Sunday, 10 August 2014

Not Books VI- Yes, More Mutants


Films-

True Romance (1993)

Watching True Romance just a few weeks after Natural Born Killers was a pretty interesting comparison, looking at two different interpretations of two very similar ideas, themselves both heavily based on Terrence Malick's Badlands. Without putting to fine a point on it, of the two Quentin Tarantino scripts I much, much preferred the Tony Scott-directed True Romance, even though Killers has the bigger name director in Oliver Stone and arguably the bigger reputation as a counter-culture video nasty. It seems like with those two films and the Pulp Fiction opening characters that Tarantino was fixated on recapturing the Bonnie and Clyde magic of Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek from Badlands; a couple as madly in love as they are, well, mad.

I don't think Patricia Arquette and Christian Slater's performances here are any better or worse than Woody Harrelson and Juliet Lewis in Killers, and I can absolutely see the argument that Killers gives the viewer a lot more to think about in terms of social issues and whatnot, but then Killers also gets bogged down by its constant attempts to be 110% cool and edgy and disturbing. Romance, on the other hand, is a far more assured, smooth ride, massively assisted by a fantastic supporting cast including Dennis Hopper, Christopher Walken, Gary Oldman, Brad Pitt, Val Kilmer, Samuel L. Jackson and James Gandolfini. That cast is positively obscene. Tony Scott keeps things together and running smoothly, balancing the black humour with a (mostly) genuinely touching relationship between the two leads. If you're even a mild Tarantino fan, or just of cool 90's action/thrillers in general and you haven't seen this film, you really owe it to yourself to rectify that.

 The Hobbit- The Desolation of Smaug (2014)

It's admittedly not a coincidence that my opinion on the literary works of J.R.R. Tolkein are essentially exactly the same of my opinions of his modern day equivalent, George R.R. Martin; decent (if occasionally floundering) prose with an obsession for irrelevant details that leave me cold, and in the case of both writers I unequivocally prefer the onscreen adaptations. In the case of The Hobbit though, I have vaguely fond m memories of reading it during childhood, and far prefer it to the Lord of the Rings books (which I didn't read until adulthood). When it was announced that The Hobbit would be adapted into three (three!) nearly three-hour long films I was immediately turned off by the idea, just like seemingly everyone on the Internet, since it's not even a long book. Anyway, despite Jackson trying his best to recapture the magic aura of the LotR films, and despite Martin Freeman putting in a great performance as Bilbo Baggins, I was bored senseless by The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

The Desolation of Smaug, then, faced the difficult task of being the middle part of an unnecessary trilogy, greatly handicapping its potential for any conclusive stories or successful character arcs. To make up for this it honestly seemed like the special effects budget had doubled, with Jackson pulling everything out of his bag of tricks to capture the audience's interest; including a dramatic showdown with the spectacularly animated Smaug. In fairness, I think it worked to an extent, in my case at least. The incredible effects combined with some very good performances from Freeman and Sir Ian McGandalf had me more interested in this film than the last... but only to a certain extent. This still felt like an exercise in extended moneymaking from Warner Bros, and for every dramatic, relevant scene there were far too many uninteresting ones. It didn't help that I can't seem to get emotionally invested in any of the dwarf characters because they're all so goddamned boring and interchangeable. There's also the very direct efforts to link this film to the LotR trilogy- far more so than I remember from the novel- which felt incredibly forced and only occasionally entertaining. I'm sure if I was a bigger fan of Tolkein I would've found all that much more interesting, but I'm not and I didn't. I'll still see the final film in the trilogy when it comes out, in the hope that it contextualises this into something better than I originally thought it was.

X-Men II (2003)

My unintentional odyssey of watching almost every X-Men film in reverse order continued with a random TV viewing of what once was Brian Singer's last entry in the blockbuster franchise. I must have seen this film ten times by now, and always considered it my favourite installment by some distance. This time, however, it came off the heels of my single viewing of Days of Future Past, which raised the question of whether this time it would still hold up against even that. Well, to abruptly answer that one, yes it does, thanks to the amazing acting threesome of Patrick Steward, Ian McKellen, and Brian Cox.

In the fast moving world of movie effects, X-Men II shows its ten-year age, obviously more so in comparison to its latest sequel, but it still looks fairly smooth. It also has a very tightly-woven plot that gives all the major players enough time and attention to shine, as well as avoiding the typical X-Men trap (found in countless comics, animated series and later films) of basically just pronouncing that the world is way too mean to the mutants without bothering to put any of it into context. Cox's William Stryker is the key to all of that, as his portrayal of a military man barely hiding his megalomania underneath his professional veneer. The individual scenes between Styker and McKellen and then Stryker and Stewart are a joy to watch, suspending the audience's (well, mine) disbelief at what is essentially a ridiculous story and exchanging it for a touch of class as yet unmatched in other superhero films, in my opinion. In hindsight, going from this to Brett Rattner's X-Men III was a complete disgrace, even if things did eventually come full circle.

X-Men (2000)

Brian Singer's genre-defining first X-Men film came out at the perfect time for me; at 14-years-old I was going through the stages of suddenly realising I loved movies (and music and TV etc.), and I already loved comics. Granted I'd not been much of a Marvel reader at that point (and I still much prefer DC), but the X-Men animated series that I recently completely re-watched had ingratiated those lovable mutants into my superhero psyche. I saw it at the cinema and bought the DVD as soon as could, since for me and millions of other comic book lovers this film was a case of love at first sight. Fourteen (!) years later, and I think we all recognise X-Men as the film that began the day of the superhero movie, setting the stage for dozens of big budget movies to flood cinemas with no sign of stopping. Thinking about it, if you're one of those people who hate these movies for what they've done to Hollywood, then this is the film you should hate the most. I'm fairly certain that if X-Men hadn't been made then the boom would've still emerged at some point, but then who knows if it would've sustained the sucess it's had in reality?

Watching it shortly after re-watching X-Men II meant it lost some of its sparkle. The sequel is a big improvement, such is the march of progress, and in comparison X-Men does lose its nostalgic sparkle a little. The budget is smaller, and the visuals seem duller, less inspired and more confined. The actors, particularly Hugh Jackman and Anna Paquin, are growing in to their characters. The plot, and with that Magneto's evil plan, is fairly standard evil supervillain fair, looking back at it, involving a convenient piece of technology and the capture of the damsel in distress for Wolverine and pals to rescue;  the most notable improvement of X-Men II being the more complex, emotionally resonant story of William Stryker. In fact, by the standards of 2014 this film looks and feels a little bit like a a very good extended TV show debut. Yet despite all its faults, X-Men encapsulated the dramatic, heroic and ridiculous attributes of superhero comic books and made its characters look truly amazing. Watching it again for the millionth time was no less fun than the last 999,998 times, and that remains a testament to the cast and crew's ability to make what once seemed impossible; a comic book movie that wasn't ridiculous.

 Epic (2013)

Dipping back into the inconsistent world of CGI animated kids films, Dreamworks' Epic is one of the most polished examples of the genre I've seen, and simultaneously also one of the most average. Starring an all-star voice including Colin Farrell, Amanda Siegfried, and Chris O'Dowd (of the brilliant The IT Crowd) who all do a great job, Epic is a very basic, traditional story of faries, magic, and family relations. The character set-up is very much in the classic Disney mold, where Siegfried's lead character of an adolescent young girl (who's name I've already forgotten and don't care enough to look up) is visiting her eccentric scientist father who she's somewhat estranged from. He lives in the forest and is obsessed with the idea of finding proof of fairies he's convinced live there. Sure enough they obviously do, and when lead girl gets shrunk down to fairy size she has to help protect the future of the fairy race from the nasty bad guys (who also follow the Disney way of looking scary and acting moronic), and inadvertently sort things out with her dad.  I would give more details but it's basically such a generic plot that I'm falling asleep just thinking about it.

Still, it looks absolutely amazing throughout, it's occasionally funny, and the characters are just about likable enough- better than the obnoxious anthropomorphic animals of most Dreamwork films. My biggest gripe was the run time of almost two hours, far too long for the wafer thin plot and too long for a children's film in general. Perhaps most importantly for such a film it does have some charm, but no individuality to make it stand out or make it worth watching more than once.

TV Series-

 Silver Surfer (1998)

After watching the entire X-Men animated series, I was keen to continue re-watching the 90's Marvel shows. First I tried watching Iron Man, but it was so incredibly bad that I had no choice but to give up before finishing it. Instead then I tried a safer option, a show of which I had fond but brief memories of. Marvel's Silver Surfer series is in some ways the best of all of the Marvel shows, thanks to having by far the best quality of animation; though in a cruel twist of irony it was the budget cost of such quality that caused it to be cancelled after only thirteen episodes. Still, that brevity made me pick it to watch next, knowing I could probably make it through those few episodes even if it absolutely sucked.

It didn't suck, but it wasn't a blow-away experience and ultimately I don't think the cartoon-loving world really lost out when Fox cancelled the show, and thus put an end to the curious animated Marvel universe of the 1990's. I did enjoy it in parts, partly because it does look very nice- perhaps not too impressive by modern standards, but much nicer than its brethren- and partly because of the relatively obscure galactic characters of the Marvel universe. Characters like Drax the Destroyer, Adam Warlock and Beta-Ray Bill make quick appearances, making the nerd in me all giddy for a bit. The episode plots are decent, standard superhero fare, all of them re-imagined from various galactic Marvel comics from the preceding thirty years. Perhaps if this show had stayed much longer I would've lost interest, but as an appealing curio I inevitably quite enjoyed it.

Sherlock- Series 3 (2014)

Don't get me wrong; alongside the rest of the world I very much enjoyed the first two series of the BBC's modern interpretation of Arthur Conan Doyle's legendary character, much for the same reasons as them. This third season, however, just felt a little bit weird. I have to first say that overall I did quite enjoy it for many of the same reasons I did the first two, but I felt there was a noticeable shift in tone in terms of how I perceived the characters that seems to be linked in with the rise of the show's international profile and recognition as probably the best thing the BBC produces. Obviously everyone already knows who Sherlock Holmes is, but this show has been a phenomenon to the extent that Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch have become, at least temporarily, the definitive faces of Holmes and Watson, and to me there seemed the constant feeling throughout season three of Sherlock that the show completely revels in that fact.

Part of that is that Sherlock continually strives to make the most of its contemporary Holmes concept, and it a part of that absolutely has to be a recognition of the cult of celebrity. It's been both funny and useful to the plot to include aspects like Sherlock's online fan club, but, during the first seasons, I hadn't felt like Sherlock's celebrity had overwhelmed the fantastic detective stories. This season I couldn't help feel that almost constantly, and it created a level of emotional disconnect between myself and the characters. The basis for this really comes from the climax of the second season and the fantastic showdown with Moriarty, where things escalated to such a degree that the writers incorporated the logical UK tabloid infamy heavily in this season. Personally I'm not sure they had to do that; there should be enough suspense of disbelief in a show like Sherlock for the viewers to be able to mentally put aside the fact that the characters are really just superheroes now- such as in season three of Luther, for example, which resisted the temptation to deify its hero amongst the fictional general populace.

It was the second episode, the wedding episode which bothered me the most. First of all, the case aspect, or what little there was barely interested me in the slightest, trampled over as it was by the romantic comedy wedding scenes. Furthermore it was during the wedding that I was struck most by how annoyingly larger than life and perfect the characters had become, particularly as Sherlock gave his quirky but passionate best man speech with the poise and screen presence of Benedict Cumberbatch. It just annoyed me, a viewer very biased towards the detective genre, that said genre and its wonderful cliches was given short shrift for the sake of having a special wedding episode. Still, it's that type of episode that opens up the viewership of the show to the general masses who aren't looking for the same specifics that I am, and keeps it getting made, so I shouldn't really complain.

Pokemon Origins (2013)

Though I'm still a fan of the videogames, I lost interest in the regular Pokemon anime series at least ten years ago when it became obvious that Ash Ketchum was the dumbest, slowest Pokemon trainer of all time. After all, what sane trainer would constantly give his best Pokemon away at the slightest whim? I honestly hate to be so pedantic about something so intentionally childish as the Pokemon show, but it was like some sort of massive in-joke against the fans of the series that wanted to see something actually happen; compared to the games, where players can hoover up Pokemon like there's no tomorrow, the show feels like a recurring frustration nightmare. That's why when I heard about this four-part anime adaptation of the first generation Game Boy Pokemon games I had to check it out.

Four episodes lasting twenty minute each doesn't sound like enough time to properly adapt the full events of Pokemon Red/Green/Blue/Yellow, and so the animators  made the wiser choice to cut the content down to the four most important moments in trainer Red's quest to become a Pokemon master. As a result Pokemon Origins moves at such an incredibly fast rate compared to the regular anime it almost seems like a satire of it. After choosing Charmander as his starter Pokemon, Red trashes every gym leader and the elite four, barely breaking a sweat, then sets his goal as completing his Pokedex, leading towards a final showdown with Mewtwo. The quick pace had me glued to the screen, with everything feeling dramatic. Everything aside from the second episode, which is for some reason far more akin to an episode from the regular anime and contributes little. Other than that, I really enjoyed this animated miniseries, even if a lot of that was for nostalgic reasons.