Sunday, 30 March 2014

Not Books II- Kaijus and Monkeys


My first attempt at cataloging the non-book entertainment I spend/waste my life soaking up like a sponge wasn't as messy as I feared it would be, so this is my second attempt. The first installment was a collection of quick thoughts written over the course of a few days, but the plan now is to keep an open .rtf file to be added to when I finish something, and published when it looks long enough. For some reason you all need to know this.

TV Shows-

The IT Crowd- Series 01-04 & Special (2006-2013)
A good traditional British or Irish sit-com seems hard to find these days, at least to the standards of the classics. As a very English person from England, I don't really have much interest in the voluminous quantities of US comedies (though my girlfriend can't get enough of them), but I do have that undying loyalty to certain classic six-episode season favourite examples like Blackadder, Red Dwarf, Father Ted and Black Books. Those last two were created by the same writer; the annoyingly-talented and likable Graham Linehan, and I've enjoyed them for years (the thing I love about this style of comedy is that even though most shows don't have a huge episode count, they have always had immense replay value amongst my friends and I, to the point of excess), which is why it suddenly seems very strange that it took me so long to get around to watching Linehan's third sit-com success, The IT Crowd.

The IT Crowd charts the adventures of three unfortunate souls working in the basement at Reynholm Industries in the IT department, where they spend most of their time answering phone calls with 'have you tried turning it off and on again' over and over again. The format and style is essentially identical to that Father Ted and Black Books, where the characters' mundane lives are occasionally inturrupted by unexpected situations usually caused through their own doing, then get worse and worse until they somehow escape at the end. Stretching to four seasons and a final special, I think the show initially suffered from a concept that didn't strike a chord with as many viewers as, say, a bunch of ridiculous Irish priests did, but the show gained in popularity as it got older.

It gets better with age too, as Lineham seems to get a better grasp on how to use his characters. The fourth season is the best, in my opinion, and by the end I felt it was a big shame it didn't go for one more series. Altogether I don't rank it as highly as I do Ted or Books, but then I've seen those multiple times and only sat through the full run of IT Crowd once, so that might change over the coming years. 

The Simpsons- Season 01 (1989-1990)
I'd been pondering for some time the possibility of tackling perhaps the greatest TV show of all time from the beginning. Not to the end of course, besides the fact that it may never finish I doubt I could maintain my interest for that many episodes, but through the classic years, at least the first ten seasons. Now in the interesting times we live in DVDs are cheap and plentiful, especially if you don't mind buying pre-owned copies, and the hypnotic notion that we all need to collect every season of TV show we've ever liked combined with the eventual realisation that we probably really shouldn't means that there are plenty of cheap DVDs available for all. I don't know what the moral of this tale is, other than it's kind of surreal and ridiculous when you think about it and the nature of the human race and all that.

So, the first season of The Simpsons. Everybody's seen at least a few episodes, especially the first one. In my case even though I hadn't seen many of these episodes for perhaps ten years or more, I remembered most of the plots and punchlines thanks to my copy of The Simpsons: A Complete Guide to Your Favourite Family, an episode guide covering seasons one to eight (that I really wish I still had, hopefully my sister has it somewhere). I used to really enjoy episode guides when I was a kid, probably thanks to the difficulty in obtaining a full series of a TV show back then (unless you wanted to deal with a million video-cases), though it gave me a strange sensation watching through these episodes knowing that my memories rely on the guide.

When watching these episodes I tried to keep in mind that these were originally made when the world as a whole had never heard of The Simpsons, at a point where the creators were trying to sculpt their vision and comedy while being popular enough to justify the show's position on Fox. The animation, obviously, is a little sketchier than later standards, presumably due to the budget, and the character voices are sometimes slightly off in relation to how I've come to know them. Also there's much more of a serene pace to it all, with less outlandish plots than we'd later see, focusing on family life and happiness, in a surprisingly existential way. My favourite episode from the season was easily Moaning Lisa, where Lisa is shown how to musically express her sadness through the blues by legendary character Bleeding Gums Murphy, but every episode is pretty great in its own way. 

Luther- Series Three (2013)
When I first discovered this take by the BBC on the gritty maverick detective format of crime fiction I binged through it in a few days, though that really wasn't difficult since the first two series are comprised of only ten episodes. With lead actor Idris Elba becoming something of a Hollywood star over the past few years it didn't seem likely that a third series would be made, so it was fantastic news that four more episodes of Luther were on the way, because DCI John Luther is a seriously fantastic and captivating character.

Elba's brooding, charismatic portrayal of Luther went hand in hand with some nasty crime fiction scripts from creator Neil Cross, featuring suitably disturbing serial killers mixed in with conspiracy and in-fighting amongst the police. The third series totally re-embraces the format, with Luther under attack from all sides. Like series two, three features four one hour long episodes. There's an underlying plot running through the whole season where Luther has to deal with a vengeful internal investigations group, but there are two killers to be dealt and they get two episodes each. Compared to most shows that's not much content, but even though I love the show I have to admit that the brevity improves it. The same plots and style stretched out over too many episodes would've been overkill thanks to how past-paced the show is.

Series three is, I think, not quite as good as the second, but better than the first. My only real problem with it was Luther's almost super-human abilities of recovery and speed (in the last episode at least), which kind of took me out of it. I have read criticism from others about the repetition of the theme of so many people in the police trying to screw Luther over, but that's always been part of the nature of the series, placing as many obstacles as possible in his way to increase the tension and drama.

As the show makes use of the inverted detective format (where the audience is privy to the crime and criminal at the start of the show, rather than a whodunnit) and since Luther usually takes about ten minutes to figure out the identity of the murderer it leaves lots of room for thematic moralising. The show's greatest strength is Elba and his ability to communicate the character through his body language and movement, and at the core of that character is basically a hero fighting against the evils of the world and resisting his own corruption. That's really all I want from a TV show.

Films-

Pacific Rim (2013)
From one Idris Elba project to another, Pacific Rim was one of those films where, beforehand, I felt like there was a chance that it could be amazing if done right, but such anticipation led to paranoia and I kept putting off watching it for a while. After watching Luther I was in the mood to watch it, the first new film I've seen in about six months. Pacific Rim was, as far as I'm aware, a pretty successful blockbuster so you've likely seen trailers and summaries etc, so I'll summarise the plot quickly; giant robots fight giant monsters. Easy sell, really.

Full of spectacular CGI, Pacific Rim looks like it cost a ton of money, full of extended battle scenes where cities are destroyed and giant monsters are thoroughly punched in the head. The plot of the film is fairly simple, with further details about the origins and purpose of the giant kaiju monsters left purposefully limited, which really ended up being my only real bugbear (that's a real phrase, right?) with the movie. I understand the films purpose to be a 2014 Hollywood representation of a popular Japanese movie sub-culture didn't require too much background detail, but to be honest, even though I'm happy to watch this kind of CGI destruction, I've also seen it so many times in so many mediums since the dawn of modern CGI in films that it doesn't offer enough by itself.

On a more positive note, the world presented in the film is fantastic and compelling, largely thanks to the great decision to introduce it with an introduction telling of the arrival of the monsters before moving further into the future to a much-changed world; there could be some great comics written from this. The performances are all pretty good and likable from a mostly unknown (to people like me) cast, although I was a bit disappointed that Elba didn't get to do more than play a fairly one-dimensional army commander type. Other than that I didn't really get much from this film at all except action, which I suppose is okay from an unpretentious action blockbuster, so a general thumbs up.

 Kick-Ass 2 (2013)
Kick-Ass the first caused quite a stir when it came out in 2010 for having the temerity to show an eleven-year-old violently killing people and swearing a lot. I quite liked it as a black-humoured snarky deconstruction of some modern comics and film, particularly thanks to Nic Cage being genuinely brilliant in it. Since his character snuffed it he wasn't going to be back for the sequel, so this time Jim Carrey stepped in to fulfill the role of box office draw- only to cause another wave of controversy when he withdraw his support for the film thanks to its continuing brand of adolescent uber-violence. In the end, though none of this really mattered when Kick-Ass 2 was released because it was unfortunately condemned as not a very good movie, probably bringing an end to creator Mark Miller's hopeful franchise.

I mostly enjoyed it, but a lot of it was as a visually-based guilty pleasure. The storyline barely evolves from the first film, with Kick Ass desperately trying to make a difference as an urban hero, this time finding and joining a whole group of fellow vigilantes inspired by him, led by Carrey who is honestly superb as a good guy character who's a heavy rip-off of Watchmen's The Comedian. Villain The Red Mist from the first film and takes things up a notch by forming his own group of supervillains. Pretty standard stuff, propped up by immature dialogue that I found pretty funny. The action is extremely fast-paced and violent throughout, though it's so consistently non-stop that it lost some of its shine. When it tries to take itself seriously though, through deaths of supporting characters and such it just doesn't work on any level, and I didn't really care whatsoever if Kick Ass or Hit Girl learned and developed or whatever because the tone of the film excluded that from the start. I did enjoy it though and I'd probably watch it again in a few years, assuming we're not all zombies by then or something.

Computer Games- 

The Secret of Monkey Island- Special Edition (1990/2009)
Last time out in Not Books I praised the Phoenix Wright series for being brilliant modern takes on the classic adventure game genre. Since I finished the second game in that series, I went back to a game I probably haven't played in five years but which I could almost complete with my eyes closed. Probably considered THE classic adventure of all time, Ron Gilbert and LucasArt's The Secret of Monkey Island gave me an excuse to play it again when I finally got around to buying the now-five year old special edition remake. For those not acquainted, the Monkey Island series follows the cartoon adventures of wannabe pirate Guybrush Threepwood and his many troubles with the evil ghost pirate LeChuck, who's always trying to turn Guybrush's on/off girlfriend Elaine into his undead bride.

Originally released in 1990 for the Amiga and on DOS amongst others, the original version is graphically very, very dated but is revered today for having one of, if not the funniest script in gaming history. The special edition thankfully doesn't change any of the latter, and makes an attempt to update the former somewhat. Unfortunately (for me) I didn't really like the new graphics much at all; I was hoping for it to be redrawn in the smooth, bright and colourful cartoon style of The Curse of Monkey Island (the third installment, from 1997), but instead the developers try to update the grim, deep colours of the original and the result is a kind of overly shiny, barely detailed pseudo-3D. I found it so ugly that for a while I switched to the original graphics again until I realised that was a bit of a waste of money since I've got the original on CD somewhere.

The audio is mostly better. Voice actors from the more recent Monkey games return to fully voice this remake and it's generally good, though on occasions the voice actors seem to get the timing and projection horribly wrong. The music is also redone and it's great throughout. Finally the original interface is updated, I believe mostly to simplify things for the X-Box controller, and the updates are fine. Other than that there's not too much to say about the remake as a whole other than praising the original game. To be honest even though I enjoyed the playthrough I'm still not especially pleased with the remake thanks to the graphics redesign that I was hoping for so much more from. Oh well, I've got the Monkey Island 2 remake lined up and at some point I'm going to sit down and try to perform the sourcery necessary to make Monkey 3 work on my modern (ish) laptop, which is probably going to drive me insane.