Monday, 3 December 2012

Great Gamebooks of Yesteryear: Lone Wolf

Lone Wolf is arguably the greatest gamebook saga of all time, shifting truck-loads of copies during the 1980s and powering on into the 90s. Even after its eventual cancellation it maintained a devoted fanbase well into the new millennium, who were able to enjoy the series’ creator-blessed free re-release in online form at, as well as revised and extended editions from Mongoose Publishing.

Unlike the iconic Fighting Fantasy line, which experimented with a variety of settings, adventures and characters with little regard for continuity, Lone Wolf and its various spin-off publications depicted an ongoing epic struggle for the fate of a richly-realised fantasy world, waged by the opposing forces of square-jawed pious Good and hideous irredeemable Evil. The titular paragon of righteousness was depicted as a compulsive do-gooder with a formidable skill-set of supernatural abilities, both physical and psychic; a sort of fantasy Jedi, as adept at reading the minds of ravens and curing allies of poison as he was at pushing in the faces of the minions of Darkness and surviving for weeks in harsh wasteland. While he was almost hilariously generic in his motivations, the fact that Lone Wolf was more of a semi-magical ranger character than some cookie-cutter knight or mercenary kept his adventuring fresh, often pitting him against the torturous terrain and ferocious wildlife of Magnamund as much as it did against his gruesome, malevolent foes.

At the same time, the quality of Joe Dever’s writing, which imbued the sprawling landscapes of Magnamund with a surprisingly vivid sense of place, elevated his world-building above the clichéd Black and White Morality of the setting. For all its cackling, misshapen villains and impossibly virtuous heroes, the level of detail and effort put into establishing Magnamund’s various colourful civilizations helped the reader/player get invested in the world’s fate. 

Meanwhile, the game system, despite occasional glitches and unfair battles, was a rewarding one, allowing the player to either enjoy Lone Wolf’s escapades as standalone adventures or to slowly level up his abilities over the course of many volumes, steadily transforming him from a skilled fighter to a dazzling super-powered demigod. 

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Great Gamebooks of Yesteryear: Heart of Ice.

An absolute classic of interactive fiction from a long out-of-print series called Virtual Reality, penned by Dave Morris of Fabled Lands fame, and apparently due an upcoming re-release. It jettisons dice rolls and finicky rules in favour of a fluid and accessible game-play system that keeps the engaging and frequently haunting story front-and-centre at all times.

Morris cleverly spurns generic fantasy settings or cookie-cutter far-future dystopias in favour of a reasonably original spin on the notion of a dying earth. In the Heart of Ice setting, a berserk supercomputer, its vast intellect driven to madness by a cocktail of viruses, has seized control of the planetary network of weather satellites and inflicted an environmental disaster on the suffering world beneath it. The brilliant simplicity of this idea is that Morris can play around with having familiar settings altered by completely outrageous climates, while having an excuse not to obey any kind of environmental realism. Around the end of the 23rd century, Southern France is a swamp, Italy is a perpetual winter wonderland and the Sahara is a frozen waste. The descriptions of the Pyramids and the Sphinx looming over an endless snowfield are instantly evocative in a way that no fantasy castle in a Fighting Fantasyesque original setting could be.  

The story is a straightforward quest for an artefact that will supposedly turn the wielder into a demi-god and heal the stricken world, allowing humanity’s fading remnant to revive. The strange mixture of oddball characters with uncertain agendas, exotic technological gadgets, real-world locations turned to exotic wildernesses and alternative endings shaped by the player’s choices makes Heart of Ice more than a run-of-the-mill gamebook experience.  

Monday, 29 October 2012

"I want my Caddy back!" (A Zombieland Retrospective)

Zombieland is a cool little film, most noteworthy for hitting cinema screens on the tail-end of the great zombie craze of the 2000s. I like to think of it as an exclamation point capping off that whole demented era, before pop culture’s collective zombie fetishism finally started to inch back from its rabid peak, to be partially eclipsed by the ongoing surge of interest in supernatural romance spurred by the Twilight phenomenon. After years of pulse-pounding gore-flicks and tense horror, and interminable water-cooler debate and analysis, the makers of Zombieland pluckily decided to steer the current social obsession with the flesh-eating living-dead into something weird and fun and diverting, with engaging characters and an irrepressible energy that you can’t help but chuckle at.

Zombieland was initially intended to be a TV show, and it shows. It comes across like the extended pilot for a horror comedy, setting up a regular cast of oddballs, hinting at further details to be unveiled of its madcap world, and ending on a hopeful note implying many future adventures that are yet to come (though the follow-up TV show is supposedly on its way at last, in time to compete with The Walking Dead from the other end of the Seriousness Spectrum). It’s no masterpiece, no definitive final statement on a worn-out genre. It’s just a slick blast of silver-screen hijinks, with a memorable quartet of Woody Harrelson’s outlandish, all-American zombie-killer, Jesse Eisenburg’s oddly likeable hero-nerd, Emma “The New Hotness” Stone’s  ultra-charismatic, totally non-disposable love interest, and Abigail Breslin as Stone’s precocious younger sister and partner in crime.

The zombie apocalypse setting is barely taken seriously; the titular loping ghouls, while as bloody and grisly as any other incarnation in the genre, are either absent or easily swatted for significant stretches of the running time. The old staples of creeping dread, breathless fear, characters being killed off one by one with shocking sticky finality; all thrown out in favour of daft scenarios, zombie-killing as a fun sport, and a rather self-indulgent cameo that sprawls lavishly across the half-way mark.

After so much doom and gloom, as a wretched decade sputtered out in the unyielding jaws of long-term recession, some light-hearted mocking of all the po-faced cinematic tragedy porn to come out of the zombie genre was in order. For providing it with such aplomb, Zombieland should always have a special place in our hearts. 

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Great Fictional Anti-Heroes: Malcolm Tucker

“I AM the loop.”

Last night’s ending to The Thick Of It was pretty depressing, wasn’t it? Nothing really resolved, and the satirical cynicism as sharp and cruel as ever, only even crueller now we know that everything really is going to keep getting worse. The last two likeable characters, poor put-upon Glenn and awesomely savage Malcolm, are departing into the wilderness (the once-sympathetic Peter Mannion’s old-fashioned honour having long-since curdled into raging bitterness), leaving the lunatics well and truly running the asylum into the ground with their spiteful bickering. For a show usually so entertaining in its creative horribleness, the sight of Malcolm Tucker, the great survivor, departing into ignominious exile with the press yapping at his heels was strangely something of a downer.

But let us not remember the mighty Tucker as he is, betrayed at the last by his own cleverness, his seemingly bottomless well of gambits and comebacks drained to the dregs, his steely exterior worn away as years of workaholism and prolonged shouting finally catch up to him. Let us remember him as he was; the gimlet-eyed arch-bastard of a turbulent Westminster snake-pit, sited in a parallel universe supposedly separated from our blighted reality by the most wafer-thin of walls. The ultimate spin-doctor, fearless, uninhibited, decisive, steeped in the dark arts, laser-focussed in his verbal brutality, he bestrode the Whitehall food chain of squabbling, back-stabbing mediocrities like a gaunt, snarling colossus.

Of course, he was a bully, and by his own admission much worse than a bully. Yet there was a strange, passionate integrity to his skilfully-controlled nastiness. You got the sense that he was the product of his environment, forged into a force of nature by the insanity of contemporary politics, a quintessential user of bad means to good (?) ends. He was good at being a bastard, seemingly wild but strictly disciplined. 

Compare him to boorish brutes like his thuggish understudy Jamie or the clearly unbalanced Cal Richards. At the other end of the scale, compare him to the professional snivellers he so relished verbally eviscerating for seven years. How could you not salute a character who made himself the terror of this rabble by virtue of sly cunning and sheer force of will? When it came to the show’s famously competitive swearing, he was a virtuoso, crafting fluid mini-masterpieces of profanity while barely pausing for breath. When it came to political skulduggery he was a fiend, an amoral manipulator who repeatedly papered over his own mistakes with the flayed hides of the less politically-adept. He wasn’t a hero by any stretch of the imagination, but he was an island of competence in a sea of grating ineptitude, driven by a code of party loyalty (however twisted) that motivated him to wear himself to a nub as he was devoured by his own fearsome persona, year after year.

The King Kong of fictional politics has toppled in slow motion and landed in a black cab. The T.V. landscape is a little poorer for his departure.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

"Killing Them Softly" Film Review

The American gangster-movie is such familiar territory by now, it's hard to suppress a sneaking, guilty suspicion that the genre might be played out. "Killing Them Softly" smartly acknowledges this familiarity, portraying the hoary tropes of cinematic criminality (the heist, the hit-man, the gangland execution) with an air of world-weary misery and pessimism. The sight of the Goodfella himself, Ray Liotta, as a podgy, whimpering scapegoat for other men's crimes, is a statement of intent, as is the spectacle of ex-Tony Soprano James Gandolfini as a dissolute has-been hit-man. The only character who isn't purely venal or pathetic is Brad Pitt's polished, poster-hogging assassin Cogan, who is called in to clean up after some weasly chancers rip off a Mob-run high-stakes poker game. Competent and confident, yet cynical down to the bone and utterly ruthless, Cogan is ultimately a cypher, a moral vacuum that seems to suck in other characters (less coldly committed to the grim logic of their violent world) like a black hole of icy determination. Behind his deft gestures and careful grooming, he is as squalid as the lesser crooks who blunder into his sights; behind Brad Pitt's gracefully-aging handsomeness, something blandly ugly studies a grey, diseased world with calm calculation.

The film makes its blackly cynical point with an admirable degree of aplomb, yet it also trips itself up with some awkward gestures that betray a sensibility styling itself as something more clever and profound than it really is. The plot is deliberately mundane, a grubby little tragedy of men outside the law killing each other in predictable ways. The actual violence is sparse yet intense; there is no creativity to the cruelty, just fists, feet, and bullets, but the gory ferocity of the damage is effectively chilling, especially a squishy punishment beating inflicted on a relatively blameless victim that stands as a masterclass in pointless savagery.

Yet the lack of twists and turns also hurt the film, as it betrays how flimsy its message really is. The fact the makers resort to the now-tedious gambit of having acts of bloodshed sound-tracked by inappropriately pleasant music reveals a lack of ideas beyond flaunted nihilism, as well as a rather obvious and abrupt stab at social commentary acting as the film's punchline, a half-second before the credits hit.

Killing Them Softly is a watchable effort, with a convincing atmosphere of bleakness. However a dash of pretension reduces it from a quiet classic to a bleak little curio.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Twenty Years of D.C. Animation: Gotham Knight

Gotham Knight is an odd little number, an adventurous attempt to create an Animatrix equivalent for Christoper Nolan’s big-screen Bat-saga. However, the six loosely-connected shorts play fast and loose with the continuity and the established “rules” of the Nolanverse, and are really more fun distractions than serious Expanded Universe material.

Batman has rarely looked better than he does here, due to the creative freedom given to multiple animation studios to depict him in a variety of anime-inspired styles. With Kevin Conroy firing on all cylinders as the voice of the Caped Crusader, the anthology is basically a string of fan-pleasing touches and dramatic visual flourishes. A hulking Batman erupts from the heart of a raging fire to attack a gangster. Batman explores the gloomy, atmospheric depths of Gotham’s perilous sewer system. Batman brawls with some demented cultists in an underground lair. Batman appears as a vampire in an impressionable teen’s fevered re-telling of his exploits. Batman has an epic showdown with Deadshot on a speeding train, and so on.

While hardly vital material, Gotham Knight works as a thumping love letter to everything evocative and exhilarating about the character and his world, a reminder of the power of the animated medium to bring such an iconic, archetypal hero to brooding life.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Twenty Years of D.C. Animation: Justice League The New Frontier

New Frontier was an ambitious adaptation of a critically-lauded graphic novel, a love letter to the Golden and Silver Ages of comics. Set on the cusp of the 1960s, both comic and film depict the transition of the vintage incarnations of D.C.’s flagship heroes from the sturdy patriotism of the war years to the new adventures and dangers of the later 20th century. The animation style is extremely attractive, aping the source material; colourful and dynamic. For the vocal cast, celebrity talent like David Boreanaz and Neil Patrick Harris where roped in to play the story’s sprawling ensemble, and are all above reproach. However, the polished coolness of the finished model is undermined by a single, glaring issue; the blatant, massive compression. Even for viewers unfamiliar with the original comic, it’s glaringly obvious that a huge amount of detail had to be dropped in order to fit the major story beats into a stingy running time. The whole way through there’s a pervasive sense that we’re only getting tantalising glimpses of a weightier tale, which leaves the entire affair tantalisingly unsatisfying. Seemingly important characters like Superman or Wonder Woman are given short shrift, their conflicts and issues introduced but unexplored. Hal Jordan’s Green Lantern seems to be the unofficial protagonist in the struggle against a primal abomination that arises to extinguish civilization at the height of the Cold War, but the film’s token nods to the ensemble by switching perspective to other heroes leaves his character arc discomfortingly patchy as well.

Fortunately the next feature would avoid the problem of producing overly-ambitious, throttled adaptations, by switching formulas to the series of brooding vignettes focussed on D.C.’s hottest character and biggest franchise. 

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Twenty Years of D.C. Animation: Superman Doomsday

For the first of their original animated features, the creative team at DC adapted one of the most infamous comic-book storylines to come out of the 90s, The Death of Superman. A blatant but successful publicity stunt at the time, the storyline saw the Man of Tomorrow fall in epic combat with an invincible inter-stellar threat, the hyper-violent living weapon Doomsday. While the world mourned and Superman hibernated, awaiting his inevitable resurrection, various pretenders, well-intentioned and sinister, jostled to become his heir. Doomsday compresses the basic details of this story, presenting a much darker spin on the Superman mythos than previously.

There’s often been a sinister edge to certain Superman stories, perhaps because writers have to pull out all the stops to create terrifying menaces to offset Kal-El’s functional invincibility. Doomsday maintains an air of menace throughout, with more graphic violence than the old-school DCAU. Doomsday himself is a walking plot device, whose role is radiate raw power and malice as he mindlessly kills everything in his path, forcing Superman to beat him to death in a knock-down drag-out battle, before keeling over himself. The Man of Steel’s passing helps to further unbalance an already psychologically-worrying Lex Luthor, this time around voiced by James Marsters of Buffyverse fame. This version of Luthor is one of the best compellingly despicable ever thanks to Marster’s brooding voice-work, which sells Luthor’s amoral intellect and his fetishistic obsession with Superman, to the point of replacing the lost hero with a dysfunctional clone nominally under Luthor’s control.

While the feature doesn’t do anything especially inventive with the property, other than making it edgier and adding some spatters of blood (including the image of a dying Superman vomiting claret over Lois Lane), it’s still a well-acted and slickly produced statement of intent.

Monday, 1 October 2012

Twenty Years of D.C. Animation: Justice League

Bruce Timm and company followed up their slightly tired Batman/Superman formula with the next logical step; an ensemble cast of colourful champions united in an animated version of the D.C. universe’s premier super-hero team, the Justice League. It proved to be a geeky bonanza such as the world had never seen before, throwing the Conroy-voiced Batman, beloved of millions, into a wider cosmos of inter-galactic menaces and mythic battles, regularly rubbing shoulders with Superman (now with a new voice actor) and such iconic stalwarts as Flash and Wonder Woman (though the star-spangled Amazon proved to be a less interesting character than her alien and billionaire counterparts). After two seasons the setting was revamped into Justice League Unlimited, which expanded the core team into an army of jobbing do-gooders, played down the role of the core cast (Batman in particular rarely appeared, as the suits didn’t want to confuse people while alternate-continuity show “The Batman” was airing), and allowed some obscure second-stringers like the Vigilante a chance to shine.

The whole outrageous ride had its share of placeholder episodes along the way, but was by and large an entertaining cavalcade of over-the-top crises and exotic adventures, as well as veritable hordes of rogues both fearsome and flamboyant. The upped scale in terms of numbers (enough super-criminals prowled across the screen during the show’s run to form the world’s most demanding union) ensured the most kinetic and inventive fight scenes yet.

More significantly, the inclusion of multiple heroes, including characters previously established in the DCAU, as well as newcomers like the surly Green Lantern Jon Stewart and the maudlin yet dedicated Jon Jones (a Martian soldier and Last Of His Kind who helped the infant League fight off an extra-terrestrial invasion in the first arc), introduced team dynamics and personality clashes to a greater extent than in the previous era of largely solo adventuring. As the League bickered and bounced off each other, developed fragile romances and complemented each other’s fighting styles in climactic battles, the scene was set for some legitimately epic arcs. The stand-outs included a cheesy but entertaining time-travelling showdown with under-rated supervillain Vandal Savage as he strove to alter the outcome of World War Two; “Starcrossed”, an invasion by warrior aliens that ripped the team apart; and the infamous Cadmus Arc, when the League had a rather spirited disagreement with the American government over the ethics of caped vigilantism. A disagreement that involved legions of homicidal clones. It all became quite intense for a program still ostensibly aimed at Pepsi-addled pre-teens.

After an insane 14-year period of shared animated universe, D.C.’s animation went in a new direction, shelving the joys of nerdy continuity in favour of stand-alone stories in which continuity was trumped by experimentation, re-introducing over-familiar characters in new ways, or simply adapting the most legendary storylines to come out of decades of serial story-telling.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Great Gamebooks of Yesteryear: Fabled Lands

Dave Morris and Jamie Thomson's Fabled Lands was an obscure cult classic that had the bad luck to hit shelves just as the last rumbles of the great gamebook boom of the 80s and early 90s were dying away. It was a cheekily ambitious project that attempted to do something with the gamebook genre that had never been done before, and foundered after the lavish first editions, with their glossy covers and their cool fold-out maps, failed to recoup production costs.

Still, as Machiavelli once said, "Make mistakes of ambition and not mistakes of sloth." Fabled Lands found itself a small yet devoted fanbase, despite having only six of a planned twelve book series out in the world (soon to go out of print) before the project was canned. And after long years of fan badgering and creator plotting and planning, the original six books were re-released in 2010 and 2012, now in handy-dandy pocket-sized editions, with the tantalizing hope of the long-lost books 7-12 following someday.

The reason these little numbers were and are so beloved of committed gamebook nerds is that they spurned anything as dull and prosaic as a single plot. Instead of having a Fighting Fantasy-type rent-a-hero on the trail of some gloating warlock, with many paths converging on a single “victory” destination, Fabled Lands presented a sprawling and creatively-realized fantasy world to explore at whim, with each volume in the series corresponding to a different area. The player picked a character class and wandered around looking for adventure, finding wealth and fame or failure and death according to their choices, skills, and the roll of the dice. It was like a low-tech version of all the huge videogame RPGs that are so popular with the kids at the moment, with an intuitive system of code-words to keep track of outstanding quests, enemies with grudges, or other consequences of the player's interactions with the teeming civilizations of Harkuna. The whole experience was made worth your while by the excellent descriptive writing, which conjured up a real sense of the exotic fictional landscapes you were supposed to be trekking through, and by the wealth of options for making mischief that encouraged replayability, allowing you to be a master thief plundering luxurious temples and villas in one life-time, and a decorated, chivalrous warrior in another. 

The first book, The War-Torn Kingdom, was set in a troubled realm clearly modelled on the aftermath of the English Civil War. You had the option to side with the royalist rebels, or go the other way and join the forces of the flint-hearted general now in control of the battle-scarred nation of Sokara. Of course, if you didn't want to risk your neck in local politics, you could stick to doing favours for local temples with interestingly dangerous problems. The writing emphasised that Sokara was being tightly controlled by the military, making travelling around relatively safe, but there were still a few unspoiled or untamed corners where you could have more fantastic encounters.

Book Two covered Sokara’s immediate neighbour, Golnir, a Merry England-type place of peasants, merchants and knights. It was a more colourful place to explore, with plenty of charm and flavour, but profitable quests seemed harder to come by than in bustling Sokara.

The third book covered a vast and forbidding ocean of uncharted islands, which gave plenty of scope for naval exploration. Fabled Lands allowed you to become a ship owner (assuming you’d amassed the cash) and lead your crew to an uncertain fate, battling pirates, venturing onto islands or trading valuable goods between ports.

Book Four dealt with the steppes of the far north, where cold and hunger sapped your Stamina score in a huge wilderness inhabited by monsters, beasts, and fierce nomads.

Book Five was possibly the best of the bunch, depicting the tyrannical theocracy of Uttaku. The Uttakin were a memorable mob of fantasy villains, a flashily cruel court of decadent nobles presiding over a small empire of religious fanaticism and strict hierarchy. You could jump through the hoops of their byzantine law codes to earn the chance to win favour and patronage from the ministers of the Court of Hidden Faces, but with the constant threat that a single mistake could see you gruesomely executed or condemned to slavery.

Finally, Book Six was an obvious pastiche of feudal Japan and its folklore, with the backdrop of a looming civil war between powerful clans. While this had some of the best, most atmospheric writing in the series, it was also by far the hardest, with near-impossible fights, a harsh policy on failure and scant chances for social advancement. It mixed a cultured civilization with dark forests and plains as perilous as any in gamebook history. 

Monday, 24 September 2012

Great Fictional Villains: Charles Logan

When it came to picking villains, the writers of 24 tended to run out of imagination shortly after deciding the latest terrorist mastermind's nationality. Vengeful Serbians, vengeful Englishmen, vengeful Middle Eastern terrorists, incredibly smug Turkish terrorists (you do have to have a soft spot for Harbib Marwan, and his Sauron-like levels of persistence in trying to blow up America), vengeful thinly-disguised Chechens, vengeful unspecified African country...ans, and of course lots and lots of powerful American WASP business and political types.

Most of them were just fodder for Jack Bauer's deadly thighs; according to tried and tested formula, many apparent string-pullers were exposed as mere pawns of the real uranium-toting Dark Lord of Explosions around the current season's half-way mark. But out of this endless pageant of thugs and rebels and assassins, one face stands out. One slimy, shifty, insidious individual, who made a bigger mark than any other villain in the show's history, apart from perhaps the ever-hissable Nina Myers. I speak of course of the best Bad President America never had, the spectacularly Nixonesque Charles Logan.

The character was introduced as a pretty standard archetype, a vacillating inept coward elevated beyond his abilities. After Season 4's blandly heroic President Keeler (my memory of minor 24 characters can be scarily good sometimes) was left comatose by one of menace-of-the-moment Harbib Marwan's eighty different terror plots, his quivering Vice President was launched into the Oval Office, and started making screamingly daft decisions so quickly that he had to call in blandly heroic ex-President Palmer to re-kindle some of the old Jack/Palmer magic and save the day. Needless to say, he wasn't very interesting.

But by Season 5, Logan had settled into his unexpected Presidency and even won re-election on his own merits, gaining character development as a skilled and capable politician with a history of self-doubt and a poor track record of dealing with country-destroying crises (which to be honest would doubtless apply to most of us). The writers made Logan a little more intriguing and believable than his square-jawed predecessors, inching the viewers towards being a little more sympathetic to his travails and reminding us that being President in the 24-verse would be really super-difficult and that the upper echelons of government probably wouldn't split evenly between the Competence Captains and the Stupid Bureaucrats being stupid on purpose.   

And then we found out he was behind the terrorist ring his government was trying to stop.

As a twist, it was insane, ridiculous, what would have been a shark-jumping moment if Jack Bauer hadn't filleted the shark and mounted its head on the wall many episodes ago. I dimly recall there was some semi-plausible motivation brought up for the President's bold strategy for securing re-election, possibly involving petrol prices. But it instantly, decisively propelled Logan from "weak-chinned placeholder for the next POTUS" to "unpredictable Master of Lies" and for that it is to be saluted. For the rest of the season, the usual Bauer antics were accompanied by a riveting sub-plot of Logan's efforts to cover up his part in some serious atrocities, justifying it with sly sophistry along the way, and countering the efforts of his disturbed, horrified wife to expose him along the way. You could almost admire the sheer audacity of his tight-rope walking act of trying to play the role of President while concealing his villainy; it was honestly gutsy stuff for a character introduced as a standard-issue coward.

He naturally met his downfall in the end, but spun his defeat into a cushy house arrest, his true nature kept secret from the fragile psyche of the American public. He even staged a comeback in 24's final season; having wrought more devious shenanigans than a thousand Nixons, he was STILL determined to secure his political legacy at any cost. 

Compared to that level of commitment to the political dark arts, nuking Los Angeles starts to seem relatively tame.

Twenty Years of D.C. Animation: Batman Beyond

Batman Beyond (or “Batman of the Future” as it was called in Europe), could not have had a more dubious genesis. A sinister cabal of suit-wearing executives, allegedly inspired by the growing popularity of a geeky little live-action show about a high-school vampire-slayer, badgered Bruce Timm to do a Batman spin-off starring a school-aged Batman, who would presumably have wacky misadventures like juggling foiling diamond heists with getting to prom on time. The basic idea was to do a lighter alternative to Timm, Paul Dini and company’s darkly adult take on Bruce Wayne, in keeping with an inexplicable tradition beloved by suit-wearing executives everywhere; that a target demographic needs one of their own in the story to identify with (the strange notion responsible for giving the world Robin the Boy Wonder, along with various other sidekicks of comic’s Golden Age).

With what I imagine was boyish, cackling glee (“They want kid-friendly? I’ll show them kid-friendly!”) Timm proceeded to produce a show that was as dark, if not darker, than its famous parent, an odd cartoon that mingled Saturday morning staples of colourful crooks and breakneck action with themes of loss, aging and redemption.

Setting the show in the future, around the 2030s, ensured from the get-go that the story would likely venture into some bleak territory. It depicts a burnt-out and bitter Bruce Wayne, forced into retirement after the exertions of his nightly labours finally caught up with him. Even though his skills were flawless and no enemy could best him, the mortal hero was eventually worn down by simple entropy, barred from further battles with fresh generations of criminals by a dodgy heart. Even worse, the long-term results of his vigilante campaign have been negligible. Of course, one man and a handful of loyal cohorts can’t simply stamp out all the crime in an entire city, or even a neighbourhood, for any length of time, and the B: TAS fixtures of corporate ruthlessness and street-level thuggery still thrive in the future, only with fancier gadgets with which to menace and corrupt. Meanwhile, Batman’s single-minded pursuit of an impossible ideal has left him totally alone in an echoing mansion with only Ace the Bat-Dog for company, lacking a wife, heirs, or even old friends.

At this point a daredevil teenager called Terry McGinnis appears on the scene. While immature, he has a measure of intelligence and steely determination beyond his years, and most provocatively of all, a murdered father to avenge. After the mandatory initial reluctance, Wayne takes him on as a trainee replacement Batman, complete with a stylish flying suit and an ultra-tech aerial Batmobile.

The show proceeded to mine a fair amount of drama and entertainment out of the interplay between the headstrong novice and the gruff, grumpy veteran giving out instructions from back in the Batcave (though the old warhorse had plenty of opportunities to spring back into action in a pinch). There was also novelty to be had with the idea of a more callow Batman, who lacked his predecessor’s peerless ability, requiring him to wing it to a greater extent in order to survive his many battles with the terrors of the future.

Batman Beyond was never as highly regarded as the show it spawned from. With some noteworthy exceptions (like a gut-punch of a coda for the sad saga of Mr. Freeze, and a feature-length epic that revealed the whereabouts of Mark Hamill’s celebrated Joker) the classic rogues did not return, replaced by a new generation, distinctive to this new Batman. They put McGinnis through his paces in an entertaining manner; the standouts were Blight (“I AM POISON!”) a ghoul out of Greenpeace’s nightmares, and the fearsome, Freudian Inque. But in contrast to their illustrious forbears, they usually presented more of a straight-up physical threat to the Bat than a cracked psychological mirror, and failed to claw under the skin in quite the same way. There were far fewer iconic episodes, and far more decent and serviceable ones, while the series as a whole coasted for a while and then sputtered out (though Justice League later worked in a retroactive finale, the near flawless “Epilogue”, which acted as a fitting coda for the whole DCAU). But the team deserve kudos for turning a glib marketing idea into an enthusiastic and creative alternative spin on the animated universe.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Twenty Years of D.C. Animation: The New Adventures

The Superman animated series tends to get dismissed for not being a pop cultural phenomenon like its counterpart and predecessor, Batman. However, it was a perfectly decent show that deftly evoked the simple, homespun virtues of America’s greatest hero. It may not have plumbed the psychological abyss in the same way its sister show did, with villains whose gimmicks were dedicated to devising creative ways around Superman’s near invulnerability, rather than fodder for anguished character studies, but it was usually entertaining and often quite smart in the many devious, reasonably non-contrived methods the writers used to put their godlike protagonist through the wringer. It was nicely distinguished from the grimness of Gotham, with a light and airy urban aesthetic; the inevitable criminal outrages were like nails down a chalkboard of harmony and prosperity. Much mileage was gained from playing with the standard tropes of the Superman story, and even the inevitable dud episodes weren’t offensively bad.

As an added plus, the show also had one of the coolest, most broodingly dangerous takes on Lex Luthor ever, thanks to Clancy Brown’s murderously suave voice-work.

At the same time, Batman got a relaunch and a revamp to bring it more into line with the crisper aesthetic of Superman. This refurbishment included a variety of character re-designs that sparked much geeky controversy; Scarecrow was boosted from his underwhelming traditional duds into a hideous Grim Reaper, will the Joker had his classic design butchered with the alteration of his eyes into distracting puddles of tar. In other developments, the departure of Dick Grayson’s disgruntled Robin saw the arrival of an animated Tim Drake, echoing the mainstream comic’s habit of having a turnover of ill-fated Boy Wonders.

The “New Adventures” have a reputation for representing a dip in quality compared to the “classic” episodes of the early 90s, but in truth they aren’t too far removed in terms of the ration of duds to classics. If anything, the New Adventures had more episodes that were merely respectable or average, rather than dire or brilliant, which is why Batman’s solo show is sometimes remembered as having limped to an inglorious finish. However, it does have the eerie “Growing Pains”, the insanely dramatic “Over the Edge” and the sad yet hopeful “Old Wounds” in its favour. Of course, this is also the era of the crossover episode, which were every bit as entertaining as you’d expect from a clash of icons.

Apart from “Sub-Zero” a suitably awesome feature-length Mr. Freeze adventure that seriously showed up a certain live-action Batman movie airing at the time, and 2003’s mediocre “Mystery of the Batwoman”, that it was it for the Dark Knight’s solo adventures. However, the DCAU was about to hit a new level of ensemble craziness that would give him plenty of fresh opportunities to shine, as well as a new suits-driven high concept show that would defy all the odds by being surprisingly decent.


Thursday, 13 September 2012

Spartacus: Gods of the Arena

HBO’s Rome was one of my favourite TV shows ever. Sweeping, gritty, vivid, unflinching in its depiction of the savage tumult of the world of the Late Republic, with characters that doled out violence and treachery with abandon but remained broadly sympathetic. Though well-acted and plotted, Rome was frequently grisly and salacious, rarely shying away from the seedy and sensational.

Spartacus makes Rome’s most debauched episodes look like a cycling holiday in the Cotswolds. It is boldly, proudly, triumphantly depraved, brandishing its own stylistic excess like a honed blade to slice boredom out of everyone’s lives. Yours Truly started with the prequel, Gods of the Arena, made while the show’s leading man was absent undergoing sadly unsuccessful cancer treatment. Despite unnecessarily giving away the finale of the first season (fortunately only spoiling a development that anyone owning a basic familiarity with the period could have predicted), the prequel holds up as an entertaining and propulsive story in its own right, filled with shout-outs for established fans to appreciate but still accessible for new viewers.

Beginning with a gory statement of intent, as a bisected head slaps onto the sand only seconds into the action, Spartacus briskly ensures that the faint-hearted will be encouraged to bow out early, so they don’t have time to get invested before being horrified and alienated. A storm of enthusiastically delivered curses soundtracks the ultraviolent gladiatorial brawls, soon followed by spectacular carnal acrobatics as hotshot swordsman Ganicus (who resembles a cross between Shawn Michaels and some ancient death god) is rewarded for his victories with a share in the licentious pleasures of the Roman elite.

The plot is brutally straightforward, although with a few twining turns along the way before its bloody conclusion. John Hannah’s Batiatus must juggle a stubborn father, a devoted yet scheming wife, and coldly ruthless rivals (including one especially snotty character, who resembles a caricature of an old-fashioned British public school prefect, in the best possible way), while struggling to make his gladiator training school the greatest stable of iron-hard warrior flesh that the mean streets of Capua have ever seen. Echoing HBO’s emphasis on Rome’s hopelessly class-segregated society, Gods of the Arena skips back and forth between the travails of the gladiators (who, for all their glamour and martial prowess, are ultimately property to be brutalised at will) and the household slaves, and the multiplying intrigues and deceits of the upper classes.

At only six episodes (the series proper is apparently much longer) Gods of the Arena rattles through the action quickly, which helps to keep up a giddy momentum. Consistently watchable and entertaining,

Spartacus even manages to pull off some weighty drama as events build to a climax; the ferocity and sensuality of the world it depicts helps to stoke the intensity bubbling beneath the fraught relationships of the characters, making them more than cut-outs who slaughter and copulate for the audience’s amusement. A tortured romance subplot strives gamely to provide the most compelling character drama of the series, but loses out to a troubled father-son relationship with no clear villain, as Batiatus Junior’s combination of amorality and earnest ambition clash with the values of his more honourable but more coldly conservative father.

At no point, however, does the show skimp on the violent thrills. It shamelessly indulges in the slow motion gimmickry popularised by Zack Snyder’s 300, but does a noticeably more competent job of using it than the big-budget director. While Snyder used slow-motion rather abruptly and unimaginatively (in fairness, this is something Spartacus sometimes does as well) Gods of the Arena uses it as primal punctuation for its desperate duels, lending queasy impact to each slice and blow.

Following a conclusion both triumphant and bleak, all the pieces have fallen into place for the arrival of the titular character himself, that legendary rebel who gave Rome’s bloated tyranny one of the greatest shocks in the violent history of the Republic. This demented show still has a long and bloody journey ahead of it.     

Twenty Years of D.C. Animation: Mask of the Phantasm

It’s unfair to compare Mask of the Phantasm with its more heavyweight cousins, the live-action Batman movies. A commercial failure after its limited theatrical release, apparently botched by Warner Brothers, “Phantasm” raked in less money than the notorious Batman and Robin but at least gained a respectable afterlife on video. It’s not a masterpiece of animation, though gorgeous by the standards of the television show. There are plenty of impressive flourishes but it’s still overshadowed by the dazzle of the Disney Renaissance. The themes are strong, and the story, while predictable and a little awkward in places (presumably due to a painfully rushed production) is actually fairly haunting, with a tender yet doomed romance mixed up with ferocious action sequences, obsessed heroism, grim anti-heroism and sleazy villainy.

Clearing the decks of most of the regular supporting cast (boosting the impact of those who do appear) “Phantasm” makes the potentially tedious choice of bringing in both a long-lost lover for Bruce Wayne and a new threat that acts a shadowy counterpart to Batman (a concept already heavily mined by his existing Rogue’s Gallery). Lacking the iconic weight of established characters, these new elements could have fallen flat as clichés. However Andrea Beaumont pleasantly surprises as a convincing foil and love interest for the dashing yet awkward billionaire, helped along by the solid voice-work of Dana Delany, soon to be the voice of Lois Lane on Batman’s sister-show Superman. The Phantasm, while a tiny bit naff, is a nice thematic contrast to Batman’s vigilante strivings, using its quasi-supernatural powers to wage a deadly crusade of naked revenge, rather than well-intentioned justice, against the film’s crew of grotesque mobsters,  highlighting Batman’s moral discipline.

Dark themes of cruelty and loss aside, the filmmakers still set aside some time for thrills and spills, with the Dark Knight’s sheer toughness and drive highlighted in thumping battles across the gloomy neo-noir cityscape of a soaring animated Gotham, building to the suitably evocative finale in the decaying ruins of futuristic theme park, a bleak metaphor for Batman’s shattered dreams of romance and peace.  

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Great Fictional Villains: Jadis, the White Witch

Say what you like about C.S. Lewis (and a lot of his writing decisions and implied personal beliefs do look dubious or discredited coming back to his books as an adult), but he pulled off a vintage villain in Jadis, the White Witch, the Chronicles of Narnia’s most noteworthy antagonist. A sorceress and despot, the White Witch is portrayed as a physical and existential threat to the land of Narnia in her first appearance in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Not only has she imposed a harsh and illegitimate regime on the cowering Narnians, recruiting legions of fairy-tale monsters to be her soldiers and secret police and styling herself as legitimate ruler while brazenly usurping the established dynasty; she also uses her unmatched magical powers to swathe a fertile land in endless winter, a sign of deathly sterility to be swept away by the eventual return of paw-dragging Messiah Aslan.

Of course, in Lewis’ arguable laboured theology the Witch is a stand-in for Death and/or Satan, a seemingly all-powerful tyrant who crumbles with embarrassing speed the moment Aslan decides to really assert himself. She still gets to show off a notable talent for cruelty, manipulation and intimidation in the brief window before her regime abruptly implodes, however.

It’s in underrated prequel The Magician’s Nephew that Jadis really gets her chance to shine, as her back-story and the roots of her Narnian takeover are revealed. Jadis was originally the haughty royalty of a nameless humanoid race, the people of a world separate from Narnia and the “real” world entirely; mighty, decadent Charn. Charn was initially ruled by idealised kings and queens, echoing the Aslan-anointed Pevensies of Narnia. However, with each successive generation the dynasty grew harsher and more morally depraved, finally reaching its nadir in the ruthless Jadis.

Though she sports villainous virtues like a strong will, self-belief and an admirable work ethic (she can’t spend five minutes on another world without trying to take it over, and ran Narnia seemingly single-handed for a century), Jadis’ defining characteristic was a breathtaking, limitless arrogance that sealed Charn’s doom and might have put paid to Narnia as well. Charn’s overbearing empire was torn apart by an apocalyptic civil war for ultimate power between Jadis and her own sister, which ended with Jadis using a sort of magical nuke to wipe out all life on the planet apart from Jadis herself rather than concede defeat. She hibernated for an eon before a blundering English schoolboy on an inter-dimensional jaunt woke her up, and soon found herself in a newly-created Narnia, where she found immortality at the cost of having her impressive demeanour and fierce vitality (put across well by the original illustrations) wither away and leave her a pallid husk, still feared and powerful but soulless and ultimately doomed.

With his depiction of the descent of such a potent and lordly, yet callous and monstrous character, echoing Milton’s Satan, Lewis (whose intellectual and artistic gifts I personally find to be wildly uneven) managed to pull off the most effective commentary on evil his work ever managed.    

Great Fictional Villains: Angelus

Poor David Boreanaz. Allegedly hired for the part of Angel, brooding boyfriend to heroine Buffy Summers, because his good looks charmed female members of Joss Whedon’s production team, the inexperienced actor looked incredibly awkward during the early days of the soon-to-be cult show. Playing a supposedly immortal being, a predatory, angsty vampire with a perspective beyond the comprehension of any ordinary mortal, was always going to be a tall order, and for all his mysterious moping early-period Angel frequently came across as nothing more than A Guy. Just A Guy, with a penchant for billowy coats, an impressively firm jawline and some boundary issues, but not really convincing as one of the most powerful and infamous vampires in the Buffyverse.

Of course, Boreanaz eventually blossomed into the role and became a decent, if never quite Brando-calibre actor, but when he made a shocking return to evil in Buffy’s second season you could be forgiven for having misgivings about his ability to portray an even more far-out character; the inhumanly sadistic Angelus (really nothing more than Angel with his conscience, self-restraint, and drive towards virtue stripped away). It was a pleasant surprise, then, when he ironically turned out to be far better at portraying Angel’s unrepentantly evil persona than his tortured and self-loathing one. His Angelus doesn’t only commit some of the most hateful acts of any villain during the show’s run (more for their emotional impact than their apocalyptic scale); his smirking, menacingly intense performance puts him across as the sort of warped personality capable of committing such enormities.  

Angelus is basically the Ultimate Stalker. In Season Two the temporary loss of his soul curdles his frantic infatuation with Buffy into a murderous obsession, presenting the fledging Slayer with a terrible challenge and a painfully intimate threat; she has to destroy the man she loves, aware that he is being compelled by an inherently evil nature but still shocked by the savage extremes to which he takes their love affair-turned-vendetta. The Mayor may have been cooler, but Angel’s brutal regression to his soulless past was the most personal evil Buffy ever faced, forcing her to battle through her own emotional turmoil as much as Evil Angel’s minions and assassins.

Angelus’ creepy fixation on Buffy added dramatic spice to the plot arc of the Second Season, but it was clear that even without his particular obsession, he was still an all-purpose figure of dread. The average Buffyverse vampire is a brute predator, a creature of violent instincts that has to be put down. Young Liam of Galway’s vampiric persona took this further, standing out through his love of cold-blooded and calculated torture, wracking the minds and bodies of luckless mortals and even his fellow blood-suckers at every opportunity. This implies that the demonic essence that shaped human into vampire only brought out some latent capacity for cruelty and manipulation in the young man; a disturbing notion for modern-day, repentant Angel to deal with.

Buffy was eventually able to defeat Angelus without destroying him. He returned to goodness after having his soul magically restored even as he was cast into a nameless hell. Spat out of the inferno in mysterious circumstances, he ended his dysfunctional relationship with Buffy and struck out for LA, starting his own spin-off show as a professional do-gooder on the mean streets of the City of Angels. The threat of the return of Angelus hung over Angel’s early seasons, a prospect I often secretly looked forward to, as Angelus’ happy-go-lucky approach to mayhem and death had an element of deviant fun missing from Angel’s sulky celibacy and admittedly adorable social awkwardness. Yet even though Angelus did get the occasional brief comeback (before the Dark Side was inevitably subdued by Angel’s firmly-established heroic persona once more) he never topped the sheer viciousness of his earliest appearances. 

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Great Fictional Villains: The Law

It’s impossible not to have a little love for the Law. The real star of Video Game High School is this triumphant archetype, every cinematic bully in history mashed into one smirking, swaggering, implausibly awesome package. While the Law’s personal brand of egotistical malice and his relentless, disproportionate persecution of dweeby Brian D would be heinous in real life, but in the glossy setting of VGHS, the sheer flamboyancy of the Law’s high school super-villainy makes it impossible not to chuckle at his antics.

  Law is the product of a near-future civilization which has foolishly elevated the most skilled video-game players to the status of rock gods, like some globe-girdling South Korea. Unfortunately, this effectively means that That One Guy (the guy who is so much better at FPS’ than anyone else) is now a beloved and dreaded Master of the Universe, tearing through super-immersive virtual battle-fields and terrorising plucky high-school twitchers.  Law’s rampant megalomania is so hilariously overblown, his shooting skills so preternaturally precise (WALLHACKZ) and his feud with Brian D such a typhoon of high school movie clichés (with a post-Xbox generation twist) that you can’t hate the man, even as you root for his downfall. Anyone who has ever longed to see That One Guy brought low in his game of choice by the sweaty-thumbed noobs of this world can identify with the perpetually put-upon Brian D's struggle to wipe the cocky grin off Law’s beaming face, but that doesn’t mean you can’t appreciate this trigger-happy narcissist's sauntering showmanship.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Twenty Years of D.C. Animation: Batman '92

  The D.C. Animated Universe was a highly popular family of shows kicked off by the beloved, game-changing Batman: The Animated Series in 1992. The show’s creative team spun off related shows for the likes of Superman, the Justice League and, er, Static Shock, building a sizeable continuity that managed to be both accessible to new viewers and rewarding to long-time fans. At a time when the mainstream comics these cartoons were based on were languishing in the infamous Dark Age, for many 90s kids the DCAU was their main touchstone for the iconic properties of the 20th century.

  The Batman cartoon that started it all began as an ambitious attempt to piggyback off the success of Tim Burton’s lucratively dark Batman movie, even borrowing the iconic opening theme. Ironically, Danny Elfman’s epic chords would ultimately become far more closely associated with the plucky little kid’s show than with the bombastic blockbuster. It was quickly established that this show was no lazy cash-in, but a hugely audacious attempt to batter down the walls of the animation ghetto, while still providing non-patronising entertainment for its young demographic.

  Even on their best day, Marvel’s contemporary animated output was simply outclassed, hamstrung by dopey censorship. While Spiderman and the X-Men featured cops and gangsters armed  with  laser pistols instead of pistol-pistols, and voice actors required to force out the most contorted sentences to avoid acknowledging the existence of death, Kevin Conroy’s Batman was snarling threats at 1940s-themed mobsters with tommy guns and explosives in intense confrontations. Not only did Conroy’s brooding voice represent the definitive Batman for a generation of comic fans, but also B: TAS turned out to be one of the most effective attempts at juggling the conflicting elements of the character’s world. Schumacher might turn the whole thing into a winking, smirking joke, and Nolan’s version might trumpet its po-faced darkness while awkwardly holding its fantastic conspiracies and outlandish characters at arm’s length, but a creative team headed up by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm used the opportunities of the animated medium to successfully mesh both the gothic grimness and the clownish absurdity of the Batman mythos.

  Though there was a fair amount of dud episodes, questionable writing decisions and, in the early days at least, inconsistent animation, at its best Batman was a brilliant, famously non-condescending gateway into a world of all-ages fun that frequently outstripped the Dark Knight’s big-budget live-action incarnations for entertainment value. This Batman was fierce and driven, every line delivered with a very adult sense of steely conviction that showed up the exaggerated bleating of many of his cartoon contemporaries. He was motivated by angst and grief, but it was pitched to make him appear sympathetic rather than suffocatingly self-indulgent. He was a clear-cut hero, chivalrous and fearless and organically cool, rather than some bizarre, posturing anti-hero showing off a forced edginess. His supporting cast were also well-executed; Alfred, Robin, and Commissioner Gordon did their jobs of providing better-adjusted, more human presences to offset Batman’s intensity, and the Rogue’s Gallery managed to come across as fairy-tale monsters and horribly damaged people at the same time. The villain origin stories provided some of the show’s most memorable moments, showing genuinely terrifying breakdowns and descents into criminal madness that added a tragic flavour to the ensuing brawls.

  With the show’s popularity soaring, an unprecedented step was taken; a feature length movie based on the show was made. Amazingly, it would actually have a theatrical release, bringing a generation’s Batman to the silver screen for the first and only time.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Serenity Mini-Retrospective

Serenity is a strange beast, being the big-screen continuation of a famously promising, infamously cancelled cult TV show. As such, it is perhaps best appreciated by Firefly fans; they get a degree of resolution to compensate them for the original show’s messy death. Unfortunately, this means that character issues obviously intended for drawn-out development over many episodes have to be awkwardly and prematurely wrapped up. Some controversial deaths also add to the sense of sad finality, of a setting and a cast who were meant to sprawl luxuriously across many seasons being shoehorned into a two-hour running time.

 Yet for all that, director Joss Whedon does everything in his power to give his intriguing universe, with its thematically fascinating tension between roguish pioneers and spit-polished quasi-fascists, a fitting send-off. There are plenty of the mandatory thrills and spills, as the ruling Alliance close the net on the crew of the good ship Serenity, and the volatile psychic they shelter, River Tam. There is some awkward dialogue, but it is swamped by all the pleasing lines and character beats. There is a dark conspiracy (ironically centred on a world that is unnervingly brightly lit), bringing in some stakes-upping future-horror without smothering the sense of humour, fun and adventure. Last but not least, there is a memorable antagonist in the poised, deadly, dangerously reasonable form of the Operative, a slick anti-villain for the ages. All in all, despite the script’s underdeveloped stabs at profundity, Serenity is enough of a rousing mini-epic to satisfy as the tale brooding Captain Malcolm’s Reynold’s long-delayed redemption, even though it highlights the unfairness of Firefly’s fate, and reminds fans of what could have been.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Long Overdue Men in Black 3 Review

  The long-belated second sequel to one of the most memorable blockbusters of the 90s arrives to understandably low expectations. Everything about the build-up to Men in Black 3 screams of marketing cynicism, and well-publicised problems with production indicates the likelihood of an unsatisfying mess. While MIB 3 certainly has problems, it also pleasantly surprises, with performances far stronger than they could have been, and a genuinely affecting emotional core.

  The original film brought the audience into a dark, eerie, comedic, fascinating world, with serious potential for expanding its universe into a thriving franchise. This potential was then promptly squandered with a lazy and witless sequel. There is little chance that any attempt to recapture the magic a decade later will completely reverse the franchise’s woes, but number three at least makes a decent attempt.

  After some awkward early scenes, the writers wisely stop trying to re-kindle the long-faded onscreen chemistry between Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, and instead send Smith back through time to the 1960s, where he must team up with Agent K’s relatively less grouchy younger self, played with spot-on accuracy by Josh Brolin, who mixes K’s trademark laconic competence with understated warmth. They have to foil a new alien antagonist, a time-travelling genocidal thug played by Jermaine Clement, who, shockingly, manages to make his one-note retread of the first film’s Edgar into a genuinely menacing figure in its own right. A truly intimidating roar, backed up by some lethally unpleasant biology, isn’t enough to make Clement’s Boris the Animal into a villain for the ages, but it more than does the job for this movie.

  Predictably, the plot is rickety and the holes are agape, but the charisma of the stars elevates the better scenes and makes the damp squibs (like the Men In Universe’s sadly unfunny take on Andy Warhol) at least bearable. The film also has a secret weapon, in the form of Michael Stuhlbarg as Griffin, a benevolent alien with the ability to see multiple possible futures. Introduced as little more than a cryptic plot facilitator, Griffin could so easily have been unbearably cutesy and sentimental character, with his anorak, his puppy dog eyes and his unworldly rambling. However, he manages to be adorably sweet rather than sickly sweet, with some touching meditations on the wonders of probability in human history (there is some excellent dialogue during a quiet scene in an empty baseball stadium) that gives the film an engaging humanity that raises it above its un-promising origins.

Friday, 15 June 2012

100 Greatest Fictional Villains: Mayor Richard Wilkins

  When you get down to it, for the show that coined the term “Big Bad”, Buffy the Vampire Slayer actually had a shortage of truly brilliant villains. There were certainly some respectable attempts, but for the most part the squelchy horrors that bedevilled the Sunnydale night tended to play second fiddle to the group dynamics of the heroic Scoobies. Buffy antagonists were mostly crude personifications of adolescent issues, rather than compelling characters, and were sometimes even more generic than that. Certainly they had a tendency to be neatly and perfunctorily killed off in the episodes they appeared in. Major threats often took a while to get going, or were all-purpose figures of doom lacking in truly shocking or fascinating character traits. Characters like the Master, Adam and Caleb weren’t exactly bad, they just failed leave a truly indelible stamp on the series.

  Of course, there were exceptions, and the Mayor was gloriously one of them. He was initially a vaguely-referenced background threat, only to become the main antagonist of Season Three and end up running away with the entire season. After watching Buffy scythe through scores of snarling thugs in heavy monster make-up, it was refreshing to see a cheerful, avuncular public servant become the chirpy, Reagan-like face of impending doom. He added a much-needed playfulness to Sunnydale’s largely po-faced and over-dramatic villain-sphere, as if he realised a long time how ludicrously immoral his very existence was and just started laughing at his outrageous chutzpah. A skilled sorcerer who founded Sunnydale generations ago, the Mayor’s mortal lifespan was unnaturally extended by diabolical pacts, as he performed various unspeakable deeds to placate his infernal allies (including attempted casual baby sacrifice in an early Season Three episode). His ultimate goal was to switch species and become a reptilian Uber-Demon; but that didn’t mean he had to shirk the responsibilities of office along the way, taking a genuine interest in the smooth administration of the quirky, creepy town of Sunnydale.

  The Mayor was always an enigma, because it was never clear where the friendly and seemingly unfeigned demeanour slipped and the ruthless power-hungry despot began, or whether there was ever a distinction between the attractive and sinister facets of his personality in the first place. The Mayor seemed to be psychologically well-rounded, with little in the way of doubts or regrets, and his relationship with the renegade Slayer Faith proved that he wasn’t a psychopath. He was just a talented politician with buckets of life experience, who apparently decided a long time ago that his existence would be dedicated to becoming a giant flesh-eating snake. Maybe, rather than some sort of megalomaniacal craving or inadequacy, he settled on this terrible task with single-minded focus because it was the hardest thing any sorcerer could set out to do, like people who want to climb Everest “because it’s there”?

  Whatever the answer, in a show full of mindless monsters and raving murderers, the Mayor stands out for his unassuming competence and brisk, no-nonsense approach to evil with a capital E, in a town where evil just made sense. And of course, he was the perfect smugly superior authority figure for Buffy’s graduating class to rebel against, liberating themselves from their home-town’s twisted, deadly system. He wasn’t the Mayor the tragedy-stricken youth of Sunnydale deserved, but perhaps he was the Mayor they needed.  

The Devil's Double Review

   The Devil’s Double is a feverishly grisly picture, which rightly refuses to flinch away from the nightmarish violence and cruelty of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Dominic Cooper plays the role of Uday Hussein, Saddam’s depraved hobgoblin of a son, as well as the former school-mate with a striking physical resemblance to Uday recruited as a body double. Cooper certainly can’t be accused of phoning in the demanding dual performance, but nevertheless the characterisation falls a little flat. He does a fine job as Uday, unleashing an extroverted monstrousness that evokes the necessary sense of grandiose, psychopathic, freakishly childlike menace (in a truly twisted irony, the occasional appearance by Saddam himself makes him seem almost reasonable in comparison to Uday). The problem is that beyond morbid fascination, the character of Uday is not especially interesting; a spoilt, spiteful, bloodthirsty grotesque. There is nothing wrong with this (the filmmakers are working with painfully recent reality after all), but it does make it important that the portrayal of the double, Latif Yahia, is compelling enough to act as the centre of the film. However, little sense of Yahia as a person emerges; he is less a fascinating enigma than a frustratingly opaque nobody, who does little apart from brood for most of the running time. He seems to seesaw between notably disgusted but passive in the face of Uday’s evil, and reckless, almost suicidal defiance, including an underwhelming and unconvincing love affair with one of Uday’s favourite courtesans. He never seems to show fear, despite having every reason to dread reprisals against his family if his Satanic employer ever tires of him. This strange dichotomy between helplessness and heroism is doubtless due to the film being based on the real Yahia’s own recollections.

  The film’s weak centre is unfortunate, as its evocation of the gnawing pressure and institutional vileness of the Hussein years is savagely potent; Uday can be a cheerful hedonist in one scene, only to commit bloody murder in a fit of adolescent rage in another. Some of the grimmest moments of the film concern his sexual sadism, showing his relentless stalking of schoolgirls through the streets of Baghdad. But the awkward juxtaposition of real-life brutality and the odd action-movie implausibility (particularly in the final reel), deflates the film’s merit, leaving it’s frenzied efforts to shock and condemn lagging in the shadow of relatively more sober pieces like The Last King of Scotland.       

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

And for a follow-up, Apocalypto

  Very much a companion piece to “The Passion of the Christ” with its obsession with history’s greatest and most terrible themes, its skilled viciousness at depicting violated human flesh, and a sort of bloody grandeur that will either compel, offend, or both. Despite a laudable decision to cast actual Mayans, and a reported degree of conscientious research, historical accuracy is clearly not Gibson’s primary priority. The setting is supposedly Mayan civilization in its hour of crisis and decay, but the sacrificial rites that form the film’s most terrifying set-piece have more in common with Aztec religion, the gruesome details of which are burned more deeply into pop cultural consciousness. Doubtless there are other issues, but straightforward errors are forgivable in light of Gibson’s stated intentions; just as Apocalypse Now is a story of inner darkness played out against a Vietnamese backdrop, rather than a historical piece about the Second Indo-China War, so Apocalypto is less about the Mayans themselves than it is about the travails of dying civilization in general. Pre-Columbian South America is barely explored in cinema, so that it is depicted at all is a minor victory.

  Yet as a meditation on profound issues, there is little to recommend Apocalypto. It is less an epic story than another nightmarish historical simulation, the journey of the enslaved tribespeople whose number include the protagonist, Jaguar Paw, mirroring Jim Caveziel’s gruelling march towards Calvary in “Passion”. Yet instead of the ultimate symbol of the Christian faith, a pagan temple awaits. Horrible, meaningless death and tragedy abound for roughly the first two thirds of the picture; rape, murder, enslavement, families sundered and children abandoned in the jungle. There is a lazy division between “Good” Mayans, the peaceable forest-based hunters we meet first, and the “Bad” Mayans who come from the corrupt city, and who raze the “Good” Mayans village and haul the surviving men off to be sacrificed, which turns out to be a cynical gambit by the local royalty and priesthood to pacify the anxious masses with blood. In typical Gibson style, the “Bad” Mayans are ugly, brutally intimidating, or, in the case of the disease- and despair-racked populace off the doomed city, pathetic. There is a strong whiff of old-fashioned condescension about this approach; an un-nuanced portrayal that casually splits “natives” into hapless innocents and bloodthirsty heathens. The atmosphere of savagery and dread undeniably holds the attention, but any effort to make it seem somehow meaningful falls flat, leaving a vivid but depressing and nihilistic spectacle.

  Right up to the point where Jaguar Paw manages to escape, killing exactly the right person to provoke a reckless and implacable pursuit that turns Apocalypto’s final third into one of the most adrenaline-charged, inventively savage and compelling action movies ever. Racing through the jungle to rescue his family from a soon-to-be-flooded hiding place, Jaguar Paw finds himself back in his element and able to turn the tables on the slavers chasing him in a variety of unpleasant ways. There’s an element of morbid wish-fulfilment in the retributive violence he metes out (hiding behind the most respectable of motives), but for all the Robert E. Howard-esque crudity of the set-up, Gibson’s predilection for bloody thrills and spills is at least honestly entertaining, which makes it arguably less perverse than the worthy masochism of Passion of the Christ. And the ending is actually the most effective one that could have been written, wrapping up on an ominously ambiguous note, which gives a measure of triumph to the plucky hero without selling out the nightmarish atmosphere of the cruel, grim story.   

An Extremely Topical Review of "The Passion of the Christ"

  Mel Gibson’s filmmaking provokes endless, slightly perverse fascination. On the one hand he is a skilled director, who knows how to target an audience and play to their emotions and expectations. On the other, it has been repeatedly pointed out that aspects of the worldview his films express can border on the poisonous, arguably crossing the line into seriously dubious territory. The Passion of the Christ, a vivid and unabashedly Catholic depiction of the climax of the New Testament, is noteworthy for its place in the cultural history of the early 21st century as much as in Gibson’s strange and savage oeuvre; but the frenzy of publicity and controversy that swirled around the film at time of release came close to obscuring sober critical judgements of its worth as piece of visual art and storytelling.

 The most vital detail to establish about Passion is that the viewer’s emotional response is inevitably going to be tied very closely to their background and their feelings (with a stress on feelings, rather than thoughts; this is a work that attempts to provoke raw emotion, not reasoned reflection) about Jesus and Christianity. I find it very difficult to imagine Passion inspiring many non-believers to join the Elect, and those with pre-existing indifference or hostility towards Catholic beliefs are likely to find themselves at best non-plussed, and at worst repelled by the camera’s grisly obsession with human suffering. This is a film made by a staunch Catholic, which draws upon Catholic doctrine (debatably) and tradition in a manner guaranteed to resonate with Catholics.

  As a work of devotion, a modern day Passion Play with special effects and swarms of extras, I can see how it might inspire, shock and rivet a believing audience, at least on first viewing. However, it is glaringly obvious that this is only one, albeit critical, chapter of a much longer story, the story of Jesus’ life. It feels oddly like Jim Caviezel (who gives an excellent, if necessarily uncomplicated performance as Christ) is reprising the role after earlier instalments covering Jesus’ ministry that don’t actually exist, and that the film’s ending shows him striding in the direction of sequels that will never be made. Without a proper dramatic arc (flashbacks to Jesus’ pre-mauling life are awkwardly crow-barred in to break up the scenes of bloodshed), all the viewer is left with is a lengthy torture and execution simulation. It might work as a sort of time-travelling glimpse into the first century, but any sense of gazing down the millennia at profound and holy events is undermined by how glossily cinematic everything is, not to mention crudely-handled and unnecessary demonic manifestations. The evident and admirable insistence that the horrors of Jesus’ passing be un-sanitised (which curiously never extends to showing him crucified naked) is taken too far, as is depiction of Jesus’ tormentors, with a suspiciously stereotypical-looking Sanhedrin, a Herod who is shown as effeminate as a convenient shorthand for moral degeneracy, and a Barabbas who looks like a fairy-tale ogre. Gibson symbolically used his own hands in the close-up shot of the fateful nails being driven in; a theological statement rendered pointless by making the persecutors so impossible to relate to.

  The infamous scourging scene is the worst offender; it hardly strains credulity that Roman guards might go about their duties with a degree of sadism, but rather than the bored and banal cruelty you might expect, they are cackling devils who bear little resemblance to convincing human beings. The grisly flogging is taken to pointless lengths; after having his skin shredded and being forced to drag his own cross under the shower of blows for ages, Jesus’ actual crucifixion runs the risk of being bizarrely anti-climactic. The rational response to this would be to go back and edit out the worst moments of the flogging, but instead Gibson decides to have Jesus’ shoulder dislocated just to make the audience cringe.   

  The film’s saving grace is it’s convincing evocations of the relationship between Jesus and his loved ones, particularly Mary (Maia Morgenstern communicates immense sorrow and anguish despite rarely speaking), through tiny vignettes and meaningful glances.  However alienated some viewers might be by the extended gore and the shabby characterisation of the “villains”, the film is visually impressive in its staging and the less caricatured performances are full of understated power. The potential for this material, with the directorial talent behind it, to have been something more than the sum of its parts is obvious, but with Gibson’s career implosion this is territory he is unlikely to re-visit, leaving us with a glossy, eccentric, lurid slice of Biblical cinema.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Starship Troopers: "I'm from Buenos Aires, and I say kill 'em all!"

  I know this one has been picked clean in terms of analysis, but I watched it recently and churned out a longish-review (in obedience to my "review every non-documentary film you watch without fail" rule), so I might as well go ahead and share it with the Interwebs anyway...

  Paul Verhoeven is not, perhaps, as clever as he thinks he is. The satire so blatantly on display in this sci-fi extravaganza is not especially complex, subtle, cutting or nuanced. Yet of course the sheer brazen, clumsy directness of it is doubtless part of the point; to highlight the ruthless absurdity of authoritarian ideology and militaristic propaganda via a fictional portrayal that takes the logic of the warmonger to cartoonish, blackly comic extremes.

  The film’s satire is brash and broad, taking a cudgel rather than a scalpel to its intended target. As a result, the aspects of American culture that Verhoeven found so distasteful are left bruised rather than eviscerated. Implausibly glossy lead characters with fatuous motives and shallow, unreflective personalities, scenes of blatant stupidity and viciousness portrayed as uncomplicated heroism, the most tyrannical and bloodthirsty values ironically celebrated with no coherent alternative in sight…it’s hard not to instantly recognise the future galaxy of the Federation-Bug war as a slickly-presented dystopia. Moments that genuinely get under the skin are scarce.

  However, that is not to say that the film lacks more unsettling beats. Scenes of indoctrinated schoolchildren tussling over free bullets while a couple of soldiers look indulgently on may prompt more cynical amusement than horror, but the Federation’s utterly wrong-headed attitude to censorship (blacking out animal mutilations but showing  a sea of butchered human corpses a heartbeat later) speaks volumes about how chillingly warped the standards of this fascistic future have become. After all, the Nazis were famously offended by animal cruelty, while placing no value upon the lives of certain categories of human being. Even gloomier is the nihilistic question mark of the film’s ending; the capture of a Brain Bug is portrayed as some great triumph, but there is no obvious evidence that this is anything other than one early chapter in a seemingly endless, incredibly violent conflict. The dissonance between the patriotic bombast of score, style, and performance, and what a sober appraisal of the revealed facts about the movie’s universe reveals, is stunningly dark. This is only emphasised by Verhoeven’s refusal to drop the mask of trigger-happy Boy’s Own enthusiasm at any point. A particular fan theory, namely that the entire story is supposed to be actual Federation propaganda, with distorted retellings of real events filtered through the Federal News Networks goofy style to impressionable masses, is probably the best way to appreciate the movie.

  It is of course, also possible to be purely entertained by the impressively dramatic visuals and the ludicrous grinning bravado of the entire affair. While it’s a matter of course to have a laugh at the expense of a supposedly clueless Casper Van Dien, he certainly carries out the task of portraying an energetic, earnest yet clueless lead with admirable verve and commitment, literally soldiering on with the role through objectively ridiculous surroundings. Not to mention that Denise Richard’s ability to portray one of the most irritatingly vacuous characters ever, whose perpetual vacant beaming resembles a Barbie doll more than any human woman, probably required some sort of talent. Clancy Brown and Michael Ironside are also ideally cast as archetypal grizzled authority figures, giving the Federation a sort of stern, macho legitimacy that the extreme stupidity of its actual policy doesn’t deserve.

  Troopers may be a blunt instrument, but it has enough memorable touches to ensure its longevity in the annals of popular culture.

Thursday, 31 May 2012

100 Greatest Fictional Villains: Agent 47

  The subversive potential of videogames for exploring the darkest, most disquieting human drives is rarely more evident than it is in the Hitman franchise. Perhaps it’s makers didn’t set out to make more than a deftly original power fantasy, with an amoral cipher of a protagonist, but that doesn’t stop the many faces of Agent 47 from oozing underneath the skin to break bread with the player’s more colourful inner demons.

  47 is a nameless, dead-eyed avenging angel in a high-end suit, complete with strangler’s hands wrapped in black leather gloves, pale skin, a perpetual expression of stern determination and, most outrageously of all, a barcode tattooed to the back of his head, as if to sardonically taunt the authorities’ inability to identify him. He looks like a cliché representation of what the average person might imagine when they think of a professional assassin, yet he slides through the game’s demented universe like an impossibly discrete shark through an especially colourful undersea wonderland.

  In the most recent game, Blood Money, target locations are typically snapshots of humanity’s underbelly, scenes of exuberant celebration concealing fundamental depravity; colourful parties presided over by arch-criminals and wealthy degenerates, wistful holiday spots where gangsters and killers lurk. 47 weaves through the sweating, blundering masses with chilly purity, pockets stuffed with sterile instruments of death. Depending on the player’s whim, he might act with total professionalism, killing with almost dainty precision and leaving a single concealed body behind. Or he might just scythe a path through bystander and security alike in a nihilistic frenzy, fighting his way to the mark in a storm of blood-mist and shell casings.

  47 stands out amongst the edgy posturing of other morally compromised videogame protagonists through a sense of black comedy and an icy, calculating focus in which the most heinous acts, from poisoning food to throwing pensioners of tall buildings to throttling children’s entertainers in order to steal their costumes, can make a perverse kind of sense in its own bleak, nasty little context.

100 Greatest Fictional Villains: Lord Foul the Despiser

  Stephen Donaldson’s epic fantasy trilogy The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant bear a superficial resemblance to Lord of the Rings, with magic artifacts, world-saving questing, and blatant Sauron and Mordor analogues. This might lead to the casual assumption that Donaldson is just another one of Tolkein’s countless slavish imitators, lazily aping the basic elements of the master’s intricate, genre-defining cosmology, but this is Not The Case At All. As well as his infamously dense prose, Donaldson distinguishes himself from Tolkein with a truly colossal cynicism, paradoxically shot through with a vein of battered, desperate idealism. Donaldson also has a habit of treating his characters to his personal brand of gruelling torment, with heroes and villains alike suffering from vividly sadistic physical and mental trials. The most frequent instrument of that pervasive brutality is the Chronicle’s main antagonist, a Dark Lord archetype of transcendent malice called Lord Foul.

  Once you get past Donaldson’s habit in his early work of giving evil characters luridly cheesy names (Lord Foul is one of many, ever more unsubtle appellations, with “Satansheart Soulcrusher” being the worst), you get to one of the most compelling fiends in fantasy fiction. While Sauron’s inhumanity stemmed from his inscrutability, as a grim yet impersonal presence for which mortals seemed mere scurrying insects, Foul’s brand of inhuman evil is founded upon how gruesomely, invasively personal he is. His mocking, commanding voice violates the heads of his targets, skewering their most fundamental insecurities and belittling their efforts to defy him with crushing finality.

  Foul is the incarnation of hatred and loathing, implied to be a manifestation of series protagonist Thomas Covenant’s own primal horror towards his leprosy-tainted flesh. His back-story and motivation are suitably epic; The Creator (nameless deity of the fantasy universe that Covenant finds himself transported to) cast down his malevolent brother in some cosmic brawl, trapping Lord Foul inside the Arch of Time that contains and supports the created world. Foul’s goal is to acquire the raw power necessary to shatter the Arch, unmaking the planet as the Creator’s metaphysical laws break down, but leaving Foul free to ravage the celestial realms once more. While in theory this should make the affairs of the Earth dull and parochial to his timeless intellect, it doesn’t stop him from playing warped games with the mortals that stand in his way. The Despiser never hesitates to express a depraved satisfaction at the misery wrought by his various tools, from the demoniacal Ravers, to the monstrous hordes of the First Chronicles, to the nature-corrupting horror of the Sunbane in the Second Chronicles.

  Relentless, blasphemous, psychopathic and legitimately Satanic in the scope of his machinations, the Despiser is a case study in how to make your fantasy overlord more than a generic Shadow.