Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Cowboys 'n Vampires 'n Zombies 'n, um, Thai people.

The Good, The Bad, (&) The Weird

I haven't seen a lot of Korean films. But, between this and The Host, I certainly want to see more. Genre blending (or perhaps more accurately, genre collision course) is the name of the game here, as a Korean director Kim Ji-woon takes on a few of the basic plot elements and visual motives of Sergio Leone's classic Western, splices it with an Indiana Jones style treasure hunting adventure, adds a dash of Hong Kong style heroic bloodshed, and then paints the whole thing in one of the most vibrant and colourful palates I've seen outside of The Wizard of Oz – despite the complete lack of Indiana Jones style supernatural elements, the visual style alone places the film firmly in the arena of the pulp adventure, and Lord am I ever thankful for that.

Plot-wise, we've got the three eponymous characters using an ancient map to find a Qing dynasty treasure in 1930's Manchuria during the Japanese occupation. 'The Good', Park Do-won, is a bounty hunter in a great big duster and a cool hat, who has a prefence for rifles. 'The Bad', Park Chang-yi is, according to my girlfriend, horrifically hot, has floppy hair, likes knives and pistols and generally being a jerk. And, of course, there's 'The Weird' , Yoon Tae-goo (the dad from The Host! Hurrah!), a roguish character who gets about in a pilots cap, is the most human character and for the most part, the audiences frame of reference. As the film goes on, we learn very little about the characters (barring The Weird, who's past occasionally catches up to him... much like his proxy from The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, natch), but generally, we don't need to. They're fairly archetypal western adventure characters, and they're there for one reason – to do awesome stuff. And they do. This film is pleasantly action packed, with extremely busy set-pieces to swash-buckle around. Highlights include a gunfight in a black market town, and the 5-way chase scene at the end that has the Do-won and Tae-goo racing for the treasure's prize against Chang-yi's gang, a gang of bandits, and the Japanese Imperial Army! (all set to Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood. It's pretty rockin'.).

Finally, I must mention the utterly frantic, kinetic direction and cinematography. The camera takes full advantage of the set design (or perhaps the sets are taking full advantage of the camera. Whatever!) to bring an incredibly diverse array of shots, angles, tracking and so on. The camera sometimes feels as though it's being strung about the place on a complex series of wires (or at least, flying around under its own power), as it will follow a protagonist across an elaborate set-piece before pushing in to a close up of said character narrowly avoiding getting crushed, and then swivelling around to look at some new threat. And only THEN will it cut. It's truly something to see, and I certainly found it tremendously exciting, as it lent each action scene a an air of continuous, unrelenting energy. In short, a giant 'Fuck you' to the overly tedious, over-produced special effects shots and the hyper-active editing of many Western action films that obscure all sense of what's happening in the name of creating some sort of impressionistic interpretation of events. GBW demonstrates once again that it is quite possible to keep the audience informed of what's happening on screen in an interesting way, and that such cheap tricks are completely unnecessary.

In short, after watching this film, I came away with one major question: Why is an Asian director doing a better Western-style adventure film than the West? Make no mistake, despite the film's obvious Asian aesthetic, at its heart it's a love letter to a particular style of film that has generally been the province of the West for decades. If shifting this genre to a difference continent will continue to revitalise flagging and tedious genres, I can only hope this keeps happening. Fast and the Furious, Cambodian style! Italian Mobster movie as performed by a Malaysian theatre company! Under-dog sports story except done by Hong Kong with crazy Chi-powered moves! Wait, that already happened. It was called Shaolin Soccer, and it was awesome.

Is it entertaining? Extremely so. Every character's a badass, and big coats will always be cool. Unless they are black. That's Matrix-chic and hasn't been cool for a long time.

Is it worth watching? Definitely. There's so much to enjoy about every element of this film that it's hard to imagine anyone coming away totally unsatisfied.

Ong Bak 2

So this film really has nothing to do with Ong Bak. Yeah, Tony Jaa's still in it, it's still a martial arts film, and he still kicks all manner of ass. But it's also set 600 years in the past during a period of feuding states in medieval Thailand. Now, my Thai history is pretty shoddy, so there's not a lot I can tell you about this period, but for the purposes of this film, it really doesn't matter. To be honest, the plot's pretty simple martial arts fair: Tony Jaa's character, Tien (like his name matters. He's Tony Jaa, man!) is the son of a noble, er, noble. His family is killed by an ignoble noble. He falls in with a band of guerilla's/bandits/assassins/I'm not really sure what they are, and learns how to kick ass from a variety of fighters from all over the world. He then uses this knowledge to wreck vengeance on those who murdered his father. Now, yes, it is a simple plot, but here's the thing: during the film it's almost impossible to tell what's actually going on. Scenes jump back and forwards in time a lot, and are often bereft of any particular context. Come to think of it, this often happens when the narrative is trying to be more linear. We'll see Tony Jaa training with his homies, and then we'll cut to him wondering into a cave and fighting some sort of weird vampire person. His mentor figure then shows up and tells Jaa he must be ruthless, so he kills the weird vampire person. That's it. I really have no idea what was going on there. It might have been more training, it might just have been Tony Jaa's bad day for random vampire attacks. Ah well.

However (and it's a pretty important however), none of this really matters. The plot is nigh-incomprehensible, but once little Tien stabs a Crocodile to death, you won't care. And when he back-flips off an elephant and stomps a guy, all your qualms about the storyline will probably be forgotten. And then Tien is attack by crazy Persian-lookin' ninja dudes, and all is suddenly as it should be. Put simply, it is very fortunate for the audience that this film is utterly action packed. Martial Arts films are really just talent reels. We're here for the spectacle, and this film delivers. The film does slow down on occasion, but this is usually solved by having a random cutaway to the bandits killing some caravan, or to Tony having a three round mini-tournament with a succession of international fighters, or to a flashback where there's a fight scene for some reason. It's really marvellously entertaining. However, boo to the occasional use of wire-work. Tony himself doesn't seem to use it, but the appeal of his films (for me, at least) has always been the complete lack of these sorts of stunt props, as well as a lack of CGI. Keep it out of future instalments, y'hear?

Is it entertaining? Do you find Thai dudes fighting hordes of Persian-lookin' ninjas on the back of an elephant entertaining? The correct answer is, of course, yes.

Is it worth watching? Again. Backflip. Elephant. Ignore the plot, and hang out for the spectacle. You'll be alright.

Blood: The Last Vampire

Based onthe Production IG Original Video Animation of the same name, this is a bit of a mutant creature. Despite its Japanese character's and setting, it's a joint French/Korean/Hong Kong production, filmed primarily in English, with action scenes that either adopt Zack Snyder's habit of playing with film speed, or clearly inspired by Wuxia style Chinese fantasy. Its mythos is definitely Japanese, though, so I dunno, it all feels a little weird. Oh, and I should also mention that it has little to do with the Anime series Blood+, other than they both draw on the orignal OVA for inspiration.

Blood: The Last Vampire, then, is the story of a Japanese school girl named Saya who kills demons with a sword. Except that she's actually a fairly old vampire who kills demons with a sword. I guess they just feel she looks fetching in a fuku. Anyway, she infiltrates a school for the children of US servicemen on Okinawa, looking for more demons to kill, with a particular eye for the biggest, baddest demon Onigen, who had betrayed and murdered her father. It's also set in the 70's during the time of the Vietnam War, but this isn't really relevant. Most likely, it was so they could use random afro disco demons at one point, which, I have to admit, is the best reason to set anything in the 70's at all. Oh, Saya's also got the support of an ancient organisation called The Covenant, who don't like the demons either, so that kind of works for both of them. Yeah. Plot's not really all that interesting or important, and you'll probably pick out the twists far in advance of their occurrence.

A couple of interesting things about the film: there are a few scenes which are near exact recreation of scenes in the original OVA, which is kinda nifty, and at least shows some respect for the source material. Of course, anyone familiar with the source material knows that there wasn't really a lot of depth to the thing, so the story is expanded a fair bit. In fairly melodramatic directions. But, if you can get past that, there's quite a few action scenes to enjoy. There is a pretty major problem with them, though: really quite bad special effects. The blood is all CGI, and doesn't look or act remotely like blood might. The demons, when they transform into their inhuman state, are likewise pretty shoddy constructions, and make for a bit of an eyesore whenever it happens. In fact, the only really effect shot that I feel really works is the film form of Onigen, which is based on an old Oni image and is actually rather nifty. Never-the-less, all the actions scenes are kind of hampered by these effects, particularly when the whole thing keeps swerving between self-aware campitude and excessive melodrama. Some of the action has its eye firmly on cheesy good times (such as the aforementioned afro demons), but all too often we get scenes which are probably supposed to have some sort of gravities for the characters come off as overwrought and silly, and that isn't very good for the story.

I don't know, I really don't know what to make of this. I guess you could enjoy it if you'd ever wanted to know what a Chinese fantasy story with a Japanese flavour would look like, but there's too many glaring faults for me to really recommend it.

Is it entertaining? ...Bits of it. Kinda.

Is it worth watching? I can't really endorse it, but it's fairly harmless. Watch the Anime spin-off Blood + instead.


Eep, a Western film? I BROKE THE PATTERN.

Anyways, pretty good fun, this. Follows the adventures of a neurotic, awkward teenager Colombus surviving in post-zombocalypse America. He meets up with fellow survivors: Tallahassee, the gun totin' wisecrackin' redneck; Witchita, con-woman love interest; and Little Rock, con-little-girl and generally child. If you're noticing a theme with the naming, well, give yourself a button – they're all known for their areas of origin, and for the most part, that's all we know them as. This, of course, ties into a pretty damn prevalent theme about deliberate distance and alienation, and all eventually ties in to a sweet moral about trust, and learning to rely on others and the importance of companionship and family. Aw.

But yeah, this is a comedy. Furthermore, this is an extremely genre-savvy comedy. Whilst I wouldn't say that knowledge of previous zombie films is a necessity to enjoy this film, and there are few if any deliberate and obvious shout-outs (beyond the fact that there are zombies and they have eaten everyone), the entire past 30 years of the genre weigh heavily upon each and every scene of the film. Accordingly, the film uses this weight to lead the audience around by the nose several times, both fulfilling expectations and, at times, subverting them. To be perfectly honest, it doesn't really break any boundaries, but that's okay. This is pretty much the scenario every geek has had in their head for decades: when the zombocalypse goes down, it is those condition in the school of John Romero et al who survive. That said, the film is no where near as bleak as a Romero film. Sure, civilisation (or at least, America) is basically totalled, but hey, at least killing zombies is fun!

Like its trans-Atlantic cousin, Shaun of the Dead, the film has been structured as a straight zombie film as opposed to a parody or farce, and that's one of the keys to its enjoyment factor. Characters are not just gag-vehicles, and there's nothing really hokey about it (though there is a certain degree of action-movie logic to the whole affair. Well, alright, there's also a celebrity cameo. But it's funny! Honest!). Humour is born from dialogue, mostly by contrasting Columbus' idiosyncratic personality disorders with Tallahassee's callous disregard for anything besides killing zombies and searching for quaintly American spongy cake-things. The girls are less interesting, this has never really been a genre known for its female character's, so it doesn't really bother me so much. It's also a very modern incarnation of the zombie film: zombies run, and have more in common with the 28 Days Later variety of rage-infected lunatics than with the Romero zombies or yesteryear. There's also a lot of slow motion in the action scenes, but that really seems to be par-for-course nowadays.

Is it entertaining? Yeah, it it'll do.

Is with worth watching? For holiday entertainment, you could do a lot worse.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Bruce Willis is not a robot, Aliens are not African people, and Jews are not happy.

The Surrogates

Sci-Fi thriller starring Bruce Willis, adapted from the graphic novel. In the near future, people have created android bodies so lifelike, that - with the help of a neural uplink - they now use them to get around instead of their own bodies. Basically, taking the avatar concept to it's logical endpoint - literally be whoever you want to be. Fun concept, though the avatar metaphor isn't really explored in much depth. There's a mystery plot, which brings no surprises, and characters which fail to engage over-much. I guess there wasn't anything really awful about The Surrogates, but I'm hard pressed to really recommended it. Watch it, and then perhaps use it as a platform to launch into a conversation about the fronts people use online, and what it all really means for humanity. You'll probably come to more interesting conclusions than the film itself did.

Was it entertaining? Had a couple of moments. There's a chase scene with Bruce Willis being very Terminator which was kind of cool.

Is it worth watching? Couldn't hurt, I suppose.

District 9

Sci-fi action/mockumentary starring.... some South African dudes. Now this I enjoyed. The first third of the film is shot in pure documentary style, giving us a look at an alien reserve in Johannesburg, started when a starship came in earth in 1982. So, naturally, Apartheid references abound, and for the most part, it works really well. Just about the entire film is shot in an actual Johannesburg slum, which makes for a suitably messy, depressing setting. As the film goes along, a plot does begin to emerge, as we follow a bureaucrat as he wonders around the titular District 9, giving eviction notices to the Aliens (as they are being moved out of their current homes to another preserve, which, notably, is far away from the city). During the course of his wacky adventures in evil banality, he comes into contact with an alien substance. Things get worse for him, but much better for the audience, as the film takes a turn first from scene-setting mockumentary to body horror, and then from body horror to wacky 80's style action-fest. I've read reports of people finding this shift jarring, as though they expected the whole thing to be in the doco style, but personally, given the sheer amount of horrible things that happen to the protagonist, and the complete and utter bastardy of a lot of the characters, when our dude gets his hands on a giant alien lightening gun which pops people like balloons, it is THE MOST GRATIFYING THING EVER. It's be like if you were watching the Wire, and everything was totally serious business, except that McNalty finds a giant cannon and kills EVERYONE YOU HATED. HORRIBLY. Now, one could make a case that this style shift betrays the premise of the film but turning it into a cartoon shoot out, but if you approach the film as an action sci-fi instead of a complete straight up satire, the documentary style is an excellent mechanism for drawing you into the world, setting up the characters and the situation, and building a sense of contempt and discomfort everything and everyone we are exposed to (with the notable exception of a single Alien character. And his son). Thus, having pulled us in, the action pay-off carries real emotional weight, releases this tension, and cathartic-ally indulges our contempt for the villainous characters. Ultimately, while this film offers some commentary on humanities inhumanity to man (via insect-like alien proxies), and presents in all in an intriguing documentary style, it is, at it's heart, and action film, and should be approached as such if you really want to enjoy it. Which isn't to say that there's no depth at all, but just that as an action vehicle, it's set-up and pay-off is such a high that it's not to be missed. It also has a giant robot sequence which is far more entertaining than both Transformers movies put together. Not that that would be all that difficult...

Is it entertaining? Oh, most definately. Though the first half is really quite harrowing, the last half-an-hour or so is a total riot.

Is it worth watching? Totally.

Inglorious Basterds

Hey, Tarantino, my old friend. You know what I liked about your films? It wasn't the feet, and it wasn't the copious film references, nor was it the sudden, high impact violence. It was the way you told stories through dialogue. So, by that rationale, I must have really loved Deathproof, seeing as about 60% dialogue, right? Well, no, I'm afraid not. I think what was missing mostly from Deathproof was that, drowning in vapid dialogue from vapid characters, there is practically no plot. No tension, no story. Just chicks in a bar/chicks in a diner. Well, good news, Quent old sport, because Basterds is a real return to form, showcasing everything I liked about your earlier films, with only a few of the annoying elements of your later stuff. Are there gratuitous pop culture references? Well, yes, but I didn't even notice most of them, and a lot of them are more about German cinema of the 1940's, which, given the context, is somewhat relevant. Is there sudden impact violence? Oh my yes, and it offers a marked anti-climax to the build up preceding it... kind of like a Sergio Leone Western, really. Are there feet? ...yes. There are feet. But no, forget all that, because what this film has, and what no Tarantino film has really excelled at since Pulp Fiction, are long, drawn out and painfully tense conversations. What makes them so tense? Because whilst a vast amount of time is spent observing the surface tensions, with every single scene there is an additional piece of information that takes every line being said and adds about 30 layers of menace to it. Breezy talk about Milk with a SS officer? There are Jews hiding under the floor boards. That celebrity guessing game where you stick the name of a famous person to your forehead? The participants are a mix of Allied spies and suspicious German officers. Dinner with a refined gentlemen in a Parisian restaurant? You're a Jewish woman sitting across from the man who had your family killed. Scenes like this are so laden with menacing subtext, that every single word and action by every single character carries with it a resonance that reaches far beyond whatever simple word or action has occurred. These scenes are brilliant.
There are annoying parts - I'm not fond of the way Tarantino's gotten into the habit of editing the music against his scenes. But the way it's shot, and the way the story is told, is also interesting, and not just from an aesthetic standpoint (although, just about every set looks wonderful, and the camera's milking every last scene for all their worth). Despite it's setting, this film is shot like a Western. No where is this more prevalent than in the opening scene. A farmer, his daughters, a sweeping vista, trouble approaches from the horizon - 2 black riders heralding a black carriage. The whole thing is so timelessly Western that it informs the rest of the story, even though the plot doesn't quite fit the style - Once Upon a Time in Mexico is possibly the closest parallel I can think of off hand, simply for the way we follow multiple protagonist through parallel and somewhat interconnecting plot-lines - though they never really meet. There's probably a wealth of subtext to delve through here, but as a piece of spectacle, it's quite enjoyable on it's own. Recommended, if you can forgive the travesty that was Death Proof and the snooze-fest that was Kill Bill vol 2.

Is it entertaing? Swings right from entertining to tense to outright distubring.

Is it worth watching? I certainly enjoyed myself, so I think I can reccommend this to any fans of Taratino's, especially his earlier films, and of dialogue-driven thrillers.

Ocular Cancer - A Transformers 2 review

Like most things from the 80's, it seemed pretty awesome at the time. Nostalgia lets us strap a large near-opaque block to our eyes, shielding our present perspectives from the harsh reality: things weren't really that much better in the old days. That said, Transformers were a really awesome little toy, and will forever stand as such. The original Generation 1 show however... knew it's target audience, and gave them exactly what they wanted, and our little 6-14 year old minds lapped it up. With this in mind, Transformers - Revenge of the Fallen, is an incredibly faithful continuation of this vision. It nets everything a strapping young lad on the cusp of adulthood might enjoy, and tosses it on screen like so much flapping fish, hoping that the results will somehow create a coherent piece of action entertainment. However, all this has resulted in is a screen covered in scales and fish slime that slowly sinks into the audience pit, 'til there is no escape. It smells bad, too.

Now, naturally, no one's going to go into this movie expecting a Lean-esque cinematic masterpiece. We're here to watch giant robots kick the shit out of each other with gay abandon, and God Dammit, there's nothing wrong with that. Pure, mindless action is a cornerstone of cinema, and the spectacle that the cinema experience can present is second to none. And, naturally, the effects are top notch, with the same incredibly detailed androids that prevailed in the first film. What is required for a film like this to fulfil its obligation to the audience is very simple: make it fast, make it exciting, make it funny, make it cool. It's a fairly simple formula to follow, and going into an action film expecting mindless fun should be a simple equation. Of course, if I flatter myself to think that you, good reader, have taken note of the title of this review, it would seem that I am less than satisfied with the results of this cinematic experience. What, then, does Transformers 2 do wrong?

Okay. The action is... impressive, to a point. However, it is chaotic, confusing, and not remotely engaging. It's a good example of CGI work... a great one, in fact, just for the sheer amount of movement going on all at once. Sparks fly, fluid sprays, paint chips, and cybernetic eyes go flying in all directions. It's going to make any CG aficionado squirt all sorts of happy fluids over their unlucky companions, but unfortunately, it's clear that nothing else in the film was given more than a cursory glance, before being palmed off to a chimpanzee with a learning disability for quality control. And that is the real problem with this film. Yes, this film is clearly meant for an extremely specific demographic. However, everyone outside of that, or people who are unable to empathize with the mindset of a 13-year old boy with a re-bar stuck through his brain, are going to be left wanting.

Simply put, this film is dreadfully, inescapably juvenile, and will not let you enjoy the spectacle for one second without something reminding you of this fact. And not juvenile in the way that, say, Harry Potter is - which is clearly aimed at a younger market, but doesn't talk down to it's audience. No, this is something clearly trying to appeal to the idiot child, fingers sticky with their own semen (and only semen, if we're lucky), who doesn't know what a character is and doesn't care, who thinks that women can be interesting to look at if they bend in certain ways but has never thought it necessary to listen to one, who thinks that cars are the greatest thing in the universe because they're so damn loud, for whom the punchline of every joke is either a reference to a bodily function, sexual act, or sexual orientation, for whom Egypt (and possibly every nation which isn't theirs) consists of two guys on a camel, pointing at the pyramids and grunting. Not just children, but lowest common denominator. And it'll do spectacularly. And more films in this ilk will be made. And I will have to have a basement dug out under my house, simply so I can hang myself in it.

To make a mindless action film wrong, follow these instructions: make as many sub-plots as you can without developing anyone of them, present half-dimensional characters who exist either to stammer or flop all over the screen, scrape the absolute bottom of the Freidberg/Seltzer slush pile for comedy (which, amazingly, is somehow ALL bottom), create dialogue that somehow manages to swing between boring and excruciating, pad it out so that it's at least twice as long as it's meant to be whilst killing the pace stone dead, and general offend the viewer at every interval to the point where they can no longer indulge in the base pleasures of watching robots punch each other to pieces without wanting to tear their own eyes and fling them at the screen in a last, feeble protest, before - through sheer force of rage-born will - dragging their mangled body to Michael Bey's office and collapsing head-first into his lap, vomiting blood all over his legs, and limply wheezing a final plea of 'Whhhyyyyyy?' as they expire. Michael Bey took this simple pleasure away from me, and for that he deserves at least one eyeless corpse in the genitals. In fact, that sounds like the perfect way to rate this movie.

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen - One eyeless corpse in Michael Bey's lap out of five.

Is it entertaining? ...I would say no. Maybe for fans of monster trucks, but only if your preferred vantage point is from having your eyeballs stapled to the car door, obscuring any goings-on that aren't a shiny piece of metal.

Is it worth watching? No. No, I don't think so at all.

Man Bites God! Matthew Stover's Blade of Tyshalle

I'm somewhat of a fan of Stover's for his Star Wars books, if nothing else- he seems to be one of the few authors who take writing for the franchise seriously, employing all his considerable skills to write adventures stories that are a little deeper than the standard fantasy fare. Yes, this book contains a lot of the standard epic fantasy trappings, especially in regards to the setting, but at the end of the day, apart from the escapist metaphor, the setting is mostly there for backdrop and plot purposes. This book is not about taking you away on a magical journey with amazing short people who speak like middle-class gentry. It is, rather, a novel constructed around a series of specific philosophical points, connected with a series of monologues, dialogues, and pretty awesome action sequences. This novel, more than any of his others, is probably the most idiosyncratic Stover book, containing many elements and ideas seen in his other novels, collected in one place, turned up to eleven, set on fire and catapulted to the moon. This is Matthew Stover: OFF THE FUCKING CHAIN. That one that he was on. Before. The chain of not-being-as-Stover-y-as-he-could-be.

So, for anyone who's read this man's other books, we should know what that means. Lots of one-liners, gruesome and violent hardcore action scenes with more splatter than an Dario Argento film, author tracts discussing the virtues of independence, self-analysis and deconstruction, myth making, myth breaking, the relationship between illusion and reality, and how they each influence the other, self-image, self-definition, self-centredness, self-pie*, a colossal, apocalyptic finale, and some rather disturbing descriptions of cannibalism. It's fun for all concerned.

I'll quickly detail the plot, because I hate this part – Hari Michaelson/Caine, former superstar 'actor' (actor in this instance being a sort of combination of stage actor and gladiator, who is sent to an alternative world to have crazy adventures, with much of the population back on Earth watching events through a neural uplink in his head. It's like the ultimate in Reality Tv mixed with fantastic escapism – actually be someone else for a little while, someone whos' life is much more exciting, without any personal threat to the audience. The actor, of course, is under personal threat all the time), has assumed managerial control of the broadcast corporation responsible for the creation and distribution of the actor's 'adventures'. When he discovers a virus has been released on the alternative world, he must overcome his greatest obstacles to save the population of Overworld, as well as his family. Stuff happens.

This is actually the sequel to one of Stover's previous novels, Heroes Die, which allows the story to make one of it's larger thematic points: what happens to the hero after he kills the baddies, gets the girl, saves the day and rides off into the sunset? The answer is, naturally, he becomes very bored, depressed, and is also a paraplegic. This is, by and large, not a happy book, and it quickly moves from every-day sort of ennui to full blown horrific tragedy. Structurally, the plot is simply about taking an unhappy, yet somewhat comfortable man, stripping away everything he loves, and seeing if there's anything left. This being a Stover novel, it turns out that what is left is a force of ass-kicking nature, as stripping away a man's comforts is paramount to stripping away his personal delusions, and also freeing him of the fear of consequence. Our protagonist, Caine, was always a bit of a tough cookie, but book makes a point of the fact that at the end of the day, all that separates Caine from any other person is sheer force of will. What stops the novel from being one great Ubermensch tract is the fact that Caine pays and pays and pays for being who he is. There is no real great physical or spiritual reward for such a character being absolutely who he is. All he really has, in the end, is himself. The pros and cons of such an outlook are pretty clearly layed out in the novel, and I don't really think one can consider Caine to be a role model – he is, however, a wholly compelling, flawed character – and a great excuse for some people to get decapitated.

Prose is florid, but sparse – this is not a book for incredibly detailed descriptions of locations or people. It instead strives for a more physical and psychological realism – what is of real interest to the reader in a book like this should be who these people are, why they are who they are, how this informs their actions, and the actions themselves. Locations' physical appearence is less important their the impressions they leave. I, for one, am perfectly content with this, as I often find some writer's obsession with environmental description tedious in the extreme, so while this novel is not utterly bereft of poetic description and detail, neither is it generally all that concerned with it. The writing is crisp, clear, and mostly focussed either on inner-monologues or conversation, giving the proceedings an air of subjectivity – though the perspective moves between first and third person regularly. It ends up creating the effect of a near-epistolary novel, which, given the framing device, makes a lot of sense.

In short, this is a great book for lovers of solid action with a philosophical bent. It's got some clear points to make, and constructs the story and characters around those anchors, giving its points some real impact. It's fun, but it's smart, intense and occasionally heartbreaking fun, and that's probably the best kind.

*There is no self-pie. Please do not attempt auto-cannibalism.

Is it entertaining? Well, I certainly think so. Its most compelling feature is its characters, and given how much they drive the story, that is a very good thing.

Is it worth reading? I would say so, if you're up for something that's clearly devoted to the principles of awesome, but carries a little more bite.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Hellblazer - the Ennis years (issues 41-83)

What has two thumbs, hates organised religion, loves pub culture, and has the permanent outlook of a 15 year old boy? Garth Ennis. With two thumbs. That might make four thumbs all up, then, given that he probably already has the two on his hands. It'd help with the typing.

So yeah, Hellblazer. You know the one: John Constantine, Liverpudlian working-class mage and adrenaline junkie, battles demons using his wits and the lives of his friends, angsts about the state of the world and the state of his soul, yadda yadda. The book's been going for over 20 years now, and it's the Vertigo imprint's longest lasting ongoing title. So, even though it's not their highest selling title, or their most acclaimed title, Hellblazer's reached a sort of implacable, unstoppable status - for now, at least. It's also about the only ongoing I actually bother collecting.

Garth Ennis, well known and acclaimed writer on such titles as Punisher Max and Preacher, as well as a bunch of lesser known WW2 based titles, took over the writing job for the book in the early 90's, taking the baton from the initial writer Jamie Delano. Like Jaime, Garth was young, British and angry, but his take on the title had a lot more of a working-class slant than Delano, who's run had an extremely New Age Hippy feel to a lot of the stories. In addition, Garth took what was designed to be a horror book and really ramped up the horror and gore. When I first read the title a few years ago, only Brian Azzarello's run instilled the same feelings of disgust in me (though that was mostly for entirely different reasons). As a Horror book, Garth Ennis' Hellblazer keeps things pretty down-to-earth and urban, but that's okay, because as it turns out, there's plenty of horrible, disgusting things happening to people every day. And it's that cynical world view that really permeates the entire run - the world's a joke, everyone in power's a bastard, everyone under their thumb is too stupid or scared to care. Truth be told, this is clearly the work of a very young man - indeed, Hellblazer was one of Garth's first big titles. It certainly feels like a young man's work - the world view it presents is one you'll find echoed in the statements of many a frustrated adolescent. So while it certainly struck a chord with a teen audience at the time, it's hard to take a lot of it as seriously nowadays. That doesn't stop the title from being enjoyable however.

To be honest, what really makes Ennis' run kick for me is the dialogue. A lot of the storylines involve little more than characters down at the pub, drinking, gambling and gossiping like old women. There are several issues where nothing supernatural occurs at all, and the book focuses simply on human drama. And this is where the book really takes off. John's break up with the love of his life, Kit, feels heartbreakingly painful - not simply because it occurred, but it ends for mundanely natural reasons, and neither John nor Kit could really hold their heads up high after the fact. Comics portraying flawed, realistic characters have become reasonably commonplace in the market since, but it was Ennis' Hellblazer that really created a bridge for regular comic readers to perhaps be drawn into something a little deeper than blood, guts and foul language.

Now, I'm not going to pretend Ennis' stuff is particularly poignant or intelligent. He hits a few good beats, but a whole lot of his schlock is purely there for shock value. And you know what? For a horror title, that's okay, that's what we're here for. What really shines through are his characters, and his dialogue. Sure, the issues address by the book are dated, now. Sure, the art (mainly down by regulars Will Simpson and Ennis' long time partner in crime Steve Dillon) is more than a bit rough. Sure, much of the story seems trite, and the ideas they present often seem more than a little childish. But Ennis' time on the book was probably one of the best runs the title ever had.

Picks of the bunch? Dangerous Habits, the opening storyline, where John's dying of lung cancer is a classic tale, that really puts all the pieces in place for the stories Garth wants to tell. Pretty much everything in the Fear and Loathing trade is solid gold, as John faces down racists, arch angels, and the bleak hopelessness of his greatest personal crisis. The Royal Blood arc is an entertainingly silly story featuring demon possession and the Royal family, the two-part King of the Vampires story featuring John as a homeless derelict, and the grand finale Rake at the Gates of Hell, where all John's deeds, good or bad, catch up to him. There are some real clunkers, too, especially the Mortal Clay two part, possibly the dullest story the title ever put out, but over all, this run represents a time when Hellblazer was at least somewhere close to the cutting edge of mainstream comics, which has allowed the title to continue on for as long as it has. It's not my favourite run - I think that Mike Carey's authorship edged it out, despite it's over-focus on big picture, epic-length arcs, but the Ennis' run is probably the most important run on the title, and certainly worth a look for anyone who wants a good piece of early 90's horror.

Is it entertaining? Yes, yes it is. Mostly because Ennis is quite funny when he wants to be.

Is it worth reading? I would say so. Definitely a must for Hellblazer and Ennis fans, and probably worth at least a cursory glace for everyone else.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Danny Glover battles an intergalatic tribal redneck, a college initiation turns into an incomprehensible scream-fest, and The Blob.... blobs...

Movies were rented. Thoughts were had. HERE THEY ARE.

Predator 2
Featuring Danny "I'm too old for this shit" Glover, Bill "Game over man!" Paxton, and Gary 'Holy fucking hell I'm awesome!" Busey.

If you could somehow distil the essence of an 80's action/cop film into 40 minute interval, then the opening half an hour of Predator 2 would pretty much fit the bill. Over-the-top shoot outs with the sleaziest of gangsters, constant foul language, Bill Paxton playing a giant douche, tough-as-nails Latina cop, protagonist constantly in trouble with his superiors, Feds and Government agents getting in the way of the investigation, more blood than is probably contained in the entire population of Malaysia, and a thick layer of grease, sweat and hair-gel over every single character. This makes for a fun, if familiar, ride, but things shift when the film is gatecrashed by everyone's favourite space-rasta, the Predator. And he quickly does exactly what he needs to do: fuck shit up in awesome, gruesome ways.

Seriously, the Predator really needs to be the protagonist of a Cops-style show, where we just follow him around while he tears up the foulest dens of completely ethnic street gangs. And it's hard not to agree any given domestic dispute is going to end pretty quickly once the dead-beat husband gets his head blown off and the feral kids are nailed to the walls with spear guns. Just sayin'.

With Ahrnuld absent this time around, the target of the Predator's near-erotic fixation is Danny Glover, who's main shtick in this film is to affix sights onto every firearm imaginable, get frightened of birds and heights, kill Colombians and actually manage to pull off several feats of bad-assery to the end, especially in the three-part extended climactic battle that runs from the interior of a frozen meat-works (where Garey Busey mugs for every inch of screen-time he can, God bless him, before getting bisected by the world's coolest Frisbee), across the rooftops of New York (where we learn that neither loss-of-limb, nor broom-armed-biddy's can stop a sufficiently angry Predator), to the interior of the Predator's ship (where we learn that xenomorphs do, in fact, have skulls). The last half hour or so of this is awesome enough to overshadow the cop-stylings of the opening act.

The film is even more action focused than it's predecessor, jettisoning the suspense elements for out and out action, which to be honest, is probably a wise move given that the audience is well aware as to what a Predator is. It doesn't have the same sort of impact and tension that the first carried, and the one-liner's aren't as good, but over-all Predator 2 is a fun action sci-fi romp, as well as a veritable 80's time capsule.

Is it entertaining?
Yep, in an over the top, actiony sort of way.

Is it worth watching? Well, it depends if you're a fan of 80's action or not, I suppose. If you are, it's a complete riot. If you're not than... I dunno. Become one. You'll be a better person for it. You'll have nuns giving you gift baskets, and pretty girls will drop their knickers without the slightest hesitation. Believe it.

Death Tunnel

Featuring a bunch of chicks I think I might have seen in a porn film at some point, two dudes that die, one dude that doesn't, and a guy who looks like Bill Nighy with a face-lift.

Sometimes the road less-travelled is not a place of excitement and wonder that makes you love the world a little more, as it's filled with snakes, bear traps, and carnivorous unicorns. Sometimes, the ramshackle old house needs to be fire-bombed, lest during your renovation attempts it collapses upon you. Sometimes, you really should leave that lonely puppy at the pound, as it turns out it's possessed by Mammon and will devour your face when you are looking. And sometimes, the little low-budget horror film really should be left on the shelf, as it'll make you weep with embarrassment for ever having considered giving it a go in the first place. Death Tunnel, then, is one of these films - though it would have been amusing to subvert my excessive build up. Well, I might have found it amusing. Maybe.

Anyway, what we have here is Session 9 for dummies. I think there was plenty of potential to make a half-decent horror film, here, and that mainly comes from filming on-site at the Waverly Hills Sanatorium, seeing as it's an old, abandoned place where many people died. So, given that it looks the part, and also given the weight of the trauma and the urban legends surrounding it, it should be child's play to take advantage of such a setting to create a mood that drips with tension and tragedy, right?

Or instead you could, you know, throw in a bunch of chick in their nighties and edit the fuck out of every single shot whether it needs it or not.

I know this is horror, and some conventions must be follow, but Jesus fucking Christ. Bad-acting, terrible script, nonsensical storyline... these are givens. You really have to go the extra mile to make your movie stand feet and ankles below the rest. This one managed it because the developers never knew when to leave the fucking film alone. Just about every shot has layered effects added to it, and the camera is constantly cutting away to flash backs and shots of incidental background details, just to remind us that HEY GUYS THERE WERE BAD THINGS THAT HAPPENED HERE THAT'S SCARY RIGHT GUYS HEY. It utterly ruins every single shot, making it look horrendously cheap. And really, with the film trying so very hard to tell you that it's scary, it almost makes me feel bad to trash it. I mean, it's like a mentally handicapped chimpanzee trying desperately to compose a symphony. You know that any criticism you might have would be completely wasted, as the poor creature demonstrates repeatedly that it doesn't have - and never will have - the ability to comprehend what it's doing wrong.

Is it entertaining? ...I suppose there's a certain level of fascination inherent when viewing something this bad, but it can't really be called entertaining in any traditional sense.

Is it worth watching? I can't think of any circumstance where this film would be recommended viewing, except maybe as an example of how not to shoot a horror movie.

The Blob (1988 remake)

Featuring Half Life 2's Eli Vance in an early appearance, that chick from Becker, and an evil tub of yoghurt.

Now THIS was a pleasant surprise. After the terrifying descent into craptitude that was Death Tunnel, this was a veritable breath of fresh, gelatinous air. Having never seen the original, I had no particular preconceptions about the film, so how happy was I when the Blob Blobbed the decoy protagonist in the first 30 minutes? Very happy, that's how happy. Happy as a Blob in more Blob. This is a fun, silly, gory horror flick, that's not scary in the least, but IS horrifically grotesque and absolutely ruthless - characters are dispatched with little to no fanfare, and though they aren't the most well-drawn characters you could think of, it's still a shock to see some of them bite the bullet if your looking for genre conventions, particularly when the death involved is an unusually gruesome one.

Make no mistake, the effects in this film crap all over just about any use of cgi in a horror film I can think if, and they look truly horrific. People are dissolved and absorbed into the gelatinous mass in nasty ways, but despite the gore the film never stops being fun. It's not a serious affair by any means, though it's certainly no parody. It's simply a fun, light hearted romp through a town being slowly eaten by a big blobby monster, which blobs its way through most of the named cast and many extras until you don't know who shall be blobbed and who shall remained happily unblobbed. Suffice to say, blobbing really is the focus of the movie, and the main reason to watch. That and the bit where the Blob tentacles the guy with the flame-thrower. That was totally sweet.

Is it entertaining?
Boy howdy yes. Best fun I've had with a film in ages.

Is is worth watching? Most def. This would be a great film to have a few brews and watch with mates. Gore-hounds, and people with an interest in old school special effects should definitely take a look, too. Blobs should get some enjoyment. Blob blob blob. Blooooooooob.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Taking it all, asking for seconds, giving nothing back.

Get ready, people. Get ready for idle thoughts. Get ready for scraps of story ideas. Get ready for amateur culture commentary. Get ready for ill-informed emotionally charged vitriol. Get ready, folks... for the blog that packs 100 per cent MORE DETAIL about my life, thoughts and opinions THAN OTHER OTHER BLOG ON THE MARKET!!!! This is YOUR CHANCE to get in on the ground floor of a SOON-TO-BE-UNIVERSALLY APPRECIATED PIECE OF NETSPACE. Where were you when you first read this blog? Spain? Sudan? Moon? Were there raptors? Did you access it upon your PC, or wifi phone apparatus, or some sort of neural uplink? Wherever, whenever, WHOever you are, you'd better have your gut muscles clenched harder than Jason Statham's steely gaze, as it's about to get a FIST FULL OF AWESOME right where it counts. In the gut. 'Cause it's a gut punch.

Whilst it'll take some time for this blog to take proper shape, as a I shake out the details and work out what I'm going to devote it to, the most common connection will be, of course, that I'm writing it. Though like an other mammal (and also many reptiles reptiles), I am but a product of my environment, so a quick shout out to every person, event and idea that's ever shaped me and my perceptions. You guys rule. But as for content, you can mainly expect me to talk about movies, books, video games, comics, anime and manga, websites, and general media stuff. I might also pop up with the odd ethical, politcal or social diatribe, but those are much more unlikely. It'll be pretty casual, and I'll certainly welcome (and attempt to engage with) any users who wish to comment, but this will mostly be about what I think of this or that. Which is what, I believe, blogging is all about. I'll probably start out by going through stuff from my own collection of entertainment media, as in my current financial situation it'll be hard to keep up with contemporary stuff, so my main aim will be to provide a coherent and entertaining commentary, as opposed to keeping my visitors abreast of new developments. Will that be enough to engage my users? Time will tell.

Alright, that's all I've got to say for my opening barrage. Let's get this party started.