Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Not Books VIII- Lazy Reviewer Edition



Alan Partridge- Alpha Papa (2013)

Although I have enjoyed what I've seen, I've never been as big a fan of Steve Coogan's iconic comic creation Alan Partridge as many other Brits. My appreciation of Coogan's undoubted subtle comic talents comes from other projects he's done, such as The Trip (with the great Rob Bryden), A Cock and Bull Story and fantastic biopic Twenty-Four Hour Party People. As a result, I wasn't particularly bothered with how Coogan would present Alan in his first big screen outing, as long as it was funny. After seeing Alpha Papa, I came out with a smile on my face and a new appreciation of both Coogan's talents and intelligence, regards to the way he presented Alan in this new medium. As I said, I'm not expert on the history of Alan Partridge far from it, but the various episodes of his different comedies that I have seen (shout-out to The Day Today) suggest to me that he might have been too awkward to portray in a film as he was without a bit of necessary tweaking.

The key impression I got from Alpha Papa was that this Alan Partridge, while still a bit of a conniving coward in places is a far less embarrassing creature than his previous incarnation. The old Alan Partridge was a character who was as embarrassing as possible as often as possible. He was far from an idiot, but he seemingly had no real understanding of social ettiquette or other people's emotions, to the extent where he was often the villain of the piece through his sheer obnoxiousness. That Alan Partridge would probably not have been able to carry a high-tempo 2014 feature film to appeal to a larger swathe of people, so Coogan seemed to wisely modify the character to make him a bit less of a bastard- even a hero, in places. Thankfully there's a great little plot behind this modest film, where Alan's co-worker Pat Farrell (superbly played by Colm Meany) goes a little bit nuts after being sacked as a DJ from Radio Norwich, and stages a hostage situation at the radio station that Alan inevitably has to try and sort out. Very entertaining, funny, and charming, with hopefully a couple of sequels to follow.

Batman- Assault on Arkham (2014)

I always have and always will be far more of a DC Comics fan than a Marvel one, and as such am always ready to gobble up their latest animated offering. DC's owners, Warner Brothers, have taken taken great advantage of their own quality animated studios to come up with a pretty great selection of comics adaptations, from the mid-90's heyday of the immense Batman: The Animated Series to their recent (well, last five years or so) direction of releasing stand-alone DVD releases adapting famous comics storylines, mostly involving Batman. That's not a complaint, I love Batman. Some of those releases were much better than others thanks to the varying creators and visual styles, of course, but across the years I think the overall standard has gotten better to the extent where every release seems worth checking out.  Batman- Assault on Arkham stands out as the first release from the current format that's not adapted from a comic book, but is instead an original creation. It's set in the Batman- Arkham Asyulm/City/Origins video games universe, supposedly as a sequel to the latest game, Arkham Origins (itself a prequel). I say supposedly because I've never played Origins but wasn't left confused by anything, which is surely a good thing. 

The other important thing about Batman- Assault on Arkham you need to know is that it's not really a Batman story. Sure, Batman's in it, and he's the ultimate good guy hero, but he's definitely not the main character, shown by the small amount of screen-time he gets in comparison to the true stars of the film; the Suicide Squad. If you're not familiar with that name, then the Suicide Squad is a team of government-controlled supervillains, brought together very secretly to perform very dirty jobs for the US government, in exchange for time off their sentences. In comic book-land, the Squad have a real cult popularity, though it's never translated to big sales success. I think DC/WB might be considering them as a viable future big screen property though, making this film seem like a test-drive to see how they play out onscreen. 

As I've come to expect from animated DC films, Assault on Arkham was mostly a lot of fun, with a few suspect lines and excessive amounts of fighting. As the title suggests, the plot is a one-dimensional affair about the Suicide Squad being tasked to infiltrate Arkham Asylum, to retrieve some sensitive information stashed by The Riddler. The stars of the Squad include popular Bat-villain Harley Quinn, Flash rogue Captain Boomerang (presented as the most heelish villain on the Squad), and Floyd 'Deadshot' Lawton, who's here supposed to be the most heroic anti-hero. I didn't really like this generic tough-guy Deadshot as opposed to the moustachiod self-interested bastard of the comics, unfortunately. Batman only really comes into play half-way through the film, as does, inevitably, The Joker, as the plot is thrown into turmoil later on when things predictably turn out not be as they seem. Ultimately though, the simple plot and in-your-face characterisation was easily forgivable thanks to the often genuinely funny humour and mostly likable characters. Warner Brothers are experts at putting out these fun (though sadly never brilliant) excursions into the DC universe, and although I doubt many would ever feel the need to watch this more than once, if you're a fan of DC Comics you'll most likely enjoy it.


A Million Ways to Die in the West (2013)

I was pretty sure I was going to enjoy Seth McFarlane's second live-action comedy feature film, since years and years of Family Guy and American Dad, plus his first film Ted had offered a consistency of a certain quality sure to carry through. Anybody reading that sentence who's seen a single example of those comedies will likely already be able to predict whether they'd like the film too, since A Million Ways To Die in the West makes no attempt at all to get away from McFarlane's type of snarky shock-filled humour. In fact, the man actually stars in it, as pathetic lead character Albert Stark, whose gimmick is he constantly points out how unpleasant the old West is/was. Despite being a coward with no discernible skills, he somehow manages to charm the lovely Charlize Theron, who unfortunately happens to be the wife of utter bastard Liam Neeson (I can't be bothered to check character names anymore). It's a fairly standard plot, but I don't think it needed to be any more complicated considering the focus is really all about McFarlane's quick one-liners and rants, which, again, you'll either love or hate.

It's odd seeing McFarlane act. and even odder hearing his voice unintentionally slip into the multitude of Family Guy characters he voices. Curiously I think it works out better than Mark Whalberg did as the lead actor in Ted, since McFarlane is so experienced in writing and directing his own performances that the comic timing is spot on for the type of humour it is. As much as McFarlane tries though, Theron and Neeson noticeably don't bother getting out of first gear at all and it leaves the whole thing seeming rather lackluster. Still, the jokes were pretty sharp and nicely visualised, making it a fun film to watch the once. Never need to see it again in my life, though.


A Liar's Autobiography- The Untrue Story of Monty Python's Graham Chapman (2012)

I don't think I've ever mentioned it on here before, but I've been a longtime Monty Python fan since discovering them in my early teens; so much so that I splashed out to go to one of their reunion shows at the London 02 Arena a few months ago (but that's another review in itself). Despite my fandom I will admit that there's been an absolute ton of cash-in releases over the past forty years, trying with varying success to milk a little more from the genuinely classic comics name and reputation. The Pythons themselves clearly love money, so all of the tributes, spin-offs and documentaries that have appeared over the years have had generous input from whichever Pythons the producers can afford. Unfortunately such participation is absolutely no guarantee of it being good, since Monty Python are so far removed from their heyday that everything released with their name on it is appealing to nostalgia more than anything else.

A Liar's Autobiography- Volume IV, written by Graham Chapman as a highly dubious memoir of his life, was originally published in 1980, eight years before Graham unfortunately became the only Python so far to snuff it. I haven't read it, though I know what Chapman was like and I've read his posthumous collection of miscellanea, Calcium Made Interesting, giving me some idea of what the film might be like. I wasn't exactly rushing to get to it, since Chapman (and all the Pythons, in fact) have had the consistent tendency to overwrite every literary project they've been a part of, filling them with so many jokes (some of which don't even seem to have been intended to be funny) that they quirky become tiresome. This film is exactly like that, and maybe even worse, with a concept that looked doomed to fail from the start.

Obviously Chapman's demise (plus the price of physical Python appearances) made animation the way to go. Unfortunately the creators of this film went way, way over the top and involved 14 animation companies to work on adapting varying chapters of the book. In a completely unsurprising result, it's a visiual mess, as 14 different animation companies all try to imitate the work of Terry Gilliam in varying ways, seemingly on a shoe-string budget. This was bound to fail from the start, and made the film nigh-on unwatchable for me. The audio department is much, much better, as it uses Chapman's own readings from public performances to narrate, and brings in every other Python except Eric Idle to provide voices. That was cool, but not nearly enough to rescue the project, since Chapman's original script is so ridiculous that it seems obviously unadaptable. The key problem is that the original book was essentially a comedy parody of autobiographies in general, and thus does not make anywhere near a fitting tribute to the late comedic great. Avoid this film, even if you are a big Python fan, but at least thank it for bringing the remaining Pythons together long enough for them to plan out a final reunion tour.


Computer Games-

The Curse of Monkey Island (1997)

When I worked out how easy it was to emulate the third game in the Monkey Island series on my modern(ish) laptop, I was so excited that it was almost embarrassing (and yes, I suppose technically it was illegal to do so but then I've also owned a copy of this game for about 15 years so I don't care). I spent the first few hours playing with a stupid grin on my face like someone had resurrected my childhood dog- until that grin turned into annoyance when I realised my memory wasn't good enough to remember how to complete it from start to finish. Released six years after Monkey Island 2 with an overhauled graphics engine, fully realised character voices for the first time, and without the input of original game designed and writer Ron Gilbert, The Curse of Monkey Island could have been awful. For me, it was not only the first Monkey Island game I ever played, but I think the first adventure game too, leading me on a path of cultish obsession that persists to this day. I was immediately hooked by the plot-based nature, and the focus on characters and humour to an extent I'd never seen before. In short, I liked it (and adventure games in general) because they're basically just sort of interactive novels.

Monkey 3 looks and sounds quite beautiful, thanks to wonderful hand-drawn (probably) animation full of colour and character that encapsulates the general feel of the previous games in the series. The music is beautiful, full of incredibly catchy reggae-influenced hooks that expand on the original basic beeps and turn them into melodic and atmospheric backgrounds that get stuck in my head for days as soon as I think about them. Like now, for example. The voice acting is pretty good, thankfully, using talented actors with experience in voicing animations, going full-on angry pirate when necessary. The puzzles are somewhat hard for me to judge these days, since I've played through this game so many times over the years that they're more like ritualistic forms of progression than brain-teasers, though they don't seem to be particularly outlandish. My one major criticism from this playthrough is with how abrupt the ending of the game is, finishing with one near-silent cut scene that screams out that they ran out of money on the budget. Other than that playing this game again for a moment took ten years off my age. I'm probably a very bad choice for a critical reviewer for this game because it's embedded in the adolescent remnants of my brain, so all I can say is that it was a pure pleasure from beginning to just before the end. Oh, and I'm not going to play the fourth one because it's horrific.



Gorrilaz- Demon Days (2005)
Curiously when I first bought this album, not long after release, I didn't like it very much, and paid it little attention. Almost ten years later the single D.A.R.E. wormed its way into my head and led me to rediscover and this time very much enjoy it. I think I softened up to pop electronica over the years, and as a result really fell for some of the quirky melodies that support the bulk of this album. I've heard Feel Good Inc. too many times over the years to care about it much now, but Kids With Guns and particularly Fire Coming Out of the Monkey's Head have seriously infiltrated my brain, and made me think maybe I should go check out their third release at some point.

1000mods- Vultures (2013)
Like Acrimony last month, my exposure to this band came from listening to Kyuss on Youtube and clicking on a sidebar video afterwards in the hope of something similar. While lacking the true intricate nature of Kyuss, Greek stoner metal band 1000mods are a very good contemporary version who don't really offer anything new, but who do a decent line in their own version of Black Sabbath-built music. Nothing that will convert non-fans of the genre, but should appease most who do.