above) mighty impressive. I’m gonna apologize in advance for my next bit of racially dubious praise: although everyone is “realistically Japanese” (ie, no one’s got green anime spikes for hair or whatever) I could, at all times, discern who was who and, as such, had a very clear sense of where everyone was situated in action scenes. This is something many A-list western comics can’t even boast of! Case in point: Composite Superman is an old school DC comics villain. Half Superman, half Batman – green face. Why is his face green? Because Batman and Superman have the same face.

The characters in Akira don’t have snazzy marketable supersuits (except maybe Tetsuo at one point), but I could totally tell who these post-apocalyptic kids were from panel to panel.

The story can be pretty much divided into two big parts: pre- and post-KABOOM. The first half is sort of an X-Files mystery interwoven with a Japanese hybrid of Trainspotting (these kids do love their pills!) and American Graffiti (these kids do love their bikes!). Kaneda and his gang stumble upon a government conspiracy that rounds up kids with psychic powers, after an escapee from the project causes gang member Tetsuo (sorta the Ringo of the group) to crash his bike. The second half I would describe as The Road Warrior meets a truly insane Tom Clancy novel. It’s in the latter half that the story starts sagging a bit, as there is a couple of hundred pages that’s mostly shooting and chasing that could easily have been excised. Otomo’s beautiful art tends to save it, though.

It’s in the Road Warrior half that a gang of wasteland marauders surround Kei, a female protagonist, and threaten to rape her. They get their asses kicked for it by Kei and Chiyoko, a rather hilarious “big Auntie with a rolling pin” archetype. It’s actually kind of… not inappropriate, since you’d think wasteland marauders are rapey types. It was only then that it hit me: I’d read near a thousand pages of this comic at this point, and there had been no sexual deviancy of any kind. Throughout the remaining thousand-ish pages, sexual violence is threatened a few more times, but it never actually occurs. Similarly, in the first half, despite our heroes being pill-poppin’ juvenile motorcycle delinquents, Otomo takes great care in showing they never kill even the most random henchmen. Hell, chase scenes even take on a distinctly slapsticky feel at times (ie, little kids going “DO THAT AGAIN” after a tank rolls through their pants-shitting grandparents’ home).

Akira feels like an enormously therapeutic work, essentially boiling down to “Yyyeaaaah, maybe the bomb fucked us up as a country a little”. Luckily, the (relatively) upbeat – and maybe slightly cheesy – ending shows Otomo’s faith in Japan and its people to crawl outta their tentacled funk and start POPPIN WHEELIEZZ again.

*Don’t feel guilty, we’ve all been there. Big, strapping quarterback; knows all those interesting people… who wouldn’t!

**DBZ consists mainly of obscenely muscled men yelling at each other for twenty minutes, sometimes for episodes on end. I don’t even know how you’re gonna defend that. There’s comments and a Facebook section, so knock yourself out!

 

Addendum:
I mentioned Kentarou Miura’s Berserk, a story about a revenge-seeking lone swordsman, at the start of this article. It’s an interesting case, cuz it’s sorta the opposite of Akira in its tone. Starting out repellently dark, juvenile and violent, the tale starts adding humor and levity a couple years into the telling (it’s still not finished). I seriously think that, rather than a conscious decision to lighten/darken the mood like Otomo, Miura simply went from producing the comic as a lonely, frustrated otaku all by himself, to having a studio of people working for him. The lone swordsman protagonist ends up traveling with a bunch of friends, two of them kids, another two little Tinkerbell fairies. I hope you stay happy and fulfilled, Kentarou-chan! ( ^_^) arigato

Monday, November 7, 2011

Get In The TARDIS, Ya ‘Tardies!

Eyes on the ball, homo sapiens! Tonight I will tell you about a strange man. A mad man. In a box.

Doctor Who has been a phenomenon in the UK almost since its first broadcast in 1963. That’s right, this shit’s almost as old as television itself. It ran until 1989, with a failed 1996 TV movie filling in the gap between that and its 2005 reboot.

Over the decades, there have been nearly twice (!) as many actors playing the Doctor (11) as there have been actors playing James Bond (6).

What the shit is Doctor Who about???

The Doctor is a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey. He lives on his ship, the TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimension In Space – bigger on the inside), a vessel capable of space and time travel. Normally a TARDIS adapts to whatever time period it lands in, but this one got fucked up and now it’s stuck looking like a 1960s police box, aka that blue sorta phone booth you see in the picture above.* The Doctor has adventures across space and time, usually with a human friend called a Companion. Whenever a Time Lord is killed, his body regenerates and he comes out looking different. Handy in a scrape or when your main actor gets bored with the show!

Oh, and I’m gonna get this out of the way real quick: the TARDIS is a living being that is grown rather than built, and its living computer tricks people’s minds into not noticing it. Also, it sort of “preps” the time traveler for whatever environment he will end up in (ie, end up in Ancient Rome? BAM! You know Latin.)

Why would I watch this? I’ve already seen Quantum Leap!

Beautiful Scott Ba… NO WAIT uhhhh – it’s totally different, really! First of all, the places the Doctor takes his friends are slightly more off-kilter than “the last three decades of US history”. How about vampire-infested Renaissance Venice? Space Britain ruled by weird insert-a-coin fortune teller guys? A dead planet right at the edge of a black hole (the reason why it’s not falling in is too juicy and hilarious and awesome to reveal here)? A decadent luxury cruiser come to watch the end of the world? Stonehenge under Roman rule? This show’ll take you anywhere.

And I do mean anywhere! The show’s not afraid to ask some very heavy questions for what is essentially a family adventure programme. If you can go do anything, anywhere, anytime… why would you ever want to return to your normal life? Likewise, from the Doctor’s perspective, as the Tenth so aptly put it: “You’ll know me your entire life. I’m not that lucky.” At one point, he’ll have to leave you, because he’d rather not watch you die.

On a more light-hearted note, the show is incredibly inclusive. Whenever it (lightly) touches on homosexuality, it’s not preachy or LOLFAGS. That guy likes guys, and that’s it. Black people, Asians, muslims, in positions of authority or just shown as regular people (instead of OMG RESPECKFUL DEPICKSHUN OF NON-CHRISTIAN). It’s totally exemplary.

Doctor Who is essentially a show about the thrill of exploration, the beauty of knowledge, the most wonderful journey of all: self-actualisation. The Doctor took a shine to us crazy hairless monkeys, and there’s nothing he wants more than to see us fulfill our true potential.  A trickster/scientist rather than a warrior, pretty much every conflict is resolved in an imaginative and (relatively) peaceful way.

Okay, cool, brah. But damn, that’s a lotta TV to watch!

Don’t worry, Chad or perhaps Trent! There’s a pretty easy way to get into it, with a minimum of baggage.

1) Watch the first two episodes of Season 5 (2010), introducing Matt Smith as the Eleventh Doctor.

With the information you’ve gathered in this blog, you should be well able to start this show in its fifth season. If you think it a bit strange that you’re completely able to skip four previous seasons of a show, that’s where we get to step 2.

2) If you’ve liked what you’ve seen so far, go back to episode 10 of season 3 (“Blink”), followed by episodes 8 and 9 of season 4 (“Silence in the Library”/”Forest of the Dead”), a two-parter.

In these episodes, some concepts are introduced that will be somewhat central to the Matt Smith series.

3) By all means, do continue with seasons 5 and 6!

Why can’t I just start with the first season of the 2005 reboot?

Because you’ll say “What is this cheap fucking shit?” and go back to watching XTREME ANIMAL PHOBIAS. The first four seasons were shepherded by Russel T. Davies, an uneven writer to say the least. The best episodes from those first four seasons are invariably by a man named Stephen Moffat, who became showrunner starting with season 5. He also did the excellent modern day Sherlock re-imagining and Coupling aka “that British version of Friends that you shouldn’t be embarrassed to say you liked”. Seasons 1-4 have their ups and downs, but season 5 is just SO MUCH BETTER it’s kind of amazing.

Why start with season 5, jump back to those couple eps in 3 and 4, then resume 5? Why not just watch those couple episodes, then just jump into 5?

There’s not really any problem with starting with Blink, then working your way chronologically through the rest, but Matt Smith’s first episode is SUCH a killer intro to the character and the series I wouldn’t want to rob you of it.

I dunno if I wanna commit to 40 minutes on a show I’m unsure about…

UUUUGHHHH GOD I HATE YOU

Can you commit to 9 minutes then? Can you? Here’s a little standalone two-parter where the Doctor basically does Portal.

Space!

Time!

*Funny: in the Who-series of decades past, the Doctor would always be explaining sci-fi concepts like “teleportation” or “downloading” to his companions. In the reboot, he’s had to explain the relatively simple concept of “a police box” several times already.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Hide Behind The Couch! The Double Nazis Are Coming!

2011’s CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER must have been a tough sell for the good people at Marvel Studios. A wartime hero literally draped in the flag of a country that had lost much of its popularity abroad in the past decade… tough cookie for the marketing guys, especially in these days where the foreign markets are as important as the domestic takes. See for instance the option for certain countries to either promote it with its full title or merely its subtitle THE FIRST AVENGER (guess which three TRAITOR countries went with it?).

Political stuff in movies is sensitive, especially in big mainstream blockbuster movies that need to sell their 100+ million dollar product to those very countries we may have been in conflict with at the time of the story. No, it’s best to tell a story in the general setting of WWII, but with all the principal players far enough removed from real combat to tell our superhero fantasy. Absolutely nothing wrong with that, but it ends up being executed (pardon mein Deutsch) in a rather muddled fashion when villain Red Skull shows the most cruelty to some nazi stooges sent to check up on him. Otherwise, he pretty much gets his ass handed to him throughout the movie. Now, this is hardly a dealbreaker, as the film has plenty of other good things to recommend it (Can you believe this is an Actor’s Movie? It totally is!).

Now here comes the tricky part. Should we have shown Red Skull and his HYDRA-forces (who have a double-armed salute, hence the titular DOUBLE NAZIS) wreaking havoc upon our boys in uniform, simply to have the need for someone like Cap established? No, not necessarily. There would be other ways to achieve a villain’s credible threat level (here are some SPOILERS): having the Skull directly kill Cap’s pal Bucky, have Zola escape and kill General Tommy Lee in the process (end SPOILERS).

In a world where Battlefield and Call of Duty are using a still ongoing (and much less clear-cut than WWII) conflict for fucking MULTIPLAYER DEATHMATCHES, I think films should be able to get away with using wartime casualties for drama. Is it a bit facile? Yes, absolutely, but films like CAPTAIN AMERICA are big, broad films.

The WWII comic book movies used to be pretty big: Dirty Dozen, Where Eagles Dare, The Eagle Has Landed… shit, we had one two years ago in Inglourious Basterds. WWII was such a game-changer in our very lexicon that “nazi” is basically synonymous with “evil guy” nowadays. What’s wrong with having “allied soldier” basically mean “good guy”?

Look, 2000’s X-Men opens with a scene in a concentration camp. It was, in retrospect, a rather on-the-nose mission statement that THAT JOEL SCHUMACHER BATMAN AND ROBIN DAY GLO BULLSHIT WAS OVER MAN SUPERHEROES ARE SARYOS BUSINESS NAO

Flashforward to 2011, and we’re doing an X-Men prequel that – zomg – also opens in a concentration camp. And the movie even stays there longer than the original! And the swastika (imprinted upon a coin) is a recurring motif throughout! First Class is, however, a fun and breezy and not-at-all grim movie. In fact, the most highly praised bits of it were basically the “Fassbender: Nazi Hunter” ones. The nazi stuff just creates a context to show you where Magneto is coming from.

In the UK, “hiding behind the couch when the Daleks show up” is a thing any Doctor Who loving kid empathizes with. Do you remember how freaked out by Judge Doom’s real face you were at the end of Roger Rabbit? Or maybe when the Ark opened in Indiana Jones? Kids movies need that whiff of transgression about them to feel more dangerous, more relevant. They’re really not as soft as you think.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

99 Bullets But The Plot Ain’t One

If a man walked up to you and told you your life was a shambles because of one individual, and he had incontrovertible proof this person was responsible, and he had one hundred untraceable bullets for you to do whatever with… would you do whatever?

A fascinating premise, and surely one that could sustain quite a few one-off tales? And it does. Brian Azzarello’s 100 Bullets has quite a few one or two issue story arcs that are sometimes exciting, sometimes touching, sometimes funny. A successful comic book series, then!

Oh wait, we’re only two tiny paragraphs in. Nope! There’s problems! Here I address them:

Problem #1:

It is a hundred issues long. There is an overarching story about a shadowy cabal that runs the world in secret, but none of them are terribly interesting. Nor do you get to know them all. Azzarello employs that laziest of all tension-creating devices: the deliberate withholding of information. Everybody’s motivations are so goddamned mysterious and shady and covered in layers of mistrust and lies that you simply don’t know what the hell is going on most of the time. Why does this guy wanna shoot this guy? Who knows! They’re too mysterious to tell you! At one point, there are two factions in The Trust (the aforementioned shadowy cabal) that are at war. I simply couldn’t tell you who was fighting who and why. Small price for keepin’ everyone MYSTERIOUS and COOL, I guess!

Problem #2:

Every character is MYSTERIOUS and COOL at the expense of being likable. If everyone’s mysterious, no one gives a shit, Azzarello! They all just become cyphers! Excuse me for dragging Star Wars prequels into this, but in the end they have the same problem. Characters are blanks because the writer’s more preoccupied with the plot/being badass/”shocking” readers that he forgets to give ‘em, ya know, characters. I will describe some guys from the comic:

Agent Graves: he is the guy with the suitcase that offers people the 100 bullets!
Cole Burns: he looks like Johnny Depp!
Loop: he is a black!
Victor Ray: he is a white!
Jack Daw: he is a boxer!
Lono: Wolverine looking motherfucker who likes rape and money and is pretty much the only fun guy to follow. He’s the equivalent of the Emperor in Revenge of the Sith – he’s still a dumb character, but he seems to be the only one with any passion for anything.
Echo: she wants to steal a painting! Big tits!
Megan: she’s rich! Big tits!

Problem #3:

Big tits! Well, okay, that’s not really a problem, but the book does have a very… teenage view of women and sexuality, and I don’t think it’s a sort of meta-commentary on the inherent immaturity of the hardboiled pulp genre this is supposed to be a modern variant of. 100 Bullets really feels like it’s written by a sixteen year old whose exposure to the world is through movies (and then only ones made post ‘75). A good example: the leader of The Trust is called De Medici. That’s… pretty on the nose, but okayyyy, I guess. His first name is Augustus. Ummm… well. His son’s name is BENITO. Look, you don’t need to be Da Vinci Hanks here to read through all the symbolism – this guy’s family is ITALIAN AND EVIL! There are some issues set in France and Italy, and holy shit, this is so annoying even if you just speak a modicum of either language: it completely reads like Azzarello just ran his script through Bing Translator. QUEL EMBARRASSMENT BAISER CROISSANT

LA CONCLUSIONE:

I’d like 100 Bullets a lot better if it wasn’t seen as a Great Comic (amongst comic book fans, at least). It’s actually exactly the kind of trash teenage boys SHOULD be reading, in my opinion, to eventually be outgrown. It’s full of posing and posturing and violence and nudity basically everything a developing boy needs to sow his teenage oats. But nope, this is supposedly for “mature” readers. You know what gets the T rating? Basically the same shit as this, but with superpowers, and there’s always some Austin Powers contrivances covering the naughty bits. In an ideal world, they’d leave the supers for the all-ages crowds, crank shit like 100 Bullets out for the teenage hormone crowd, and OMG maybe actually try and tell a mature story for the mature crowd?

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Who peed in the sandbox?

For over a decade now, the good folks at Rock Star have visited hilariously entertaining carnage upon is with the freewheelin’, smash-grabbin’ Grand Theft Auto series. Set in a satirical sort of Ultra-America, the various games have used different periods and locations to make every one a unique and memorable experience: Vice City riffed on Scarface and Miami Vice in an 80s quasi-Florida, San Andreas took you to early 90s gangsta not-LA as seen in Boyz N The Hood and Menace II Society, and the latest one – the inventively titled GTA IV – takes a (visually) more subdued turn into 2000s New York and the Russian mafia.

GTAIV’s greatest triumph is the world itself, the semi-New York of Liberty City. Just walking or driving through it is an amazing and completely immersive experience. People have car trouble, get into arguments (or even simple conversations) on the streets, a cop might start chasing a pickpocket, you can walk into bars (and get so drunk your controls and vision get fucked up) or just plain old watch TV in your apartment… and it’s funnier than REAL TV! And hey, it’s good to be a gangster, huh? Having car chases, blowing shit up, pulling off sweet getaways… awesome stuff! Killing dudes, shooting up anything that explodes, trying to get that helicopter or speedboat to go in the general direction you vaguely want it t—wait what?

Yeah, anyone who’s ever played a GTA game after the series went 3D knows its weak spots. Once you have to take control of anything but a car or bike (and even that last one’s iffy) the game’s tone of casually zipping along violence transforms into a no-disturbances-allowed frustration fest coupled with The Math Class effect – it’s in the curriculum, but at least it’s not trigonometry ALL the time.

GTAIV compounds this by actually making the (several stages) long final mission culminate in not only a speedboat, but ALSO a helicopter chase. It’s as if, in the climax of Spider-Man, Sam Raimi intercut Spidey and the Goblin’s fight with Aunt May telling the little black kid next door about which things she thought were the sun that day. The most frustrating moment in my gaming history was when the end boss I was chasing had crashed his own chopper into a crowded intersection. Trying to finally (after about a dozen tries) kill this fucker, I tried as best I could to put the fucking helicopter down relatively near to the downed one, which unfortunately was between a couple of blocks of skyscrapers. I don’t entirely manage to put it down without incident, but protagonist Niko has made it and the thing hasn’t even blown up. OH WAIT WHOOPS THO: red text informs me that The helicopter was destroyed. What??! That text only happens when… the… mission has… failed. And oh yes, I empty an entire clip in Dmitri Da Boss’ head but nope. The helicopter was destroyed.

A sandbox game should mean freedom. It should mean that every time I play this final boss mission, I should be able to kill Dmitri in a different way. I might shoot him out of the sky, both our choppers might break down and finish it on foot, I might simply maneuver him into a skyscraper through my great helicopter piloting skills (surely those players also exist, right?). Basically anything but having to go through pre-set motions to make exactly those things happen as the game designers thought cinematic enough to finish the main storyline. It happens in a few missions actually: shooting cars right in the gas tank doesn’t make them explode as usual (in the game, anyway) but rather the car you are chasing is invulnerable until the “right time” aka where the cut scene is supposed to happen.

If you put a million things in your game, a whole bunch of them aren’t going to be very good. Conversely, quite a few of them probably will be. Rather than force every one of them down a gamer’s throat, have them have a taste to be savored again later, if so desired, and keep the Good Things as the only ones that are mandatory.

And of course, GTA has the music that makes you go HAHAHAHWHATTTTTT

Especially funny if you consider one of Joe’s aliases: Joe Crack.
And what the fuck, this one too.

All in all, it’s atmosphere that pulls GTAIV to the more positive side of the fence, making it a Bad Great Game than a Good Bad Game.