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.