Friday, 9 May 2014

Not Books III- Walking Dead Edition, Apparantly

TV Shows-

The Walking Dead- Season 04

Like so many millions of others, I'm a complete Walking Dead junkie, and lapped up every episode of the latest season. The mid-season break and the stylistic differences between the two halves made it seem, to me, though these were two separate seasons, and all the better for it. Things started off fairly poorly compared to the third season, thanks to the mostly dull and uninspiring plot of the group all catching scurvy or super-flu or something; a seemingly unpleasant new disease with the very fortunate side effect of being unable to kill any of the main cast. The writers were clearly time wasting and building the tension for the inevitable return of the Governor, back to ruin the civilization that destroyed his. Amazingly when he did return the show cut away from the main cast for two whole episodes for the sake of filling in the back story since we last saw him. It felt like something from Lost and I greatly enjoyed it, particularly the effect it had of promoting the Governor from the status of end of level boss to somewhat of an anti-hero main character with his own complex motivations. When he returned to the prison to confront Rick and co. for the mid-season finale it blew my mind through not only its sheer bloody violence but how that violence was meticulously crafted by the writers to mean so much more than just visual eye-candy in its impact on the surviving characters.

When the show returned, the events of the mid-season finale shook things up greatly for the first time in a while, as the group was split and scattered across the Georgia forest (though not too far, for storyline purposes), and mostly kept apart for the entire season. The attempts at world-building by the characters was replaced with a constant fight for survival in the wilderness, presented as mostly done-in-one episodes barely progressing the plot other than to aim the wandering characters into the right direction as they each became drawn to the mysterious sanctuary-advertising Terminus. To be honest not all of it was compelling, but it was an exercise in tension building and character development leading towards the season finale. Like the mid-season one, it was extremely bloody and vicious, offering more action and danger than past episodes in order to reward the fans patience with the recent slower pace. Barely ten minutes in to the episode and I was wide-eyed, thanks to converging characters bringing each other death and destruction. As it finished, I was already damning the up-coming wait for season five, whenever that may be.


The Lost World- Jurassic Park (1997)

In all my writings on this blog I don't think I've ever mentioned of how much of a role Michael Crichton's 1990 science fiction novel Jurassic Park played in my personal development as a reader and student of literature. Like many other kids I was mad on dinosaurs, and so Steven Spielberg's amazing film adaptation was perfect for me. After seeing that I was given a copy of the book by a family member, easily the most complicated, mature piece of writing I'd ever come across at the tender age of seven. Because I was so obsessed I read the book over and over again, understanding the different aspects more and more each time, and with it becoming more accustomed to mature fiction. I went on a Crichton kick, naturally including the follow-up book The Lost World, which as a novel is blatantly not as good as a stand alone piece but I feel works well as an extended epilogue exploring the themes from a different perspective without really advancing the main story to any extent.

About twenty years later, I found myself watching the much-maligned sequel on television, not for the first, nor even the tenth time, and it seemed fairly obvious where the problems begin. Spielberg's follow-up was pretty much doomed from the start through its halfhearted attempts to adapt the awkward source material while sustaining the awe of a big budget Hollywood action film, ultimately failing on both counts. I like the book but there's no mistaking that it cruises on the success of the original, adding almost nothing new of its own but instead expanding on some of the original themes, such as the industrial espionage and conspiracy of the powerful companies behind the Jurassic Park technology, and the behaviour of the dinosaurs themselves. Clearly a straight adaptation would not have worked (a very odd stylistic decision by Crichton indeed when you consider the money he must have made from the success of the franchise already), making changes absolutely necessary.

As you all must be remembering by now, what we actually from the adaptation was absolutely ridiculous, specifically from the point where the characters get off the island and the bad guys somehow manage to bring a T-Rex with them directly to San Diego, in hope of adding it to their insane Jurassic Park in the city concept. It's a massive shame, I thought while watching it this time, that the rewrite became most stupid without Crichton's work to rely on, because the prior aspects set on the island itself really aren't that bad. It's not as good as the original, of course (my favourite film of all time), but it's okay, at times even shockingly decent compared to its reputation. The island looks amazing thanks to the on-location filming, the CGI is top notch for the time, and the film sensibly sticks with the success of the first one by having a massive T-Rex attack (this time doubled) and then some Velociraptor action- though the latter is admittedly damaged heavily by the 'efforts' of Ian Malcolm's wretched step-daughter kicking one in the face.

When the massive boat with the T-Rex crashes into the San Diego harbour after the massive dinosaur somehow manages to kill everyone on board without them radioing for help and despite it being trapped in the massive cargo hold presumable unable to reach half of them, everything goes to hell. The actors stop bothering to try, the writers gave up long ago, and any sense of legitimate wonder, awe and horror built up by the earlier action scenes set in the scenic jungle is quickly flushed down the toilet for the sake of some abysmal humour involving a dog and a kid. It's probably all even worse than Jurassic Park 3, which is saying something. Hopefully the upcoming Jurassic World will re-embrace the serious wonder of the original and the first half of this film and leave the later rotten attempts at family entertainment as a bad memory. 

 Frankenweenie (2012)

I didn't give this one a fair chance from the start, to be honest. There's a short and uninteresting back story- I spent the best part of ten years avoiding the deluge of CGI animated films from Disney/Pixar and Dreamworks, just because I thought they looked corny and I was too cool. Then, last year, my fiance  and I decided to watch a load of them together to get me over it. Wreck-It Ralph and Rise of the Guardians were really good, but a few crap ones (and my growing, but hopefully temporary, disinterest in watching films in general) ruined that, and I gave up. She wanted to watch Frankenweenie, and in my eyes it was doomed before it started.

It didn't help when I found out that not only was it a Tim Burton film, but a remake by Tim Burton of an earlier Tim Burton film. That seemed like way too much Tim Burton for me; especially since I haven't enjoyed a new film by him in some time, finding the constant recycling of actors, images, styles and themes to be self-indulgent and unbalanced by a lack of coherant, interesting storytelling. Frankenweenie, then, is Tim Burton re-doing Frankenstein by way of Disney, and though while I'll admit that combination probably really appeals to a massive audience of alternative-styled teenage girls, it didn't really have anything for me. In hindsight it was interesting to see quite a fluid mesh of styles between Burton stereotypes and Disney stereotypes, where Burton seemed to reign in some of his inherent weirdness for the sake of a happier story and ending, but to be honest I didn't much care. Oh, and it's all in black and white, did I mention that? 

Natural Born Killers (1994)

A very, very curious film that I watched once at university and for some reason barely paid attention to, but saw again recently and found much more interesting. Oliver Stone's one hundred mile-an-hour take on Quentin Tarantino's screenplay seems far too flawed and, well, totally insane for many people to call it a true 90's classic, in the same vein as the writer's other efforts, but it was very interesting. Having not long ago read Truman Capote's In Cold Blood I couldn't help comparing the two narrative's exploration of the mass media reporting of serial killers, and coming to the conclusion that Natural Born Killers is a fictional culmination of atmospheres like the ones surrounding the Clutter murder case, taken to the furthest degree. In terms of presenting a fairly straightforward message criticising the glorification of serial killers by the media it does get the message across, but not without coming across a series of various problems that the film just can't get past.

First of all the biggest problem I have, particularly regarding the end of the film, is centered around the status of the Micky and Mallory characters and how they're presented in reference to the message of the film. On the one hand the narrative seems designed to give some sympathy to them through their hard-luck back stories, and it seemed clear to me that Oliver Stone wanted to portray them somewhat as victims pushed into an expanding role by the country around them; a force of nature, or of media. The problem seems to be do to with the treatment of Tarantino's script by Stone, where the transmogrification really leaves them stuck between two ideas- Tarantino's effort, in his typical style, creates two incredibly charismatic, enigmatic and frankly damned cool characters, genre picture characters seemingly influenced heavily by Terrence Malick's 1973 film Badlands, who start out the film as incredibly cool, perfectly formed physical manifestations of anarchy. Once that's established it effectively makes the overall message kind of pointless, or so it seemed to me. The scenes where Robert Downey Jr. interviews Woody Harrelson live from prison are so fantastic as establishing Mickey as a super Charley Manson type figure that it just perpetuates the entire serial killer myth that the film is (occasionally) trying  to criticise. It's good, but it's a bit of a mess.

 Westworld (1973)

When I first saw Westworld around two years ago I was very impressed and really enjoyed it. This time around though it just wasn't anywhere near as much fun. Writer and director Michael Crichton will always be a favourite of mine thanks to his novels, and Westworld contains many of the ideas that he would later expand on (specifically in Jurassic Park), but it's not a brilliant piece of film-making. The pacing is fairly slow, as Crichton stretches a plot that really only has enough detail for a short-story (The Simpsons did a great parody with that episode where they go to Itchy and Scratchy Land) over 90-minutes, and as a result I was bored more often than not. The pacing changes for the last third of the film, as does the tone, shifting into a far more sinister mood as things go horrible awry. For those who haven't seen it, Westworld is a science fiction film presumably set in the future where technology has enabled the creation of perfect lifelike animatronic robots. For a cool $1000 a day, people can visit the holiday resort of Dellos where said robots are used to create fantasy adventure holidays. Westworld is one of those holiday options, a fully recreated wild west setting where holidaymakers can drink, whore and trade pistols at dawn, without any risk to themselves or others.

Obviously things to wrong, leading to a series of events resembling both Jurassic Park and The Terminator. Yul Brynner is the most memorable performer as a murderous, unstoppable android, hellbent on avenging those who've thoughtlessly killed him many times before without a second thought. It's a short parable on the dangers of science creating artificial life, verging on the horror genre in places, but to be honest there's simply not enough detail put into the plot, not enough refinement of just how things are about to go wrong, and Richard Benjamin's main character is far too much of a wet blanket to leave a memorable imprint onscreen. Still, while it might be a film most only want to see once, it has a memorable, eerie style to it and top of the range sci-fi morality ambitions, leaving me to recommend it to anyone who really considers themselves a fan of the genre.

The Lone Ranger (2013)

Christ, such a bland, stupid and uninteresting film I can barely be bothered to write about it. It's ironic really, as clearly a huge amount of time and effort was put into creating this, but almost nothing clicks. I must begin by saying I really have no idea what The Lone Ranger character really is or where he comes from; I assume a pulp hero character from the early parts of last century that made the leap to television. I'm from England where the Western genre doesn't really permeate popular culture very often beyond hardcore fans, so the title character had no instant appeal to me. With that in mind, actor Arnie Hammer (who I'd never heard of before this) did a great job of making the character seem as banal, generic and uninteresting as possible. Lead attraction Johnny Depp, meanwhile, decided to play supporting character Tonto as Johnny Depp playing Jack Sparrow playing Tonto, which was interesting but not remotely enough to save the movie.

Regardless of the cast though the plot of this film is such a mixture of convoluted rubbish and barely thought-out genericism that it was destined to failure anyway. The stunts are admittedly impressive, but otherwise this is a boring-looking film for something that had a bajillion dollars spent on it. Finally it doesn't help the suspense of disbelief that the film takes the Pirates of the Caribbean trope of making each action scene look very, very choreographed, and puts even more effort into it. How are you supposed to care about the supposedly human characters when they seem to be able to escape every situation through some sort of unexplained cowboy spider-sense? Anyway now I can't be bothered to write about this film anymore.

Video Games-

 The Walking Dead- Season One (2012)

As I sit typing this it has been at least two weeks since I completed the fifth and final episode of season one of The Walking Dead videogame, and truth be told I'm still not entirely sure how to approach this mini-review. It should be impossible to sum up the ambitions and achievements of this game in such a short space of time, particularly from someone who hasn't written a serious video game review in probably five years. The main impression it left me with was that it not only lived up to both Robert Kirkman's original comic book series and AMC's beautifully gruesome television adaptation, but used the power of the format to arguably improve on them. That's right,I think The Walking Dead game is the highest quality of the entire franchise, down to the fact that the writers and developers took advantage of the potential of the medium and tailored the game to have as much emotional impact on the player as possible. When I finished the game I didn't know where to scream or cry.

Aside from a couple of cameos, this game populates the popular post-apocalyptic zombiefest world with new characters. The player is Lee Everett, a man on his way to prison for the accidental murder of his wife's lover when the world goes to hell and a zombie inflicted car crash grants him his freedom. It's not long before he encounters Clementine, a six-year-old girl hiding in her tree-house, hoping for her parents to return. From that point on Lee vows to look after Clementine, and it's this stroke of genius that makes the game what it is. Supposedly the writers spent a lot of time perfecting the Clementine character and it shows; she's easily the best child character in a game thanks to her endearing nature and believable vulnerability. I'm mostly pretty cynical and disconnected to this sort of thing in fiction, but the interactive nature of the game combined with Clementine's brilliant character made me care for her more than I ever would've suspected.

The gameplay itself is something I knew would appeal to me, as it's basically just a 21st century adventure game, and I love adventure games. In truth it's mostly very easy, intentionally so to keep the player moving forward and exploring the narrative. This is essentially as close to a TV show as a game can be, done as well as possible. The game tries to alter the experience somewhat for each player by giving them choices to make at set points, usually relating to choosing certain bits of dialogue, or sometimes to make important life or death decisions for other people, and though it's essentially an illusion in regards to the eventual progression of the plot, it does alter certain bits of non player character behaviour enough to make it seem like you've made a difference. It also promises replay value where none otherwise exists.

Season two began some time ago and two episodes have been released, but I'll wait for them all to become available before diving in headfirst and binge-playing them. To be honest I think I'll appreciate the breather- I don't want to give any spoilers away but the story becomes so dramatic and intense as it develops that I need the break. Amazing, amazing game, probably the best new game I've played in years.